Family Magazine

Boatschooling, Part 1: Finding a Path

By Behan Gifford @sailingtotem
“Are you homeschooling your children?” It surprises me how often we are asked this question, given that we have been away from home for five years with kids who are smack in the elementary/middle school window of learning. The snark in me is tempted to say “no, we’re not,” and watch the reaction. Partly because, really, don’t they think we are concerned about our children’s education? Also because- well, we’re not really “homeschooling” in the sense of Doing School At Home… but that answer is a little too involved for most people who ask the question.
Homeschooling is a monster topic, so to offer a meatier reply, I've got input (surface-skimming input!) from our point of view spread out over multiple posts. This post offers my perspective on getting started; subsequent posts on the specifics of  how learning looks on Totem, things I wish I’d known before, and any questions that come up along the way (bring 'em on!).

Writing in her journal

Mairen journals on a passage

I mean no offense to those who ask us if we're homeschooling, just as I took no offense from their odd phrasing. I realize they are only looking for information and we’re happy to help. How to address our children's education was my number one concern about cruising as a family, so I can understand where it's coming from.
It used to be that if you were going cruising, the de facto curriculum was Calvert. This was what the books recommended; this was what the well salted cruisers said "everyone" used. As an American cruiser nothing else was seriously presented for primary education (many countries provide standard materials for distance learning). The world of learning outside of school has changed dramatically since then. As homeschooling has grown in popularity, there’s been an explosion of resources available for parents and for kids. The options for approaching learning can be as wildly different on a boat as they are for homeschooling families on land. This is great on many levels, but it can be a little overwhelming. Trying to muddle through the options is the concern I hear in people who want to know what we do.
If you’re in the planning stages and overwhelmed by choices it’s helpful to get familiar with how a number of different families approach education, not just one, because there is no cookie cutter approach that assures success. Every family, and every individual, has a different rhythm for learning. No one of them is right.
As we get seriously into our five-year plan and I revisited homeschooling, I defaulted to the presumption of Calvert. The problem was that closer I looked, the less it seemed like a fit for our family: highly structured and voluminous, material with no correlation to our travels, and content that couldn’t be readily shared between our three kids. The message I’d been given for years was that this program was the right thing to do, but it just didn’t feel right.
I needed help understanding the alternatives, and I found them by meeting homeschooling families: in person, through community groups, and online. What a relief to have hammered into my head that no two families approached homeschooling the same way, but they all had great kids!
My homeschool doulas helped demystify all the code words of homeschooling that I was completely unfamiliar with as a newbie: eclectic curriculum, unschooling, natural learning, classical education. These fundamental approaches are loaded terms in the homeschooling lexicon: if you're completely new to homeschooling, spending a little time to learn about these and others will help you navigate what's out there. As you might expect, people tend to be pretty passionate about their choice, so you need to be able to apply your own filter to evaluate the pros/cons for your family.
Lining up a direction for how learning can look for your children means being familiar with them (and others), the materials and support available, and finding the best path for your family. Doing this effectively means stepping back to think a few things through: what are you family dynamics? Your parenting style? How your children learn? We don't all process information the same way, and this is a gift of an opportunity to find a direction that works for everyone.
Ultimately it was meeting these families in person that had the biggest impact on helping me overcome my fears and trust my instincts to find what felt right for us. The kids that really impressed me were at a gathering of unschooling families in our area. This was a turning point where I could finally let go of the guilt I carried for wanting to find a very different method of learning from the structured walls of What Everybody Always Did Before. In truth, it was the teenagers who kind of blew me away. I’d never been around a group of teens that was so engaged in… well, everything, it seemed, but especially the community of around them, across ages. It was beautiful to experience the joy of learning in these articulate people.
With a path in mind, filling in the blanks on resources and materials became easier to manage. Here are a few things to think through when you are beyond the philosophical approach, and looking at options:
  • Time frame. Is this a sabbatical cruise of a year or two, where you plan to return to enrollment in the same school system when you get back? You might find current teachers to be your best allies here to help keep the transition smooth.
  • Regulations. What are the requirements in your state (/province /country) to register as a homeschooler? In the US, regulations vary significantly by state. This is less important if you’ll soon be non-resident or are unsure when you’ll return.
  • Internet. What’s your connectivity going to be like? Many programs presume not just an internet connection, but broadband with unlimited data. 
  • Materials/resources. There's some trading between kid boats, but you can't count on it to fill in gaps along the way- more like serendipity. Think through what you need to leave with, and where you can safely have material shipped along the way.

I’ll readily admit I’m not accustomed to writing about homeschooling- there’s a lot more “out there”. I’d love to hear from others about your questions and experience to try and improve my articulation. I deliberately offer no silver bullets, but hopefully enough food for thought.
I’ll get into the specifics about what we’ve done on board in the next post. Meanwhile, please get in touch via email, comments or our FB page with what you want to know about boatschooling or what you’ve learned along the way.

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