Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Homeschooling a Boat Kid

Mera Hard At Work
Mera Hard At Work
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
“Well, so much for school,” DrC remarks sardonically as we climb out the dinghy and into the cockpit one afternoon. Schoolwork is scattered across every surface, abandoned hours earlier when our buddy boats proposed a kayak trip through the jungle. The girls were full of promises regarding their swift return and diligent pursuit of education after the eagerly sought trip through the mangroves.

It seemed like an acceptable idea at the time. We would all head out, enjoy a long trip through the forest, eat lunch on the other side, and return to our schoolwork renewed and revitalized. We could even legitimately call the trip a combination of P.E. and Science.

Except it's 16:30. DrC and I have already had one beer and too much time in the sun. The girls have either been rowing, swimming, body surfing, or digging enormous holes in the sand for nearly six hours, and are now at least a half hour behind us rowing their way out of the jungle. I'm having trouble mustering the energy to eat a Snickers, let alone correct math or struggle with Aeron's social studies phobias. It will take every particle of our combined intelligence, patience, and persuasion just to get all the school materials, breakfast dishes, and scattered sand covered beach gear stowed in the proper hold and cranny. We're not going to be attempting any algebra.

If we were unschoolers, we'd have a smug moment, waggling our fingers at those schooly types for their planned curriculum, work books, and delusions of competence. And we'd be justified. The girls learned a great deal today. They ooze healthy energy out of their very pores. They are obviously clever enough to get out of spelling tests. Unschoolers do have a way of making their point through the simple self-evident example of my children. It appears that DrC and I are largely superfluous to their needs.

However, we do try to educate the children in ways that provide at least the illusion of measurable progress. We use textbooks, workbooks, and essay assignments. We throw a major standardized test at the girls about once a year just for giggles. But no matter how hard we try, boat schooling has a tendency to make unschooling believers – or at least practitioners – out of all us. To those floating a boat with kids who would like to take an active role in their child's education while underway, I offer a few ideas:

Restaurant Math – No, I'm not going to wax poetic on how to teach kids advanced math through clever attempts to educate at the market or restaurant. That works, by the way, for the little ones, but once you start in on geometry and algebra, you either have to go abstract or you've got to start building swimming pools and opera houses to make your point.

Restaurant math is the simple rule that every time you plan a trip into a restaurant or palapa, you take the math workbooks. After ordering while you wait the interminable amount of time it takes every chef in Mexico to produce even the most simple of dishes, you pull out the books and make everyone get to work. Restaurant math both keeps the kids busy while they wait while simultaneously assuring at least one lesson of math gets done for the day no matter what else happens to screw with the educational schedule. I also think it may result in my daughters forever associating mathematics with tortas, salsa, and limonada... maybe to their long term advantage if some future college professor lets them eat during exams.

Take Over the Net – In many areas frequented by cruisers, a custom has developed for there to be a news and information broadcast on the VHF every morning. This “cruising net”, as it's known, is run by a net controller usually drawn from either the cruising community or a C.L.O.D. (cruiser living on dry land) who settled in the area and enjoys maintaining ties with boaters. Frequently, your children can take over the net. The net controller uses a basic script to prompt for check ins, priority traffic, local services, or swaps and trades. At just about any age, a child can control the net. This offers an amazing opportunity for public speaking, weather prognostication, mediation and negotiation. A side benefit is that the kids become extremely well known throughout the anchorage providing an extra layer of support and security.

Language Find-A-Word – DrC is more or less attempting to teach the girls Spanish. Probably rather less than more. It's a struggle. All the Mexicans we meet want to practice their English. It's quite simple to live down here for years and speak little more than “una cerveza y un jaro de limonado por favour”. We play a game to extend the girls' vocabulary which I call “find a word.” As we move through towns, hotels, marinas, or cities, we ask the girls to find a word on a sign or wall and figure out what it means from the context.

Strew Books – Before you leave the English speaking world, fill the hold with books... and not just the romance and science fiction. We now actively seek “literature.” By this, I include all books any teacher ever assigned me at any grade ever as well as anything with a Nebula, Hugo or other award. If those ever run out, we'll start working our way through the books in the Guggenheim project. Desperate for reading material merely days after leaving a big book exchange source like La Paz or Zihuatanejo, the girls are open to reading anything. Slipping some Asimov, L'Engle, Wells, Twain, or Frank into their hands works like a charm.

Sixthgrading – We don't have an elaborate ceremony or pin a medal on them, but when the kids finish a major academic milestone, we celebrate. We announce it during the morning net, invite other cruisers out to dinner or over for sun downers, and we find or bake something sweet. Recently, we had Mera's sixthgrading party as she finished the last of her 5th grade math workbooks. Aeron should be achieving her fourthgrading in the next few weeks. By making an occasion for the entire anchorage, you create an environment where your child wants to finish up a major bit of academic effort.

During the Race
During the Race
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
Yet for all our cleverness, we still don't seem to be educating our children with anything like the rigor I'm sure their former teachers, our home state's school administration, and their grandparents would like. DrC grabs the VHF as Jaime checks in, “Don Quixote, Don Quixote Mobile.”

“Mobile go ahead,” says the stern taskmaster and father.

Jaime sounds bright and happy, “We just made it to Triumph. We're playing a game of Mexican dominoes.”

DrC looks at me. “Can we put dominoes down as a math check?” I ask rhetorically. Not sure how I'd explain that to the Seattle School District, to be honest. Never mind, I shrug. “Fine,” he snarls and glares over at me as he signs out. “So much for school.”

I yawn, “Dean, you're starting to repeat yourself.”


brian gill said...

I have been following your posts for a few weeks with great interest. I would love to have my 8 yr olds gain the experiences that your kids have been getting. The bookwork is important, but the social/coping skills and indpendence they are working on will be invaluable in their lives, and that is something that 99.9% of kids dont get with our American education system. I am not a psychologist or educator, but i recognize what is important in life.keep up the great work and continue to live the dream..

inklenaomi said...

they will be fine! use the books when appropriate, but let the sun, sea, and countryside teach them while they have the opportunity. Just tell everyone you're doing Charlotte Mason!


Singing Land Cruiser said...

My Dear Toast, Christi and I think you and the Doc. are doing a fine job. We will be on the Road in just 60 days. "can you believe it?" Our son, a true tween, will be going to his dads in CA for 7th & 8th grade. There is a small chance that he will come with us and we will home school. Christi has been reading your War Intell and will implement your tactics. We tried the traditional home school program before and it was a total flop. We truly believe you have paved the beaten path for a HS system that WORKS. Now for the important part, where do we send the Care Package??? Stay Safe, M&C

hbunny said...

Great post, Toast. I like what you're doing with the girls' education.

I am glad you got a plug for on-ghetto sci-fi in there - which can put "real literature" to shame when it comes to exploring the human condition.

Been thinking about you guys lately. Maybe we'll find a way to come for a visit.

Caspar said...

I presume you meant Project Gutenberg ( for the books (Project Guggenheim is for art).

You can get a DVD with 17000 of their books on it (download or bittorrent - or knowing that you're on non-permanent connections I could mail you one.