Home Education Magazine
July-August 1997 - Articles
A World of Learningby Barbara Theisen
I've never believed that the only way to get an education is to sit at a desk with four walls around you. The world is our classroom and our home - a 41 foot sailboat - takes us there. My husband Tom and I dreamed of sailing around the world before our daughters were even born. Their arrivals only increased our desire to live the "cruising lifestyle" - a way of life that has given us the opportunity for lots of quality and quantity of family time.
Educating our two daughters while living afloat on our sailboat, Out of Bounds, has added a wonderful new dimension to our lives. Kate is in sixth grade this year and our youngest daughter, Kenna, in third grade. Homeschooling hasn't always been easy. But it has been fun.
We started out years ago with a kindergarten correspondence course for Kate. It's what most cruising families use, I was told, but as Kate zoomed through the entire year's course in a matter of two months, we realized that a pre-packaged school was not what she needed. Kate's gifted mind need to be challenged, excited, sent into orbit. She would be limited only by her own motivation ( or lack of it). I often wondered in the following years, as I watched her fascination with learning, if this great enthusiasm to learn would have been dampened any by the rigidness of a conventional school.
We devised our own curriculum for the remainder of the year. Finding success with this gave me a boost of confidence. Perhaps we didn't need the less flexible "school in a package."
But two years later when Kenna started homeschool, I took refuge once again in the correspondence school. Kenna, adopted from Korea at the age of two years, had a very traumatic infancy. She was a full term baby who weighed only 2 pounds at birth. Besides various health problems in her first few years of life, our pediatrician advised us that she would probably have some learning disabilities because of her near starvation before birth.
Kenna's eagerness to learn certainly matched her older sister's. But she was easily frustrated with her lack of instant success. Her learning style was so different from Kate's - and my own. How could I possibly have the skills, resources and patience to teach her?
My husband Tom came to the rescue. Tom had overcome great odds himself as a severely dyslexic child. Attending public elementary school in the 1960's, he was given no special help with his learning disabilities. Instead he was labeled "unteachable." But fortunately his mom stepped in and fought the system. Somehow she was able to find him the special help he needed. Eventually Tom learned to deal with his dyslexia and went on to spend many summers working at a camp for children with learning disabilities. His knowledge and patience gave me the courage to work with Kenna and once again I felt confident enough to forego the pre-packaged curriculum.
Choosing our own course of study is great fun. We look at where we will be sailing to during the school year, (or where we will be stopping to work to add to our cruising kitty) and all sorts of topics of interest present themselves.
For example, while cruising in North Carolina one fall we choose flight for a unit study. We read books such as Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang, The Fledgling and Around the World in Eighty Days (we read out loud everyday - a good idea, I think, even after the kids are old enough to read to themselves). Writing assignments included both fictional stories with a "flight" theme as well as factual reports and even a "business" letter to the Federal Aviation Administration who sent us a package of information. Science was filled with hands on experiments which demonstrated the principles involved in flights. Some of our experiments included flying kites, paper airplanes, and balsa planes We took a field trip to the Wright Brothers Memorial at Kitty Hawk, NC where Orville's and Wilbur's famous flight was brought to life for us.
We followed that study with "Space Exploration" as we sailed down the East Coast to Florida. Again our studies included both fictional and nonfictional reading, experiments, and writing assignments. Tom and the girls also built and launched an Estes rocket kit. Computer software allowed us to fly to Mars or dock with a space station. The finale to our studies was watching a shuttle launch from Cape Canaveral and visiting the Kennedy Space Center museums.
Next fall we will be sailing to Central America for six months. While there, our studies will include Mayan Civilization, coral reefs, rain forests, and geography and history of Central America. Kate would also like to study for her Ham Radio license, a great way to keep in touch with the rest of the world. I've already started teaching the girls (and Tom) Spanish - I have a degree in Spanish, so I definitely have an advantage here. But I know the girls' Spanish will improve by leaps and bounds. There is nothing like being immersed in a foreign language to really learn it.
Our math studies are fairly traditional but we find it easy (and fun!) to put our math skills to everyday use on board. Besides having lots of evening time on board our sailboat for games that use our math skills, such as Monopoly, we might need to figure out foreign money exchange rates or the girls might help with the budget. "Navigational" math is my kids' favorite way to put their math skills to practical use. How exciting to find out where in the world you are located by measuring angles of celestial bodies above the horizon (celestial navigation) or determining your position on a chart by calculating such things as speed, time traveled and compass course (dead reckoning).
Both girls keep a diary and a nature journal. My daughter Kate has been writing, editing and publishing a monthly newsletter, the Out of Bounds Outburst, for the past two years. She sends it to friends and relatives who are able to keep abreast of our sailing and school activities. It may also contain poetry, weather reports, jokes, art work, etc. She is quite proud of both her writing accomplishments and her computer skills that she uses to produce her newsletter.
Reading is a passion for all of us on Out of Bounds. With very little TV (if we receive any stations, we have a very limited power source to run it), no malls or video arcades, reading has become a favorite pastime.
We also love books on tape. They're great to listen to in the cockpit while under way. We often listen to a chapter or two while washing dishes or doing some other chore as well.
We do miss out on a few things that most homeschoolers are able to take advantage of and which would perhaps make our academic life easier. Our travels make belonging to a homeschool group difficult and we usually miss out on book fairs and conferences. Our home afloat is small. School is held on a small dining table and it's difficult if not impossible to leave art work, science experiments or projects out "until later." We also have limited room for school books and so those we have must be chosen carefully. Perhaps the thing we miss most when traveling is not always having access to a library. We hope to upgrade our notebook computer to one with CD ROM soon. Imagine having resources like encyclopedias and atlases all in a small enough format to fit on the boat!
But the advantages of our floating school far outweigh any disadvantages. Part of the reason we cruise and homeschool are for the wonderful opportunities to learn about the world around us. Hands-on learning experiences we get from hiking through a rain forest, snorkeling over a coral reef, visiting historic ruins, shopping in foreign markets or participating in local festivals are an important part of our schooling.
Once we're cruising, we find that wherever we, are local librarians, historians and museum curators are a great educational resource. Local festivals and special events such as art exhibits, historical reenactments, concerts, theater performances, nature seminars, etc. all make great field trips.
We look forward to the chance to get together with other homeschooled cruisers. This past year we anchored and sailed for nearly four months with 7 children from three boats with another dozen or more kids from all parts of the world joining our group for several days, or weeks, at a time. The kids put on a play - doing everything from acting to making costumes and making a stage on a nearby island. We weren't invited to the dress rehearsal but as I peeked out the port I saw the young actors performing in front of half a dozen wild horses who happened to be grazing in front of the stage. The play was a big success, watched by 15 or so parents and friends and three dogs.
The kids found a local potter who invited them to try their hand at making pottery over a course of several afternoon sessions. A retired teacher (also living aboard his boat) set up a creative writing class every Tuesday afternoon on The boats. As a group we took field trips to area museums. The mothers, a talented artist, took the kids for afternoons of sketching on the beach. Another parent, a world renowned classical guitarist, was delighted with one of our daughter's interest in the guitar and took her under his wing with music lessons.
Social events come easily for cruising families. At Halloween my husband Tom brought a load of pumpkins to our pot luck Halloween party on the beach. Cruising kids from various countries designed and carved their first jackolantern. What a thrill as we lined the assortment of scary and humorous pumpkins up on the beach and lit their candles after dark.
Along with our holiday celebrations there are birthday parties whose memories will last a lifetime. And of course there are plenty of dinghy races, soccer matches, and impromptu games that usually includes pirates, treasures and mutinous crews of sailors - an important part of any cruising kid's education.
Wherever we sail, we discover new cultures to experience and new languages to learn. The girls use their math skills to help navigate. We have shelves full of books to read - kept fresh with recent book exchanges. There are experiments to observe, dolphins to spot, worlds to discover and dreams to follow. Best of all is the giggling as two young girls attempt to say hello to a new friend in a foreign language and realize that a smile is understood throughout the world.
Our dream to sail around the world is not an easy one, especially with our modest income. We hope to accomplish our voyage by stopping and working along the way. It's not lots of money that will take us around the world, it's a belief in ourselves and in our dream. I see that my children show love and concern for the creatures of this earth and for the environment. I see the respect that they show to all human beings and the joy in discovering different cultures. I see their love for learning. For us, this is definitely a dream worth following. © 1997 Barbara Theisen
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