Thanks for joining me!

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton


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reading vs. television

Television has always been a difficult issue for families.  In our family we avoided broadcast TV and watched only parent-approved DVDs while our son was little.  But those rules began to relax when he started to visit his friends.

It felt like TV was a Pandora’s Box; once we let it in, it grew more and more distracting.   But what to do about it?  We didn’t feel quite ready to toss the television set out the window…

To our complete surprise the problem solved itself when we got away from English language programming and traveled.  Like the budding TV addict he was, our son complained bitterly for the first few weeks but then something remarkable happened: he discovered books.

We let him follow his own curiosity and select books at the English bookstore in Rome.  He found the ‘Horrible Histories’ series from UK author Terry Deary and from then on he was never without a book.

Which made waiting in line, riding trains and planes and all those boring parts of traveling much, much easier for everyone.

Try it at home – turn off the TV and explore a book with your kid.

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GO TEAM GO!  Seize the day!  Life is short!  There’s no time like the present!  Just do it!

Traveling and learning are naturally compatible activities; one enhances the other.  Together they create a different state of mind where the world becomes a classroom and all the people in it are teachers.  Homeschooling on the road was such a great experience for our family that I’m convinced if everyone knew how easy, rewarding and fun it is, there would be a groundswell of road scholars.  And I think that would be a very good thing for kids, parents, education and world citizenship.

It’s easy.  We were not professional educators – just a couple of freelancers with an eight-year old son. If we could homeschool on the road, then you can too (all you need is love…).  Start by planning a trip to a place your family is curious about.  Then visit your child’s principal, outline your travel plans, promise to keep up with the curriculum while you’re away and politely ask for a leave of absence for your child.  Here’s some advice: do not ask teachers to work up a curriculum for you – they are already very busy.  You may ask them for a list of the material they expect to cover while you’re away; then do some research and assemble your program; there are lots of resources (and many are free) on the web.

It’s rewarding.  You don’t need to make a long term commitment to roadschooling to reap the rewards;  you can do it over summer vacation, a long weekend or even on a family daytrip.  It’s not about how far you go or how much money you spend, it’s about focusing a child’s natural curiosity about the world and connecting that to learning.  The effort you make now to teach your kids about the world will benefit them for years to come.  It may even kickstart your child’s education (like it did for our son: the power of positive disruption).

It’s fun.  Well duh, that’s pretty obvious (see the photo above).  You’ll explore new places together, get closer and make memories that will become family treasures.  What could be more fun than that?

One more piece of advice:  Don’t wait.

Homeschooling on the road is simpler when kids are in elementary school.  As they move into the higher grades, the curriculum can get pretty challenging for non-professionals to cover (I’m talking about things like algebra and physics).

There are no cheerleaders for the ‘stay home and don’t try anything new’ team.  So…GO TEAM GO!  Hit the road and LEARN!

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a perfect museum

Museums are one of the greatest inventions of all time.  For a homeschooling family they are high-quality on-demand interactive curriculum providers.  Think of all you could learn if you just went to museums five days a week!

Italy is packed with museums of every size and description.  In Rome we lived across the piazza from the Italian National Pasta Museum; down the street was an underground museum showcasing ancient ruins uncovered by workmen repairing the foundation of the theater above.  There’s an enormous system of museums devoted to just about anything Roman that you could wonder about.  And of course there’s the Vatican Museum with one of the greatest collections of art and antiquities in the world.

Most parents know from sad experience that museums can be tricky.  After our first disastrous trip to the Vatican Museum we learned that such an enormous collection was just too overwhelming for our kid.  Thereafter, we broke our visits into smaller chunks spread out over a few weeks or looked for smaller museums off the main tourist path.

We also learned that museums were more fun for all of us if their collections appealed to our son’s interests; like most eight-year-old boys that meant anything creepy, crawly or weird.

After a bit of research, we hit the museum jackpot in Florence at Museo La Specola: the oldest scientific museum in Europe with collections dating back to the seventeenth century.  It’s a manageable size for an afternoon visit with a somewhat dusty yet charming assembly of taxidermied creatures – including a hippopotamus that was formerly a Medici family pet!  But La Specola’s most famous and spectacular displays are life-sized anatomical wax figures modeled from dissections of real cadavers by eighteenth century Florentine sculptors.  They were created for the purpose of medical study with glass eyes and human hair wigs.  Naked, realistic and gruesomely beautiful, they lie on tattered silk cushions staring out from their glass cases.  Art students sit and draw them for hours.

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the power of positive disruption

Traveling is a disruptive activity.  It eliminates your usual routine.  The scenery changes along with your state of mind and your curiosity muscle gets a workout.  So when you travel with kids, I think it’s a natural opportunity to experiment with homeschooling.

Our experiment came at a time when our son Angus was struggling at school; he seemed to be a bright boy but he just wasn’t reading.  We started to hear phrases like learning disability, special education testing, intervention programs, Attention Deficit Disorder and medication therapy.  The pressure was mounting when we got two very lucky breaks: an offer to live and work in Italy for 6 months and a supportive school principal who allowed Angus to take a long absence, as long as he studied while he was away.

We hadn’t planned it but homeschooling away from home was the best possible ‘intervention program’ for Angus.  Traveling disrupted his routine, gave him time out from the pressure at school and brought him into a world of new things to be curious about.  He started reading – voraciously – because he was really curious about ancient myths.

It’s well known that tailoring a meaningful curriculum and creating a comfortable learning environment for each individual child is one of the biggest benefits of homeschooling.  What we didn’t expect was that – even though it was brief and we were inexperienced – homeschooling away from home had significant and lasting effects.  When Angus rejoined his class for the last half of fourth grade he had become a strong reader.  In middle school he chose Latin classes, tested into selective high schools and now he studies Cognitive Science at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

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Besides love, I think the next biggest thing that made homeschooling work so well for us was having access to the internet.  It gave us the confidence to try it out.  There’s an enormous homeschool community online so we could always find answers and advice – everything from help with math and  grammar to the story of Pompeii (along with cheap train tickets to get there).  Searching resources on the internet meant we didn’t need to pack alot of books so we could travel light.

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how to get lost

I think knowing how to get lost is a good life skill to master.

What I mean is that sooner or later – no matter how vigilant you are – everyone gets lost or separated and it’s important to teach kids not to panic and how to get un-lost.

To avoid the panic part, here is what we did.  I hope you’ll forgive me if it’s the same obvious stuff all families do but when you travel it’s even more critical to remember:

  • Be sure your child always wears some form of ID because you never know.  Dogtags work well, boys especially think they’re cool and you can order them online before you travel.
  • Know where the local emergency room is and always carry a small translating dictionary, so you can communicate with non-English speaking medics if necessary.
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  • Also in big crowds – hold hands.  I know, duh.  But I’ll say it anyway.  Plus it’s just nice to hold hands with your kid – you won’t be able to do it forever.
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  • We repeated every time we went out:  if you ever lose us, go back to the last place you saw us and wait there.  We will find you.  And of course don’t go with strangers.
  • On trains or buses, there’s another drill:  if the door closes and we get separated, get off at the next stop and wait there.  This happened to us in Rome when Angus was about eleven, taking the train into the city from the airport.  He got into the car and the door closed before I could wrestle our luggage aboard.  I remember the horrified look on his face as the train started to move out.  I took the next train 20 minutes later –  shaking with worry – but when I got off he was there waiting.  “I just did what you always said Mom.” he said calmly, “I knew you would come.”
  • Do you have anything to add?  Please add your comments to this list!

If you have a plan to avoid panicking, you’ll be able to think more clearly and getting lost can (almost) be fun.  It’s a puzzle really – a challenge to use a map and your observation skills to find your way back.

We liked this game to practice map skills:  we’d go out to explore and when we were ready to return I’d give Angus the map and promise him his favorite treat if he could navigate us home. 

They got to know us very well at the gelato shop.

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Homeschooling on the road requires unplugging.  Step away from your usual distractions and quietly observe.  Of course, you’ll have to unplug your kid, too.  Nobody panic!  Just try it for a little while.

When you’re traveling there’s alot of new stuff to see so it’s a perfect setup to observe your children interacting with a new environment.  Take a walk together and watch what they watch, then talk about it and listen carefully for more clues.  When you plug in to their natural curiosity, home schooling will be a lot more fun for everyone.

Here’s the best part for grown-ups: if you practice looking at the world through your child’s eyes you’ll notice a renewed sense of wonder.

And there’s no app in the world for that.

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D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths was the key that opened up reading for my son – a children’s classic with spectacular artwork.

The first few weeks in Italy were difficult.  We all had a lot of adjusting to do.  Angus deeply missed his friends and pined for his school.  He was disturbed that the only television available was in Italian and convinced I was unqualified to be his teacher (he was right about that).  I was shocked and disappointed that we’d traveled to this magnificent place only to hear him complain that he was bored!  How ungrateful!   And what about me?  Was I going to be a prisoner of curriculum prep and those home school workbooks every spare minute and never see Italy?  How unfair!

A battle of the wills ensued.  Angus was sullen and uncooperative for two solid weeks.  He nearly had me convinced we should give up and go home when I noticed he was sneaking peeks at the D’Aulaires’ book.  He was not a strong reader yet so I think the strange and wonderful illustrations mesmerized him (just like me when I was his age).  A few days later he found The Odyssey by Dorling-Kindersley among the books I’d brought along.

He kept it with him wherever he went, reading and reading and reading…

Suddenly the crisis was over. We had stumbled on the solution to our troubles.  Angus had cured his boredom with books and I had the inspiration to move our lessons out into the city; the myths he was so curious about were everywhere – decorating the buildings and fountains, in the museums and street names of Rome.  Bellissima!

PS: to this day Angus is never without a book, sometimes he brings two or three along on the subway to visit a friend.

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