What does Martin Luther King, Jr. + sea turtles + chocolate + Salvadoran guerrillas + the Panama Canal equal? A roadschooling curriculum through Central America.
It's hard for us to tell if homeschooling and long-term travel are all the rage or if it really is an uncommon thing to take a year (or longer) off and travel around. Our sense of normal is a bit distorted by our experience and our community. We're members of a lot of Facebook groups of homeschoolers, worldschoolers, roadschoolers, overlanders, traveling families, and even of overland traveling families. They are an invaluable resource: people who are doing or have done the same thing as us and who can provide real-life experience and lessons. From them, and others' blogs, we were able to envision ourselves pulling our kids out of school for a year and taking charge of their education ourselves.
Home schooling is legal throughout the United States, with each state setting its own regulations. (To see the homeschooling regulations in your state, read here.) In Virginia all we needed to pull our kids out of school and hit the road were two things: proof of high school graduation and a general curriculum. To get them back in their next grade when we returned, we provided proof of adequate progress. Because our trip was not open-ended and because we were incidental homeschoolers (distinct from full-time homeschoolers), we viewed our homeschooling as temporary, with the view to the kids resuming their education back in public school upon our return.
Our plan was to formally teach math because it was progressive and we didn’t want the kids to have to repeat a grade. That meant Algebra I for the middle schooler and 4th and 5th grade math for the 4th grader since he had been placed in the gifted program and that’s what was being taught the year we would miss. We decided that simply traveling and interacting with the world would provide the rest of our education.
To formalize this approach, we came up with the following curriculum:
- Foreign Language: Spanish
- History/Archeology: the US Civil Rights Movement; Ancient Civilizations - Aztec, Mayan and Incan history & culture from past to present
- Social Studies/Cultural Anthropology: Human migration
- Politics & international relations: US involvement in Latin America
- Geography: ecosystems and habitats and impact on humans, plants and animals; map reading
- Science: animal migrations (monarch butterflies, whales); plants and animals in various ecosystems & habitats (desert, cloud forest, rain forest, freshwater and saltwater aquatic) and threats they face; astronomy; conservation; green farming skills & farm animal husbandry; wildlife rehabilitation; volcanoes & thermodynamics
- Engineering: ancient to modern – from Mayan engineering to the Panama Canal
- Art & Music: ethnomusicology with traditional instruments; impact of religion and trade on art
- Physical Education: surfing, soccer, volleyball, hiking, snorkeling, camping
Our reality of homeschooling
We figured that we would spend 30 minutes on math a day, 30 minutes of reading, and 30 minutes of Spanish by immersion, Duolingo, a free online language learning website, or occasional formal classes. Easy, right?
For math, we used Teaching Textbooks. This was more an accident of luck than through any informed decision making, as a friend had the Algebra I course and gave it to us. Sweet! $100 saved. Teaching Textbooks turned out to be ideal for our needs for two reasons. First, it is a cd series, which means that we would not be reliant on internet for our learning needs. Though we had frequent internet access, it certainly wasn’t consistent or sometimes robust. Second, it’s a self-paced program, with concepts broken into short video lessons, followed by a test. It would allow the kids to study math with minimal energy from us.
Both of our kids are readers, and we figured that would take care of the language arts component of their school year, again, with minimal energy from us. In our research, we came across a traveling family’s well thought out reading list, with books specifically geared towards the country or region where they were traveling. There are 104 books on the list and it’s an impressive and comprehensive complement to a kid’s global travels. Of the 20 or so books related to Latin America, we managed to purchase exactly one. And to this day, Paul is the only one of us who has read it (his review: it's good!)
We did all read “What is the Panama Canal?” which we found to be quite informative and a good supplement to our traverse of the Canal via catamaran. As an added bonus, our 8th grader used it for her summer book report project and wrote a personal narrative about our experience crossing the Panama Canal.
For added measure, we also brought a copy of the kids' science curricula (one written by an actual experienced educator, not a list of things we would be doing over the course of the year, fancied up with academic words), but after skimming the table of contents, we never really opened it.
Just as that book list differed greatly from the reality of our actual reading, so did our curriculum differ greatly from our actual homeschooling. In the beginning of our trip, we parents were enthusiastic and committed to having an academic routine, much like public school, but shorter, more hands-on, and more fun.
We planned our path from Virginia to Mexico to hit many major sites of the US Civil Rights movement. We visited the Martin Luther King Jr historical site in Atlanta, Georgia, the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. It was good that that was early in the trip as we were all still enthusiastic about formal education and the kids participated willingly in these visits.
We stopped at the Alamo in Texas and saw the irony in how after inviting European settlers to populate the area, Mexicans decided the place was becoming too overrun with the foreigners and tried to curb their immigration. As we made our way through Mexico, we learned about Miguel Hidalgo's role in the Mexican Revolution against Spanish occupation and kept our eyes open for other revolutionaries and leaders fighting for their civil rights.
It turns out that 30 minutes of math didn’t actually happen every day, our aforementioned lack of consistent internet ruled out doing Duolingo regularly, and it became tedious to encourage the kids to open the Kindle Reading app on their devices instead of whatever game they were playing instead. So we ditched the formal schedule of things and let the learning happen on its own. There was a period of about two months where the middle schooler didn't do a single math lesson. With only 140 lessons to be completed over 12 months, she felt that she could coast for a bit. That didn't work out so well because in the last month of the trip, she had to plow through lots of material.
Occupation and revolution would become consistent themes as we made our way south, and we made sure to point out as often as possible incidences in ancient and recent history where a population was occupied and oppressed for the benefit of the powered class. We also tried to draw parallels between the struggles of the oppressed in Mexico and Central America and the oppressed in the US, as well as draw attention to the role the US and its protection of its corporate interests played throughout Central America.
Our homeschooling year certainly did not feel formal and we often lamented that we were failing miserably at it. The kids also often commented on what a bad job we were doing as their teachers.
That said, when we sat down and reviewed what we had seen and explored this year, we decided we actually hadn't failed miserably. For Language Arts, Coconut met her goal of reading 100 books and J read a few himself. We even decided to add a bonus unit to the curriculum, "Profanity: Appropriate and Inappropriate Uses." You probably shouldn't be surprised to learn that kids would hear a fair amount of profanity from a variety of sources: their parents, backpackers in hostels, and even the odd t-shirt here and their. (Our family favorite was the aging Guatemalan man who serenely sported the black t-shirt emblazoned with "Fuck you, you fucking fuck.")
In math both completed their courses and advanced to the next grade. We also became quite comfortable with the metric system (math), currency conversions (Economics), map reading (Geography), and budgeting (Life Skills).
What We Actually Accomplished
- Foreign Language: Spanish. In Mexico we hired a private Spanish instructor for a week, who met with Paul and the kids next to the pool of our hotel. We had envisioned that the kids would become fluent by osmosis, but it didn't work that way. J has been in a dual-language program at school since kindergarten so he came in with a foundation of Spanish. His comprehension definitely improved and it seems that he's a more confident speaker though he has yet to carry on a conversation with me. Surprisingly, Coconut did absorb some Spanish, given that her only formal instruction was that week with the tutor and an occassional Duolingo lesson. She learned how to ask for the wifi password and order the foods she liked. Verdict: We could have done better.
- History/Archeology: the US Civil Rights Movement; Ancient Civilizations - Aztec, Mayan and Incan history & culture from past to present* The US Civil Rights Movement was a great way to start the trip. It was a good lens through which to view the rest of our travels. Verdict: We did a good job.
- Social Studies/Cultural Anthropology: Human migration We made a point of picking up hitchikers whenever possible. Our first was a Salvadoran man in Mexico, making his way to the US. We chatted during the hour-long ride and he put a face on the issue of illegal immigration. In Nicaragua a family group flagged us down, perhaps thinking we were a collectivo bus. We also routinely picked up foreign travelers. Though the kids may not have chatted with them as much as we did, they must have absorbed some lesson about the joys of being on the road. Verdict: We did a good job.
- Politics & international relations: US involvement in Latin America Because we made a point of talking about the US impact on the governments of Central America, the kids must have gotten something from it. Verdict: Mission accomplished.
- Geography: ecosystems and habitats and impact on humans, plants and animals; map reading Both kids can name the countries between the US and Panama - in order - and know the capitals. That in iself we count as a success. We also visited a myriad of ecosystems and habitats, ranging from the cactus-rich deserts of northern Mexico to the humid rain forests of Costa Rica. We experienced how elevation affects temperatures because we were able to camp comfortably when we were higher and we had to get a hotel room when we were at sea level. Verdict: We did a good job.
- Science: animal migrations (monarch butterflies, whales); plants and animals in various ecosystems & habitats (desert, cloud forest, rain forest, freshwater and saltwater aquatic) and threats they face; astronomy; conservation; green farming skills & farm animal husbandry; wildlife rehabilitation; volcanoes & thermodynamics We missed the monarch butterfly migration but instead witnessed a spectacular mass nesting of Olive Ridley sea turtles on the Pacific coast of Mexico. That alone constituted the highlight of our year. We visited several formal and informal animal rescue centers and learned from biologists about how animals came to reside there. We were enchanted by baby sloths and monkeys, toucans, owls, colorful tree frogs, kinkajous, otters, and porcupines. We snorkeled on reefs and hiked in jungles. Verdict: We only grazed the surface but we did a good job.
- Engineering: ancient to modern – from Mayan engineering to the Panama Canal In Panama City we visited the Panama Canal Museum followed by the Miraflores Locks Visitor Center. This was all in preparation for actually traversing the canal in a sailboat. Verdict: It doesn't get any better than this.
- Art & Music: ethnomusicology with traditional instruments; impact of religion and trade on art. Music is pervasive in Mexico. On our first night in our rented house in Oaxaca City, Mexico, there was a wedding party across the street. J jumped off the couch and shouted, "This is my favorite Mexican song!" It was so loud that Siri was able to identify it from our doorway. We encountered roving mariachi bands and marimba bands throughout Mexico, just like in the movies. We also visited a handful of colonial churches, some simple, some ornate gilded affairs. One even had a mummified priest on display. Verdict: We did a decent job with this one.
- Physical Education: surfing, soccer, volleyball, hiking, snorkeling, camping We spent a lot of time at the beach. J got a good foundation for surfing. We boogie boarded and jumped waves. We hiked though not as much as Paul would have liked. We camped about 40% of the time. We were generally more physically active than we would have been at home. Verdict: We met our expectations.
Post Roadschooling Verdict
When we returned to Virginia, the kids advanced to the next grade: 8th grade for Coconut and 5th grade for J. Both maintained their placements in the gifted classes. We are confident that they lost nothing academically as a result of their year out of formal school. In fact, we would have been quite comfortable continuing their informal schooling if they had been willing to do so. Our advice: DO IT!