Boat/worldschooling: What’s the verdict?

For those who embark on a life that requires an education outside the parameters of the brick and mortar classroom, facing the mountain of information on homeschooling (or in our case boats/worldschooling) can seem highly intimidating. And I was certainly no exception.  I was lucky to have a friend who is a passionate advocate for homeschooling and customized education, so I could turn to her with all of my questions, like the first one, “Where do I even begin looking for appropriate materials, curriculum, information?!” But even after immersing myself in the information and purchasing the materials I thought would provide the most well-rounded education while we were gone (and at that time we did not know how long that would be . . . one year, two years, three years, never come back?), actually doing the work, i.e., being an educator, proved to be *much* bigger job than I ever anticipated or prepared myself for.  For lots of different reasons. Suffice it to say we are very happy to be back and our students/children are happy and thriving in their respective educational environments among their peers and friends back at home.

The Pro’s

Let’s start with the best things first.  The freedom!! No more early morning fire drills, stress of getting everyone up (mostly me, but still), dressed, caffeinated, lunches made, bags packed, ready for work and actually making it to the school property before the first bell rings.  No more scheduling monkey tactics trying to figure out what to do with the kids on the minimum days (doesn’t it seem that they seem to have become *way* more frequent than when we were kids?!), school vacations (hello expensive trips because everyone and their brother has the same vacations we do!), extracurricular activities (music lessons, sports, etc) and all. the. homework.

All of that used to be the bane of my existence as a working parent sans partner during the week.  But as boatschoolers and a cruising family, we could get up when we *woke up* (what a concept!) and if we had a late night before, the kids could (although rarely did) sleep in a few more minutes and get their brains ready to learn. We ate breakfast (and every other meal) together every single day and not have to slam down some carbs and coffee before rushing out the door.  And best of all, we could allow our students to pick 4-5 subjects to cover that day (we of course provided the topics to choose from, but still allowed the kids to pick what they wanted to cover that day).  We could integrate our environment, the culture, language, whatnot, into our lessons and give everyone a break one of the (ahem) “less exciting” subjects based on what was going on that day/week.  It was awesome! Traveling and living on S/V Dakota, it never really mattered what day of the week it was because every day was an opportunity to learn (and while that is also true at home, it’s quite different). So, we rarely kept, or even looked at, a calendar.  There weren’t a myriad of scheduling details to manage. Just one–the weather and how it affected when we were going to be coming and going from an anchorage/marina. FREEDOM! What a concept.

That time we took a field trip in La Paz and swam with whale sharks in the wild. #charmedlife

The Cons

It wouldn’t be fair (or truthful) to talk about boatschooling/worldschooling without opening the kimono about the nitty-gritty details – – you know, the ones that you might have expected, as well as the ones no one knew to expect.

First, being the primary educator for your own child is … um…. how shall I put this… “challenging.”  I suppose, in a perfect world with perfect children and perfect parents, boatschooling would be all unicorns and candy-colored memories of the family sitting around the table together engaged in interesting and colorful discourse while the children radiate happiness from internalizing all this new and interesting information from their environment and their parents.  And I did meet a couple of kid boats that seemed to have it all, in that respect.  But on Dakota, while there were great days, there were also some gnarly days… days where parents and kids were frustrated, angry, fed up.  There were days when, at least one of us (student or parent) had to get off the boat and away from the situation. There were bad days when  I just couldn’t *think* of another way to explain the exact same thing so that he’d get it.  I just couldn’t!

We certainly had a system for passing the baton when one of us reached max capacity.  I specifically recall some times when I told DH, “I just can’t. I gotta stop right now.” And perhaps there were times I didn’t say it, so much as yell it. 😦  But there were other days when school went beautifully and at quittin’ time (usually lunch time), we’d give ourselves a little pat on the back and think, “Man, this is awesome. 2-3 hours of 1:1 school work and we are DONE for the day!” (Imagine feeling like Fred Flintstone sliding down the dinosaur’s tail at the end of his work day!!). We had the rest of the day and evening to go explore, swim, eat, visit a local site, whatever! FREEDOM!

Unfortunately, over time we found those days became less and less the norm and more the exception.  Even when we lived in La Cruz, the cruiser’s mecca and kid boat haven, where boatschooling in the morning was the norm and every kid knew that’s what the program was (unless there was something cool going on that day and all the kids went to that), there were hair-pulling days where we all wished we could Just. Go. Home.  I hate to admit it, but there were days when our poor student said he’d rather go back to his regular school and just live with the grandparents until we got back from sailing the season. It was THAT bad.

When we were in the midst of all of this madness, I recall thinking (and saying in private conversations to DH), “If we just had a more passionate learner, a more self-directed student, one who wanted to learn, it would be SOOO much easier.”  And that may be true. I recall being really frustrated that my reluctant student didn’t think that doing his minimal school work while riding a high speed train from Paris to Bordeaux was a good deal.

Learning how fresh tortillas are made #lapazfarmersmarket

Getting our school done on a long passage.  Looks rough doesn’t it?
That time Elliott got to bring our boat into port.  Not learning at all, right?
Worldschooling on a high speed train from Paris to Bordeaux. 
Getting school work done on the drive from Bordeaux to Marseilles. #charmedlife

Wasn’t it way cooler to be getting your work done while we were in transit (whether it was a passage or driving through France and Spain?!) so we could explore our new home base when we arrived??  I saw at least one kid boat with that situation and it seemed easier to me. But I’ve come to realize that, at least in our case, it’s not fair to put all (or any) of that on the student. As a parent and educator, I bear part, if not all, of the burden for coming up with a schooling system that works for our kids.  And it was not until recently, as we continue to process our yearlong sabbatical from land-based life, that I really came to realize all the other factors that needed to be great in order for permanent boatschooling to work for us. So here, in no particular order, are some things I’m putting on the “I’ll do it better next time” list:

Have a good handle on what kind of learner my child is (preferably before leaving the States, where access to educational materials is easy and internet is abundant!)

One of the most unexpected gifts we received as first-time boatschoolers is that we truly got to know our sons as students– what kinds of learners they are, what motivates them, what makes them tick.  For instance, we know that our older son *needs* to learn in a social environment and/or with social rewards. Socializing is like air to him, and as one friend quipped in a recent conversation, “Recess is the only reason my boys ‘like’ school! I can’t imagine homeschooling… It takes away all the fun stuff my boys love.” (Touche my friend!) While our younger son needs to be challenged not academically per se, but socially. He prefers the company of his brother and relishes his solo time (sounds like someone else in the family!) — so in order to ensure his success in the world we need to make sure he’s getting those socialization skills. We now have a solid pulse on each child’s current strengths (and I say that with intention, not wanting to box them in as “the math person” or “the speller” this early in their educational careers). And when contrasted with the quality of knowledge we had of them as students in traditional school, which consisted primarily of the twice-annual parent-teacher conferences, both of us agree that boatschooling was exceptional in that regard.

That said, I didn’t know all of this when we first threw off the docklines.  And there was so much we were learning on the fly–how to live on a boat, how to work together as sailors, how to be the “only + everything” on Dakota (parents, navigators, repair team, educators, cook, cleaner, the list goes on and on!)… So learning how to be an effective educator for my particular students was a long process of trial and error with plenty of growing pains. Now that we have a better handle on them as students and ourselves as teachers, we can do a much better job at boat/worldschooling in the future. But for now, we are able to take what we’ve learned about our students and be more effective advocates for them in their traditional school environments. Win!

Become more knowledgeable on teaching tools, apps and websites, that are effective and motivating, and download a few options to have in my back pocket

In the initial weeks, after we first left San Francisco, we didn’t push school too hard. There was a lot going on, with us being brand new to ocean/coastal cruising and living aboard.  But as we settled into life afloat, we finally met another kid boat on our way down the California coast, who taught us more about educational learning tools for boatschoolers (i.e. apps that don’t always need wifi!) as well as showed us how the “unschooling” approach was working for them. We were intrigued, inspired and in awe of this family who seemed to just have it all down pat!  (We were also envious that their home country, Canada, had an institutional support system for homeschoolers that allowed them to travel freely around the world and *still* provided them an educational consultant and materials for their student. In California, that type of support is not available unless you are associated as a charter student and are not traveling away from your home district for extended periods).

As we continued cruising into Mexico, other kid boats introduced us to the tricks and tools they were using to make school successful and every time I learned about the websites and/or apps they were using, I thought, “oh man! I wish I knew about that before!” And while I suppose one can never know *all* the great educational tools, I do wish we had spent more time figuring this piece out prior to leaving for our adventure.

The reason? Because the way we *thought* we were going to homeschool did not always work. We had plenty of tangible materials on board. We had some apps downloaded to our devices and a laptop dedicated to learning.  We also had a couple DVDs. All to prepare for the times when we would not likely have consistent or strong enough wifi.  I researched the materials I bought. I thought I did my homework. But the reality is, the more tools in your teaching arsenal, the better.  We needed to be more flexible and have the tools and resources to do that.

Ironically, the best website we found came to us merely hours after we landed at SFO from the Europe leg of our year in the world. We unexpectedly ended up staying with friends in Silicon Valley.  During our short stay, my college friend and super-mom gave her kids summer school assignments from an awesome site, MobyMax. Searching for something better to round out the rest of E’s 3rd grade summer (we kept school going all summer and since we were nomads, he didn’t even know it was “summer break” back home)– we tried out MobyMax in addition to our other curriculum.  WOW.  This amazing site is a game changer and I wish we had known of it before we left!! DH and I have joked that we may still be gone if we knew about MobyMax! Ahh, well, for next time . . .

Biggest lesson learned?  When you’re getting ready to go cruising, there is never enough time 

When it comes to the boat/worldschooling prep that needed to be done prior to our departure, I feel like I did the best I could at that time.  I was executing on so many big things, and mostly on my own, that I don’t see how I could have been more efficient, gotten more done, or done a deeper dive on the research I now wish I had done before we left. While I don’t know that I’d go so far as to say it’s regret, I do wish that I had spent more time thinking about what it would really mean to the be primary educator for my boys.  What would my days look like? How would I balance the inevitable frustrations with the joy of being able to witness their learning every single day? How would I remind myself that even on our worst days, this would be one of the greatest adventures of our lives?

Being a teacher is about the hardest job I’ve ever personally encountered. And I’ve never been more sure (although I had a pretty good idea before we left) that I was *not* built to be a teacher. DH is an excellent teacher, in fact he’s been lauded for his teaching style and ability as a pilot and instructor.  Me? Not so much.  I often thought about my days as a Graduate Student Instructor for undergrads while I was in law school. I recalled harshly thinking that my students were lazy imbeciles — I couldn’t believe they were attending one of our country’s finest public educational institutions and managed turn in a 15-page term paper filled with the phrase “pubic entity” instead of “public entity.”  So yea, being a teacher is not my strongest suit.

That said, I think that with more time and thought, I could learn to work around my handicap and better prepare myself, and my sons, for a more positive learning experience next time around.

Yes, I said “next time.”

The verdict? It’s still too early to say for sure, and it of course depends on what life throws us…. but I can see us going cruising again. And there will definitely be more travel in our future. Our time in Europe reignited our shared passion for international travel that has been the common thread throughout our lives and marriage.  DH and I have always loved traveling together and now having traveled through Europe with the boys and lived on Dakota, we feel pretty confident that with a couple more years on the boys, we could go and do it again. Ya know, a life-sabbatical 2.0. But this time perhaps we’ll cruise the Meditteranean and instead of boatschooling 100% of the time, we’ll give the boys the gift of learning in a brick and mortar school over there, complete with plenty of new friends to socialize with. 😁

And now, just to give a glimpse of how rough these two had it:

A field trip in the town of Tequila, Jaliso–learning how tequila is grown and made. 

Working as waiters, cooks and bussers at a local restaurant in La Paz and earning real tips!

Field trip to the Airbus factory in Toulouse, France and seeing the Concorde 

Field trip to Carcasonne and visiting an ancient walled city in Southern France. #charmedlife


2 thoughts on “Boat/worldschooling: What’s the verdict?

  1. Wow!!! What a wonderful perspective on life, traveling, and homeschooling. Speaking as a land-locked homeschool mom, many of your frustrations are not reserved just for the boating life. There are so many days when the kids are uncooperative and patience is completely gone. There are definitely times where I feel isolated or overwhelmed by the vast array of choices and no idea where to begin! I would imagine those feelings would be magnified on a boat because your resources are limited and you can’t just take a drive to the library or local co-op meeting. But the field trip opportunities and the skills your children learned seem to have far-outweighed anything they could have learned in a book!!! What an incredible gift this experience must have been!! Thank you so much for sharing this!

    Liked by 1 person

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