Mums and dads and kids are filling pencil cases, finding lunch box lids which fit, and labelling clothes just now, ready for the new school year. As are we (not the lunch box or the labelling bit, because we are in France). But what do you do if you decide to take a year, or more, off school?
We’re no experts, but this is a brief account of what we did and how we did it, when we took our 15, 13 and 9 year olds out of school last year to go travelling. At the beginning, we didn’t know anyone else travelling long term with older kids or where to look for the best advice. As we found out during the year, there are lots of families who have been travelling, sometimes for years, with tiny kids in tiny crocs, right up to teenagers doing online university courses. That was very reassuring and we chatted with and met up with some of them once we hit the road.
Our sons were 15 and 13 when we left on our trip, and our daughter, 10. They were schooled in France at a regular French school at the time of our departure, the elder two having started primary school in Scotland. The French primary school was such a good start for them with a new language – a tiny rural school with 15 pupils (a fifth of them ours).
“I couldn’t do it, I’m not a teacher”, is what a lot of people say. I was one of those adults who didn’t know what they wanted to be when they grew up. Right up until I was nearly 40. So although I do now teach (English) and really love it, being motivated to homeschool/unschool and having children who want that as well is possibly more important than formal qualifications. I know some fantastic “real” teachers, and some not so good ones too. Cultivating a passion for learning is what it’s about.
I take homeschooling to mean following a school-type curriculum (although often in a very different way) away from school; and unschooling, allowing your children free rein to initiate learning about anything and everything that makes them curious, however and whenever. There’s often an overlap between the two. And even the names cause a bit of debate. Is it unschooling? Is it world schooling? Is it homeschooling? I couldn’t really care less. What I definitely don’t believe is that unschoolers are a wonderful group of kids who “fart sunshine and rainbows” (a great quote I thought from a parent who unschooled and whose son is now going to regular school). This post isn’t about the rights and wrongs of any type of schooling. It’s just about what we did and how we did it.
And did we ask the kids first if they wanted to go? No. Rightly or wrongly, we figured that asking someone to do something when we and they had no idea what “that” actually was, was a bit counterproductive. We “sold” it positively, and we tried hard to listen once we’d set off. It wasn’t forever. That would have been different.
The first steps
We wrote this standard letter to the Education Department, copied it to our local mayor, and bought these books from a regular bookshop in France. The kids chose the publisher (there are several) based on the one they liked the look of most – colours, layout, indexes etc. They followed the French curriculum. Different countries have different rules – google it first of all, and find an internet forum for homeschooling in your area.
At the time we left, our eldest was at lycée (upper secondary) starting his Baccalaureate (A-level, Highers, or SATs), our middle was at collège (lower secondary school) in the year before his “Brevet” (sort of GCE or O-level) , and the youngest was in her last year of primary school. It seemed a bit daunting at the time but in retrospect we would all absolutely do it again.
It might not be the best advice in the world, but if you know how beaurocratically enormous all thing French can be, wait till the last minute to send the “we’re off” letter, when it’s a bit late to do anything more. And when it’s the school holidays. I remember giving up years ago applying for the equivalent of a family railcard after nothing short of a small truckload of documents was requested. No time – no dossier.
Then we set off, I have to say at this point with the fanciful idea of being up at 7, breakfasted by 7.30, and ready for “schoolwork” from 8 – 10.
That lasted a week. In all honesty, even a little less than that. It might have worked for some families but it was a disaster for ours. We forgot the plain old fact that teenagers have a changing bodyclock and morning are, basically, tough. And sticks aren’t as useful as carrots.
We nagged for a while, being new to it all, but by the time we hit Spain (our first country) we began to relax. Maybe it was the wine. 1€69.
So, we suggested to the older two to count the number of lessons and chapters in the book and divide it out, as they wanted, to cover it in a year. And they just, well, got on with it. The less we pushed the more they did. For a day, or sometimes even a week, it was only maths. Other times it was mixed. And for an hour, or maybe 2, a day. The nagging lingered for a couple of months but we could see that as it died away, the motivation rate increased. The boys were “riding solo” by about January, 5 months into the trip.
Katie, at 9, wanted a bit more help and structure. Her brothers were also a big help to her with French, because she has already (it wasn’t very hard) way surpassed her mum and dad’s level. She did shorter spells of up to an hour of “book” work.
Non “book” work?
A lot of the school book work looked and was a bit boring. It’s the stuff you need to do to get through school. We felt we ought to keep it up because we were only going to be out of the “system” for a year.
We got a lot more out of other learning opportunities. We’ve given some examples below. They’re not unique or new, but they were all around every day all day.
– Khan Academy – a free online programme which we used for maths. There were badges and stars to be earnt and games to play. Or, when there was no internet access, we did maths with a shop or a restaurant from a window hatch at the back of the campervan. It was funny to see that Katie’s second “shop” attempted to attract more custom with a “free wifi” sign. You learn that sort of stuff pretty fast when you say goodbye to your 24-hour internet connection at home.
– Cooking. Food is an awfully good way to break down barriers and get to know people. From tagines and bread in Morocco, to Käsespetzle (cheesy pasta) and Apfelstrudel in Austria.
We cooked at friends’ houses or with local people, and learnt new recipes from the horse’s mouth so to speak. We shared and swapped lunch and stories/hand gestures with shepherds minding goats in the Atlas Mountains, and traded and tried out recipes in Nafpaktos in Greece.
Katie made friends with someone called Mafoud in Tafraoute, Morocco, and they made and served each other Scotch and Berber pancakes. What people eat, how they make it and how they eat it gave us a big insight into people’s lives elsewhere. It also helped Katie with her nemesis, “Fractions”.
– Writing blog posts. This was great for both French and English practice, and it’s a good incentive to write another post when you get comments or likes from around the world. Their writing skills definitely improved, and now, for example, Adam is putting his translation skills to work by helping out a local newspaper in return for advertising his magic shows. It’s given them a lot of confidence; thank you to everyone who commented and liked – it was you who did that.
– Learning about destinations, the currency, basic phrases, culture, etc etc. Kind of obvious, but seeing, hearing, smelling and feeling a culture counts for a million words in a book. Sometimes we researched in advance, but mostly it was whilst we were there or after we’d left and we wanted to know more.
There’s an incentive to learn a language from local kids if you want to play their game, or teach them your game. And if you want to make sure your 50 Baht isn’t buying you eye-bleedingly hot street food in Thailand. “Mai pet” (not hot) is a phrase that won’t be forgotten.
– Visiting landmarks or famous sites to learn history. Happy history like the Greek Olympics to difficult history like the concentration camps in the Second World War. It’s also a bit of an eye opener to see history from another perspective. As it is hearing the local news which can be very very different to the media portrayal back home.
– Making crafty stuff. Katie did this a LOT. To the point where we had to restrict her cardboard and general garbage intake into the campervan for fear of not all fitting in any more. Or by getting her to leave designs on paper, rather than realising them.
– Reading. I am the only bookworm in the family, but on subjects like nutrition or the human mind, or exercise or technology, the boys downloaded and read a lot. We didn’t carry around many books with us, but it’s easy these days to download articles or books from the internet. We also got significantly better at reading maps and not getting lost.
– Sport, especially running and swimming. Easy to do most days. We squeezed in a Pilgrims’ Way trek along the Camino Frances to Satiago de Compostela with Grandma, and a 10K run in the Thessaloniki Alexander the Great Marathon (Adam running, us cheering and getting the bus). Adam wrote us all fitness programmes: I’m not sure if I was touched by the personalisation or slightly put out that mine was called “Mum’s Bum”.
– Managing our travel budget. Matt was almost exclusively responsible for this, and he did a really grand job. We were all a little scared of losing receipts on Matt’s watch. He set up a spreadsheet and entered daily totals.
– Watching TED and other videos. Here we’re actually watching Breaking Bad. Chemistry.
It’s early days. All three are moving up to the class they would ordinarily have been going into in September ie they didn’t redouble. Katie had a formal “contrôle” with the Education Department because she was moving up to secondary school. Like a mini oral reading test and then a chat with chocolate biscuits. It lasted about half an hour, mostly the chocolate biscuits bit. It moved over to the chocolate bit as soon as the inspector and the pedagogical manager who were present could see that Katie could read and write. The only trouble we had at the interview was getting her to stop talking, about camels poop for fires and elephants sweating through their toe nails.
The new term has not yet started. We will see how it goes. The boys are excited to be seeing their friends again. Fairly early on in our trip we moved going online and Skyping/messaging with friends way up the priority list. Maintaining contact with friends we realised was more important than we had imagined, both to see that they were on a par with school work but also just to chat.
Katie is a little nervous about the jump from a school with 15 pupils to one with several hundred. The whole “moving up to the big school” is understandably scary and exciting at the same time.
I am a little nervous that they will wonder why it’s necessary to be in school from 8am to 6pm most days. And what that will do to their desire (and free time and energy) to research or read about things that really interest them. But maybe I needn’t be.
It’s been an experience which has been indelibly etched in our minds. Only time will tell how easy it will be to slot back into “normal” school. More on that later…….