Boatschooling, Part 2: learning on Totem

How to boatschool is one of the questions we’re asked most frequently. To try and offer a meatier reply, I’m breaking this out into multiple posts: thoughts on how to get started, how learning looks on Totem, and things I wish I’d known before. The first post offered thoughts on finding a path: Part 2 is what we actually DO on Totem… 

There is no single right way to go about homeschooling while cruising. From philosophies to curricula there is a very large spectrum, and what works for our family really has no bearing on what will work for another. That said, I know it’s really helpful to get a snapshot of what families out cruising actually do, so here’s a look at our meandering path.

what is school? dancing lessons on Budi Budi atoll

The first year

Going with the flow of the school system at home would have placed the kids in pre-Kindergarten, 1st and 4th grade at our departure. After stressing out about choosing a curriculum, we… didn’t. Natural learning turned out to be a natural fit. We stuffed the boat with primary resources, from field guides to an encyclopedia set to books about the places we’d be exploring together- unschoolers would call this strewing- and let it flow. There were also standard issue grade level workbooks, because if a kid wanted to do that- well, then that’s what they did. Opportunities to learn are everywhere.

budding naturalists
what is school? budding naturalists on Isla Isabel

This was an all-around win for the kids. They were full of the joy for learning, exploding with interests, and opportunities to fulfill those desires were everywhere along our route of the Pacific coast of the US and Mexico.

The second and beyond

During our second and third years cruising, from Mexico and across the South Pacific, learning on board was built around a loose framework with materials we brought in from different sources. It was not a packaged curriculum, but a step into structure compared to the first year. Although the kids thrived, the wide open nature of purist unschooling was too far outside my comfort zone. “It has to work for everyone” is one of our mantras on Totem, so during a hurricane season road trip through the US in 2009, we picked up the odds and ends of different curricula to bring back to the boat in Mexico. There were science books we could adapt to cover a topic in a group lesson across their levels, guides to help us with critical thinking questions about books we read together, spelling and math workbooks, etc.- cherry picked based on a fit for our family.

Our year of unschooling has been an invaluable influence to shaping- well, whatever it is we do now (I resist labels!). At the core, it helped us recognize that learning is everywhere. There is joy in learning about our passions and interests, so it is fun- not drudgery to follow them. This is best realized when the kids take the lead and drive the direction: and that we as parents trust them, and support them.

WWII Relics
what is school? maps drawn on the bunker of
WWII’s Pacific fleet Admiral

Niall, who didn’t swim when we left Bainbridge Island, had become a human fish in the span of a few months in pretty, warm waters, and become passionately interested in marine life. We based learning in science, reading, and writing around this interest. Before long, the kid who ‘hated’ reading was now deep in high school biology textbooks and learning species classification, and teaching us about the world underwater.

Putting our own materials together means we have the flexibility to spin off into whatever the kids are interested in and make maximum advantage of the environment around us, letting that drive much of the learning on board instead of a pre-set box of things they were supposed to do but bear no relevance to our surroundings.

We try hard to work with energy levels, and take advantage of rainy days or passages, instead of fixing rules- so Totem doesn’t have specific classroom hours or a school calendar. We do try to make the most of where we are. In PNG, the legacy of WWII was physically present in the gun batteries, plan wrecks and stories that remained in many islands we visited, so WWII history was on the learning menu. Surrounded by this palpable history, the learning was fascinating.

A stint of “regular school” 

Squinting in the bright day
what is school? test driving “normal” school in Australia

Our second year in Australia, the combination of having a work visa and moving from New South Wales to Queensland gave the kids the opportunity to enter the local school system. For six months, they attended local schools in Brisbane, and for the most part it was a smooth transition. It’s hard to generalize about three different kids, but they were much more informed than their peers in a number of areas, on par with most of the stuff that schools measure you on, and more mature than their cohorts. If we found ourselves suddenly winging back to Washington state and into our previous life, I expect they’d slide in pretty comfortably there as well. The best part, though? A stint back in a traditional school gave them the perspective to realize how much they preferred homeschooling to being in the system.

Edging towards high school

If we were back in the US, our son would be starting ninth grade this fall. It’s pushed us- and him, as he thinks about what he wants- to reassess. He’s particularly disciplined and fond of structure and set on a college prep track, so that’s guiding our exploration. Friends visiting next month from the US will have SAT prep materials tucked with other goodies into their luggage, and I’m stepping back into curricula evaluation.

hike across island
what is school? taking off on a hike

Learning is always a journey, isn’t it? We’ve tried a lot of things. Some stuck, some didn’t. I’m sure what we do will continue to evolve as our children grow and have different needs. Through it all, the kids have thrived and learned amazing things along the way.

This was a very difficult post for me to write. Homeschooling is an area where people slip pretty easily into judgments. As much as I believe in what we do, it’s distasteful to know you’re being judged- especially for opening a part of our lives that I consider to be relatively private! I share our experience in the hope of helping others, so please, be kind…and ask questions.

Next post: what I wish I’d known before about boatschooling. That post is flowing much more easily, thank you. 

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33 Responses to Boatschooling, Part 2: learning on Totem

  1. judith July 29, 2013 at 8:19 pm #

    ‘Un-schooling’ LOVE it!

    • Behan Gifford July 30, 2013 at 7:48 pm #

      Thanks Judith. Me too. 🙂

  2. Cheryl Lynn July 29, 2013 at 9:05 pm #

    We have been following your post for sometime now and really enjoying it. Very inspirational. We have an 8-year-old boy and twin girls 6-years-old and we are working towards Sea of Cortez (and beyond?) in 2014. We homeschool now at our home in Colorado. Friends and family were skeptical at first, but they see that they are funny, happy, silly and inquisitive of all things, so they have relaxed about it. Our experience has been similar, much more structure the first year using strict curriculums that had your tasks and deliverables defined to the nth degree. Now we are looking more at topics that tie across subject matters where all three can engage at the same time and learn from and contribute to each other’s experience. But, it is still a struggle for my husband and I to approach new curriculum without looking through the traditionalist lens from our own upbringing. Fingers crossed that our son will get bitten by the same reading bug that bit Niall! Looking forward to your next post of lessons learned in boat schooling.
    Thanks again for the exceptional blogging. Safe travels!

    • Behan Gifford July 30, 2013 at 7:50 pm #

      Thanks, Cheryl, and all the best in getting to your Sea of Cortez- and beyond. I think your current journey sounds really interesting too (nice blog!). I’ve decided that kind of like potty training, the reading bug always comes- just not in a timeline we desire or control. I stressed about it with all of them, but wow, there are now 3 junior voracious readers on board.

  3. arlopop July 29, 2013 at 10:31 pm #

    Having enviously followed your travels for more than three years (literally daily) I was so pleased you had finally begun these posts. Our family is quite similar to yours – older son, 8, and two daughters, 6 & 4.
    Following your posts began as a primer, the plan being to prep ourselves to follow a path like yours, but the diagnosis of a rare (but not life-threatening) genetic disorder in all three of our kids and myself shortly after beginning our planning made a cruising life an impossibility. So a vicarious experience has been our substitute and we are grateful for that.

    Early on (before our plans were dashed) the education aspect had been one of the sticking points. Could we maintain the learning curve for three children in such an informal setting? Obviously you have and we hoped to glean insights into your methods. Even after we realized cruising was no longer an option my curiosity about “boat-schooling” remain piqued.

    The freedom to follow interests your kids encounter is perhaps the best gift you have given them, and applicable to all parents regardless of their circumstances. I admire your ability to adapt the curricula to those natural curiosities popping up in their lives. I can be rather rigid at times and that might have been the most difficult adjustment for me.

    Please share more about these adaptations and the successes as they occur. For us, they are part of our journey with you, and more globally, help us become better parents in our land-locked life.

    Thanks 🙂

    • Behan Gifford July 30, 2013 at 7:51 pm #

      Thanks arlopop. I can only imagine your own story, but it pulls at me and reminds me we’re lucky. As for a learning curve… I believe the informal setting is an asset in that regard. When a child learns because they are hungry for more, and not because they are told they’re “just supposed to,” you simply can’t stop them! I’ll try to be conscious to share more along the way.

  4. horizonstar July 29, 2013 at 10:48 pm #

    First thing to keep in mind about boatschooling is that the classroom is infinitely broader and more stimulating than any conventional schoolroom. Regardless of the intent, a conventional schooling experience becomes an exercise in socialization by peer group. The values and pressures of that peer group represent the values of the society— in the case of contemporary America, status competition and consumerism. So if you want your children to be well adjusted to contemporary life they are better of in a land school back in a Seattle suburb.

    Homeschooling can be an authoritarian imposition of the parents values upon their captive offspring. Or it can be an opportunity for the parents to rediscover curiosity and learning alongside their children.

    Judging from the insights and observations that make your blog such interesting reading, I have no doubt that you want your kids to grow up retaining a sense wonder and curiosity that all children are born with and too often loose as they “mature.” You’ve chosen a wonderful palate of experiences for them to base their future lives upon.

    • Behan Gifford July 30, 2013 at 7:51 pm #

      Thank you, horizonstar. Of course, you never do know, they’ll do what they want! We met an older couple who had been cruising with their children. As adults, they live super conventional suburban multi-car-garage lives and love their status-conscious toys. The parents were baffled, but the kids are happy, so… well, I guess that’s the end game!

    • horizonstar August 1, 2013 at 5:11 am #

      Hi Bethan,
      Did you ever meet Kit Africa in PT when you lived in the Pacific Northwest?
      Father was Spike Africa, self proclaimed President of the Pacific Ocean and Sterling Hayden’s firs mate on Wanderer? Kit was the original boat kid–born on the schooner as I recall.

      Fair Winds
      Richard

    • Behan Gifford September 2, 2013 at 4:37 pm #

      Hi Richard- I don’t think we crossed paths with Kit, but sounds like an interesting person indeed! Maybe someday.

  5. John Sparks July 30, 2013 at 12:03 am #

    I have to say I have never wanted to home school and my wife less this does not mean we are against it in anyway, we are firmly in the love all and to each his own group, but your plea for others to be kind at the end of your post struck me as a real concern. For the fury that could follow such and open post about doing your own thing could be not subtle in the least as people fail to use even the most basic of manners on line when screens replace faces. We fall into the do it a little different category and have caught the unjust indignation of people that “know better” what is good for “all children”. Our children are expected to do things and have experienced things must adults never get a chance to. We do not live on a boat (yet, give it time) but they have lived in tents for months on end, spent months on the road for multi-state lets go there sessions, they all love to read, and spend weekends, while in “normal” school, running up the sides of mountains in the middle of no where as there friends play video games or sleep. I find it odd that others have such a need to be justified in there own existence that they find fault with ours. I have been reading your blog for sometime and I am in constant awe at your love of life and drive to see the less trodden path or sail the less seen sea as it may be. Please keep your posts coming and take hart that there are people all over the world that cheer you on, enjoy your successes, morn your pains, and hope with all hope that the world understand even if only for a moment that we are all better off because people like you and your family choose to share even in the face of possible pain… Sail safe! Sparkspack

    One of my favorite boat quotes:
    “Thing about boats is, you can always sell them if you don’t like them. Can’t sell kids.” ― Lin Pardey

    • Behan Gifford July 30, 2013 at 7:52 pm #

      Thanks Sparkspack. In June, we had our blog tweeted/facebooked by Nick Kristof, a NY Times editor with considerable following. In the long list of comments responding to his post, the negative vitriol (is that redundant?) that was spewed with assumptions about our lives was a little shocking. We turned it into a bit of a lesson for the kids about online behavior… it really is amazing what people will post when they feel anonymously self righteous. It was just as you say: need to be justified in their own existence. Thanks for the kinds words.

  6. Nancy Sanford July 30, 2013 at 2:33 am #

    It seems to me that your family has it all. Traditional learning is woven into your un-schooling in such a natural way that you never have to worry about the kids slacking. They are totally socialized which to me anyway is a huge drawback of traditional homeschooling. Limited contact with other students and opportunity to learn from each other just doesn’t happen in a kitchen table setting. The world has been your classroom and you haven’t been restricted by scheduling in vacations, conference days, etc. Your kids learn so much every day and you have provided them with the research materials they need to to to the next level. I say Kudos to you. Really love following your adventures.

  7. Windtraveler July 30, 2013 at 6:23 am #

    I think you are AWESOME. That is all. Totally, utterly AWESOME.

    • Behan Gifford July 30, 2013 at 7:55 pm #

      Girlfriend, we have a mutual fan club. 🙂

  8. Carolyn Shearlock - The Boat Galley July 30, 2013 at 7:05 am #

    I would have thrived in an environment such as the one you’re giving the kids!! I’ve always done best in independent study. LOVE IT!

    • Behan Gifford July 30, 2013 at 7:55 pm #

      Your comment reminds me that what I recall from the field trips taken in school far outstrips what I recall about the classroom days. I would have loved it too! Lucky kids. 😉

  9. boatbaby July 31, 2013 at 9:27 am #

    So happy that you continue to articulate my thoughts so I can just point people in this direction. 🙂 I loathe having to explain to person after person that no, not all boatschooling kids do Calvert and here’s why… blah blah blah. So happy you are all finding your path. It’s an amazing journey, isn’t it?

    • Behan Gifford July 31, 2013 at 9:53 am #

      Just another facet on which we’re simpatico! thanks Cindy!

  10. Anonymous August 2, 2013 at 4:12 am #

    It is very personal isn’t it?! And yet people always want to know about it or ask questions. We have been home schooling since K (now entering our 8th year) and love it. I am amazed at the comments we get sometimes, but over the years I’ve learned to tell people that yes, we love homeschooling & it is what works for our family. I have given up trying to explain because I have found that most people are set in their ways (& opinions) & if they truly are interested, they will find their way. Thanks for sharing your adventures & your family. It’s a joy to read your blog & follow along on your life adventure 🙂
    Loreen in the beautiful Pacific NW (I can’t seem to log into my Google acct so will post anon with my name 🙂

    • Behan Gifford August 2, 2013 at 11:15 am #

      Thanks Loreen. We’re pretty much the same- if people ask if we’re homeschooling, I just say yes, and that generally ends the topic… unless they are genuinely interested!

  11. LeeAnn Toth August 2, 2013 at 8:47 am #

    Hi Behan: What a lovely post – thank you for being a lighthouse in my darkness in so many areas.

    • Behan Gifford August 2, 2013 at 11:22 am #

      LeeAnn, thank YOU, I am so happy to have been able to help!

  12. whereisyvette.com August 6, 2013 at 12:22 am #

    Sounds great. 🙂

    If I may give unsolicited advice (as you’re looking into high school prep), as an astronomer I’ve talked to a surprising number of homeschool families who have kids interested in a potential science track, and the biggest thing I emphasize is to make sure enough attention is paid to the basic math- know the quadratic equation in your sleep, know your unit circle from trig, etc. The reason I mention this is because there is often a huge push from interested kids to “skip ahead” to more interesting topics… but pretty much everyone who skimps on these boring-but-essential basics will fail the basic math and science classes their first or second year of college (this can happen to both traditional and homeschooled kids, of course). One of those things where that material is difficult enough to work through on its own, so if you can’t do the basic stuff in your sleep you’re really going to run into problems.

    Once again just ignore me if you’re doing that all now, but I find the kids who show up in my class now and fail out not due to lack of interest but because lack of skills sad enough that I warn others!

    • Behan Gifford August 6, 2013 at 8:52 am #

      You can dish out unsolicited advice anytime! I appreciate your perspective and am pretty good at shedding input that doesn’t work for me… although yours does.

      For better or for worse, I really like math, and trying to impart an appreciation of math- if not pure enjoyment- is really important to me. Our 14 year old love to know why he should learn something- math isn’t his favorite- but I point out that things he WANTS to do (in the past, marine biology; for the last year, be a pilot) require solid math skills. I suspect if I believed math was drudgery it would be hard to make it anything else, but I don’t, and hope that helps.

  13. Bill August 16, 2013 at 12:06 am #

    I think what you are doing is wonderful and we intend to throw the lines off in almost exactly 4 years (we have a plan and are executing). The wife’s biggest “fear” is the homeschooling. She’s a Turk and the concept is very foreign to her (though she has warmed a lot). Can we do it? Will it harm the kids (twin 5 yr olds now)?? Those are the things running through her mind. So wonderful having your inputs… THANKS

  14. Jason Wulf January 28, 2015 at 2:11 am #

    Thank you for sharing such an intimate part of your lives. As a parent of two, I was most interested in knowing about this subject of your travels. I admit being in the “system” seems to be working very well for our family, I must also admit that your travels are opening my eyes to not let the system digest them. They need to learn and appreciate more of what the world has to offer. Again, thank you for sharing. -Jason

    • Behan January 28, 2015 at 8:19 am #

      Jason, you’re welcome! And you’ve touched on the key- it’s really all about what works best for your family, whether that’s traditional school or homeschooling and in all of the many flavors for both. Glad you are enjoying a peek into the life of travels afloat.

  15. Rosie January 17, 2016 at 1:39 pm #

    I love what you are doing and have read lots of your blog on other subjects. Funnily enough the home education thing has never been one of my worries, we already do “flexischool” where my 5 year old kid is at school only three days a week. I home schooled my 12 year old step son for a year although he is now in school and my 3 year old hates nursery. We live on a farm which is an education in itself but will be setting sail in July for at least a year. The thing both the kids and I notice from our home ed experience so far is that they learn much faster and much more relevant subjects at home when they “unschool” than they do when they sit in a classroom for 6 hours. Our decision to set sail is partly based on how much our children can learn from the experience. School in the traditional sense is really an out dated learning environment I believe. You have made a choice which I am sure your children will always be grateful to you for.

    • Behan January 18, 2016 at 9:14 am #

      Thank you Rosie! And lucky you that this has never been one of your worries. I wish I’d had that confidence: it sapped a lot of energy in the early years especially. When do you set sail? Or have you already? I agree that the traditional sense of school is outdated.

      • Rosie January 18, 2016 at 12:19 pm #

        Our goalposts are for starting in July but we are narrowing down our search at the moment for our boat. Hopefully we will have bought our new floating home by May. Where do you think your kids found the most rewarding experiences? My younger kids want to do Africa and Indian Ocean but I previously operated diving expeditions there so although I love it I am looking at the Pacific, my hubby wants Caribbean but as we are used to remote areas and living onboard I think he might find it too crowded… ?! I have limited this voyage to 14 months as my stepson who is 13 is a very good and keen footballer and I don’t want to ruin his potential career by taking him away from his passion and possible career for too long. We might start all over again once he has reached 16 and the younger two (5 and nearly 4 now) will be more able to benefit from a second voyage. Hope you continue to enjoy your voyage as you head back.

        • Behan January 18, 2016 at 5:44 pm #

          It sounds great Rosie! We loved diversity and beauty in the IO but it’s more challenging. The Pacific is so incredible and a little easier IMHO- you can’t go wrong. We can’t compare it with the Caribbean since we haven’t cruised there, but I’m really not into crowds and it strikes me that we may enjoy it less than other places.

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