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Homeschooling on the High Seas

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The author works with Anna on her reading skills in a Tierra del Fuego anchorage

The author works with Anna on her reading skills in a Tierra del Fuego anchorage

If you’re planning to set sail for a year with your kids, you have one narrow goal—to keep up so your children will be able to rejoin their friends when they return. For kids in kindergarten to eighth grade, this usually means studying math, a bit of writing, a lot of free reading and they’ll be fine. If your kids are in high school, you can either try to do a full year, which means you may have to cut down your cruising plans, or do the minimum school and have your children graduate a year late. Either can work fine, but it will need to be your teenager’s choice.

Are you heading out indefinitely? If so, your role becomes much more important, but also offers more flexibility. You can have “school” 365 days a year with only a few subjects at a time, or you can have six months completely off, and six months of full-on study. You can buy a stand-alone math program and boat-school the rest, or you can buy a complete “all-in-one” curriculum from companies such as Calvert (calverteducation.com) or Oak Meadow (oakmeadow.com) and have the children work through it. Or, if none of those options pique your interest, you can create all of your own programs.

Over the past 12 years of homeschooling our daughters, Anna and Helen, from pre-school through high school, there has been a constant useful tension between academics and experiences. (It probably helps to have one parent emphasizing academics and the other adventure.) In some years, this has looked like three or four hours of school every day. Other years, this has looked like six months of eight hours of school a day, and six months with the occasional math lesson.

Based on my personal experience, here are my “Top 10 Tips” when homeschooling becomes boatschooling:

1. My first piece of advice is to un-school when you can teach when you must: Some parents choose to “un-school” their children, trusting they will pick up everything they need to know without trying. That wouldn’t achieve the kind of formal academic thinking I want my children to master, but there are many subjects where I don’t need to interfere with a lot of requirements. For us, that was elementary school science, reading, art and one daughter’s writing. That gave us more time to concentrate on the subjects they found harder.

2. Schoolwork should always be difficult, but never impossible: too much of the school day is filled with fill-in-the-blank busywork. Boatschooling allows children to work at the right pace for them. Most children are a little ahead in some subjects and a little behind in others. Mine were never exactly “on grade level” in anything.

3. Free-reading is an incredibly valuable activity and can easily supplement most of the “English Language Arts” curriculum. Time spent reading for pleasure is the number one activity to promote academic achievement. Make sure you have enough good, challenging books on board and you’re halfway through homeschooling. Students don’t need unit studies on the book, comprehension exercises or essays (at least until high school). Let them read!

4. Writing summaries (of books, textbooks, films, experiences) is very efficient, effective and often overlooked. Summaries help with digesting information, retention and writing practice, all at once. In high school, summaries can also help turn the comprehension of information into thoughtful formal essays. But in the early years, they act as a superb multi-purpose assignment on their own.

5. Separate writing (composition) instruction from writing skills (handwriting, typing, spelling, grammar): when you read student papers, limit yourself to four or five comments about the content of the piece. It’s normal for students to compose with the spelling, grammar or handwriting level a bit behind what they can do when they are simply doing exercises. I generally pick one grammar item per paper and discuss that separately, so that I’m teaching with their writing but not “marking it wrong” in their work until they know it well.

6. Stock up on math curriculum: it’s very hard to make it up on your own. I tried to create an algebra program in 1990. Never again. I always have next year’s math under a bunk. Math Mammoth (mathmammoth.com) offers reasonably priced PDF programs you can store digitally.

7. Combine curriculum for multiple children as much as possible. If your children are within a few years of each other, you can teach them the same topics in subjects like history and science right from the start. As they become older, they can do the same in literature, writing and language assignments. Many families who buy an all-in-one curriculum like Oak Meadow or Calvert buy the same “grade level” for children close in age so that they are studying the same things. It’s easy to modify expectations—older children can write more in-depth papers and do more reading, but the base topic is shared.

8. Look for book-based programs—they take up more space on board, but mean you are not confined to regions with an internet connection. Kindle readers that offer non-backlit devices, which save eyes and batteries, have changed our lives. PDFs that read on a computer or tablet also work well. I prefer paper textbooks for science and history, but there’s no doubt that the Kindle versions save space.

9. Demonstrate lifelong learning and curiosity and show that you value education and a growth mindset. Intelligence is malleable: prove it to your children by learning a new subject yourself. Take up drawing, learn to play the guitar, study science. Show your children that putting in the hours leads to mastery.

10. The children are in school, not you: many parents spend enormous amounts of time trying to make school “fun” by creating unit studies, craft projects to show learning and so on. If that’s your pleasure, great. I had other things I wanted to do. When we had school, we studied hard, wrote summaries and read tough books. As my daughter Anna pointed out, “No matter how much fun you make school, it will never be as fun as roaming around in the wild or reading a book.” Go outside. That’s why you’re sailing. 

Kate Laird’s children have sailed 75,000 miles while attending grades K-10 and testing the ideas that led to her book, Homeschool Teacher–A Practical Guide to Inspiring academic Excellence

April 2017

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