This year, I am homeschooling my three children, ages 10, 7 and 5, on an extended international adventure. We moved to a remote coast, accessible only by boat, on the south shore of Utila, a small island off the coast of Honduras. We are here for my husband's work, but also to immerse ourselves in a different reality, a real-life experiment about living with less and experiencing more. We have a goal of creating only one small grocery-sized bag of garbage every week. We live without hot water, dishwasher, dryer, television or cable, and have limited access to amenities like air conditioning and the Internet. We aim to use a tenth of the energy kilowatts we expended in our old life. We catch rain in a cistern for washing and buy 15 gallons of drinking water and a boatload of groceries from town each week.
Here, we live a more simple life. We go to bed when it is dark and get up with the sun. My children are entertained by hermit crabs, geckoes, tree climbing and reading. We swim 800 yards every day in the open ocean with masks and fins to take in the wonders of the reef. Interspersed in all of this, we homeschool. Below are four reasons why:
This is the most obvious reason for us to homeschool -- the freedom to travel and learn through experience. I can tell my kids about the importance of resource conservation, but on Utila, when rainy season is slow in coming and our cistern ran dry this week, the half hour showers they used to take back home seem absurdly decadent.
Travel also equals interesting people. Up until now, their perspective has been singularly American -- viewing the world through a lens of privilege. Here, everyone they meet has a different story. It takes effort and a kernel of adventuresome spirit to create a life in Utila. Last night, we sat out on the beach under a thick blanket of stars drinking coconut water with families from Australia, Venezuela, Canada, Norway, Mexico and both coasts of the States, sharing stories of how we all ended up in Utila.
Teach to interest
A friend compared homeschooling to 'having a personal trainer for your brain.' Here, all of my kids are able to delve deeply into their own interests, at their own pace. My middle son loves geography. He wouldn't encounter states and capitals until 5th grade at home, but he chose to conquer it at age 7 here. We write a learning objective document at the start of each year, outlining what we hope to study and accomplish. We loosely follow this, going where their minds take us.
Last June, a cashier rolled her eyes with a snarky smile and a 'don't you just hate summer vacation' remark. I told her I couldn't wait to pick up my kids from their last day of school. "Oh, you're one of those moms." The kind who likes to spend time with their kids? Yes, yes I am.
When I voiced this sentiment in this New York Times essay -- that I worried our family connection was being hampered by the increasing pace of daily life -- I was criticized for being a helicopter mom. Why is it our societal norm that we have children and then spend increasingly less waking time with them than their educators and peers? I have heard the argument from parents that they just want to be the unconditional love and let their teacher be the 'heavy.' This implies that learning is a burden. Why is there an assumed power struggle in our learning model?
And really, would a helicopter mom let her kids do this while they wait at the supermercado?
I read a piece of basic psychology recently that resonated: Take something that is inherently thrilling, like an excited Kindergartener cracking the code of language, learning to read. If you then offer artificial reward -- gold stickers for pages read, donut parties, posters of striped kittens -- and then slowly increase the expectation while removing the reward, finally replacing the artificial reward with punishment for noncompliance, you will effectively extinguish the original inherent love of reading and learning. This is what can happen in traditional school.
3. Homeschooling Reframes Parenting
I was initially daunted by Pennsylvania's requirement of 900 documented hours of learning, until a veteran mom pointed out that there were endless opportunities for learning hours. Once we decided to homeschool, my eyes opened to the fact that learning is really everywhere. It may require some more active parenting, but so many of the activities you already do and enjoy are learning opportunities.
Kids bouncing around before dinner inspired a distance jump contest, with a tape measure, Googling the farthest recorded kangaroo hop, taping it off on our floor, then mapping the dimensions of our living room in kangaroo hops. If one is not interested, they can come help cook -- recipes are a lesson in fractions and measurement. Yesterday's glass bottle found on a beach walk was the perfect opportunity to talk about the environment. Then we shifted our focus into creating found-art sculpture, collecting glass and rope and curly driftwood, repurposing what was trash, into a beautiful, musical wind chime.
4. Learning from Experts
I don't know everything; there are several subjects where I am not even smarter than a fifth grader. But I know my kids and what lights them up. Homeschooling allows me the flexibility to find other experts. Here in Utila, we are fortunate to live next door to an avid marine biologist who joins us in the water and freely shares his photos and knowledge. His wife saw Hayden's love of lizards and suggested an internship at the Iguana Research Station -- he geeks out and chats herpetology with the volunteers there once a week.
I am also free to avoid teachers who are not passionate; last week, we moved on from a Spanish tutor who was not. I am continuously connecting my children with dynamic people and experiences outside the traditional learning model. Last week, my oldest son spent forty-five minutes in the world's largest float tank/sensory deprivation chamber, and then a rapt hour talking with the man who designed and built it.
There is value in traditional school, too -- my children will spend time in classrooms with dedicated, professional teachers and their peers. They will play on sports teams and learn the rules of both of these games. At the end of the day, I hope to raise lifelong learners whose perspective is broadened by multiple educators and experiences. I am also striving to create a strong, connected base family unit from which my children can launch, a safe harbor for their return.
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To follow along on our journey: www.chandrahoffman.com/blog
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