On the road to knowledge

By Powell Berger

Perched on the back of an elephant, traipsing through a hillside jungle in northern Thailand, my daughter, Emmi, asked: “Adverbs are the ones that add to verbs, the ‘ly’ words, right mom?” I smiled.  Here we were thousands of miles from home, and we’re chatting about grammar. Who knew “Roadschool” would come to this?

How is it, exactly, that an otherwise utterly typical two-kids-two-parents family ditched traditional school and embarked on a see-the-world open-ended trek to far flung spots around the globe?  Like many life-altering moments, it crept up on us, insidious at first, then eventually, flagrantly beating down the door.  Austin’s standardized math scores were hard to ignore.  Middle school loomed, and he was still lost in the elementary world of multiplication and division.  “I’m just stupid,” he’d tell me, fighting back tears as he tried to keep up.  Emmi, reportedly sailing through third grade, still wrote things like “I luv my dawgs and wsih tyhey hav pupes.”  All this, and the tuition bills kept coming.  Almost $20K per year, per kid. (After taxes, but before tutors.)

Finally it boiled down to dollars.  And sense, that is common sense.  Reinvest the money.  Fund some serious, open-ended global travel.  “Roadschool,” we called it.  Math would be honed through currency conversion and metric measurements.  Writing would be polished through journals of a world explored.  For us it seemed, perhaps a passion for learning, exploring, and understanding could be more finely cultivated by globetrotting than sitting in the classroom.  Could I actually teach?  Who knew?  But surely we could do at least as well as some of their teachers, to date.  Hopefully better.

It’s not uniquely our idea, nor are we the first.  However, 21st century homeschooling bears little resemblance to its predecessor of earlier generations.  According to The National Home Education Institute, more than 2 million students are now homeschooled in the United States, with the numbers growing by more than 10 percent every year.   Once dubbed as the kids who aren’t sufficiently “socialized,” the Journal of the National Association of College Admissions Counseling reports that homeschooled students are highly sought by top-tier universities, maintain a higher GPA than their peers, and are better prepared for the rigors of independent college life.  Among homeschool families, the ability to travel and see the world is now the second most cited reason for taking the leap.

Of course, we didn’t know any of this in the spring of 2009, when my spouse, Fred, and I emerged from our teacher conferences, clutching frightening math scores and sub-par writing.  We just knew something had to change.   “They learned more in Europe last June than all year at school,” Fred observed, frustratingly.  Still euphoric from our previous summer’s trek through Europe with the kids — a graduation present to our oldest son, Owen, before shipping him off to college — it just made sense.  We had watched the transformation of our kids after that trip.

When Emmi’s class studied ancient civilizations, she led the discussions of ancient Rome, bringing in books and other show-and-tell memorabilia she had collected along the way.  When an earthquake rattled central Italy, Austin closely followed events, wanting to be sure his new friends in that part of the world were safe.

It’s a big world out there.  So why not make it their classroom? And two years, five continents, 26 countries and a couple of hundred thousand miles later, it’s hard to imagine doing it any other way.  Sure, some days are better than others. Some days, magic happens, and I see the light popping in my kids’ eyes when the math lessons are a breeze and nobody wants the school day to end.  Then there are the days when the three of us need timeout.  Those, we decide, are teacher workdays and we take a break.

Making sure to be home for the paddle season (Kailua) and for the fall American Youth Soccer Organization, we manage to hit the road three or four times a year for extended adventures.  Curriculum choices reflect destinations.  After falling in love with Venice in the spring, and before heading off to China in the fall, Austin dove into Marco Polo and the Silk Road, while Emmi studied China’s Forbidden City.   Captivated by the Scholastic Press book series, The Royal Diaries,  Emmi plotted our recent Europe wanderings to ensure we saw the Empress Elisabeth’s palaces in Vienna, Austria, and Corfu, Greece,  as well as the castles of Elisabeth’s more famous cousin,  King Ludwig of Germany’s Bavaria region.  After studying the Spanish conquistadors, both kids made sure our time in Cartagena, Colombia included a museum stop to see the loot of one of their particularly favorite ruffians, Francisco Pizarro.

Austin cuddles with a three-toed sloth in Cartagena, Columbia.

Staunch environmentalists were borne after a month trekking through Australia, where we navigated a camper van through the remote outback of the Northern Territory and sailed the Whitsundays to snorkel the Great Barrier Reef.   Emmi’s shell collections now fill every corner of her room, each shell documented and cataloged, while Austin dreams of becoming a marine biologist some day.  Ziplining through the rainforests of Costa Rica, they came to understand “eco-tourism,” sparking an extended discussion of global economies, sustainability and responsible tourism.

An in-depth study of World War II started at Pearl Harbor, right here at home, and took us around the world, literally.  From the beaches of Normandy to Nagasaki’s Ground Zero to the bridge over River Kwai, they’ve come to understand the magnitude of a war that had previously been dry text in a history book.  When we walked the grounds of the recently constructed WW II memorial in Washington, DC, they sidled up to a feeble old man in a Veteran’s cap walking slowly around the grounds.  “Where’d you serve?” Austin asked him, touching off a spine-tingling account of his days first in the Pacific and, finally, marching into Berlin.

Emmi takes an elephant ride in Laos.

Perhaps the greatest value of this road-less-traveled journey was realized just before Christmas, as we wound down our two-month trek throughout Asia.  We had been particularly captivated by rural Cambodia and Laos, the breathtaking scenery and the warmth and gentility of the people juxtaposed against a backdrop of overwhelming poverty.   Once thought to be simply cool bedroom décor, mosquito nets — as the kids came to understand — are a necessity. So, too, were the anti-malarial drugs we packed.   And EVERYTHING revolves around clean water.  Wandering through a remote Cambodian village with our new-found friend and tuk-tuk driver, he pointed to a small tent where a young girl lay on a cot with an IV drip hanging next to her.  “Malaria,” he explained. “There isn’t anywhere she can go.”  Looking at this fatally ailing girl, then back at their bottles of water, their snazzy Converse hightops, and our slick digital cameras, it was as though lightening struck all at once.

“We just don’t get it, do we mom?” Austin whispered, as we climbed back into the tuk-tuk.  “How incredibly fortunate we are as Americans.  We have to do something.”

Back home, those images etched in our brains and Christmas took on new meaning.  Instead of dozens of things no one needed, the kids committed to “52 Weeks of Giving” in 2011.  Once each week, they vowed to find a way to give back; to do something to better the life of someone else.  Oh, and they are saving their money to build a well in that village where the little girl lay failing.

The Fine Print

It’s not nearly as expensive, nor as difficult, as it sounds.  Done right, long-term travel can be less expensive than spring break vacations, and there are countless vagabonders out there who’ve paved the way and will gladly share their tips for economic travel.   Meals, lodging and transportation costs can – and should – be managed carefully.  (Think back to college-travel budgeting and you start to get the picture.)  While everyone’s travel appetite and spending levels vary, we’ve found our expenses under the roadschool model to be on par with our previous expenses for private school, tutors and the other “necessities” inevitably required.

Homeschooling is allowed in all 50 states, but each has its own specific rules and regulations.  It’s pretty common here in Hawaii, and we’ve found our base school to be quite helpful in guiding us through the process. Standardized testing is required, as well as periodic reporting.

We’ve seen a significant jump in Austin’s test scores, and look forward to Emmi’s results later this year.  For us, it’s a year-at-a-time decision.  Whenever either is ready to head back to the traditional classroom, they will.  Until then, we’re hitting the road.

If you’re interested in more of our adventures, you can check it out on our blog,

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