On a Sailing Field Trip, Kids Learn as They Go
Just keep watching the sky for falling, flaming boulders,” the tour guide warned. As we stood on the edge of an active volcanic crater in Tanna, Vanuatu, and watched the glowing magma bubble and boil, our boat-school learning came to life all around us.
Suddenly, the crater exploded so powerfully that we could feel the supersonic rumble radiate throughout our entire bodies. The intense forces of the blast seemed to reset the very rhythm of our heartbeats, stopping them momentarily.
Fear and awe gripped us. The kids rushed to my side, now keenly aware of the power of the earth’s extreme forces. The movements and shifts that formed this volcano on which we stood, and the many islands we’ve sailed past as we’ve cruised across the Pacific, could be felt beneath our feet. Our Earth Science unit about tectonic-plate movement had just become real. Very real.
My husband, Mark, myself, and our two kids, Elizabeth and Michael (then ages 6 and 4), moved aboard our Antares 44i sailing catamaran eight years ago when we took delivery at the factory in Argentina. After weighing all our options, the Antares fit our needs—safety, sailability and comfort—and it felt like home. Naturally, we named our boat Field Trip, and we’ve been exploring and learning ever since. We left South America in early 2012, sailed north to the United States, and then crossed the Pacific and into Southeast Asia, where we are currently studying world religions and eastern cultures along with our usual core subjects.
Most school kids start their day staring at a whiteboard in a confined rectangular space where lessons unfold in a predictable manner. Education is contained within the boundaries of the classroom or the internet. We’ve left that classroom behind and replaced it with the wide-open oceans and the worlds in between. How do we plan for learning aboard? What does it look like to learn as we go?
CHOOSING OUR CHARTS
As a certified teacher with a master’s degree in education, I was bred to follow curriculum guidelines. At first, it felt sacrilegious to ignore them. When I started schooling aboard, I followed them to a T. I carefully ticked all the standards as we covered them. That worked well for some things such as phonetic spelling and math, where specific mastery was necessary to move to more-complex concepts, but not so well for others.
When the history guidelines said I should be teaching about the Egyptians and we were in the Caribbean, that just didn’t make sense. It was up to me to modify and adjust the curriculum to meet the guidelines, to meet us right where we were. Instead, we learned about the history of the islands—which countries had ruled them previously, how they gained independence, the unique culture, the industries, the government, the currencies and the people. This was closer to what I would call “living education”—an interactive approach to teaching, including visits to cacao plantations and nutmeg packaging plants. We also talked with cab drivers who remembered the fight for independence and a military coup. (Eventually we did study Egypt, but we did that when we visited a museum that housed a mummy exhibit,
Opportunities to experience learning happen around us all the time, challenging me to break away from that confined curriculum. When I allow time for these outside learning experiences, the rewards are many.
fulfilling the guidelines, but in our own time frame.)
I had grand ideas when we first set off. Great visions of nature hikes, journals full of notes and pictures, kids charting our passages and visiting village schools. Granted, all of those things have happened from time to time, but on a daily basis, school is mostly basic schoolwork for four hours each morning, supplemented by local learning as we explore our ever-changing surroundings.
Our learning takes many forms. Workbooks and textbooks are set on the bookshelf alongside fish-identification books and travel guides. Each has its place in our learning environment. When we are sailing in rough seas, documentaries, audiobooks and diaries dictated into the computer become our mode of learning. Fridays are independent-project days to delve into a topic deeply, and later share our learning with the family after dinner.
PLOTTING OUR COURSE
While developing our curriculum plan each year, I feel tugged in four directions, much like the directions on the ship’s compass. Homeschooling offers freedom to choose so much of our children’s learning, but that freedom can be daunting. Which direction will work best for us?
North: fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants learning that is rich and relevant but inconsistent and not necessarily goal-oriented or on any standards list. This learning won’t necessarily help them pass college entrance exams, but it is just too cool to pass up. Seashell study, fish dissection, helping Dad service the generator, converting foreign currency, and the list goes on. It’s inevitable. Opportunities to experience learning happen around us all the time, challenging me to break away from that confined curriculum. When I allow time for these outside learning experiences, the rewards are many.
South: boxed curricula that tick all the required learning objectives. This is the extreme opposite of spontaneous learning. All the prep work has already been done and assessments have been provided, but the learning doesn’t have that spark of relevance that makes it exciting and meaningful. There is little to no connection between what we’re seeing and what the students are studying. This requires little planning on my part, though, and takes much of the pressure off of me.
East: the three R’s—reading, ’riting and ’rithmetic. These are the things the kids are tested on every other year as required by our home state, so I have to make sure they are up to par in these subjects. Some of these I can cover within the realm of cruising (journaling, writing informational text about local animals or geological features, reading books about Cook’s voyages, etc.), but I also want to ensure that the kids know how to take a standardized test and know all the specific math objectives for their respective grade levels. After all, we do want them to have the opportunity to get into college, and they will likely join mainstream education at some point. I work to create relevant learning that meets the set standards for our home state but falls within our current setting. When we were planning to visit Borneo recently, I jotted down a list of learning objectives and topics I wanted the kids to learn about. It gave our travel a framework and enhanced our trip. This is my ideal, but it takes so much time and energy that I usually burn out before it gets completed and implemented.
West: student-led learning based on individual interests and goals. In this methodology, each student’s learning is formed around their passions. Together, we set personalized learning goals and create questions to guide their learning. It becomes my role to gently steer them into rich understanding and challenge them to explore a broad range of ideas related to that topic. As learning unfolds, I connect the skills and concepts they are mastering to the list of standards to ensure that they are progressing appropriately.
That’s the never-ending tug of war. I find the needle swinging across many points on this compass at various times depending on where we are and
how far along we are in the school year. At the beginning of the school year, my energy levels are high and I am passionate about what we will see and experience. It feels great to create curriculum plans for our itinerary. Then reality sets in and I feel the need to make sure we’re covering the basics, so we spend more time on the standards. At the end of the school year, I’m worn out and ready for a little break, but I swing into full-on panic mode. What happened to my spiffy yearlong plan? How did we make it through only half of the history book? Why didn’t we ever get around to writing that essay? Frantically, I cram in grade-level reviews and end-of-year assessments, grasping for some reassurance that I have expanded these little minds entrusted to me! Most of the time, it’s like trying to balance on one of those exercise balls—i never feel absolutely confident in the center, and often there’s a lot of wobbling and flailing about.
Sometimes, though, the learning is beautiful and effortless. We’re just floating along, being propelled by an invisible wind. While in Tonga, sitting with some other families in the Aquarium Cafe one night for happy hour, a woman from Australia began giving a presentation about the destructive effects of plastics on the marine environment. All the boat moms glanced at each other, shrugged and thought: Perfect! This
can count as our science lesson today! At least 10 boat kids sat there in rapt attention as she spoke about entrapment, entanglement and starvation of sea creatures caused by discarded plastics.
Elizabeth came back with a mind that was reeling. She asked me: “But Mom, everything in the world has to be made up of natural things because that’s all that’s in the world, right? How can plastics not break down, when they had to have been made out of things from nature anyway?”
Seriously? I thought. Is it time for chemistry already? We were just in fifth grade! I was amazed at how that 20-minute presentation led her mind to question and wonder on such a deeper level.
The next day, we made an idea web, recalling the main points of the talk. Then the kids wrote a persuasive report (Michael’s was three paragraphs, Elizabeth’s was five) giving reasons why plastics are hurting animals and what we can do to help. Michael came up with a great title: “Plastics Are Predators”—pretty catchy, right? Since the presentation, Elizabeth has been quick to point out how many plastic containers we have in our fridge, reminds me to bring cloth bags to the store, and even reprimands me for using a plastic straw at restaurants. If only my explanation of pre-algebra could become so deeply ingrained.
STAYING THE COURSE
Schooling my own children is like parenting: There’s no magic strategy that works every time for every child, and I am never quite sure if I’m doing it right.
Before I started this journey, I wish someone had told me to prioritize experiential, curiosity-driven learning and allow our schooling to look different than it did back home. I put a lot of pressure on my kids and myself that wasn’t necessary. In spite of my shortcomings and my many mistakes over the past eight years of cruising, the kids have excelled in learning about the world around them. The opportunities and experiences that have shaped their educations have created a vast pool of knowledge that will continue to spill over into their future lives. It is a difficult balance to create—providing a living education while also making sure they are prepared for the educational opportunities they will encounter in mainstream schools.
To maintain my sanity, I revisit the standards a few times throughout the year (usually when I’m panicking and worried that we’re not on track), and I do a quick checkup on our progress. This offers refreshed focus and reassurance of all that we have learned so far.
Like sailing, teaching is a skill that morphs continuously as we expand our experiences and build upon our background knowledge. Over the years, my boat-schooling has taken on many forms and functions. We adapt to the changing world around us, always pursuing the learning that is unique to that specific time in that specific place. Education is everywhere, if we just take the time to seek it out and soak it in. We are all students in this wonderful world, on one field trip after another.
Sarah Silverstein is a full-time sailor, boat-schooler and mom. She holds a master’s degree in education and has enjoyed cruising for the past eight years from Argentina to Thailand with her husband and two children aboard their Antares 44i catamaran. Currently, they are happy to be stuck in the beautiful Philippine Islands until international travel resumes.