Boatschooling, Part 2: learning on Totem

29 Jul

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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