Welcome to Education Alternative's Series on Homeschooling!
We publish Saturday mornings between 8am and 12noon EST
We follow the kos rule of Participating in someone else's diary
Last month was Month of the Military Child. I wanted to write about my own children and how we school on the move but we were in the middle of move number eight for my oldest child (16), and move number seven for my youngest (13). It made it difficult to find the time to write. So, here we go, a couple of weeks late - a diary on schooling on the move.
When my oldest reached the age to enter first grade, we were moving from Germany to Elmendorf AFB, Alaska. He had been enrolled in German kindergarten, a program for 3 to 6 year olds that is somewhat like our pre-school but without all the drama of numbers and letters and formal learning. Not that kids didn't learn those things, but they didn't take precedence. In our German kindergarten, the teachers were more concerned that kids learn how to tie their shoes so they could go out to the playground (they wore hausschuhe indoors), how to brush their teeth after lunch, and how to get along with their fellow students, no matter what the difference in age. And, most important of all, they wanted to make sure that kids had the opportunity to play - in groups both small and large as well as individually.
We were looking for a similar school in the states but we had a caveat - we wanted a public school. You see, we couldn't afford a private school and even if we could, we didn't want to isolate our kids from the community. And I had found a public Montessori school in downtown Anchorage; my son was number 4 on the wait list when my husband called me from afar (he was on temporary duty at the time) to let me know he had gotten a better assignment at a different location. We were now moving to Las Vegas, Nevada. After the tears (we had lived in Alaska once before and loved it), I started a new hunt for a new school. And broke into tears again. There was NOTHING that came close to what we wanted in Las Vegas. And the Montessori schools were out of the price range of what we could afford - both for tuition and for the neighborhoods where they were located.
I knew my boys. I knew they thrived in the environment that their kindergarten had provided and this was first grade we were looking at - the year of learning how to read. It was an important year and I had a child that struggled with reading skills (we were trying to teach him how to read at home, that's a whole diary for another day!). School was super important.
We had a decision to make. I was sick and tired of the hunt and this was just first grade. Military moves are already stressful, what with the househunting and the car buying and the culture shock of each new location. And we knew that the moving was only going to get more dramatic the further along in my husband's career. We knew that from day one. An officer who stays in 20 years should have a minimum of 2 one year assignments - one for major's school and one for lieutenant colonel's school. We didn't even know about the upcoming wars back then. I would be looking for new schools for both my boys every single time. And this first time was kicking my butt.
I also had my own memories of military moves growing up. My dad had been an NCO and though we didn't move as often as officers' families, we did move a lot. School was always an issue. The first move I remember was from England to California. They didn't know what to do with me in California and, in the course of three years, I was skipped to second grade, held back a year and kept in second grade, and then skipped to fourth grade. I missed third grade all together and learned how to write in cursive and to multiply numbers at home. My reading skills were far above other students but my math skills were always behind.
When my dad finally retired, I was 13 years old and in 9th grade. We moved from Louisiana to California. High schools in both locations teach different subjects in different years. I missed 9th grade biology so the counselor decided I should take it in 10th grade. But rather than have me take it with the 9th graders, she had me take it with all the kids who had failed it the first year. It was an interesting class, but it wasn't college prep and that hurt me as well. In California, those 4 years of college prep classes set you up for success.
Basically, my own experience with school had been colored heavily by the moving around. The great teachers were wonderful but the overall experience left me dreading new schools, and I wanted to protect my own children from the negative aspects of changing schools.
We had known people in Germany who had homeschooled and loved it. They appreciated the flexibility homeschooling gave them. They travelled around Europe off-season since they weren't tied to any school schedule whatsoever. They could take time off after deployments or before deployments and use those precious moments to bond as a family. And, the kids knew who the new teacher was going to be at the next base - the same one they had the base before. Just one less stressor in a stressful life.
We swallowed the bait, hook, line, and sinker. And, after some fits and starts, we found our groove and have made a successful homeschool environment for our boys. It's 11 years later, and the proof is in the pudding. We made the right choice. You see, our flexibility has freed us to make some interesting choices we didn't even know would be on offer.
Last year, we enrolled both boys in a local school in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The schools there run from March to December and everyone was concerned because we would be out of cycle.
"What cycle?" we said.
Everyone was concerned because they were bound to get some bad grades. After all, the classes were held in Spanish and my boys didn't speak the language.
"Grades?" we said. "We don't care about no stinkin' grades." Okay, I didn't really say it that way, but you get my point. Grades don't really matter when the point of education is to learn - and our point was for our boys to learn Spanish, not to get good grades in math class. If they managed to do both, bonus points, but we knew that the transcript didn't matter for our junior high school age child and, as for our sophomore, we explained the difficulties it could cause and said that as a homeschool student back in the states it most likely wouldn't matter and gave him the choice. He jumped at it.
Everyone was concerned about returning to the states... the cycle thing all over again.
"School?" we said. "We'll just figure it out as we go along."
So, here we are, mid-move in May. Back in March, the kids in Argentina were starting classes while we were touring Northern Patagonia and learning about marine life along the coast, dinosaurs in the desert, and volcanos along the Andes Mountain range to the west. We listened to Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything which was surprisingly apropos. As we drove through land explored by Darwin, we learned of Darwin. As we saw marine mammals, we learned of marine fossils. As we learned of the fossil record, we were exploring fossil beds in the scrublands, and when we got to geology and volcanos, we were passing Volcan Lanin.
As we arrived stateside, students here are finishing up their school year and some of our acquaintances have wondered if we would enroll the boys for the final month. Why? My boys are learning real life lessons at the moment. They are involved in the househunt and learn from watching their parents ask questions about the cost of utilities and how a house is heated and what the neighborhood is like. They help us find new places to shop for groceries and to help us readjust our diets to fit the foods we can find affordably. They shop and compare prices and make a trip to the grocery store go a lot faster as they take on their own responsibility in the store. They take part in conversations about the affordability of cellphones and help us chose not only the models but the plans themselves.
They learn geography every time we move. They figure out how to pronounce complicated names like Potomac and wonder why this is the tri-state area when only two states meet a district. Both are becoming expert navigators and map readers. We don't use a GPS and instead value the time it takes to get turned around and lost a little while they learn how to tell us to turn right in two blocks before realizing that the street goes one way the opposite direction or is completely cut off by a gate or barrier.
They help wash clothes and dishes and attempt to keep rooms clean - not for themselves but for the help that comes in on a daily basis to vacuum and change towels and sheets. Living in a temporary lodging facility comes with it's benefits but for boys that would prefer to live a little messily, it's a good lesson to learn that sometimes other people have to deal with your mess, even if you don't want them to.
They learn to meet new people and hold conversations with strangers. This time, they are learning to greet old friends from years ago and figure out how to build on a long friendship that has only recently reblossomed on Facebook. Real life is different from Facebook. Granted, if they went to public school, they would be learning those lessons as well but instead of being limited to kids within their immediate age range, my kids are meeting others of all ages - from little ones to teens to adults. They are asking questions at the museums about volunteer programs and internships which they can take advantage of eve when school goes back into session.
Sometimes I feel a little guilty and feel like we should break out a math book and tackle an algebra lesson, but not often. My kids learn best when they pick it up for themselves and both understand the connections between book knowledge and going to college. They are both intelligent, well-spoken young men and they will succeed, whether I break out the algebra book now or they chose to pick it up later. And, actually, I think they will actually do better when they choose that time, when they know that their life is ready to embrace the next new challenge. On their schedule. Heaven knows that they have had to live on an imposed military schedule their whole lives. It seems a small thing to wait until they are ready.
And so, that choice we made a long time ago has turned out to be a good one. We are all happy we made it. Without it, my boys probably would not have gone to Argentina, because we would have asked for a more conventional military experience in the USA. If we had gone to Argentina, they would have gone to the American school on an American schedule with American grades and would not be near fluent in Spanish or have seen as much of South America nor made as many Argentine friends. Our choice a long time ago has allowed us to remain flexible in the face of a fairly inflexible lifestyle. I am thankful for it. I am thankful for the parents who went before me and fought to make homechooling a legal option in the United States. I hope it always remains that way so that families like my own have real choices and can educate their children in the ways that they think are best for their family.