Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Passport

Although we are "on the road" all the time, we spend most of our days not traveling, but parked at a campground (or occasionally the home of a friend). Usually there is plenty to do outdoors wherever we are ... walking, hiking, exploring, biking, playgrounds, waterways, beaches, rocks. But sometimes we're looking for indoors fun. And sometimes we're traveling and want a break in the middle of the day that will stimulate but not leave us all needing showers. Our salvation in times like these is the ASTC passport program.

The Association of Science-Technology Centers includes hundreds of science and nature centers, museums, zoos, aquariums, gardens, and planetariums. Membership at one center generally gets you free admission to the hundreds of others in the U.S. through the ASTC passport program. If there is any organization that caters more directly to the needs of a "roamschooling" family, we haven't found it.

We are members of the Sternberg Museum of Natural History in Hays, Kansas. The Sternberg is a great example of the value of an ASTC membership. It's a relatively small museum with some fine fossil specimens, including the world-famous "fish-within-a-fish" and others from the time when Kansas was part of a great inland sea. Their animatronic dinosaur diorama always thrills the kids. My favorite part of the Sternberg is the well-stocked and well-maintained "Discovery Room" -- chock full of nature activities, books, toys, and specimens appropriate to all ages. If we lived in Hays, I'm sure we would visit weekly, and never run out of interest.

Since the first year we joined the Sternberg, we have visited at least a dozen other ASTC member institutions across the country, and we now plan our travel to include our favorites, such as The McWane Science Center in Birmingham, Alabama; ¡explora! in Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Exploration Place in Wichita, Kansas, where yesterday we crawled through a model of a blue whale's heart in the traveling exhibit, Whales | Tohorā.
We have encountered exhibits which illustrate concepts in all the sciences, from anthropology through zoology. Music, art, civil engineering, history, robotics, weather ... I can't think of a subject that we haven't seen addressed in these centers. (Well, they may be light on literature, says the English major, with a wink.)

I highly recommend the ASTC passport program to anyone with children*, whether you expect to fly to a single destination in your year of membership, drive across the country and stop at several museums on the way, or even just take a few trips to your local science center.

* Note: Adults who are interested in enjoying the benefits of the ASTC passport program should be aware that some children's science centers will not admit adults without children during regular daily hours, so check the policies of the member centers you intend to visit.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Why and How We Homeschool

Joe and I were interested in homeschooling before we had kids, probably before we were married. There's a theme running through our life together of not being afraid to question the default settings, the social norms, the way our parents did it. We end up accepting and living some conventional ideas, tentatively continuing others until we are convinced one way or the other, and going completely the other way when we think something else might work better.

By many measures we both counted as "public school success" stories (Joe was even Valedictorian). But neither of us thought that public school, or institutional education at all, was a necessary part of a fulfilling life. In fact, both of us felt that a certain amount of our time and effort in school had been wasted, and some of it had been downright counterproductive. The more we thought, read, and learned about learning, the more convinced we became that the default in this case (a very deeply conditioned and strongly reinforced default in our society) was not for our family. In fact, the more we learned, the more we gravitated toward the most radical kind of homeschooling, an approach known as unschooling. (Google that if you don't understand my use of it by the end of this essay, or if you want to know more about the wide variety of approaches homeschoolers use.)

Once you break free from the institution, the division of learning into subject areas and step-wise, age-based development markers loses much of its practical value. "Educational standards" are created so that institutions can measure themselves and run quality testing on their output. They don't ensure that a child gets what he needs out of his schooling. They *should* ensure that the system is working as well as it can for the needs of society. Our mission as parents is far less daunting. We have to deliver our kids to adulthood ready to take care of themselves and share this world. Homeschooling doesn't suddenly confer on us the mission of the public schools. It merely expands our opportunity for pursuing our goals as parents. I don't usually think of what we do as homeschooling, although I use the term because it's familiar to people. We're living, and learning is what happens when you're living.

So what do our kids really need from these years? Well, they need to learn a lot of stuff. Humans are wired to learn -- to be curious and to try to fit into the tribe. Kids left to their own devices in a rich (not necessarily "enriched") environment will learn. Just try to stop them. They constantly watch, listen, absorb, ask questions, think, space out, poke things, and try new stuff. Do we need to focus on teaching them particular things at particular times? If we grown-ups need to know something, we go learn it. Why should we set the schedule for them? Do we have some special knowledge that they will need a particular skill or bit of knowledge to fulfill some goal later in life? No, we don't. More importantly, no manner of assessment will guarantee that they will learn (really learn) anything we decide to teach them. We learn best when what we're learning is interesting, entertaining, fulfilling for us. We learn best when curiosity drives exploration and study, not when a syllabus and a class bell announce the next subject. As long as Joe and I have the luxury of being responsible for our kids' education, the best things we can do to prepare them for adulthood are to (a) introduce them to our world by sharing our interests and our daily lives with them, and (b) listen to them and help them find answers, resources, and new ideas in whatever direction their curiosity pulls them.

That's right. We don't make our kids complete assignments. We don't require reading. We don't lecture (unless the time seems ripe -- health and safety learning sometimes comes in this format). We don't formally test them.

We trust.

If all sorts of bells, whistles, and screaming authority figures are going off in your head right now, you're not alone. Like I said, schooling is a very deeply conditioned and strongly reinforced default in our society. We like to have control of outcomes, and we fear what would happen outside of the controlled (but by no means universally successful) system of education that defined our own youth. We like to have control of children's lives (after all, we're responsible for them), and we worry what they'll get into if they're not constantly scheduled and corralled into planned experiences. What do kids get up to when they aren't dictated a daily agenda? What's to keep my kids from just playing games all day long? Well, certainly not me.

Play is a fabulous way to learn. It engages, focuses, and socializes us. Games require various grades of discipline and a balance between competition and community spirit. They provide a context for concepts that might otherwise be presented as isolated, sterile specimens in a subject/unit/lesson curriculum structure. Playing poker we practice memorizing and applying a rather arbitrary hierarchy (hand ranks), we touch on probability, and do simple money math (making change and bidding within our means). Spades and Pinochle are more of the same, with a more complex system of play and points in place of the money. Monopoly (our version has a Star Wars: The Clone Wars theme) involves oodles of reading and intensive money math. Battleship introduces a coordinate system and challenges us to innovate and test search strategies. Master Mind is a recent favorite which requires a very focused kind of logic. I Spy, Chess, Tic Tac Toe, Set, Fluxx, Aquarius, the zillions of online games available (Ragdoll Physics games are a recent favorite), video games, run-around-and-tag-people games, target-shooting with bows and arrows, imaginative role-playing -- ALL games require thinking and many games exercise specific, broadly applicable skills. Kids can never play too much.

My kids play a lot, and every minute of play is homeschooling. I could write more about the many places we've traveled, the interests the kids have developed, the times they've impressed me with their intuition, knowledge, skills. But I celebrate those things daily, and my friends hear me gush about them more than enough. Ultimately I don't own those successes, and my approval isn't the reward. Their growth and happiness is.

But what about penmanship? Long division? The branches and levels of government? Linnaean taxonomy? Moby Dick? These things, if they will be valuable to them, will all come in good time. If they want to go to college (and I sincerely hope they do), there will be time and opportunity for study, selection, and preparation. College prep has various avenues: high school, prep school, community college, and independent (but targeted) study. The admission process usually involves extra essay/interview steps for kids without transcripts, but I've read many times that admissions officers generally consider homescholars a good addition to the student community, and a decent bet for retention and academic success.

If our kids are interested in a college that myopically refuses a prepared student merely because he was homeschooled, then we'll burn that bridge when we come to it. As long as we treat learning as a way of life, as what we do every day as humans, our children will learn the most important lesson: that they can find answers and build skills as long as they are willing to ask questions and apply what they've learned. They will learn to trust themselves, as we have challenged ourselves to trust them.

The hardest part about unschooling, and parenting, is having this confidence. But it gets easier as the months go by and our kids share with us their understanding of the world and their undiminished hunger to learn more, more, more about it.

Meteor Crater
Karl with "Bernoulli balls" at ¡explora! in Albuquerque
Oklahoma. No adults aided in the production of this beautiful campfire.
Columbus, MS
Memphis Zoo
Karl hatching
Karl after the ice storm in El Dorado, KS.
How many nights did you fall asleep with a highlighter in your hand, only to find seemingly random highlights in your textbook the next morning? ;)
Astronomical low tide, San Elijo State Beach, CA

Saturday, August 15, 2009

How and Why We Live Like This

Joe and I met in Maryland when I was still in college. Joe was a very frugal and average-earning civil servant (NASA engineer), socking away every penny, weighing every purchase. Keeping the thermostat low and combining car trips to save gas. Buying groceries discounted for age or condition. Doing all his own oil changes and most auto repairs. Saving money in hundreds of non-glamorous ways. He planned to retire from working at 40. He was completely confident in this goal.

So we lived according to his bachelor rules of frugality through my master's degree, my couple of years working, and his job change to the private sector, which also brought a small bonus of stock options. Nothing astronomic, our earnings ... maybe we had two years in six figures, as a couple. But we put most of it away, or into assets that would hold their value or appreciate.

We lived for a few years in a little house on a few acres in Maryland, raised some chickens, had a big garden, and started our family. When Joe got laid off in 2002, shortly after we had our second kid, and a couple of years shy of 40, we decided he wouldn't go back to work. I went back part-time for a year or so, but came home when I was expecting our third child. That's also when we found our Kansas farmhouse, which Joe's great-grandpa had built in the twenties, 2 miles from the house he grew up in. It looked like our dream home: lots of room for three growing boys, great soil for a garden, a community we knew and loved, and a low cost of living (our idea of frugality was a joke by western Kansas standards).

We bought the farmhouse on its six acres, and Joe immediately started planting fruit trees and cultivating an annual garden. A scant year later, we had tired of maintaining two complete households 1500 miles apart. We bought a 12-year-old motorhome (so we'd be able to visit family and friends in Maryland without entirely moving in with them) and sold our Maryland house. We then bought the rest of the quarter section (1/2 mile square, or 160 acres) around our farmhouse.

It's a pretty piece of land, with a half-mile shelterbelt of woods along the blacktop road and a creek that's dry most of the year. We contracted with a neighbor to plant alfalfa, and he cuts, bales, grinds it and takes it to a nearby feedlot, where it becomes Kansas beef. Joe had a new shelterbelt planted (baby trees!) to shelter the homestead from the north wind. We experimented with chickens and goats (which always had to be given away when we went a-traveling). Joe put in a woodstove and a water-source heat pump, serving both aesthetic and frugal ideals. We started fixing up the house, room by room, but never really getting ahead on the heap of projects the old place suggested to us. The barn (c.1903) wants love, and two smaller buildings are sliding into horizontal oblivion. The house is sound, and charming, and in need of paint. And then there are all the seductive ideas of alternate energy, improving the passive thermal management of the masonry house, more trees, more permaculture, more, more, more ... pie in the sky.

After a few trips in the motorhome, we realized how much we enjoyed being elsewhere. We quickly developed a preference for nature-focused state and regional campgrounds over commercial RV parks, which tend to be resort-type seasonal communities, or parking lots for people visiting local attractions. We spent months on the road, visiting friends and family and exploring new places. When my brother Frank was in Florida, we discovered the Emerald Coast, where Henderson Beach State Park has become one of our favorite places to stay. Last winter we stayed three months in coastal Southern California, and fell in love with the beaches, the canyons, the sunshine, the tacos, and the ready availability of ... well, everything!

With all this traveling, we do spend some money, but we still have a frugal core. We never buy new vehicles, we try not to spend money that's better spent elsewhere, we don't have to dress fancy or keep a vehicle under the demands of commuting. We homeschool, so we have no child care costs and no school activity costs. We eat grocery bargains at home (the RV is home), and we go as cheaply as satisfies when we dine out. And Joe is a helluva handyman when it means saving money (although he's delegated oil changes to the pros at this point, and as our vehicles get larger and newer, other repairs as well).

There are downsides to frugality. We move very slowly on home improvements, and we aren't the first couple to struggle with disparate ideas of what "has to be done". Joe always preferred spending time in the garden to working on the house, and I was barely keeping up with housework with little ones to mind. Joe also has a bit of the packrat in him -- he grew up on a wheat farm in Kansas, with older parents who'd survived the Great Depression. It was always a relief to leave behind the chaos of our ever-increasing load of stuff and get on the road with a well-defined set of necessities and truly valued luxuries.

On our last couple of trips, we realized that the weight of running our old homestead, the constant struggle of maintenance and clutter management, depressed us as soon as we turned for home. We considered the problem off and on for a year or so. With the kids getting older, we could potentially start to work down the never-shrinking list of homestead projects. Maybe we could limit our gardening, maybe stay home for an entire year, fit in the living around the work (like most people do). As we thought and talked, we realized that we couldn't even agree on what we were working toward -- we each had different ideas of what "home" looked like. We came closest to agreeing on the qualities of a pleasant home when we were on the road, and the home in question was our RV. A-ha! After some soul-searching on the relative value of stuff vs. simplicity, and roots vs. freedom, we concluded that we would pull up stakes entirely.

We've traded up to a 4-year-old fifth wheel RV pulled by a 13-year-old pickup. We're selling the farm. We've given away almost everything useful or beautiful that we owned. And we've sent a whole lotta junk to its final resting place. It'll be a challenge to be as frugal as before with a minimalist attitude toward property. This is the first time we've surrendered all of our precious junk, which we often mined for solutions instead of buying new things. But being on the road for months has gotten us used to living without stuff, and it's downright liberating when you really start pitching all the crap that's been collecting dust in corners and harboring spiders in storage rooms for years.

So, here we go. And you get to watch. We might even come live near you for a few weeks. Hope to see you then!