Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Homeschool Status Update

As we are just about a third of the way into our experimental "Homeschool in a Global Classroom" year, I thought it worth a status update. On the whole, the team effort of educating Tica and Ian has been a good one. We four have fallen into a routine that seems to work and the kids -- for the most part -- seem to be learning quite a bit. Here is a synopsis of the experiment so far -- Brooke

Scholar working at the dinner table

The All Important Routine

We realized early on that Tica and Ian prefer a routine, so we've gotten into the habit of providing them with a To Do list of daily assignments. They receive it in an email each morning. Putting together the list has the added benefit of forcing the teachers to focus and put together a work day that is balanced, interesting not overly strenuous.

Ben and I have found it worthwhile to split our teaching roles between subjects. He will typically work on math with the kids, while I concentrate on the social sciences. We share teaching responsibilities in science. We also switch or double up roles from time to time as needed, like when one or the other of us goes on a grocery run or needs a sanity break.

The system breaks down a little when we have taken a day or two off. We all have a hard time getting back into the swing of things. The daily lesson plan helps a lot though and, barring any motivational battles, we typically manage to have our school work done before early afternoon.

Field Trip!

We try to work on a regular school schedule, hitting the books five days per week with a two days off on the weekend. We’ll tweak the schedule to allow for special excursions, such as our recent snorkeling/dolphin watching trip to Natewa Bay. Such exceptions are rare though and Ben and I stress learning on those occasions.

We honor the traditional “breaks” in the school year – like Thanksgiving, Christmas, Spring Break, but we are not afraid to change the schedule around to suit our needs and travel realities. For instance, we will likely shorten our Christmas Break a bit so that we can take a few school days off in early January when my brother and family come to visit. The overall goal is to have school at least the same number of days than Tica and Ian’s classmates back home.

The Curriculum

Ian and Tica have learned countless things by just being here in Fiji. We have seen the progress ourselves, particularly in adjusting to “Fiji Time” and the realities of living in a small town with fewer amenities -- like no Pepperidge Farm goldfish crackers. Ben and I nevertheless take the actual homeschooling component of our trip quite seriously – perhaps even too seriously at times. We would rather err on the side of caution though.

Prior to our departure, we had the chance to pick the brains of a number of teacher friends, acquaintances and family members. (Vinaka!) If there one piece of specific advice, it was to stay on top of "maths" as it is referred to here in Fiji. We took this to heart and subscribed to a more traditional curriculum for math than for other subjects.

ALEKS is a Web-based math curriculum, which uses frequent assessments and adaptive questioning to teach math concepts in a curriculum tied to grade level. The course is tailored to include math standards set by school districts in different states, including Washington. Tica and Ian will have to complete a pie chart, the slices corresponding to different types of math (e.g., geometry, fractions, algebra, etc.). He/she can pick the subject to work on but must master certain skills before going on to others, thus assuring that each will have to tackle all slices of the pie at some point. The fourth grade curriculum has an additional segment called Quick Tables, which tests Ian on basic math facts using drills and games.

In order to progress, students are expected to spend at least three hours a week working on ALEKS. We assign 40 minutes of ALEKS per day, which works out to 3 hours, 20 minutes a week, although we usually round up to make each session a little longer. As I write this, Tica has already completed 63 percent of the 6th grade math curriculum. Ian has mastered 65 percent of the fourth grade curriculum. The kids seem to like (okay, tolerate) the interface and the frequent and unannounced assessments give them test-taking practice in addition to assuring their mastery of new math skills. We will continue on to the next year’s curriculum once the kids finish their current lesson plan.

If there is one criticism of ALEKS, it is that we must have a reliable internet connection in order to use it. Losing our connection, as happens from time to time, was cause for alarm at the start as we had to seek one elsewhere or do no math. We managed this problem all right while we were stateside but it turned into a real pain in Savusavu. Catching the bus into town to cram ourselves into an internet “cafĂ©” (not) just didn’t work. To remedy the situation, we picked up a couple of math workbooks used in Fiji schools. These books provide ample practice for the kids when the Internet is down or when we are traveling. It is a sad statement about Fiji’s education system though that we are using books aimed at students who are two years ahead (classes 6 and 8).

Outside of math, we have adopted a more non-traditional approach to teaching, tailoring our daily assignments to events in our surroundings or new ideas that spring up from a variety of sources. While variety rules, we try to make sure that each assignment includes work on some or all of the "Basics" -- thinking and reasoning, reading and reading comprehension, various types of written and oral communication skills (e.g., narrative, creative and persuasive) and cultural and historical studies. We often use this blog to display their work. They just love to hit the "publish" button and really seem to take pride in their posts.

Science: Close Up of Solar System Model -- Saturn and its Moons

We have had probably the most fun in our science studies. Here we have taken full advantage of proximity to the reef, leading the kids on a number of snorkeling excursions and helping them to learn about Fiji’s rich marine resources. They are also going through the book-learning it takes to gain a junior certification in openwater Scuba diving. These projects slip over into other subjects as well. For instance, walking the reef and negotiating the currents of the dropoff are major components of our daily PE curriculum.

Science and PE

Last but not least, we are all doing a lot of reading. The kids have already finished all five books in the Last Olympian Series by Rick Riordan, a Harry Potter type adventure series which offers background on the Greek mythology. They have also read various Penderwicks' titles, some Hardy Boys mysteries and The Name of this Book is Secret books, among others. We've read aloud The Lightning Thief and The Swiss Family Robinson and are currently in the middle of Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. We've had some school projects come out of these readings as well as many spirited discussions. It is also a great way to wind down after a long day.

Learning By Doing: Celebrating Diwali

The Gear

Having to pack up for a year's worth of travel, we had a limited weight allowance for school books and supplies. Those of you who know us will not be surprised to know that we turned to gadgets to solve the problem.

The two Mac Books that we bought before leaving have been our workhorses. I don't think we'll ever go back to a PC, at least for our personal computer. The Macs provide us with a link to the outer world as well as a format for any number of audio-visual and written projects. We rely on the weather, tide tables and international time applications to plan our daily activities. They also house Ben's growing collections of pictures documenting our journey. (Yes, we have a backup external hard drive.)

And then there are the cameras. Ben had used his new digital SLR camera every day, both to document our trip and the kids in their studies. We also brought along our old point-and-shoot with a housing for underwater shots. The kids have their own little point-and-shoots that they use from time to time. Both run on batteries though, which are hard to find.

Field Research

Our Kindle, a sort of Ipod for books, has been a wonderful resource for all of us to access any number of books and newspapers that would not be available us otherwise. It takes little effort to download books from Amazon's website and our daily subscriptions to the New York Times and Seattle Times has kept us up to speed with world happenings and (alas) baseball scores.

Even with all this techy stuff, we did bring a few must have books we didn't think we would find here. (We were not mistaken.) These include a couple of fish identification books, the PADI openwater diver certification textbook and an atlas. A handful of books proved to be less useful so we will leave them behind when we leave on our next leg of the journey.


As with any education, there are admittedly gaps in Tica and Ian's schooling this year. We could be doing more creative arts work -- music for instance, and art. We have also chosen to travel destinations where English is very commonly spoken, thus putting off foreign language instruction for another year. I find this one particularly troublesome. We could also probably do a little more work in the area of spelling, punctuation and grammar.

We brought along a set of books about ancient civilizations -- Egypt, Mesopotamia and, of course, Ur. While in San Francisco, we managed to take the kids to see part of the King Tutankhamen exhibit that we saw as kids. Since coming to Fiji though, we have done little work on these topics. We'll need to address this lack at some point.

It only natural that there will be some gaps, just like there are at regular school. These problems can be addressed with a little imagination and new materials. We may explore Rosetta Stone software for foreign language, for example. (Then all we'll have to decide is "Which One"?) We are also getting selected books from helpers at home. I'm afraid to think of what I'll do when entering a good bookstore in Australia or New Zealand!

One other disappointment so far lies in the realm of volunteering. When we originally thought about homeschool, Ben and I envisioned a much larger public service component than we have been able to execute in Savusavu. Our association with the Rotary Club of Savusavu has been enjoyable and to a certain extent useful in that context. They do amazing work but the time frame is slow. Our Rotary Activities have been limited though to a clean up of Savusavu and some fundraising projects. We would like, in the next legs of our journey to try and do a little more. It may be that we have to just take a week or two and work full time on a project, like what some friends did in Thailand working/teaching in a school. We'll have to keep exploring.

Finally, working cooperatively has been a challenge. Tica's class last year did a lot of group projects and she misses that. Working with different groups and being able to manage with different personalities is a key job skill in today's world. We would like to do more but working cooperatively with your brother and your Mom and Dad gets old at times.

Community Service Project -- Savusavu Clean Up on October 9th

Aside from the weaknesses in parts of the curriculum, we have run into the occasional knock-down, drag-out battle of wills. Ben and I have handled these situations with varying degrees of success. We have found that the key is to remain calm and to repeat the mantra that the project, whatever it may be, is part of "school" and must be finished. It helps tremendously if we can get across the notion that Mom and Dad are trying to get them ready for the next grade and not just trying to get them to do busy work. Making projects fun is also a great motivator.

Next Steps

Before leaving Savusavu, we will put all that marine biology and snorkeling know how the kids have mustered to one final test when we embark on an ambitious survey project. We will take advantage of an upcoming change, the removal of a tabu or closure to fishing, to determine the effect of the practice on the reef's butterflyfish population. This will require the kids to use all the snorkeling and science skills they've learned over the past few months. We may even be

Ian is also working as we speak on a letter to the producer of The Amazing Race, trying to convince him that it would be good to add a public service-related task to each race segment. No kidding, he came up with the idea himself. We figure it a good way to practice some persuasive writing in a real world context. We'll let you know how it turns out.

These are just two examples of some of the projects we plan to undertake in the coming month. I'm sure that other ideas will spring up from our wealth of experiences as we get back out on the road.

We will continue more or less as we have so far for the rest of the year of homeschool. We will tweak what needs tweaking and revise curriculum based on new materials and new teaching opportunities that may arise. We will face the additional challenge, I think, of doing school while on the road. To date we have been firmly settled in our little burg of Savusavu with no car. On our next leg of the trip -- Melbourne/Tasmania, we'll be moving around a lot and living in hotels and a very small campervan so we'll see how that goes.

In a Nutshell....

Speaking as one of the teachers, homeschooling is exhausting but fun. It has given me even more of an appreciation for my kids and their talents. It also makes me appreciate even more what teachers go through on a day to day basis educating our kids. We have it a lot easier than they do!

We by no means regret our decision to homeschool. Will we continue with it once we get back? I doubt it. Never say never though. For now we are continue to continue with our program, with more confidence than not that Ben and I are succeeding at preparing Tica and Ian for the next grade level and, much more importantly, the world they will face as adults.

Thanks for reading and following along. We love comments and suggestions!

1 comment:

  1. Cannot figure out why the font keeps changing so I'm just going to publish as is. Grrr!