The taxi dropped us off on Las Ramblas with all its 21st century hubbub, retail stores and street performers. But the hustle and bustle quickly gave way to dark, narrow passageways between tall stucco buildings with the occasional hidden nook or fountain until the path opened up to our little square, Plaça del Pi. The Sunday our young family arrived, the square was filled with artists and their easels alongside a local organic co-op market. The square was surrounded by cafes and tapas bars in the shadow of an old cathedral, we knew this would be a great evening spot for us to enjoy dinner and for the children to play.
My husband, Kelly, and I had waited until our youngest was in third grade to begin supplementing our children's education with international travel. The first stop on my list was Barcelona. I was intrigued by Catalán culture, and the city ranged from the Gothic Old city to the modernist creations of Antoni Gaudí, Joan Miró and Picasso which appealed to young art appreciators. In addition, my fifth grader, Camille, was studying explorers and I thought it would be a great chance for her to see the jumping off point for explorers like Christopher Columbus.
Our days were filled with modernist art in the Picasso and Miró museums and cable car rides across the bay. But each night we enjoyed our small square, ate tapas and got to know our neighborhood. My son, Pete, was in third grade at the time and he was completely enthralled by the Roma street vendors who sold trinkets to the tourists every evening. He wanted to buy everything they offered but the most intriguing was a light up slingshot helicopter that the young men could send soaring as high as the rooftops before it spun back to the pavement. Kelly and Pete would haggle with the vendors each nights for helicopters- Pete always seems to need one more for himself or friends back home. We lost several on rooftops before my husband and son got better at aiming and shooting them like the Roma vendors.
On the last night we were enjoying wine and tapas in our square and my children were running and playing while we waited on dinner. We watched as two young men approached and then we watch them shake their heads before turning and walking away from my children. When they returned to the table we asked, "what did the men ask you?"
"They wanted to know if I wanted to buy any helicopters."
"What did you tell them?"
Pete replied,"I told them I already had cuatro en el apartmento.”
After that first international trip with our children, we knew that travel would play an important role in our children’s education. They thrived on new experiences, interacting with other cultures, learning new languages. As they have grown, we have seen how our trips have increased their interest in history classes where they recognized monuments or were able to relate to regions through their personal experience. From Egyptian Pyramids to the Panama Canal, children learn about far off destinations and how they changed with world without ever experiencing them.
Travel as a supplement to traditional education has always been a goal for my family. Planning the next vacation was a family affair. In preparation for trips, my children would write grade level appropriate reports in lieu of their household chores. These were for our family use only- no extra credit from school. On that first European trip to Barcelona, Pete did a report on Pablo Picasso, his A+ grade earned him $10 helping to buy him more helicopters. My daughter completed reports on Joan Miro and Parc Guell. Not only did these help me prepare for our trip, but they also helped me to determine areas of interest for my children which translated into fun daily itineraries where they could serve as “tour guides”.
In addition to their presentations, I created simple worksheets for them to do after a day of sightseeing. These easy crossword puzzles, drawing challenges, word searches, and scavenger hunts highlighted points of interest and light history helped reinforce what they had seen at a museum or monument without seeming like homework. Often, they bought my husband and I an opportunity to enjoy a glass of wine and some tapas at a cafe while they worked. These “learn on the spot” worksheets were never graded, and not for any school credit, just enrichment in real life through real experience.
Ultimately, these trips became the highlight of our family calendar. We realized that we all looked forward to the next adventure, the next project, the next learning opportunity. Sometimes I would be able to incorporate lessons from school into the planning. For instance, learning about peninsulas in geography is much more interesting if you are planning to visit the Iberian peninsula. An art lesson on Matisse comes alive if you have seen a recent exhibit on his cut outs at MOMA. How much more engaging are Monet’s paintings of waterlilies when you have ridden bicycles to Giverny? Soon, it became harder to stay at home, the desire to learn through exploration was encouraging us to chart new territory.
Leading us to the decision to embark on our biggest family adventure yet. In the spring of 2016, our family will check out from the bricks and mortar school as we know it and embark on a semester long adventure. Over 2 million students are currently enrolled in virtual school programs, a 75% increase since 1999. Because of that demand, we found that many public schools now offer virtual programs. In our case, my daughter will stay enrolled at her public high school but transfer into their virtual program, for free. She even gets to keep her school MacBook. Virtual courses are available at all levels. In her case, she will continue with Advanced Placement and Honors level courses that keep her on track with her classmates as well as a novel study not offered in the school building and an opportunity for Independent Study- self designing her subject matter and projects. The virtual modules are set up as a self-paced program that opens January 7 and closes May 16th and she can progress at her own pace. Pete, now in 8th grade, will transfer to a public city school system that offers a broad range of electives and advanced classes for his grade level. His options include French 1, Art History, Digital Photography and even PE credit for his sailing practices. For most students, online schoolwork is completed within 3 to 4 hours a day.
In February, after a month of virtual school under our belts to work out all the bugs, we will move to Nice, France. Amazingly, every hurdle was easily jumped.
French long stay visas- check.
Long term let on an apartment in the pedestrian only Vielle Ville through VRBO- check.
Proctors for the end of term exams-Maybe.
AP US History test sights in France-Still working on it.
The deal breaker for Pete and Camille, being competitive sailors and lifelong residents of the Gulf Coast was-Where will we sail? Luckily, one design sailing is the same one design around the world- we all send competitors to the same Olympic games right? Both the Nice and Cannes Yacht clubs have junior Laser sailing practices and teams available for my children to join. Bonus: they will receive PE credit through the virtual school with only a letter from the sailing coach.
Experiential learning is the cornerstone of a travel based, virtual education. My goal for our family is perspective and exploration. The perspective of our global society. The internet has brought a globalization to our world that has yet to filter into our traditional learning systems. Camille and Pete will be a part of a much larger world than the one I grew up in and it is important for them to understand and appreciate those other cultures. In addition, the opportunity for exploration is limitless. With that first trip to Barcelona, we saw a statue of Christopher Columbus pointing to the New World. In their generation, there are still new frontiers for them to find, lessons to be learned and friends to be made. Free from the traditional school format, they have time to find their passions and pursue their interests.