Tuesday, April 10, 2012

16 Days till Lift Off - Planning Trail School

T Minus 16 days and counting.  After a solid 10 days of Pacific Crest Trail madness, I think both The Barracuda and I have hit burn out.  We are both still in our pajamas....and its after 1 o'clock in the afternoon.  I should be dehydrating 18 more potatoes.  He should be doing his Latin work.  I'm here at the computer; he's in his pajama pants out on the flat making a sand castle empire.  He's not wearing a shirt, or shoes, or socks and I had to specifically tell him that he needed to keep his pants on.  One nice day and the boy becomes a nudist.  I guess that's one of those perks to living no where near another living soul. Fortunately, his outdoor presence does give me quite a nice chunk of time to do some quite lengthy Trail School planning.

A bit of background about our individual homeschooling situation is in order.  Homeschooling is such a varied dynamic that explaining a few key points of background info about how we handle it might be helpful.

The Charter School
As a family, we receive quite a nice chunk of state funding for our homeschooling as long as we go through a few, pretty minor hoops.  The only restriction we have is that the state cannot pay for religious curriculum.  Other than that, we can do dang near anything we want to.  There is no specified curriculum, no number of hours needing to be logged, no style necessary.  For the first two years we were complete unschoolers and it didn't matter.  What it has meant for our son is that he receives a much higher level of education than we could have provided otherwise.  Six hundred dollar Rosetta Stone would not exist, nor would the hundreds of dollars of art supplies.  It also means an official transcript.  As high school teachers of alternative education, both Jules and I see the dark side of homeschooling.  If the parents do not keep accurate records or report the correct way, kids get the brunt of it when they rejoin the traditional system.  Grade levels are lost, hours of learning disappears, and kids are left with even more adjustment to the transition.  It gets ugly and it isn't an isolated case. Even worse are the kids whose families have had a dramatic loss and that is the reason they rejoin school.  No one intended on stopping the homeschooling.  No one even wants it.  Dad lost his job and both parents are now working remedial jobs to support the family.  Someone died and homeschooling just can't happen.  A forced move to a state which requires such elaborate paperwork homeschooling becomes impossible mid-year.  That gets even uglier.  It is worth it for us to have all the formal, federally recognized paperwork just in case. The trade off is our level of reporting.  Once a week we are required to check in and give a quick (2-3 sentences) summary of what we have done in each subject.  Once a month I update a list of goals (completed, in progress, and new) and give a very short blurb (6-8 sentences) on where we are heading for next month.  Each year there is one annual test for growth and to check on special services needs.  The test causes me and the kiddo a bit of stress mainly because of the word "test." Every year it isn't a big deal; every year I go on stressing about it. We don't test around here.  Not really, anyway.  However, I do realize it is very easy to miss red-flag issues when you are surrounded by your own child all the time, especially when you don't do things the "normal" way.  It has also been so incredibly helpful in keeping The Barracuda's curriculum well rounded.  By the sheer nature of being only 7, The Barracuda has not experienced much.  It isn't possible; he hasn't been on the planet long enough.  I feel it is my job as his parent to show him how awesome all sorts of things can be and make them understandable to his experiences.  Up until the age of about 12-15, kids scores should be pretty darn close to level across the board.  This is not due to strengths/weaknesses, but just general neural development as the brain develops both sides fairly evenly until the hypothalamus really kicks into overdrive. Overall test scores can show me very quickly if we are slouching on one subject or I haven't found a way to make the learning "real" for him. It forces direct accountability and scheduling for me.  All of this to say, we can't just stop school because we are going on a hike.

The Barracuda is missing a good 2 months worth of school at the end of this school year, and a good portion of the month in the beginning of next school year.  With a 9 month school calendar (when you take out Spring Break, Winter Break, and holiday breaks) that adds up to be almost a third of the year.  School has to happen on the trail if we want to send the message education is an important life pursuit.  Evenmore, Jules and I often discuss how our family makes education part of our life-learning.  How could we stand by this message if we bailed on school just because we liked the idea of going hiking or were wishing to pursue a dream? 

Nope, school just has to happen regardless of whatever dreams we wish to make happen for ourselves. Unfortunately, the actions we don't do can send a much louder message than those we do.

Place Based Education vs Hiking

There are many incredible schools and parents out there promoting place based education.  They will often go on ambles and walks taking 45 minute and sometimes hours long breaks to examine pond water, map an area, chart and explore life within a square foot of different ecosystems, read environmental literature, create nature journals, and do all sorts of other amazing learning experiences.  Our trail school is not meant to demean or negatively comment on this version of education.  We just don't hike like that.  For us, that type of education is a walk.  We live in a National Forest, on a wild and scenic river, with less than 5 households in a square mile.  There are more bears, osprey, bobcats, wild turkeys, pileated woodpeckers, deer, eagles, and salmon then there are people.  Our son gets lots of unstructured outdoor time Last-Child-In-the-Woods style, lots of structured natural learning outdoors, and lots of environmental literacy every week by the sheer nature of how our lives work.  The Barracuda will spend 3 hours a day outside sometimes just building forts, playing in the creek, examining rocks to throw in the river, building castles in the sandflat, or learning birds by flight and call.  To us, that is just life.  For this reason, when we hike, we hike.  Hiking has a purpose. It is a point A to point B pursuit where only quick moments are spent idly as we filter water, or nights are spent looking up at the stars while we heat/rehydrate dinner. We often marvel while we walk, ponder as we move, try to find the place where our thoughts and bodies move in a similar rhythm.

For us, hiking is a working meditation about finding the place where your headspace, bodyspace, and heartspace are all flowing together in true spirituality. Hiking is a pilgrimage for us. It is a soul pursuit. By definition that is all consuming and generally a place to become uncomfortable. It is a pushing and searching expedition designed to stretch yourself, not one born out of recreation, idleness, or whimsy.

Truly finding rhythm cannot happen when you take breaks. It requires that you lose yourself and your thoughts in the forward motion.  You find the very center of yourself where the miles and hours melt together, the scenery is beautiful, and you finally understand the word "calm."  As airy-fairy as that sounds, it is the exact same thing as getting so sucked into your book that you are no longer reading words you are merely in the story and the next thing you know 3 hours have gone by.  That can't happen if you are continually being pulled away from the pages to attend to other tasks.  With every break you take, the rhythm of your body stops and you cannot continue the flow.  You are instantly snapped out of the zone.  At that moment, the hiking becomes tiresome.  You are reminded that your feet might be hurting, or your pack needs to be shifted, or you might like a snack, or a thousand other trivial pursuits.  You are stuck back in all the mundane matters in front of you.  More often than not when parents marvel at how The Barracuda (or us for that matter) can like long distance hiking and do so many miles, I find that they are constantly having their kids stop at every little thing or taking scheduled breaks every hour.

We move continuously for hours on end.  From 6 am to just before dusk, there are only two substantial breaks and they last for 20 timed minutes.  In these break times we eat lunch and filter the days worth of water.  Any other breaks last less than 10 minutes, are just a moment to take packs off so we shed layers/use the restroom, and are restricted to less than 2 a day (one morning, one afternoon).

This means subjects need to be discussed or content needs to be limited to extremely lightweight, highly compact, and very portable materials.  Content normally winds up being extremely in depth analysis of a few major ideas rather than broad understanding of lots of small things.

Trail School
All of our reporting is normally done digitally, but it is a bit hard to digitally report when you are in the middle of the Mohave desert or the High Sierra wilderness.  However, attempting to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail is one of those things alternative charter schools sort of like to have listed as student accomplishments.  Both the principal and our adviser are quite happy to accommodate as they can.  We will be doing weekly check-ins via the mail and old fashioned letters with phone calls as we can.  Jules has been updated on how to digitally report our monthly reviews and annual testing was completed in March.  Next year's curriculum has been meticulously planned since my normal summer perusing of curriculum is going to be spent pounding out Oregon and Washington.  In the next couple days, we will send in our requisitions and get learning plans all formalized.  The Barracuda and I have spent ample time discussing what he liked about this year and what he would enjoy changing next year.  Together the daily schedule we have come up with seems to build on the last three years of witnessing what has worked and what has failed miserably.

The preplanning of both next year and of the next couple months has really given me a better sense of direction than in previous years.  Focused learning goals mean that very little is slipping through the cracks, but writing them generally enough to work in a broad range of situations means they are versatile.  Scope and Sequence diagramming mean that there is much less gaping and overlap in subjects.  We can really cover more ground in much more efficient ways when we actively structure our content.  The Barracuda likes this way much better than structuring blocks of time for him to generically study "Math" or "School Time."


Latin - I've summarized the next 12 Latin lessons in The Barracuda's Jenney's Latin text to involve much less writing and more direct discussion.  A single half-page cheat sheet (in size 7 font) has all the vocabulary, verb endings, case endings, and declinations.  This will travel with us to provide the formal back up necessary when we run into issues.  Every 10 days a new sheet of assignments will appear in the mail drop providing three new grammar concepts, a new set of vocabulary words,  one paragraph of Latin to read/translate, 10 sentences in English to translate.  These exercises can be done in the dirt, and formal work can be done on town days if necessary.   

English - Since our check-ins are now going to be done manually, The Barracuda will have direct practice with copywork, writing, spelling, grammar and editing all rolled into one.  Our evening time has always included headlamps and an hour of reading after dinner followed by individual writing time.  Much of this last year has been directly working on thesis construction and essay outlining.  At this point, The Barracuda can come up with a thesis statement, develop his ideas, and write an essay or personal narrative quite quickly.  Each mail drop will include a pre-addressed, pre-stamped envelop to send off that very day.

World History - Every hike we take, we bring a book for me to read aloud in the evening.  Each book must weigh under 6 ounces, as that is the maximum weight restriction for all luxury items.  Moreover, it must be a great discussion book.  Every book we are bringing on the PCT involves the study of government and the way people choose to organize themselves.  This helps with our world history study for next year.  The books are classics like Utopia by Thomas More, Anthem by Ayn Rand, Lord of the Flies by William Golding, The Art of War by Sun Tzu, etc.  They are mailed to us in each maildrop and then passed on to others or left in hiker boxes along the way.  In this way, we can discuss at length The Barracuda's ideas about people and society making the activity far more than just night time reading.

I can't remember what they were discussing, but this is such a great example of our discussions.  Dad is listening intently, The Barracuda is all into his explanation with his hands going, they have stopped so both parties can clarify the thoughts our on this great ridge line.  It's so very much our life.

Science - Science is by far one of the easiest subjects to include.  From ecosystems, to weather and wind patterns, to constellations and telling time using the solar and lunar clocks, there is science everywhere.  Formal science learning, vocabulary, and expository essay writing are covered every other mail drop with Science Detectives A1.  These one and a half page articles include critical thinking questions and the need for direct parenthetical citation for your answers.  They focus on explaining your ideas about things like force and motion, kinetic and potential energy, simple machines, parts of a cell, classification of organisms, that kind of thing.  These encourage connections between the formal learning and what we are seeing all around us.  A page and half isn't much to give great depth, but witnessing science in action is a great way to have detailed conversations as we hike.  Each completed article will be mailed with his check in as a work sample (which are normally given in digital picture format).

Math - This subject is almost as easy to include as science.  The Barracuda will be taking compass bearings regularly.  Compass bearings require large amounts of math, visual skills, and analysis.  We will have a GPS with us and he can use it to check is accuracy, but in general we are working with mental math.  A GPS doesn't mean much if you have to blindly trust it.  The physical math and map work are important to us.  Distance equals rate times time is also a regular equation when we backpack.  Calculating if we are on track or not is a feeling you begin to inherently understand after a few weeks, but it is important to understand what 1 mile per hour feels like versus 3 mph.  It is equally important to be able to extrapolate your pace out into when Jules needs to send us the correct gear or if we will make our mail drops on time.  As we walk we will be doing quick mental math drills and fraction work to hit the ground running when The Barracuda begins Algebra 1/2 in late September.

Learning to correctly use a Monocular and find points to for triangulating your position on a map is one of those skills I'm so glad Jules knows well.  I can explain all the math behind it, but Dad sure teaches the skills of compass bearings much better than I do.  Tag team homeschooling!

Art - Our homeschool group is putting on a fall production of Romeo and Juliet.  The Barracuda gets to memorize his lines as we hike North across the nation.  We will be reading and discussing the iambic pentameter, the use of descriptive language, and in general acting out the play verbally as we hike.

With all this school, it may seem like we would be completely interrupting the supposed flow of our hike.  In many places that might be true, but with over 12 hours of walking a day, it isn't difficult to fit in all the subjects with great discussions while still leaving personal time.  In many ways they overlap.  While discussing our world history book, we will begin discussing our personal beliefs about culture, religion, and society.  While talking about Romeo and Juliet, we can discuss our feelings about people, relationships and what art really is.  While working through compass bearings, we also can express the ways we react to stress, loss, fear, and uncertainty.  We have more incredible discussions when we discuss Latin than any other subject.  Due to language being the ultimate expression of a culture, delving into the foundations of English through Latin has really given a whole new depth to our understanding of how our society relates information and how we relate to our society.

As far as I'm concerned, they are both my babies.  As far as The Barracuda is concerned, we are both his girls.  As far as Guadie is concerned, we are her people.  We've got a pretty good thing going.

The best part about long distance backpacking is that have to become okay with yourself, your companions, and your God if you are left alone with them constantly, without distraction, for days on end.  When we discuss our thoughts together, The Barracuda and I cease to be a mother and son, separated by decades, with established relationships.  We have to rely on each other and intermingle our trust.  (After all, I'm carrying his clothes and the tent, he's carrying our stove and cook pot, and we each carry half the sleeping quilt).  That interdependence means we allow our relationship to become quite blurry.  Often times I will forget that I'm talking to my 7 year old son and find I'm really talking out loud to myself.  Sometimes when I cannot seem to put my finger on what exactly The Barracuda is trying to say, I'll turn to see him staring off star struck as he is rambling.  He's talking to himself far more than he is talking to me.  The schoolwork honestly helps us sort out our thoughts and emotions.  It often greatly facilitates us finding a groove with both ourselves, our hearts, and each other.

 In the end, this is really what we really want "life-long learning" to look like - two people, relating to each other, through their formal learning, out in the world.  I have never really seen that happen in another place.  Homeschooling comes close, but still often times misses the mark.  So regularly in life we create artificial boundaries to keep ourselves in, others out, our relationships defined.  We stage our lives so they can be as comfortable as possible and not come near those blurry edges of the places that scare us.  Those places exist when you wish to challenge paradigms, actualize dreams, and create social justice.  By openly being a person with my son, not a parent, or a school mentor, or some other pre-digested role, we open up a whole other realm with which we can interact.  It becomes a level playing field.  Just two people, out for a hike, having a discussion about classic literature and life.

3 thoughts:

Grey Sky Creations said...

Love this blog. You guys have such an amazing outlook on life and education. I am marveled and envious at the same time.

Mel said...


Alice said...

Every time I read you, I get goosebumps. Thank you :)

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