When travel plans become lesson plans

Families tote books, find a teacher in every port, or just let the paintings speak

Garnet Hathaway's parents had no idea he loved fine art. Neither did his siblings, for that matter.

But a trip through the Louvre in Paris gave them a new perspective on the 7-year-old. When the rest of the family decided they'd seen enough, Garnet was just revving up, developing a particular eye for religious art.

To the Hathaways - a clan of seven who hail from Kennebunk, Maine - it's just the kind of thing that naturally happens when you trade in a classroom slide projector for on-the-spot learning.

For years, parents have taken kids out of school briefly to head for Disneyland or some destination a bit more cultural. But a number of families are thinking more expansively, targeting travel that will open a new window on learning for their children. Convinced that at least the same amount of learning, if not more, can take place outside a 9-to-3 schedule, they're getting creative about "curriculum" and pulling their kids out of school for a year.

Some traditionalists see this approach as disruptive to both friendships and formal learning. But while classroom structure is missing, parents and education experts agree that taking kids out of school - with the proper parenting - has few adverse effects.

"The indirect evidence ... [shows] that if a kid comes from well-educated parents with economic resources, those kids do well regardless if they're in or out of school," says Stephen Ceci, a professor of developmental psychology at Cornell University. "An awful lot of learning is implicit and informal. It's around the dinner table, it's in discussions of videos and reading material," he says.

While no studies have measured this phenomenon, a 1999 poll by the Travel Industry Association of America found that 1 out of 5 parents who took a trip that year let their children miss school so they could go along. About a third of those households earned over $75,000 a year.

George Mason and his wife Salli Slaughter, on the other hand, ditched their public-relations jobs (and even dipped into retirement savings) to travel.

They hatched their around-the-world plans on their anniversary in May 1996. But before they left Anchorage, Alaska, they had to consider how they were going to school their daughters. Samantha was going to be a high school freshman, and Cassidy was 8. At first they considered correspondence school, but then the school "asked where to ship the 80 pounds of books," laughs Mrs. Slaughter.

They quickly dismissed that idea and became a member of a home-schooling network. Still, that presented some problems, like how to teach Samantha trigonometry. The plan: Find local engineers in the towns they visited and give them her trig book for the night so they could bone up. Then they would help her the next day. The plan worked to perfection. One Bulgarian professor they met in Tokyo has come to the US to visit them.

Like the Mason-Slaughters, other traveling families say curriculum was like wet clay, molded as they went.

Professor Ceci says that despite the roaming classroom, students get more intensive instruction while traveling. He says students in typical schools might get academic instruction for only three hours a day. Traveling, on the other hand, gets kids to focus.

That was the case with Luke Irons, who, along with his parents and nanny, paddled down the Chandalar River, a ribbon of seclusion in the Brooks Range in Alaska. With a load of dried food and a Sears chain saw, they built themselves a life for 14 months. They killed moose to eat, built a cabin in 73 days, and adored the isolation. Luke learned to read by memorizing Calvin and Hobbes cartoons.

That was 1993. In 1999, they did it again.

People said they were not being responsible parents because this time, Luke was at a the critical age of 13. But in the regular school system "it was like dragging a bowling ball up a hill to get him to do his homework," says his father, Tom Irons. "We don't subscribe to ... everything having to be done by someone else's rules," he says. He gave Luke an option most kids only dream of: Take a year off from school.

But when they hit the woods, Luke devoured books, everything from Spanish to college biology textbooks. He stocked caribou and learned about nature.

"It was the best experience of my life," says Luke, who is now writing a book about it and attending high school.

To create a learning environment, Mr. Irons chose 140 books to take along. The family read many of them aloud, including John Irving's "A Prayer for Owen Meany" and Mary Stewarts's Merlin novels.

Lori Teller and her husband, David Miller, went with a less-relaxed method when they took their daughter, Sonia, on a globe-trotting trip last year. Ms. Teller talked with several schools to find out what Sonia needed to accomplish in the fifth grade. She also got a hold of the curriculum and benchmarks in states they were considering moving to after the trip.

The Hathaways, on the other hand, kept in contact with teachers. Especially Peter Hoff, their fourth-grader's teacher, who fed them assignments along the way.

When they were in Bali, 6 degrees from the equator during the vernal equinox, Mr. Hoff wanted to test the old story that an egg would balance on its end. It did, to the pleasure of the Balinese bartenders and some German tourists.

Teaching moments like these bombard families while traveling. In the Andes, the ruins of Machu Pichu, Peru, pulled Sonia in. She read a book about a boy of the Andes and drew sketches. She figured out how Incas built structures without mortar.

Cassidy, the Mason-Slaughters' daughter, became such an expert on Greek mythology while living in Greece that she now corrects her own teacher at times.

Experiences like Cassidy's point to a problem many students face when they return: reverse culture shock (see story, above). Germaine Shames, the author of "Transcultural Odysseys: The Evolving Global Consciousness," says culture shock is healthy and "may be the ultimate learning experience." Challenges on the road provide "for the child to experience unfamiliar customs and ways of life firsthand," she notes in her book.

And there is no shortage of real-life challenges on these trips.

The Hathaways traveled to Mt. Everest's base camp. The thin Himalayan air at 17,712 ft made for difficult breathing. Tom Irons had a run in with a grizzly bear that was hungry for their moose meat. The Mason-Slaughters had to walk through slums in India in search of an ATM and then hide thousands of rupees by stuffing the paper notes in their clothes.

These children often outpace their classmates when they return, Ceci notes. Mr. Mason found that his daughters were "light-years above their peers." And Ms. Teller says that after polishing up on math, Sonia didn't miss a beat.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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