JIll’s children pose with a real cannon from the Battlefield of Gettsyburg in Pennsylvania.
How one OC mom took her kids and their schooling on the road.
Remember the feeling of a field trip day at school? It was an exciting diversion from a routine day in the classroom, with a palpable excitement exuding from students wiggling in line to board the steps of the school bus. The permission slip is the linchpin to any field trip. I remember in elementary school, carefully placing the detached bottom portion with my mom’s signature in my backpack. I didn’t want to be one of the poor misfortunates that the teachers warned us about: kids who forgot their signed slips, left behind to do school work in a classroom with the grade below.
In a sense, the homeschool experience I had with my four kids began with the same first step: permission. I signed on the proverbial dotted line and gave myself permission to toss aside the map society provides for education, and instead followed my heart.
I began the planning and research for what I named, “The Great American Field Trip,” which entailed driving across America, road schooling my four children. Dad would join us at stops along the way. Think of a one-room schoolhouse meets “Around the World in 80 Days.” OK, not literally the world, but 26 states. It was 2011, and that fall, my husband and I would have an eighth grader, fifth grader, fourth grader and a first grader—two girls and two boys—taking on their roles as the class clown, the organized germaphobe, the smashed penny collector and the teenager.
School on the road is a bit different. There is no front office, school cafeteria, desks, textbooks, P.E. uniforms, tardy slips, grades or bells. Also absent is a safety net of predetermined standards and curriculum. Every day is field trip day. That semester, I was the principal, the teacher, the librarian, the parent and the minivan driver. I was also the travel agent, and most definitely one of the students. We left on Aug. 26, 2011. As we pulled out of our driveway and joined the other drivers on the road, I couldn’t help but think that many of them may be headed out on a back-to-school shopping spree. I felt like I was beginning a back-to-life spree.
Jill’s daughter helps whitewash a fence in Mark Twain’s hometown of Hannibal, Mo.
More than halfway through our trip, our GPAs were soaring. However, just like many things on the road, we had created our own definition of the now obsolete grade point average. Instead, GPA now stood for “growth perspective achievement.” Growth happened when we were challenged to be more patient, rely on each other, make mistakes, and taste, touch, hear and see new things. Perspective is tied to the realization that our worldview has been largely shaped by our experiences and environment. Seeing the world through others’ lenses became a cornerstone of the trip. While seeking to answer the question, “What is an American?” we realized there are many correct answers. Achievement encompassed setting goals and achieving them, as well as taking risks—both small and big.
Unlike the conventional system of grading, there was no quantitative way to measure our GPA. There was no ceiling, and it would be impossible to reduce what we learned to an average of numbers or scores. We learned what learning really is. Voices of the past were our teachers. The teachers—who despite massive challenges—pursued the promise of a better life and a better country. Their innovation, creativity and perseverance inspired us. We stood on their shoulders and visited the places where they lived, stood, worked or bled. We read the words they wrote or spoke. Helen Keller’s childhood home in Alabama; Martin Luther King Jr.’s boyhood home in Atlanta; and the spot where Orville and Wilbur Wright completed their first successful flight in North Carolina. Again and again, we experienced chills that a textbook or worksheet could never generate.
Some of these individuals are famous, like Thomas Jefferson, Rosa Parks and Abraham Lincoln, but most are ordinary people. These people included a soldier on a battlefield who couldn’t be identified before he was buried. Another was a Lakota woman, who in the face of losing her family, land and way of life, continued to teach her daughters how to weave baskets. We had many living teachers who enriched our GPAs while road schooling. Wayd—our river rafting guide in Oregon—pointed out birds and explained geography; and Matt, the park ranger who brought the Battle of Gettysburg to life for my kids and I. Others included the World War II (WWII) veterans that we met at the WWII Memorial in Washington D.C.; and Susan, who led us on a bike tour through the tidewater lands in Maryland where Harriet Tubman was a slave before escaping. Dwight and Eileen, the corn farmers in Iowa, also made an impact as they arranged for us to ride in a combine, harvesting rows upon rows of corn.
We visited Mount Rushmore, Old Faithful, old growth redwoods, cornfields, battlefields, the Smithsonian museum in Washington D.C., The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, and the Idaho Potato Museum in Blackfoot, Idaho. Animal science came in the form of spotting Bald Eagles taking off over the water (and our heads), and studying the herd of bison in Yellowstone National Park just before sunset. Studying math came in the form of the free, online source, Khan Academy—of course.
Books were as important as fuel on this trip. Hannibal, Mo., was a highlight for my kids, as they got to visit the boyhood home of Mark Twain. My kids’ memories of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” will not be of cramming for a test. Instead, they will remember pretending to paint Tom Sawyer’s fence in Hannibal, and licking an ice cream cone on the banks of the mighty Mississippi. Like the river, Twain runs deep within my children now. Mark Twain once said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness,” as well as, “Don’t let school interfere with your education.” Of all of the lessons my children and I learned on The Great American Field Trip, I hope the one that will stay with them throughout their lives is the importance of giving themselves permission to choose their own paths.
By Jill Fales
Wyatt runs through the field where the Wright Brothers’ first successful flight landed in North Carolina.
Helping Hand for Homeschoolers
For OC parents and students who are interested in homeschooling, there are a multitude of resources available. Here are just a few suggestions.
California Homeschool Network – www.californiahomeschool.net
Orange County Homeschool Group – www.ochomeschoolgroup.com
Village Bible Academy – www.freewebs.com/vbahomeschool
Independent Learning Academy – www.independentlearningacademy.org
Anaheim Magnolia Christian School Independent Study Program – www.amcsisp.com
Homeschool Campus of Orange County – www.homeschoolcampus.com
Huntington Beach Homeschool Enrichment Campus – www.hbhec.com
Jill Fales has her master’s degree in education and upon returning from “The Great American Field Trip,” developed her own history curriculum, offering lively American history and creative writing classes to local homeschoolers. She is the author of “My Laundry Museum & Other Messy Gifts of Motherhood.” www.jillfales.com