“But what about school?” Thoughts on education during our trip abroad.


Since going public with our plan to take an extended family trip to Ecuador in 2014, we’ve gotten a few “what about…” kind of questions from concerned family and friends. Questions like…

  • What about the water?
  • What about crime?
  • What about work?

But by far, the most commonly-asked question has been, “What are you going to do about school?”  

So far as we can tell, we have three basic options for educating the kids while in Ecuador:

1. Enroll them in a local Spanish-speaking school. I worry that since we’ll be there for such a limited time and will be learning Spanish as we go, the kids wouldn’t get much benefit from this scenario. It also seems unnecessarily disruptive, since we’ll be leaving after a semester or two.

2. Enroll them in an international or English-speaking school. I haven’t been able to locate any in Cuenca, and my understanding is that they can be quite expensive. Plus,  we want to have the freedom to travel and time to spend immersing ourselves in the local culture, and I think an international school might be an obstacle in some ways.

3. Homeschool. This choice is currently emerging as the clear winner. It’ll give us a lot more freedom and flexibility to design our time abroad how we want. Also, our local district offers some virtual programs and online classes for high schoolers, so there’s a possibility we can tap into those options even while out of the country.

You’d think I’d be jumping up and down over the homeschooling option. After all, I’ve often thought of myself as a homeschooler at heart, and we did homeschool for one year, when my son Jacob was in first grade.

But actually, I feel just as much anxiety. As a parent of teenagers, the topic of education seems much more fraught than it might have five years ago.

After all, taking elementary-school-aged kids out of class for a semester or two so they can embark on a rich cultural adventure seems like a no-brainer: they’re already strong readers and ahead in math; any other gaps can be bridged gradually and the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks.

But while I’m confident I can teach my 13- and 15-year-old sons to think critically, to use proper grammar, or to correctly structure a paragraph, it’s pretty much a no-brainer that I can’t teach them, say, chemistry or astronomy as well as an experienced and knowledgeable teacher could.

And even though the logical side of my brain reminds me that there is not a single year-long window of time during which a person can learn any given topic or else the opportunity has forever passed, I also know that re-entering high school behind in some subjects could be a challenge.

As a temporary homeschooler I won’t have the luxury of crafting a custom curriculum or letting a subject unfold over many years. There will be a lot of pressure to get it all done at once. And while I am confident my kids will still turn out to be knowledgeable, well-rounded people, the “but what will everyone else think” voice in my brain does make me worry.

So now I’m trying to turn that voice off. I have a lot of jumbled thoughts in my head about what it means to be “successful” and what I believe about achievement and education and learning to explore in a future post.

But for now, I can sum it up by saying that I think there are a lot of ways to define success, and for my kids, it is probably not going to look like the typical path.

(Considering I’ve never been very interested in doing anything the typical way, I suppose that’s not surprising.)

Yes, as temporary homeschoolers we might face a bumpy re-entry to life in the US. My kids might not learn everything they need to know to move on to the next grade level in all their courses. They may have a permanently dented academic record.

But I guess I just have to have faith that the rewards will be rich enough to make up for any losses. That my kids aren’t defined by their GPAs or test scores. And that I’ll have the courage to express that belief loudly and proudly in the face of criticism or curiosity.

As a mom I’ve made a lot of “off the beaten path” decisions and this, I suppose, is no different. I’ve made great choices, and I’ve made a lot of mistakes. And I know it’s all valuable as long as I keep learning.

Which, come to think of it, is exactly what I’d like to tell my kids about life, learning, and achievement. That success isn’t some number or goal you reach and then stop; that achievement isn’t something you reach for just to prove your worthiness to others.

As far as I’m concerned, life is all about getting to know the world we live in, being of service to others, and waking up each day ready to move on to the next adventure.

And if my kids learn those things, then I’ll consider them as successful as they need to be.

21 Thoughts on ““But what about school?” Thoughts on education during our trip abroad.

  1. Ok, they might be behind in chemistry or astronomy or physics or calculus when they come home. But they will have seen the world and lived in another country! That seriously gives them a leg-up, as citizens of the world, but it will also make them very attractive to colleges. I’ve heard people (homeschoolers and non-homeschoolers) talk about college admissions, and it seems that the admissions folks like “unique” and “different,” not cookie cutters.

    Embrace the opportunity. Homeschool without fear. Give yourself (and your family) the freedom and luxury to embrace the learning that’s right in front of your faces when you’re abroad. Textbooks can come later. You can always make up chemistry. You don’t always have the chance to experience life abroad.

  2. Kristina on at said:

    For your teenagers, the life experience of living in South America would make excellent college entrance essays. Certainly more interesting than the typical ones. And they seem like they’re ahead in studies, so if they miss something like astronomy or chemistry, they can maybe do it in the summer (if it goes toward their career goals…if not, perhaps they don’t need it now…I have no idea what I learned in HS chem :) ).

    This sounds like such a wonderful experience. Trust that it will work out.

    • Thanks, Kristina…and yeah, I don’t personally worry too much about the kids knowing chem unless they are planning the sort of job where they’ll need it. College admissions/state graduation recs may not agree with me, though. :/

  3. What about putting a correspondence course or two into the mix, for subjects you’re not as confident about? There’s nothing about homeschooling that says that you have to teach everything yourself. I also wonder–are you thinking of this as homeschooling or unschooling? Or a combination?

    • More homeschooling than unschooling – and yes, we’ll look at prepackaged curriculums for sure. I’m considering K12 right now because it comes with teacher support (not sure on cost, though.)

      • Personally, I think it sounds great. My mother was a teacher before my brother and I were born, and she felt that school was important–but she never felt that it was the only way to learn.

        Although we never lived in another country, we did travel to Europe over Spring Break (military space-available flights–no guarantee you’d get back when you wanted to, and we didn’t always), and she would have us miss school to go to plays or hear national figures at the drop of a hat.

        I can tell you that I have a much better understanding of European feudalism from driving across bridges on the Rhine and seeing the multitude of ruined castles than I could ever have gotten from a textbook. And I’m a former textbook editor.

  4. I’m sure you know this already: go easy on everyone. Just being there will be an intensive learning experience, requiring a lot of energy. I just know from experience that it’s easy to burn out when your expectations are too high. I wonder if it would be possible to come up with a list of the “bare minimum” you might need to cover for each kid. Here’s a post I found helpful, which I learned about through Simple Homeschool: http://www.yarnsoftheheart.com/2008/07/bare-minimum.html
    I think it can be like any blog or small business: what are your core values as a family for your year? What would you long your take-away lesson to be? If you can focus on that, it’s easier to not worry about the day-to-day details.

  5. Rachel Ambler on at said:

    Living in another country was one of the best things my parents ever did for me when I was younger (we moved from the UK to the US for three years when I was ten). I’m certain that I wouldn’t have done as well in high school without the confidence that I gained from that experience. Sure I was behind in some subjects but I caught up in the ones that mattered and skipped the ones that didn’t.

    And it was invaluable to learn with my parents about a new culture – it really underlined that learning is for life not just childhood. And knowing that we were only going to be there for a short amount of time meant we made the most of all the opportunities to explore and do all the cultural visits that you never do at home because you always can. I’ve probably visited more American museums and art galleries than I have English ones!

    I am sad that we probably won’t be able to do the same with our family.

  6. Courtney on at said:

    I love this topic! And am SO excited to join you (via your blog) on this journey. Thank you for including us. This is nothing I would ever do – never say never, but really I’m not very adventurous so getting to hear about this awesome adventure you are about to have is fascinating to me.

  7. Danielle on at said:

    In 2008 we sold everything and traveled with our two girls (7 & 10 at the time) for 10 months. We were asked what about school all the time to which I would reply, “what about it?” Certainly are more ways to learn than just in school and I really think even if you did absolutely nothing at all for the year you were gone your kids would not be behind. I would suggest not investing in any online dependent curriculum until you scope out the internet situation firsthand where you end up living. Connectivity was about the speed of dial-up or worse in many places we went.

  8. Kathleen on at said:

    I think you are on the right path – just trust your gut that in the end, it will all work out. There are going to be pros and cons no matter what you do.

    While I am planning to travel a lot with my little guy (turning 5), he is pretty open minded and excited for any adventure I mention. I am really curious, though, to hear what your kids – especially the teenagers – are thinking so far of the plan. Care to share their thoughts and reactions? Are they eager and excited?

    Looking forward to reading as this all unfolds!

  9. For practical matters, try the Khan Academy online. It’s what Bill Gates uses to help teach his kids math, and he’s funding the Khan Academy to roll out to many public school districts. But, it’s free online and it’s now embarking on things like chemistry and other sciences. So you’ll have master teachers in those that you can access, with, say, an iPad or laptop, for your teens. Hope this helps.

  10. Michelle on at said:

    Yep, turn off that voice. You know what’s right. And my husband had a family two years ago who spent 10 months traveling throughout Asia, pulling their kids from school to do so and teaching them along the way. They came back *just* fine and the things they had done and learned… you can’t replicate that in the States. Go for it. Have a blast. And if they don’t learn astronomy? Well… I never took a single astronomy class. And I think I’m pretty awesome ;) It didn’t hold me back!

  11. Cloud on at said:

    This sounds like an awesome plan! (Yeah, I’m late to the party… but I always am.)

    Have you thought about calling for help from your network of bloggy friends on specific subjects. I, for instance, should be able to answer questions about high school level chemistry! (Although, what I remember as the most important things I learned in high school chemistry once I got to college were the use of dimensional analysis (aka, unit canceling) when working problems and a pretty solid understanding of PV=nRT.) I’ll bet you have people in you know online who can help with almost any subject… or at least point you in some good directions.

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  13. Danielle on at said:

    For the chemistry, physics, or other challenging high school class: have you looked into computer test prep programs for those? Those are popular a.p. classes so maybe there is software for passing the a.p. test that would have good tutorials? Maybe an on-line tutor for those subjects?

    Or don’t worry too much. Lots of students repeat the more challenging subjects in summer school and the first year of college. So if they miss the traditional opportunity, they can catch up that way.

    This type of learning is excellent prep for college!! You have to learn most things from reading the textbook with very little personal help from the professor.

  14. Melanie on at said:

    There’s a really great book about travel and exposing your kids to other cultures – The New Global Student by Maya Frost.
    I would lean on the side of having your kids attend local school – if they have a smattering of Spanish or so before they leave home….

  15. Lesley on at said:

    I think your oldest son’s curriculum is the biggest concern. It might be a good idea to check out minimum entrance requirements for colleges as well as ways to make up science or math coursework once your family returns to the US. (I assume summer school and community college are two possibilities?) If you can figure out future academic options now, you won’t have them weighing on you during your travels.

    And your trip will definitely be worthwhile for the kids, formal classroom or not!

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