Sarah Blaine is a mom, former teacher and practicing attorney in New Jersey who, writing at parentingthecore, has been vocal for years about her opposition to corporate school reform, the Common Core State Standards and high-stakes standardized testing. She and her husband, Mike, have two daughters, Elizabeth, a 12-year-old sixth grader, and Julianna, an 8-year-old second grader. Both girls are in traditional public schools — but won’t be for their seventh- and third-grade years. They will be somewhere else — or, rather, a lot of somewhere elses.
The family is taking a year on “The Blaine Voyage” around the world, during which the girls will be subject to “World Schooling” by their parents. Destinations have been selected to enhance their learning, which will be guided by a home schooling curriculum Blaine developed according to rules set by the state of New Jersey. It has, Blaine said, “a strong focus on U.S. history and geography” — at least for the first half of the trip. All four members of the family will write about the adventure on the family voyage blog, which you can find here.
Recognizing that she and her family are extraordinarily lucky to be in a position to be able to do this, Blaine agreed to answer questions about the hows and whys and whats of the trip. Here’s our Q & A:
You, your husband and two daughters are taking a year from work and school and going on a round-the-world trip as an educational experience for the family. How are you doing this? And, of course, why?
How is the easy question. Next month, we will put our house on the rental market, which should allow us to break even on our mortgage and taxes. We have enough money saved to pay for the travel expenses themselves. Both of us are quitting our jobs. Mike has wanted to start his own law practice for a while, and he will do that upon our return. I am still trying to figure out what I want to do next career-wise, but I’m pretty sure that I want to return to the world of education in some shape or form.
Why? We started discussing the idea about four years ago, and made a commitment as a family to do it about three years ago. I’m excited for the adventure. I love my kids, and I love the idea of traveling together as a family, rather than my husband and I waiting until retirement, when we run the risk of being too sick to enjoy it. My mom, who was one of the most game-for-an-adventure people I ever knew, was first diagnosed with the cancer that eventually took her life when she was only four years older than I am now, so waiting doesn’t feel like a risk I want to take. As I watch our kids grow up, it seems like the years are going by in a flash, and I want the opportunity to enjoy my kids before they’re grown. In a sense, I guess it’s a bit midlife crisis-y of us, but at least we’re sharing our midlife crisis with each other.
I think every time I am asked this question, I could honestly provide a different answer. More answers are that I wanted us to have the opportunity to learn about the world from experience rather than books. I wanted our kids to understand that their view of life is very much shaped by their community and family circumstances, and to deepen their empathy for people whose life experiences are different from their own.
When we started discussing the idea more seriously, I was particularly frustrated by the fact that my older daughter was getting virtually zero social studies instruction at her elementary school, and the trip became an opportunity to ensure that our kids could learn the social studies they weren’t getting in school. Fortunately, my big one is in middle school now, where she is fortunate enough to have a wonderful social studies teacher. Nevertheless, since we’ve been making a point of doing family trips to historic sites over the past couple of years — by the way, my kids LOVE the National Park Service’s Junior Ranger program, and can’t wait to exponentially increase their badge collections — I know that as terrific as my daughter’s current social studies teacher is, each time we do something experiential, I see how much more my kids learn from seeing and experiencing than they do from what even the best teachers can offer in school.
So this is one big educational experience for the family. How are you planning to travel and do you have an itinerary? How are you selecting places to go?
We are planning to travel by RV in the United States and Canada for the first five months of our trip. Internationally, we will travel by air and land as appropriate, and mostly stay in Airbnb or similar short-term rentals. Our goal is fabulous experiences, not luxurious accommodations, and so long as we all can get a good night’s sleep and cook our meals, we will be happy.
For the North American portion of our trip, we will start in New England and the Maritimes, then head out to Chicago, and then up through the great national parks of the northern United States until we get to the Pacific Northwest.
Then we plan to drive south through California, to the national parks of the southwest, and then across to New Orleans. From New Orleans we plan to head to Florida, as our younger daughter’s condition for going on this trip was to see Winter the dolphin at Clearwater Marine Aquarium. From Florida, depending on time, we will zigzag up through the south back to New Jersey for our older daughter’s bat mitzvah in mid-November.
After the bat mitzvah and family Thanksgiving later that week, we will head out to Hawaii, and after that begin the international leg of our journey in Australia and New Zealand. From there we plan to head to Thailand and to hopefully get to Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos in Southeast Asia as well. From there we plan to head to India, and after India to Israel. From Israel we will head to Europe, where we will start in the south and work our way further north as the weather gets warmer, ending with the United Kingdom and Ireland before heading back home.
We prioritized the United States because curriculum-wise, we plan a strong focus on U.S. history and geography for the first half of our trip. It didn’t make a lot of sense to us for our kids to learn only about other countries, when their own country also has such a rich heritage to offer.
For the international portion of the trip, we tried to balance high-cost and low-cost countries. For instance, although we will certainly check out the big tourist destinations, we will also spend a fair amount of time in Eastern Europe, where costs for traveling are much lower. We also chose countries and regions in part based on who we know there, such as choosing, say Thailand over South Korea because I have two aunts who retired to Thailand. One of the initial challenges was paring down our list: we would love to go to South America, Japan, China, and to South Africa, but both budget-wise and time-wise, we had to leave those for other adventures. We also tried to think responsibly about safety and the state of the world, and our itinerary is certainly subject to change with world events.
Is there some educational program you are planning to bring apart from the travel to keep your daughters at grade level in key subjects? Are you worried about your daughters missing anything at school?
New Jersey’s home schooling law simply requires me to ensure that my kids receive an “equivalent education” to what’s available in public school. A great deal of our curriculum, of course, will be travel related, and our adventures will form the structure for their curriculum as the kids will help us to research where to go, what to see, learn the history we need for context, and so forth. They are even included in budget discussions, which is more practical math than most kids see in school.
We already have binders purchased for each kid in which they’re essentially creating their own history textbooks. As they do research, visit places, write papers, and collect memorabilia, they will sort it chronologically and otherwise categorize it so that they create their own history books. They’ll be reading novels about the places we visit, and we will create a science curriculum that covers topics my older daughter needs to cover plus makes use of science museums, environmental education centers, aquariums, and other places we visit that bring science alive.
And, of course, they’ll be blogging regularly on the family blog we’ve created for the trip: http://BlaineVoyage.com. I can assign and review so much more writing than even the best teachers can assign and review in school, and the practical experience of writing authentically for real audiences is much more likely to improve their writing and editing skills than the formulaic writing so often asked of children in school.
My older daughter’s middle school has what it calls a “house” system in which groups of about 110 kids loop with their core subject teachers for three years. So my daughter’s current sixth-grade teachers would be her seventh-grade teachers next year, and will be her eighth-grade teachers upon our return. They are excited about our trip (the social studies teacher already suggested that perhaps my daughter could Skype in to do Model U.N. with her teammates again next spring), and we are scheduling a meeting with them about what they want us to cover while we’re gone so she doesn’t return to eighth grade behind her peers. For instance, I know that the English language arts teacher will give us the list of books they study in seventh grade, and my daughter, who is a voracious reader, will probably finish them within a month. I’ve already picked up an Algebra I book and while my kids do homework, I’ve been sitting with them and reviewing Algebra I as I think about how best to teach it.
For my third grader, our primary goals will be to improve her writing and spelling skills, and to ensure that she learns her math facts cold. I’ve reached out to my older daughter’s teachers from that year, who were terrific, to see if they have thoughts and ideas. Her social studies and science lessons will parallel her sister’s, although obviously the written product I require of her will be geared to her age and development.
The only subjects that worry me a bit are music and foreign language. My big one should have ample opportunities to practice her Spanish, and I will probably pick up Rosetta Stone Mandarin for my little one, so that she doesn’t forget what she’s learned over the past three years. For music, we purchased an inexpensive but fully functional pocket trumpet that is small enough that it can be packed in the kids’ carry-on luggage, as my big one doesn’t want to lose her coveted spot in the school’s jazz band.
You were a teacher before you became a lawyer. Have you seen a difference in today’s classrooms, through the experiences of your children, than when you were teaching?
I taught high school, not elementary school, but I see a major difference between my own public education, which was far more well-rounded, and what my kids have experienced in elementary school. What I had in elementary school was similar, however, to what the future elementary teachers in my pre-No Child Left Behind teaching program’s cohort were encouraged to do: thematic units, child-centered practices, and capitalizing on kids’ natural curiosity.
In a post-No Child Left Behind world, even my kids’ best elementary teachers emphasize English language arts and math to the exclusion of almost everything else, although we are fortunate that their elementary schools at least preserved strong music and arts programs. I see and saw very little social studies and science education in their elementary classrooms, presumably because the focus is on maintaining and increasing test scores. What I did see was lots of formulaic short-answer writing prompts and multiple-choice homework assignments, which were virtually unheard of for elementary schools kids 20 or 30 years ago. We will do none of that while we are travel-schooling, but I’m sure the education we will provide will be more than equivalent.
Fortunately, middle school has been a whole new — and better — world. With dedicated teachers for social studies and science, my daughter is seeing all four core subjects plus her foreign language — Spanish — on a daily basis, and the arts and electives program at her middle school is terrific. Homework is far more project-based, and generally not test-prep focused multiple-choice work sheets that were the bane of all of our existences when she was in elementary school. I still think what my kids will learn from this trip is more than worth the investment, but the good news is that now my that big one has hit middle school, taking the trip feels more like a welcome supplement to what our schools offer, and not like an imperative to ensure that our kids have at least a basic understanding of world cultures and the social sciences.
When you come back, will your girls return to the public schools they left or will you keep home schooling them?
Our girls will absolutely return to the public schools they left. (Technically, our younger daughter will return to a different school, as she’s currently a second grader at a K-2 school.) Our older daughter will certainly return to her middle school. We even hope that they’ll have the opportunity to visit their schools next November when we will be home for our older daughter’s bat mitzvah. The public school teachers we’ve spoken to regarding our plans have been nothing but supportive and excited for us, and I hope that our girls will have so much more to add and share for everyone’s benefit upon their return, although I think we will have to work with the girls on not dominating certain discussions based on their experiences.
Mike and I are both products of high-quality public education for grades K-12, and both of us believe strongly and deeply in public schools as the foundation of democracy, and more specifically, in our local public schools as affording our children the (sadly rare in this country) opportunity to attend high-quality, integrated public schools with kids who differ from them racially, economically and religiously. We only wish that all children had the opportunity to attend integrated schools like those that exist in our community.
We are excited that home schooling is available for us as an option to make this trip possible, but we believe that aside from a trip like this one, our duty is to send our kids to our local public schools, and where we see room for improvement in our local public schools, our responsibility is to advocate for positive change from within, not to walk away from them.
Did the reform movement and changes in the classroom play any part in your decision to take this trip?
Yes! I started blogging at http://parentingthecore.com to try to assess my own reactions to the changes I saw in my older daughter’s classroom with our community’s hiring of a Broad Academy superintendent and implementation of Common Core. The lack of meaningful social studies education, the fact that my fourth grader never got the New Jersey-specific social studies curriculum I learned back in fourth grade (even though this is still the basis of the New Jersey fourth grade curriculum standards), and the test-prep style of my older daughter’s elementary curriculum all contributed to our decision to move the trip idea from a dream to a reality.
My passion for ensuring that all kids have access to high-quality, diverse, and democratically governed public schools has not diminished, and one thing I hope will happen on this trip is that we will be able to use the connections I’ve made in the pro-public education world to visit amazing schools across the country and around the world (and of course I hope to write about these visits). I had a terrific experience visiting Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School in the South Bronx about a year ago, and I hope to have many more experiences visiting some of the amazing programs that communities across the country and around the world have created to address local needs head-on.
One challenge I think public educators face is figuring out how to bridge the gap so that local programs, developed locally, meet local needs while avoiding the burnout that can come from reinventing the wheel when there are many folks out there who have done this work and who can help them to avoid pitfalls they encountered along the way. I hope that by meeting people and writing about programs I encounter, I can help to bridge that gap.