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October 3, 2010

Taking Education on the Road

It’s always good to know we’re not alone.  No, we’re not crazy, others are doing the same thing, and we can give our kids something better than the failing education system.  In their Education Nation series recently, NBC focused on the many aspects of education in America, including our own version of “roadschooling.”  TODAY Show article, A Moveable Feast: For Some, the World Is the Classroom

For us as parent/teachers, it was terrific affirmation that others we’ve never met are having the same thoughts, taking the same steps, and following their instincts.  Are we right?  Who knows.  But what we do know for sure is our kids are thriving, and that we’ve found a way to connect with them and with the world in a meaningful way.

The numbers tell the story.  In 2003, 20% of home school families reported travel and “other” as their reason to step out of the traditional classroom.  By 2007, the number had jumped to 32%.  As the numbers grow, the stigma fades.  Once thought to be the choice of whacked-out, butter-churning, religious fundamentalists, homeschooling has gone mainstream.  More than 2 million children nationwide have opted out of the traditional classroom for “homeschool” type programs, and by all measures, their demographics and ideologies mirror mainstream society.

In our case, it was the blunt realization that outsourcing our kids’ education simply wasn’t working.  We simply no longer bought the notion that children start formal education in kindergarten (or earlier), and with a bit of parent diligence to ensure homework was completed as assigned, educated, ready-for-the-world young adults would emerge at their high school graduation twelve years later.  Out-sourced education, like out-sourced financial management, promised big but failed to deliver.

What’s next?  Hard to know.  What I do believe, however, is that it takes a village to raise these kids, and that our national education system needs major over-haul.  As parents, we need to be part of that  movement.  And while we’re at it, seems to make sense to carve out a bit of time to see the world.  We might just learn something from our neighbors.

August 27, 2010

Girl Power

“The most powerful force of change on the planet is a girl.”

When a friend shared this Nike Foundation video on Facebook recently, I DARE YOU , I watched it and wept.   As parents, we’re raising the little girls who will change the world, and the boys who will marry them.  We’re their custodians, holding their hands as they cross into a 21st century world so very different — and quite likely so very much better — than the 20th century reality that brought them here.  We sell them short to simply teach them what we learned, because in their world, they hold power — and face challenges — that we could never have imagined.

In its recent article,  Women Will Rule the World, Newsweek confirmed the age-old saying that women control the purse strings.  Literally.  First in the US and many European countries, then more recently in the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India & China) and in other pockets of the planet, the rapid rise of female economic power is staggering and transformative.

Maddy Dychtwald boils it down to compelling, hard numbers in her book, Influence, released a few months ago.  “American women are responsible for 83% of all consumer purchases; they hold 89% of US bank accounts, 51% of all personal wealth, and are worth more than $5 trillion in consumer spending power — larger than the entire Japanese economy.  On a global level, women are the biggest emerging market in the history of the planet — more than twice the size of India and China combined.”

Closely linked to this economic power, of course, is education.  The Women’s Learning Partnership estimates that for every year beyond fourth grade girls attend school, a country’s wages rise by 20%. Stop and think about that for a moment.  Twenty percent for each year of education after 4th grade!

The trickle-down of this economic power is where it gets really good.  With women controlling the purse strings, what funding areas become more critical?  Does defense spending share top billing with childcare, healthcare and education?  Does quality of life  compete with GDP?  Does the little nation of Bhutan, with it’s commitment to “gross national happiness” (GNH) show the rest of the world how to really succeed?

Chip Conley, the hotel entrepreneur from San Francisco, weaves it all together quite nicely in his TED presentation, Measuring What Makes Life Worthwhile.  He points back to one of Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 speeches, where he opines that we count the wrong stuff.  Our GDP counts air pollution, redwoods destruction, and nuclear warheads, but doesn’t count health of our kids, our quality of education, or the intelligence of our public debate.  Perhaps it’s time for a new way to count, he suggested.  Conley goes on to remind us that, prior to the young king of Bhutan suggesting GNH as a national metric, the last world leader to invoke “happiness” as a viable government measure was Thomas Jefferson, in that bold, pesky Declaration of Independence.

With new metrics to measure life’s intangibles, coupled with the transformative power of women stepping to the economic plate, the 21st century offers hope, promise and possibility so different from it’s 20th century cousin.  Imagine a world where our daughters  realize their aspirations, and our sons don’t feel compelled to shoulder the economic burden alone. Imagine their world, where going into the world to do “good” is on equal footing with doing “well.”

Those of us with kids in college, we’re the women who fought the mommy wars.  To work or not to work.  What was best for us, our families, and of course, our children?   As with so many things, our competitive juices flowed, and a tangible, visceral struggle ensued to determine which mommy team was better.  Could we really raise our kids and bring home the bacon?  Were stay-at-home moms sending the best message to their young daughters about their potential, their place in the world?  And single, working moms?  Just the thought led to head shaking and furrowed brows from all fronts.  If you’re nodding, it’s because you remember the heated debates, countless magazine copy, and endless talking heads, the “experts” on the topic.  (If you’re nodding, it also means you remember the big hair and those awful “business suits” we wore.  But that’s another post for another time.)

Maybe its just me, but it seems we’ve moved on, put that issue behind us and concluded — as our moms before us and women throughout history — that as women, we can and will do what’s best for our families, whatever that may be.

And in doing that, we make the world a better place.

August 17, 2010

Unplugging and Making Time to Nap

New York Times, “Outdoors & Out of Reach: Studying the Brain”

Interesting piece in yesterday’s New York Times, when several noted neuroscientists are pulled from their academic worlds and spend a week rafting the San Juan River in southern Utah, out in the wildnerness, where cell phones and wi-fi simply don’t work.

Over the course of the week, they begin to tap into something those of us who travel already intuitively understand:  Unplug.  Simplify. Relax.  Give yourself permission to think, contemplate, read, nap, and even do nothing at all.  As most long-term travelers will attest, the restorative power of unplugging is tremendous.  It’s putting down the phone, unplugging the computer, and giving up our need to multitask that’s the tough hill to climb.

Unplugging.  Minimizing the multi-tasking.  Taking time to simply think.  And maybe even taking an occasional nap.

Kicking into our official RoadSchool year in the next few days, these are my new goals.  It’s bringing home what we learn on the road and making it part of the fabric of our lives.  So obvious, yet, so tricky.  And so, so important.

To a new school year and new beginnings!

April 22, 2010

LAND HO! Exploring Madeira

Madeira Portugal basket Sleigh ride“In Madeira, everything’s about the flowers,” our cab-driver Roberto explained.  “If you have a home without flowers, people talk.  They tell you it’s not a home; it’s a stable.”  (Note to self: remember to put those vases to use when we get home.)

Madeira slipped into view in the early morning hours today as we sailed into Portugal’s waters.  No matter how crusty a traveler,  the sight of land after a trans-Atlantic crossing conjures images of yesteryear, explorers, conquistadors, and early adventurers spotting these little islands after bobbing at sea for weeks.  Columbus’s Santa Maria  (or at least its replica) sits docked at Madeira, looking more like a weekend run-about than an ocean faring celebrity up against our behemoth cruise ship.  For us on Holland America’s Westerdam, the “Crow’s Nest” is an elegant, window-bedecked lounge at the top of the ship where sunsets are welcomed with cocktails and slack-key; on the Santa Maria, the shimmy to the nest must’ve made the view (and the cocktails) all the better.

Roberto took us first to Monte, a tiny village up in the hillside where screaming down steep, narrow winding, streets in a wicker basket sleigh  – dodging cars, dogs, and pedestrians – is the main attraction.  (You can’t make this stuff up.  Really.)  Roberto knew the sleigh drivers – the guys who pull the basket and keep it from sliding into the gutter on the way down – and he quickly ushered us to the front of the line, tucked us into a prime basket and snapped photos with our cameras as we took off screaming down the lane.  Whoosh!  Drivers’ straw hats slipped under our basket seat (to keep them from blowing off, we guessed?) we careened wildly through the streets, narrowly escaping guttural demise then holding our breath through a movie-like moment barreling towards a fork in the road, wondering whether we’d go left,  right, or God forbid, straight into the pastoral cottage (with flowers in the windows, of course).   We veered left, but relief was tempered when, like at the top of a roller coaster before the tip to the other side, gravity rocketed us to the bottom of a particularly steep finale.  Like all skilled adrenaline junkies, we beamed and giggled hysterically, itching to hike back up the hill and do it all again.   Roberto counseled us to stick to our one early morning trek, however, before heading off to the rest of the island.   “It’s safe and I recommend, before lunch,” he confided.  “But after lunch . . .” he whispered, tipping his hand in cup-like fashion near his mouth, “they’ve relaxed a bit, get more adventurous you know…  After lunch, not so much.”  Good to know.

For Sacagawea, Dundee and me, Madeira was one of those special places  –  an utterly captivating spot with cobblestone streets, moss-covered cobblestone step-ramps, and terraced gardens nestled into the hillside, along with just enough chaos, color and corruption to give it character.    Vehicular bedlam ensued each time Roberto took his claim to the narrow streets simultaneous with the next guy, generally resulting in two cars barreling headlong towards one another in a version of Portuguese chicken.  Fortunately for us, Roberto was a skilled gamesman, leaving us unscathed but for the pounding heart.   Detouring around a particularly grizzled fisherman as we strolled through the streets of Camara, an old-world fishing village, Roberto discreetly explained our man of the sea had seen more jail than bait in recent years, a result of the area’s increasing drug trade.

With snarky local waiters to entertain us with their sarcasm, humor and street-side antics, we wiled away the afternoon enjoying perfectly grilled fresh local fish with a bit of local wine and port to wash it down . . . it is Madeira, after all.  (Me of course, not the kids; they were entertained by the kooky Canadians at the next table )  Ah yes.  Back in Europe and loving it.

February 28, 2010

Tsunami Tsaturday . . .a Fine Line

Once in a while we’re reminded that we live on a tiny rock in the middle of the Pacific.  Yesterday was one of those days.  Chile, on a continent far away, suffered an 8.8 earthquake as we headed to bed, and we awoke well before dawn to the sobering reality of a potentially devastating tsunami barreling our way.

We go through the drills regularly; the civil defense sirens are tested monthly and even the youngest children know to cover their ears and it’ll end soon.  Everyone I know has batteries, flashlights, water, sleeping bags and a radio in an emergency kit; the computers are routinely backed up and the important papers are all kept together.   We keep our phones charged, our gas tanks reasonably full, and a bit of cash on hand just in case.   We know our infrastructure is tenuous; phone lines crash every time there’s a heavy rain and the power can mysteriously go out when five people sneeze simultaneously around the state.  The possibility of devastation always looms,  perhaps as a part of subconscious life, but we’re island people, and we consider it part of the price of paradise.

This time, however, it wasn’t a drill.  By the time the civil defense sirens began blaring at 6AM — this time, for real — we were already in high gear.  Lines at gas stations and supermarkets had queued up in the wee morning hours.  Supermarkets quickly posted signs rationing Spam, a local favorite that deserves its own blog report at another time.  Ringing phones up and down the street pierced the quiet morning air, and neighbors gathered on the street to compare notes, strategies and supplies.  Friends checked on friends.  It was quiet, deliberate, kind and calm.  It was unlike any emergency I’ve ever known.

For us, we gathered the things that mattered — personal papers, a change of clothes, some food, water and supplies, and our 2 dogs and our cat — and headed to higher ground.   We took an assessment of our treasures — kids special art projects, photos, collections, our beloved Bandit’s ashes, special travel mementos — and moved them upstairs, just in case.  With our neighbor and dear friend Julie, and our new friends (until now strangers simply staying in a rental cabana for a few days) we took refuge in a client’s hillside home, where peacocks roam the conservation lands just beyond the back yard.  We nibbled on cheese, chips and chili, sipped a bit of wine, and waited.  Our animal menagerie settled into their kennels, nestled just outside the front door and within earshot.  We knew we were blessed, and that our “evacuation” bore little resemblance to the images typically conjured by the word.  Yet the fear and the unknown was palatable.  What would happen?  Would our homes still be there?  Would our island suffer the same devastation of southeast Asia, just a few years ago?

It came.  It rolled in, sucking out the water then rolling back in…enough to know it was there, but not enough to make a difference.  We’d been spared.  We’d dodged the bullet.  As one client put it so well . . . what happened, and what could have happened, an incredibly fine line.  Like everyone, we obediently waited for the all-clear, tidied up the home where we’d taken shelter, packed up the car, and headed back to the beach, back home.  We joined our neighbors on our stretch of beach, just to make sure our “home” was really okay.  We celebrated; we exhaled.

All the emergency supplies are back in the plastic bins and the cupboards, until next time.   Life has quickly returned to normal, restaurants re-opened, and the all-day news gave way to the Olympics.  It’s almost as though nothing happened . . . almost.  We walk our beautiful, calm beach and say a silent prayer for our friends in Chile, not quite so lucky.

November 19, 2009


Dundee and I were up at 4:30AM to make sure we caught it all.  It’s part of the adventure, seeing every moment of it, and we wanted to be sure we didn’t miss a thing.  We were the first on-deck, stars still twinkling overhead, to watch the pilot boat offload the 22 pilots to navigate our ship safely through the Panama Canal.

We’d done our homework, and knew the best seat in the house was at the bow, front & center, so we took our post and settled in, searching for planets & constellations to pass the time.  In the darkness, the channel path came into view, green and red buoys marking the runway-like path through the water.  We slowly set course, taking our place in line among cargo ships from points all around the globe.  Gliding beneath the Bridge of the Americas just as the sun’s glow warmed the morning sky, Dundee excitedly narrated each moment, recalling everything he’d read and studied in preparation for this day.   He got it; the connections were firing at full force, and as teacher/mom, I was simply ecstatic.

We were soon joined at the bow by another gentleman, also a bit giddy for the day.  Turns out he’d been through the canal before . . . some 57 years ago as a young naval officer.  He could recall every moment, and relived it with us – play by play – as we made our journey.  History, technology, ingenuity, and American culture all rolled into one early morning:  it couldn’t have been more perfect.

Entering Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal

Entering Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal

Everything about the experience fascinated and amazed us.  Lining up for the first locks, a tiny 2-man row boat meeting us to grab our line and deliver it to the locomotive guide into the lock, watching the gates close, the waters fill, then feel the lift as we moved into position for the next step…then doing it again.  Sacagawea watched the first locks from our cabin, and eagerly joined us on deck to report how she’d watch the lock walls overtake our windows, then watched as we lifted above it and were delivered back to open waters.

A canal passage is an all-day affair:  three sets of locks connected by river-like waterways amidst the jungles of Panama.  We made sure to see it all — the lock operations from the bow, then quickly running to the stern to catch the locks closing behind us and the next ships moving into position; the locomotive operations along side the ship, guiding us along the narrow passage and keeping us in position; the natural beauty of the waterway jungles, islands and habitat.

A message home

A message home

In the educational world, they call it a “teachable moment.”  For us, it’s way more than that.  These are experiences shaping a lifetime – moments that will forever loom in their collective memories – shaping their understanding of the world around them, kindling the notions of what’s possible, and igniting a passion of potential.   As we recalled the best moments of the day over dinner, Dundee started talking about where our next adventures might take us…maybe Africa, or deeper into South America he suggested.  When Sacagawea suggested he slow down, and simply enjoy this adventure, he quickly countered.  “I’m seeing places I never thought I’d get to see.  That means I can do even more, go even further, do things I never knew I’d get to do.”

Yep.  It’s working.