A Little Education… How I Homeschooled My Niece From Asia

baby elephant laos

Ana met a mother elephant and her tiny two month old baby elephant in Laos.

One of the tenets I live by is that life-long learning is something worthy of not only practicing, but of instilling a love of in others. And a love of learning was a core element I wanted my niece Ana to walk away with when she left my company after I homeschooled her throughout Southeast Asia.

And though I no longer homeschool my niece from the road, that adventure into a slightly non-mainstream choice made A Little Adrift (and me by default) a spokesperson of sorts for schooling on the road. One long-term traveler read my story and wanted to know how she could homeschool her little brother; a mom from Colorado was stressed by the dearth of information and wondered how I tackled the feat of figuring out curriculum. Dozens of others tell me they’re inspired to create their own niece/nephew project, if only they knew where to start. The sheer volume of email I get from others intrigued by the possibility of taking their kids out of school to travel surprised me, and it motivated me to share the nitty-gritties of that side of my travels.

And since my way was to essentially just school on the road (we followed the same type of teaching style mirrored in US public schools), I created a master traveling while schooling resource page with tons of links and alternative options—from homeschooling to unschooling and everything in between. This post lays out why and how we did, with the resources page providing alternatives for your research.

If this topic doesn’t interest you, why not read this post instead, it’s an oldie but a goodie and filled with pretty travel photos. Otherwise, onward!

Traveling with my niece Ana for six and a half months is one of those travel experiences I look back on as life-changing for us both. Though I had traveled solo for three years, life presented me with this amazing opportunity to take a then 11-year-old child and show her my version of the world. To share with her my style of local-level travel, to expose her to new languages, religions and cultures, and to learn from her as well—to learn over those months how to keep child-like joy and wonder.

It wasn’t always easy. Okay, it was soooo hard for us both in the early days. Our travels meant re-prioritize my previously solo travels, and my life, so that I could take my niece on a journey while maintaining a learning atmosphere. And for her it meant leaving behind her friends and missing out on the 6th grade and her transition year into middle school. And through it all, it meant us both taking a step into a style of education that neither of us had ever experienced. I attended public school and it was always assumed Ana was on that same path. But circumstances changed, and my family and I jumped at the chance for Ana to travel with me, even if that meant leaping headfirst into uncharted territory: homeschooling.

jumping angkor wat
In the months leading up to our trip, when I pulled her out of traditional school and took on the responsibility for her education, I read heaps of books, watched documentaries, and emailed homeschool bloggers. I read about homeschooling, unschooling, and the methodologies behind each. I read books from former teachers and books about how people learn, all with the fear that one wrong move would ruin her chances college, life and a future. It was melodramatic stuff in the O’Donnell household for a while.

That being said, this wasn’t exactly a chore for me either! If you follow me on Twitter you know I often talk about our US education system. And last year I shared a huge resource of free ways to learn almost anything. I geek out on the topic. Add to that a close friend who braved the transition before me—while in college, I nannied for a family (who I now consider my family), and they pulled their children out of school in favor of homeschooling. With Joanne’s help and the research, I gained (rough) confidence that I could take my niece’s education on my shoulders.

Is it Affordable?

schoolwork

Laptop and smoothie time in Siem Reap, Cambodia as she had a treat while she did her schoolwork on our day off from exploring Angkor Wat

Without fail, when I casually mention those months with Ana overseas I get a question about the costs, because other aunts, siblings, and parents always wonder if they’ll go broke considering traveling long-term with their kids. Budget is the number one question all travelers face, so I’ll start with that. Our situation is unique in that I have online consulting work I do from the road, which I have always used to afford my previous years of travel. With Ana, homeschooling actually only added some minor additional expenses—less than you’d think! The biggest expense isn’t education at all, it’s the travel itself. At this stage, the question you have to answer is if you can afford to travel, the education side does not have to cost much above that. Keep in mind too that after paying for the plane flights, traveling in less developed countries is truly not the equivalent to traveling the US for any length of time.

On the homeschooling front, we chose to take advantage of our state’s free online program (I get into that in the next section), and our core cost then became buying a small laptop for her to use on the road. Because she was just 11-years-old, we opted for one that did all the basics, but it wasn’t sophisticated, it just needed to work! We ended up with a Samsung that was about $400.

So, on the education front, we had just her laptop expense upfront, then the rest came down to what it costs to travel long-term, which is less than most people assume and there are heaps of families who have pulled their kids out of school for a year or two (or more!). Check out some of these posts for a quick look what a family travel budget means on the road:

If you’re looking at long-term travel, the homeschooling aspect does not have to add a huge expense. It’s doable, I promise.

How We Homeschooled

train

On our way to Bangkok, and Ana’s first train ride!

My ultimate education style with Ana can best be summarized as travel-led learning within a framework of the core traditional courses prescribed by international schooling standards. We focused on her education, but not solely in the “here memorize these facts” type of way. Instead, my goal was to teach my niece that curiosity is the root of education, that self-motivated curiosity will take her far beyond my “classroom” as she matures, that her life story is a series of choices, and that choice is a freedom and privilege that is not given equally to everyone in this world.

To make that theory more tangible, I’ll break down our education schedule over the six plus months we spent in Southeast Asia. Ana took five online classes through Florida Virtual School (FLVS), a free, state-run program for Florida residents that gives students access to virtual classrooms administered by registered state public school teachers. Many states have similar programs, you can check your state programs and options here at K12.com. Her five FLVS classes covered the most basic knowledge we wanted her to have at the end of her sixth grade year of school:

  • Math
  • Science
  • Social Studies
  • English
  • Spanish (her choice)

These five classes are considered a full load by the state of Florida, but they took Ana about half the amount of time traditional students spend in school. This was my first experience with FLVS and we both generally liked that Ana could work at her own pace, and I was grateful to have her core curriculum planned out and taught—it was a bonus that we had no books or curriculum to carry, and the novels required for English were available on the Kindle.

In addition to FLVS, I integrated learning into the places we visited by adding country relevant books to her reading list. She wrote me essays about things we learned on the road, and she collected her experiences on her own travel site, A Little Adrift Jr, where she didn’t know it, but she practiced creative writing, storytelling, and she learned how to illustrate stories with her own photography. Each time she expressed an interest in something specific, I would then research ways to incorporate that aspect into our trip.

thai school kids

We visited a 7th grade class in Chiang Mai, Thailand to see what it was like!

I am a fan of formal learning, I think it rounds out interest-led learning and that’s partly why we went this route. With that in mind, FLVS was really perfect for us. Ana’s teachers accommodated our schedule (we were on a 12 hour time difference) and were understanding when we had flukes that prevented internet access. That was really one of the few obstacles to online classes, they are completely internet based and work was due on a weekly basis—we had to have a fast internet connection for at least two days every week. That was easy enough in Thailand, a lot harder in Laos, and impossible in Myanmar (which we knew ahead of time so we front-loaded her school work, warned her teachers, and took a full month off from the internet while we enjoyed Myanmar).

Also, she had her own laptop and a Kindle. The Kindle was invaluable at keeping her occupied on buses, trains, planes and when I had meetings or some such. And yes, I could have given her real books to read, but because she cruised through eight books in two months alone—the Percy Jackson series and the Hunger Games trilogy—it was so worth it not to carry those books in our bags.

Loy Krathong in Chiang Mai, Thailand

We handmade our krathongs, little rafts to set free on the river in Chiang Mai during the Loy Krathong lantern festival.

And that was really it. The resource page goes into picking curriculum if you go that route, or going more world-led learning, but for us I needed a way to ensure she had a full year equivalent so that she could easily transition back into public school, and the online program did that perfectly. But it was only one part of our learning, because in making the travel experience engaging, I had to learn how to shift our activities to better include a child in the experience, that touches more on interest-led learning, which we spent the bulk of our time doing.

Other Lessons in Learning on the Road

My biggest lessons about teaching Ana beyond the classroom came from a friend, Naomi Duguid, who had traveled extensively through Asia with her children when they were young. When we first landed in Chiang Mai, I was overwhelmed by the realities of making the entire thing interesting beyond the first few weeks—we had nearly seven months of culture and history to fill and I feared she’d get bored and wish she could go home. Naomi talked me down from those fears and offered feedback that really grounded our travels. She suggested that I do two main things to keep Ana fascinated and interested in our travel experiences:

  • Keep her fingers busy doing things.
  • Find a common thread in our travels and task her with investigating it.

stencil class in Luang Prabang

Keep ‘Em Busy

weaving loom laos

Ana learned to use a huge loom in Laos.

To the first suggestion, she was so, so spot on. We visited many, many temples all over Southeast Asia, and while Ana found them visually appealing in the beginning, her interest waned somewhere around Buddhist temple visit number 126. So, there we are in Laos, and I can see I’ve lost her. She’s a good kid, so she went to these temples with me, but temple fatigue had set in, and the learning-fascination-wonder that I had dreamed would take root in her was flickering like a candle in the rain.

My first thought was, “Oh man, it’s going to be a long trip if she’s already burnt out on temples.” Which was patently unfair of me, since I remember my own temple fatigue set in around the eight week mark on my first trip to Southeast Asia. Taking Naomi’s advice, I hunted down a stencil making class in Luang Prabang. Ana had a personal lesson and a former monk handed Ana a full set of chisels and taught her the traditional techniques Monks use to make the stencils used to paint patterns on the temple walls.

Our next temple visit became a chance to look for these patterns and themes the monk had discussed.

In the subsequent weeks and months we learned how to die and weave silk, took a Thai cooking class, ran a 10K on Christmas, and learned how to make Burmese sugar candies. Each experience gave us a lens through which to view that culture or experience; it gave us a framework to discuss the new things we were learning but without the dry guide-book feel. She loved it all and the various classes gave us some neat souvenirs for her to mail home as well.

Find a Common Thread to Investigate

Ana applies gold leaf to a Buddha in Bagan, Burma (Myanmar)

Ana applies gold leaf to a Buddha in Bagan, Burma (Myanmar)

Our temple visits in Myanmar had their own theme, we jointly tasked ourselves with finding as many Buddha positions as possible, and then researched what they all mean by asking locals. Buddha is pictured in various poses throughout his life, and each pose and hand position (called mudras) means something different. Our goal was to find and photograph a Buddha in every position. It took us months to find each one, and Ana was better than I at spotting the slight variances. It was a neat mission and it created a common thread; it gave her an activity and task for each temple visit and a focus beyond, “hey kid, look at that and be awed.”

Other threads we used to connect each place included beads; Ana was crafty and made bracelets for all the passing travelers we met, so each time we passed small markets we looked for interesting coins, beads, and other things to use in jewelry. That task got her talking with the locals, too! I gave her an allowance in local currency each week with the only rule being that she had to spend it on her own, with no help from me in communicating and bargaining. By the end of our months in Asia, she was a pro. :)

Appeal to Current Interests

When the Hunger Games craze seized us both in early January, I used some of the book’s core dystopian themes (government control, oppression, and a revolutionary society) to teach my niece about Myanmar’s modern history. Though a bit of a stretch at times, the conversations and questions had us both spending weeks digging into research about other revolutionaries in history, and about different governments and the core ideas behind communism, democracy, and theocracy.

Ana learned and understood the significance of us traveling freely throughout Myanmar. She pointed out the images of Aung San Suu Kyi that openly hung on vendor’s stalls in the country, and she understood that this signified a turning point in the country’s history. And the best part was, she willingly learned all of this history because she was keenly interested in Katniss’ trials and tribulations throughout the Hunger Games trilogy, and I found a way to relate interest to our upcoming travels in Burma.

Consider Volunteering

Service is a fundamental theme within my own travels and something Ana and I integrated into our time in Southeast Asia as well. Beyond curriculum, I wanted her to have access to other opportunities to grow as a person. Over our months in Asia, Ana and I supported social enterprises, volunteered teaching English in Laos and Thailand, and talked a lot about how we could be more responsible travelers. Traveling can grow your capacity for compassion; we integrated service and little projects over the months into each new place to foster this experience.

Allow Time for Play and Downtime Too

tiny dog

Teacup dogs are all the rage in Thailand.

There is a time and place for questioning and actively seeking learning experiences, but learning takes place in every moment and in ways I could never control. Ana and I often spent the last hours of the day at a local park kicking a ball around, reading in the grass, or playing with the many tiny dogs rocketing through the park. We integrated with the locals and took time to just enjoy the day. I’m sure if I pressed her I could make her actively realize the commonalities between parks near our home in Florida and the one in Chiang Mai. We could talk about the family interactions, the kissing couples under a tree. Instead, we played, she saw whatever she saw, and I allowed her downtime to assimilate and observe whatever she wanted and to play to her heart’s content.

Life on the road these past five years has challenged me, humbled me, and taught me more than I could ever have predicted when I first planned to travel long term back in 2008.

Travel itself is an education.

Learning never ends.

These are the lessons I wanted to inspire in Ana. Yes, we covered the basic maths and sciences, but beyond that I wanted to teach her how to take an interest and find out more. How to use a personal interest as a gateway to learning more.

I challenged her to look up anything and everything online. I gave her permission to ask any question that ever occurred to her.

I hope I ignited her curiosity and wonder for the world. My philosophy for that year became: anything tangible I might have missed teaching her can be taught at some point in the future as long as she has a life-long interest in learning about the world.

Mandalay

***

That’s about the whole of our approach to learning that year! I homeschooled Ana through sixth grade and half of seventh grade, and she was 11 and 12 years old during our time together. Our second year included a lot more free-form learning in some subjects until I eventually re-enrolled her in public school for personal reasons. This is the approach we took for many reasons, including: our goals as a family, her need to reenter public school, and the availability of a free online curriculum.

If you’re thinking about going this route yourself with your own niece, brother, sister, or child, please check out my Traveling Homeschool Resource page so you can learn more about other traveling parents and different approaches!

Cheers and thanks, this was a long one! :)

~S

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23 Responses to A Little Education… How I Homeschooled My Niece From Asia

  1. Lindsay November 25, 2013 at 2:49 pm #

    We are a pre-kid and often talk about taking kids on the road. What an amazing experience for your niece. When I think of all the amazing things I’ve learned traveling I wonder who I would be today if I had the experience at a young age. I hope to give my kids this gift some day!

    • Shannon O'Donnell November 25, 2013 at 8:53 pm #

      I agree completely! I was not able to travel young, and am wowed by the thought of kids who are raised with that broadened perspective. Let me know if I can ever help when you go that route (which I realize is years away :)

  2. Sean Lannin November 17, 2013 at 6:02 pm #

    Great Post Shannon! I think it is amazing that you have such a trusting relationship with your family that made this experience possible. Our attempts to Homeschool our kids fell apart after only a couple of months somewhere between the borders of Ecuador and Peru. For the next 1 1/2 years their education was little more than their daily experiences. My wife and I thought we had ruined them for life, but both were “at grade level” in less than a semester after they returned to public school. We plan to leave the states again (my son graduated high school) and have my daughter complete her education online. There are many more online resources available now than in 2007/2008 and we are hopeful that it will be a much more pleasant experience for us.

    • Shannon O'Donnell November 19, 2013 at 6:36 pm #

      Thanks Sean! I think it really does make a difference to have the internet, I can’t imagine having kept up all the subjects if it was just me and us making the time. She had external forces asking for assignment deadlines and had made it to an age where she had autonomy to get it done, thankfully!! So much good luck planning your next trip, and let me know if there is anything I can do to help. :)

  3. Riana November 4, 2013 at 10:24 pm #

    Thank you for sharing your experience so thoroughly! I really loved reading this post and completely admire how you chose to structure your niece’s education. As the person who wrote in about homeschooling my brother, this is exactly how I envision doing it. Thank you again! Off to read your resource page for more in

    • Shannon O'Donnell November 4, 2013 at 11:24 pm #

      Glad you found the post Riana! I had made a mental note to email it to you (and obviously forgot!), when that time comes, shoot me an email and we can chat more about what it will take. :)

  4. Lunaguava November 3, 2013 at 7:17 pm #

    Your niece is a very lucky young lady. I was once a teacher, back in the days when snakes had legs, and would have loved to have taken all my students on a trip to the other side of the world. The opportunities for learning are immense – for everyone involved. Travel nourishes empathy, which can become dangerously rarefied in our increasingly fast-pacing world. Brilliant post, as usual. Thank you and good luck!

    • Shannon O'Donnell November 4, 2013 at 2:11 pm #

      I didn’t know you were a teacher! One of the most important roles and so underappreciated in our world right now. Empathy is a hard skill to teach, in the rush to push the core subjects in traditional schooling I fear character development is often left out, it was great to see how traveling transformed Ana’s character over the months as much as the learning aspects.

  5. Time Travel Plans October 31, 2013 at 6:34 pm #

    This post has given me food for thought as my travel-loving husband and I are in the midst of family planning in hopes to start having kids within the next 1-2 years. While we don’t plan on being full-time nomads, I’ve often thought about how I’d like to incorporate our travels into our future children’s education. A lot of the information you’ve provided is very useful even for those parents/caretakers who don’t plan on homeschooling their kids full-time but who just want to round out their kids’ education with travel. I’m excited about the future possibilities! Great post!

    • Shannon O'Donnell November 1, 2013 at 3:43 pm #

      Travel is such a wonderful teacher, I love that you are factoring it into how you hope to educate your children! One other woman who I feel really does a great job talking about how she integrates travel and education is http://edventureproject.com — you might like her ideas too! :)

  6. Sorin October 31, 2013 at 2:43 pm #

    Not having a child right now. But I always saw myself traveling with my children. And homeschool was one of the things I was thinking – how should I do it? Now I know it :). Thanx!

    • Shannon O'Donnell October 31, 2013 at 9:04 pm #

      So glad you found it helpful! It’s definitely doable when you do go that route. :)

  7. Linda October 29, 2013 at 2:21 am #

    Great post Shannon. I have to say traveling is definitely more interesting when you homeschool. It’s the mentality that makes a big difference. We just came back from a 2 weeks trip to Bali. Traveling the off beaten path is certainly rewarding. Kids had a blast and learned so much. Your blog has certainly been one of the main influences on how we travel. Thanks and love from Malaysia.

    • Shannon O'Donnell October 29, 2013 at 2:41 pm #

      Bali is so beautiful, I hope the kiddos and you guys had a wonderful adventure exploring over there. So much thanks and love right back atcha from Florida. :)

  8. Rashad Pharaon October 28, 2013 at 8:12 pm #

    This is absolutely incredible – who know it was possible to home school while on the road? (the international road, no less?) I can’t think of a better education than traveling the world! It’s really refreshing to see such a unique concept included on a travel blog. Kudos!

    • Shannon O'Donnell October 28, 2013 at 8:54 pm #

      Thanks Rashad! It was quite the adventure for us and I am glad you enjoyed the post! :)

  9. Lana October 28, 2013 at 2:51 pm #

    As a homeschool graduate and traveller, I must say I love this!

    • Shannon O'Donnell October 28, 2013 at 8:46 pm #

      Thanks Lana! It was so fun to have her and combine them both as we traveled around SEA :)

  10. Not A Scottish Lass October 28, 2013 at 5:10 am #

    This is just amazing. I love how when you felt she was losing interest in the temples you found ways to engage her further through increased information on aspects of them, i.e. the chisels. Very cool. What an amazing opportunity for her, I’m she’ll have a life long case of wanderlust, thanks to her lovely auntie. Thanks for sharing!

    • Shannon O'Donnell October 28, 2013 at 8:48 pm #

      I hope she does want to travel when she’s older, I always fear that it could go the other way since she feels like she’s seen a lot now!! Thanks for reading :)

  11. MyOwnBS October 27, 2013 at 5:38 pm #

    What a fantastic experience for Ana, not only she is learning math and all but most important she is learning cultural values and expand her knowledge to far away places.

    • Shannon O'Donnell October 28, 2013 at 8:34 pm #

      Thanks for commenting! Yes, the biggest part of my travels with her was a hope to she would have a deeper sensitivity to other cultures — no better way than travel for that! :)