It seems like more and more people are traveling and expanding their horizons around the world. We often get asked for advice and practical tips from families who are planning to live and homeschool overseas. The Charlotte Mason Method can present some unique challenges and some uniquely enriching opportunities when you’re homeschooling in a different country from your homeland. So I’ve asked my dear friend and fellow Charlotte Mason homeschooler, Crystal Hildreth, to join us today to talk about homeschooling overseas with the Charlotte Mason Method.
Sonya: Crystal, thanks so much for joining us.
Crystal: Hello, Sonya, my dear friend. Glad to be here in your home.
Sonya: Thank you. I’m wondering if you could tell our listeners about where you’ve been living and the ages of your children that you’ve been homeschooling overseas.
Crystal: All right. We’ve been living in the United Arab Emirates in Abu Dhabi, and we’re currently living in Beijing, China. Joe was 15 when we left and Lee was 12; now Joe’s 18 and Lee is almost 16.
Sonya: So what are some of the challenges that you faced?
Crystal: Well, when we first told the children about this plan to move abroad, our oldest, our son Joe, said, “If it’s not broke, why fix it?” He couldn’t understand why we would leave, because we’ve always lived in the same town. We have our community, our friends, our family, and church. They have always just known that one home, and so he couldn’t understand why. So that was challenging, because teenagers are very attached to their friends—they’re like family. And so his identity as a teenager was wrapped up in the youth group at church and his homeschool activities outside of the home with his coach and friends. So it was harder for Joe. Lee was almost 13, so she was more ready for the adventure; she was in a different place. But it was a challenge to try to explain to Joe why we were going to uproot him and move across the world.
Sonya: I suppose some of it depends on the personalities of the kids and the ages of the kids. You’re going to need a strong relationship with those children.
Crystal: And it’s very important to let them talk about their feelings about it, and not just try to gloss over. Of course we want to tell them some of the benefits of going over. We adults had already been over. When my husband had interviewed for the job, I got to go over and was able to scout out where we’d be living and got to do some of the activities. So I was able to go back and tell the children, “Well, you’re going to get to go dune bashing. We’re going to get to take you to see the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. We’re going to be able to try new food.” I know that whet their sense of adventure, their appetite for adventure, but also there was a lot of apprehension in leaving everything.
Crystal: It was important to let them express those feelings and just keep reassuring them, “It’s all going to be okay.”
Sonya: And then, once you got over there, what were some of the challenges you faced?
Crystal: We were told over and over again that moving to Abu Dhabi was a soft landing for ex-pats; but it was our first time to move abroad, so it felt sort of hard and bumpy for us. Some of the challenges, of course, were that we were eight hours’ time difference away, so trying to make those phone calls home. We live in an age where we have Skype, e-mail, and texting, so we knew that it would not be as challenging as years ago when you get on a boat, and leave, and you might not be able to hear back from your loved ones. We had that instant communication, so that was a blessing. But the biggest challenge was homesickness, just missing the familiar, and setting up home and starting all over again for my husband and me. The children probably picked up on some of our stresses, because we basically had to start all over with everything.
Sonya: You would have to really give yourself some grace time to adjust and pay special attention, I would think, especially to the children even as you’re trying to adjust.
Crystal: Yes, exactly. We were all in a spin for a while. And then also the jet lag. And just trying—we were living in an apartment for a few weeks, and then we had to find a home. Then every weekend we were going to IKEA to outfit the home. So it was just for many, many weeks and months we were still transitioning. And then we were throwing homeschooling into the mix.
Sonya: Did you try to continue your homeschool schedule during that adjustment time?
Sonya: It seems like that adjustment time would take all of your energy and focus and thought.
Crystal: I would pull in little bits. I might have tea time in my bedroom and we would read a poem or a read-aloud, just so that we kept doing it. Because here’s one of the positive things: we were in a brand new place with so much to see. And so, I guess as far as what we love to do, going out on all those wonderful field trips, we did a lot. Day One, we took the children to the Grand Mosque, this beautiful mosque in Abu Dhabi. So we just started exploring right away. For the first three weeks, we really did a lot of exploring while we were settling in.
Sonya: That makes sense. Okay, one of the biggest questions we have been asked about doing Charlotte Mason overseas is, What about all the books? Did you hire your own ship to haul the whole library?
Crystal: You know how much I love books.
Sonya: I know how many you’ve got in your house!
Crystal: My husband said, “I will let you fill four boxes.” We all went out and bought luggage, so each of us had three pieces of luggage each. And once we filled the luggage, he said, “Okay, I will pay for you to ship four boxes.” So, of course, most of those boxes were filled with the school books that the children were going to use. But then I had my “friends”: Do I take Winnie the Pooh or do I take Jane Austen? You know how you’ve got your “friends” that you want to revisit. That was so hard. My husband was very generous in paying for that extra shipping, so I could take some of my book friends. And one of the first things we got at IKEA was a bookshelf, so I could put them all in there. That was really important; that added some of the familiarity of home.
Crystal: I took along, not only some of the special things to decorate the home with—just a few little pictures from home, or something that we’d use for traditions, like a special birthday plate—but our books needed to be there as well. I think when the children could reread some of the books, it just added comfort. So that was difficult, yes. And every time we would come home over the last few years, we were always taking more books over. We would distribute those books through our suitcases, because my husband said, “I’m not shipping boxes of books over anymore.”
Sonya: So trying to put the weight evenly between all the suitcases.
Crystal: I would leave most of my clothes behind in Abu—well, before, it was Abu Dhabi; now it’s Beijing—so most of my clothes stay behind. I come home with just a few outfits, but I have to have space for the books, Sonya.
Sonya: Pretty soon your whole library is just going to be transmitted right over there.
Crystal: And one of the challenges is, once I’m looking for a book, I can’t remember where it is. That’s hard.
Sonya: Because when you moved from Abu Dhabi to Beijing, you still had a home in Abu Dhabi. You weren’t sure how long you were going to be there. So you had three houses going.
Crystal: We did.
Sonya: Three libraries.
Sonya: I can’t imagine trying to keep track of your books over three locations.
Crystal: My husband just shakes his head, because we did a lot of traveling from the countries we lived in. So every time we’d go somewhere, I was toting books home again. If we went to Europe, I could try to find an English bookstore more easily, and then I would get a lot of used books. I would put those in my backpack and lug them around; I know he would be like, “More books?” He gets me though, we’ve been married 29 years; so he understands, that what I collect.
Sonya: That’s your happy place.
Sonya: You mentioned traveling to Europe. When you were stationed in Abu Dhabi, then you were able to do a lot of little day trips? Or how did that work? You went other places as well.
Crystal: My husband works for a global company. So when he had meetings, sometimes those would take him to Europe and other countries. Most of the time he went on his own, but sometimes we got to go with him. When he went to Prague and Vienna, the kids and I packed up some of our books—we left some books behind, but we always have to carry a few books—so we took the books, but we really focused on exploring the city, taking in concerts, going and exploring cathedrals, historical places, trying the food. So while he was in meetings, we would be out exploring, mostly on foot, because I really like to see a city that way. The same thing when he went to London for a conference; the children and I explored London. We made a dash to the National Art Gallery, we went to a concert in Saint Martin in the Fields. We just took advantage of when we were invited. We do take our books along for that rainy day or when they’re a little tired, but mainly we put the books aside and we just get out and soak up the culture by being a part of it.
Sonya: That’s such a valuable experience for the kids.
Sonya: So much of Charlotte Mason is atmosphere, discipline, and life, and it seems like those are just what you’re describing.
Crystal: Yes, this whole experience has awakened all of our sense of wonder. And to see that in my children’s eyes, it’s just been wonderful! Because every day there’s something new to see. Living in Abu Dhabi, now living in Beijing, every day there’s something new. And I know for myself, when I come back home, that sense of wonder has been awakened here in my home state, my hometown. For years, living in the same place, I think we just got used to the familiar and maybe that dulled our sense of wonder. I feel like for all of us, and I’ve seen it in my children, that sense of wonder has been awakened. So going to all these other places has just been such a joy. And our college kids have been able to fly over and meet us in different places as well.
Sonya: You have three other children who are older that you had to leave behind.
Crystal: That was very hard. That was one of the challenges: leaving my dear parents, and my close friends, our church, but especially my adult children. But they’ve all come over to both countries to see us. And they’ve met us at other countries on break. So we have had quite the family adventure.
Sonya: Yes, it’s involved all of them. Now, your first three, you had already graduated.
Sonya: And I know all of them did dual enrollment.
Sonya: But Joe graduated overseas from your home school. So how was that different?
Crystal: Well, he did not have the same opportunities to do the dual enrollment. I homeschooled him with all of our books, and he didn’t have the access to labs like he would have had with the other children. Because with our tight homeschool co-op here, I could find other teaching homeschool mothers that would offer a class in chemistry or teach a language. My other children had those opportunities in our homeschool, tight-knit community. We did meet other homeschoolers, but I didn’t join a co-op over in Abu Dhabi. They were mainly younger children, so it wasn’t a good fit for us. But Joe had some other opportunities. He’s very interested in film, and he found an internship that he was able to take part of. He got to do some filming out in the desert in the Empty Quarter. I think he was the youngest intern. He didn’t take no for an answer; he kept e-mailing and showing up at their door. I think he just had a goal and went for it. So he did not get to do some of the things the other children did, but then again, he also had some other rich experiences that he would not have gotten to do if he were here. So he took advantage of where we were.
Sonya: So even though his senior year, and high school years, didn’t look exactly like his siblings’, it was still very rich.
Crystal: Very rich. We would invite the children from their youth group to our home, and the house would fill up with about 30 or 40 youth from all over the world, often different countries. So the richness of having friends now from all over is just wonderful. And he would also be invited to go to their homes and get to partake in an Indian meal and learn how to make some of their Indian food, or he had a friend from Australia, or a friend from Germany. So just getting to go and spend time with them and with their families in their homes to learn about their culture.
Sonya: So I assume you have debriefed with your children, you’ve discussed. I know you talk to your kids all the time and get at their hearts. What do the kids think? This is your perspective of living overseas. What do your kids think of the experience they had?
Crystal: Joe told me,—I said, “Just give me in three words your impressions of our time.” His three years are over now, because we graduated him, and I think because of this experience, he’s taking a gap year. He wants to have time to work and be home in Georgia for a while. So he told me three words: magical, foundational, and growth. I just love that his first word was magical. That means, looking back on those three years, that was his first word. And it was magical, and he did grow a lot.
Crystal: He had such a wonderful adventure. That boy did some desert camping. I think it was a few weeks after we arrived, he was able to go with a group and learn how to trek through the desert with a compass and a map, so he was off on his way. And another adventure that he had: he had to shepherd his little sister back to Abu Dhabi, just the two of them. I’m not going to go into it, but sometimes we traveled different times for different reasons. On our second year going back, he and Lee traveled alone. That was really nerve-racking for me. And because of diplomatic relations with another country, they couldn’t do the same route we’d done before. So he had to go from Atlanta to Qatar to Kuwait and then to Dubai. He said at one point they were at one counter (I think maybe in Qatar, and also Kuwait) where they didn’t speak English, and he didn’t really know if they were on the right plane until he heard the English-speaking pilot and the destination. That was a huge growth experience, so he says growth. He told me he did not realize how much he just relied on his father and me—just the ease you feel when you’re traveling. So Joe really grew so much in his confidence with public transit, and also just navigating through an airport.
Sonya: And that’s going to serve him well.
Crystal: Yes. So you see, that’s something he couldn’t have learned in a college setting like dual enrollment.
Sonya: Right. You don’t take a class on that.
Crystal: No. Really you just dive in and swim.
Crystal: So using the Charlotte Mason Method abroad gave us flexibility to do all the things that we wanted to see. We continued our nature study with all the places we were; we would take our nature books along with us. Our music and art study could be the museums and the concert halls. You didn’t have to start from scratch and wonder, What are we going to do?, because it was all around us. And then, of course, taking the books along in our suitcases gave us many wonderful ideas to discuss and narrate. One of the advantages was, because we left our tight-knit community with so much to do, once we went over to Abu Dhabi, our days seemed to get longer and we were able to have a lot of quiet space for all that good reading. Then on weekends, or time with their dad, we could go explore and do all those things; so it was a really nice balance. It was a beautiful time.
Sonya: It sounds like a wonderful high school experience for them. Now, what about Lee? What does Lee think?
Crystal: Lee said, Mind-opening, character, and challenging. Lee’s still in this chapter. She and I fly out next week to go back to Beijing, so she’s got another year ahead of being away from family and friends, and going back into—not a soft landing. Moving to Beijing was harder because of the language barrier; not many people speak English.
Sonya: In Abu Dhabi you had more English-speakers.
Crystal: Yes and signs. It’s so much easier to communicate in Abu Dhabi. So I’m glad we had that soft landing before the Lord moved us to Beijing.
Sonya: And I’m glad that Lee recognizes it’s a challenge. She’s going into this with her eyes wide open now. She has an idea of, not everything that’s in front of her, but she has an idea this isn’t just all a bed of roses.
Crystal: No, it’s not. It can seem glamorous when you tell your friends and family back home the places you’re getting to travel and things you’re getting to see, but there’s a lot of spaces between those events where we’re dealing with the loneliness and the homesickness and the frustration sometimes that comes with living in a different culture. In China, especially, you think that you’re communicating your ideas very articulately and clearly, and we are not connecting—a lot of misunderstandings. We call those “China days,” and we want to get back to our apartment; we call it The Burrow. We want to get back and just shut the door on everything. But then the next day, we go back out and our sense of wonder is renewed. But there are challenges with the communication.
Sonya: It reminds me of what Charlotte talked about, that the purpose of foreign language is that we would be good ambassadors to these other countries. You guys are learning Mandarin Chinese, correct?
Crystal: Yes, we have a tutor that’s coming to our house. She’s been very patient, but with those four tones . . . . I’m starting to understand a little more when I hear it; but to speak it! When I speak to a local, they’ll just give me that look, and I keep trying, and they go, “Oh!” My children also had a tutor in Arabic. So we’re taking advantage of living in these countries where they’re hearing the local language. So even if they learn just a little bit. I can say “welcome” and “hello” and “thank you.”
Sonya: That’s great!
Crystal: It’s funny, soon after we moved to China I was getting ready for the day. I put on my flip-flops, because I was used to living in the desert and it was warm, then I put on my coat and my hat, and I was ready to go out. My husband said, “You are so mixed up.” So that’s something that we have to deal with too. Living in these other countries, the children get used to the culture there. It’s very safe; in both cities we feel very, very safe, especially in Abu Dhabi. We can leave our belongings behind like at a table, come back, and it’s not going to be moved. The children could go in taxis in both cities and go meet their friends; I felt very comfortable. So there’s debriefing when we come back home. I have to remind them they can’t leave their bags behind. And I guess I’m a little more protective of them here. So that’s one of the challenges too, ex-pat kids seem to be more independent, and then when you come back home I have to put my guard and protection around them a little bit more just because of the location where we live and we don’t have cameras everywhere monitoring.
Sonya: But it seems like a part of their whole global education and being this ambassador is understanding. They have,—as I think Lee mentioned, it made her mind come open now, and she understands more about her brothers and sisters around the world.
Sonya: Wherever it is, there are different parameters and different guidelines to keep in mind no matter where you go, but they’ve had such a rich experience.
Crystal: Yes, they have definitely learned to integrate with strangers and then make friends.
Sonya: Make them into friends.
Sonya: That’s wonderful. Thanks so much for joining us today, Crystal, and all the wisdom and advice and council that you have shared for homeschooling overseas.
Crystal: Oh, thank you for having me.