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When we think about homeschooling, we often limit it to what we do within our four walls, or at least within our community. But what better way is there to learn about the people in the world and make relations with them than to go there and meet them in person? So today we want to talk about worldschooling, and joining me is my friend, Amber O’Neal Johnston, who introduced this term to me: worldschooling.
Sonya: What is worldschooling?
Amber: Well, it is where you leave home and you take what you need with you and you hit the road. When we stay in the states, we often call it roadschooling, and when we leave the country, we change it to worldschooling and go and experience learning and living somewhere other than your home country.
Sonya: How do you decide where you’re going to go?
Amber: Sometimes we try to make a connection based on a contact we have. That’s our top desire. My husband can’t always stay with us the entire time that we’re gone; so for safety reasons, security, I like to know someone in that place. It isn’t always possible, but anyone. It could be a friend of a friend of a friend, but if everything started heading downhill and I regret the whole trip, who can I call? That’s one of the things we think about. We think about affordability and variety, trying to get to different continents, different types of topography, language, climate, all those things.
Sonya: How did that get on your radar? How did you first start doing this?
Amber: Well, it’s really funny because when I met my husband, I was thinking, “What type of career does he have and what type of family does he come from?” and the thing that impressed me is his passport was full.
Amber: Yes, his passport was full and he was doing a job that required no travel, so it was all personal. And I just remember sitting there and telling my sister, “This guy, his passport is full,” and it felt dreamy to me. We talked about it and he explained to me that he had seen the world and that he would like to take me to experience this, and I’m like, “But I’m planning to have babies,” and he was like, “We’re going to take them too!” It started as a dream, and then as the children started getting older, we started inching closer and closer to the “Why not?”
Sonya: How old are your kids?
Amber: They are now five, seven, nine, and eleven.
Sonya: And how many of these trips have you taken?
Amber: We just completed a few months ago our second major one, and then we’ve taken some shorter ones.
Sonya: Okay, give me relative here, what do you mean by “major” and “shorter.” Are we talking like three days?
Amber: No, three months is our aim. When we’re able to, our idea is we want to feel like we live in a place, and so we aim for three months. Not always possible, but that’s what we are aiming for when we’re planning, and the thought that, when you stay in a single place for three months, that doesn’t mean we don’t take little side trips, but we want to know the people of this one place, and we want to know them deeply. So we’re going to find our favorite markets, and we live in neighborhoods, not in tourist areas, and we’re going to get to know our neighbors and the children will make friends, and we’ll have a routine, and we’ll see what it’s like to actually live there versus just visit.
Sonya: So the question on everyone’s mind right now is how many millions do you have to make this possible?
Amber: That is so funny. Well, I lay a lot of the financials out. When we were planning our trip, I couldn’t find it online, but I saw these families doing crazy things like this in RVs and all this, and I’m like “What about the money?” So I lay it out in dollars, broken out on my website where people can see. But basically we travel frugally. Cost is a factor that plays into where we go; and then when we live where we choose to live, we don’t live in the fancy areas, we live among the people, just the main, middle class, regular, working class neighborhoods, we find a place to live in those areas. We cook, we don’t eat out; so restaurants in foreign countries is not something I can tell you a lot about, but I can tell you a lot about the market and what it’s like to cook at different altitudes and things like that. We use some of our money that we would normally spend here. So we’re not paying for ballet, we’re not paying for piano and volleyball and Girl Scout patches and things that you think about that you do spend money on your children while you’re here at home. We use that money when we are living abroad, and we stay within a budget. We bring cash and that’s it. If it runs out, we’ll just be at the park every day. That’s how it works. We don’t have a lot of money. We are a single-income family, but we also save a lot. And I sold a lot of things before we left to get extra cash. The same way you would get money here for anything else you might want, if your car breaks down and you have to get a new car or anything like that, we just prioritize the global travel and use the funds that way. Tax refunds. Gifts from grandma.
Sonya: Always helpful. So do you prepare the kids before you go in any way, or do you just say, “Hey, pack your suitcase, we’re going, honey.”
Amber: No, we spend over a year preparing for a trip. We pace our trips, our big trips, about two years apart, and we spend an entire school year usually really trying to soak in what we can about things that we’ll see, about the people. We try to talk about cultural norms there with the thought that we’re entering someone else’s home, and so we’re not going to screw up our faces, we’re not going to be shocked or turn up our noses at anything that we encounter, no matter how fantastical or strange it may be to us. So we do spend that time thinking about it, looking at pictures, and also kind of figuring out what we might want to do with our time while we’re there and what we’re going to take away and also what we might leave behind, what we could give, what can we bring with us that someone there—children there you may encounter—what might they want that could help build bridges there and make friends.
Sonya: It reminds me so much about what Charlotte Mason talked about, how the family is representing the nation to the other nations, and how you’re an ambassador really when you’re over there. It sounds like you coach your children well to be good ambassadors.
Amber: I do try. Some things I can’t anticipate, right, because we won’t know until we get there; but we just do the best that we can so that we walk in as good ambassadors and humble hearts. So we show up as humble servants and take what we can, but we do prep for sure.
Sonya: Then if you’re there for three months, are you doing schoolwork as well as sightseeing? Do you take all of your schoolwork with you? How does this balance out?
Amber: I immediately cut half of what we normally would do at home, and then I try to cut that in half. So my goal is to kind of bring our normal lessons down to about 25% and take whatever we need. I try to get as much of it electronically as I can. So we bring a Kindle, we have an iPad and a laptop, and beyond that, a lot of our lessons are still done, so we’re not “not doing school.” We’ve never been in the summer, we always go during three active school months, so we are doing school but our environment becomes a lot of our lesson. Our language is natural acquisition; our artist studies or picture studies are done at the art museum, and even if we need to keep going back to revisit that picture, we just keep going back to the same place. Our music is there for the local flavor, local music. So as much of it as we can incorporate from where we are, that’s what we do, including handicrafts. So trying to find a craftsman or craftswoman from that area that can teach us something simple that we can replicate. Really we’re bringing just a few things: we’re bringing our math and some other things that are harder to come by, and then on the Kindle we also have our novels and historical fiction, biographies, because we are not reading in a second language yet fully, so sometimes it’s hard to get English language literature overseas, so we do bring those as well. But other than that, we travel lightly. Books are heavy.
Sonya: Yes, they are.
Amber: We do bring a bag for books, but books are heavy and I’ve just learned from experience, it’s better not to plan very much from home because when you get there, there’s so much to do.
Sonya: What kind of challenges have you encountered?
Amber: Oh boy. Language is one, and it has really helped us all to be much more sensitive to people in the United States where English is not their first language and to be much more kind and loving and patient because it is hard to communicate. Also, even if you think you’ve been studying a language like we have, you feel nervous when you’re in the actual environment. A lot of interactions are very quick, people are waiting for you, behind you in line. You don’t have time to think.
Sonya: And they don’t always enunciate as well the recording.
Amber: Yes, they’re speaking really quickly. Also, there’s slang and regional differences that you might not have studied or you could not possibly have known. So language can be difficult. Money. We’re constantly changing currency and thinking of things in our minds, like “Is that worth it?” It’s like “I really want that sandwich,” you know? You’re trying to go through your head like “I would never spend this much for this sandwich, but I really want that sandwich.” So thinking of things like that. Tired kids. We’re using public transportation wherever we go, and so if we’ve traveled far away from our home base for the day for an outing or activity and someone’s tired or sleepy or not feeling well, you can’t just go back home and then come back out. So there are those considerations of pacing your day and making decisions ahead of time. And just trying to budget and make sure that you don’t overspend, because that would be a bad trip for us, right? We’re hoping to make this all delightful, and staying out of debt is an important part of it for us. Other than that, it would just be keeping in touch with people back home when you have time zone differences, and also just learning the culture. I mean that’s why you’re there. You say you want to learn a new culture, right? But then sometimes learning a new culture is uncomfortable.
Sonya: That’s true.
Amber: It’s hard. It’s not easy, it’s not always fun, and but that’s what you signed up for. And so it’s making it through those days that are not as fun or romantic-sounding as they may have seemed up front.
Sonya: Yes. Since some of your kids are pretty young, is there a way that you are able to document what you did to help them remember this? Because some places that I went to when I was five years old, I don’t remember much about it right now. Of course I didn’t go across the sea, and maybe that would make a bigger impression. But is there a way that you document these trips for your kids, or do you have them document it?
Amber: We have three things. (1) Each child has a travel journal. The younger kids, who are not writing, dictate and I write, and they also draw pictures. And we take photographs that we actually print out, it’s like old school, and they can glue or tape into their travel journals. The older kids write in their own. (2) I make photo books when we return that are very detailed in terms of where we’ve been and what we were doing and the name of that place and the historical significance; because, forget the kids, I can’t even remember. Sometimes I’m like, “We saw amazing things!” And people are like, “Like what?” And I’m like, “I don’t know the name of them. They were amazing!” So I write these things down for myself as well. (3) The third thing is the constant conversations. We talk about our trips when we return; they become a part of the fabric of our family. So we refer to things frequently, we talk about them; we bring things out that we brought back with us, and they’re sitting around the house. Our Christmas tree decorations come from those places. So they never go away. They aren’t things to forget about, that we don’t talk about for a long time; they’re constant. Also, learning how my children connect with a place helps, as well, with them remembering. I remember places, things we saw. My children remember people, people they interacted with. Making that realization has helped me keep it alive, especially for the younger ones. So I may say, “Remember that cave we went to and its historical significance and blah-blah-blah?” And the children will say, “Yes, remember the woman gave us the piece of fruit there, and she let us have some water and use the bathroom without paying (because mommy didn’t have money and didn’t know you have to pay for the bathroom)?” So things like that, and I said, “Yes, that’s where we were.” Understanding how they process locations and cultures and people and experiences . . .
Sonya: The relations that they form.
Amber: Yes, the relations they formed, thank you! That’s how they remember, that’s what keeps it alive for them. Also, we try to keep in touch with the people whose hearts we were most entwined with while we were there.
Sonya: Those are some great benefits. Any other benefits you want to highlight that would encourage some readers, possibly who are saying, “Well that sounds good, but I don’t know if I want to put the time and effort into doing that”? What other benefits would you like to mention just to encourage them?
Amber: Oh, I think the two biggest ones are that the easiest way to fall in love with people is to live among them. We have an affection for the people of the places we’ve visited that isn’t something that we read about in a book or someone told us to feel, but it’s a human connection that can’t help but take place when you’re in close proximity living out your lives together day by day. We tend to stand out in the places that we visit, and that makes for interesting things; but when we’re in a small town, the whole town knows that the Johnston family is there and they come out. There’s one thing, people say, “Aren’t you worried for security?” I say, “No one would kidnap us, because everyone’s watching when we’re around.” You know, I’m making that as a joke, but everyone is watching us, and so it gives us an opportunity to just speak with so many people and for them to get to know us and us to get to know them. The second thing is that it brings your school lessons to life. I honestly underestimated this at first, because we watch videos, we see photographs, and we read about these things in great detail. But reading, watching a video, and seeing pictures of Machu Picchu and then being there—we couldn’t even speak, and we had been studying this for a long time. We could not speak because of the awesomeness of what was around us. There is something much different about being able to show the children something that they’ve studied, and so we’ve kind of set it up as the birthday cake. We study something all year long and then “Let’s go and see it!” and see the magnificence of it with our own eyes. We talk about living lessons; there’s more than one way, and this is one way that my family has found to make a lesson come alive.
Sonya: I love that. You talked about that you’ve blogged about some of your experiences on your website. What website is that?
Amber: It’s heritagemom.com, and so you can search for worldschooling, and there are a lot of videos and information and how we paid for it, and all the things that people are usually wanting to know, I’ve put it in there in great detail.
Sonya: Great, thanks so much for sharing with us, Amber.
Amber: Thank you.