Adventures in Boatschooling

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I was recently asked by one of our blog readers if I had published my homeschool curriculum. It occurred to me that not only haven’t I published it; I haven’t even mentioned boatschooling, even though it’s a huge part of our life.

I had delusions of grandeur before departing on our voyage. I thought how wonderful homeschooling would be and how much closer we would get as mother and son. I could learn to better understand his strengths and he would bask in the warm glow of my parental knowledge and direction. Yeah, not so much. It turns out that boatschooling is not easy. In my statistically insignificant and totally random survey of other parents who boatschool their kids, I’m not alone. We even met one family who was so fed up with boatschooling that they decided to stop where they were and enroll their kids in the local public school. “I do not like the person I’ve become when I am teaching my kids,” the mom said to me. “I think I know that lady,” I said to myself. What happened to all the information I read about how kids who are boatschooled come back ahead of their peers, both in knowledge and maturity?

I am not a teacher and I don’t pretend to be one (though I pretended to be one for a year while teaching English in Spain in my 20s.) I have become frustrated (OK, yelled) more than I care to admit. But, let’s face it, the kid deserved it! Then I remind myself I’m the adult and supposed to be the one with patience and maturity. Right? Right?! Whatever.

When preparing for our two-year halfway-around-the-world voyage aboard our 40-foot Pacific Seacraft, Benevento, I started by first looking into what boatschool options I had. Our son would be in 4th and 5th grades during our voyage and it would be my responsibility to make sure he entered into 6th grade in our public school upon our return (in California) with as much ease as possible.

On my part this meant a lot of research. I hardly knew where to start. There is no step-by-step guide on “How to Choose a Boatschool Curriculum for your Elementary School-Aged Child While Starting from Square 0.” The first thing I did was to think about what kind of curriculum did I want my son to have? I knew I wanted to align with the curriculum of our public school district back home, I wanted to have flexibility to incorporate lessons related to our travels (Mexico, Central America, Caribbean, U.S. East Coast and Europe) and I didn’t want a set schedule to complete any single task. Finally, the curriculum couldn’t be Internet-based because we had no idea when we’d have Internet access. Yet, I also wanted some guidance.

I looked into the homeschool option in our local public school district. This would have been great because it allowed some flexibility, but unfortunately their charter required a face-to-face meeting every six weeks. No exceptions. That was definitely not going to happen.

I then looked at Calvert, a very popular and well-respected (and rigorous) curriculum used by a lot of cruising families. For about $1,500 a year, they provide you with everything you need to teach your child including textbooks, lessons, instructions and testing. Yet for all its convenience it wouldn’t allow us what I wanted: flexibility in time and content. I knew it would be difficult for us to have a rigorous set schedule (I was right) and I didn’t want to fall behind and add to the stress of voyaging. We needed the ability to be spontaneous. Small museum on the island of Porvernir while checking into the San Blas Islands, Panama? Time for a field trip to learn about the Kuna Yala Indians!

I also looked into a number of other, accredited homeschool curriculum options. Some had a decided religions bent (not really for us) and others had a large Internet component (again, not going to happen.) I finally decided on a school that would help me “design” my own curriculum. Perfect! I paid $1,000 to have experts help me navigate the unfamiliar territory of elementary school education. Unfortunately, in the end all I really received from them was two conference calls and some email exchanges. I was sorely disappointed and did not sign up for a second year.

However, what I gained from that experience is that I was able to create a curriculum on my own without shelling out a tidy sum. With the help of research and the resources that the California Department of Education, along with regular old Internet research (and talking with other boatschool parents), I’ve created a program that works well for us.

So, what have I learned from all of this (other than the fact that I need to work on my patience)? A lot so far. So – if you are about to go on a two year cruise with a boy from California who will be in 4th and 5th grade, then this is my gift to you. Go ahead, keep your $1,000.

Here is everything I’ve learned (so far) about boatschooling.  Keep in mind that every family, every child and every situation is different.  This is what has worked for us (so far…)

  1. Be Flexible

When we left on our trip I was feeling pretty good about all the research I’d done and the curriculum I’d designed. I was set. It turns out that was the easy part. Then I had to start actually teaching. My sweet, bright, creative little boy – who had done exceedingly well in school back home – turned into someone else altogether. He rebelled against me as a teacher, spent way too long doing assignments and we ended up spending too much time down below instead of exploring the world around us! It was time for a new plan of action. So I fired myself.

Let me explain. The big realization that I have is that boatschooling requires flexibility and creativity. A ridged schedule is hard to keep unless you are moving very slowly, which we weren’t. Dante was adjusting to the new life living aboard a boat and he missed his friends as well as the social aspect of public school. It just wasn’t any fun for him at first.

One day as we were struggling through California history, I started to read in the accent of Mariano Vallejo, a California land owner from the 1800’s. My son started to address me as “Mr. Vallejo” and was suddenly very interested in what I had to say. He was laughing at our interactions and he was learning. Soon, new substitute teachers began to appear for different topics. Mrs. Einstein (with an Austrian accent) showed up for math and Mrs. P from the Bronx showed up for English Language Arts.

This only lasted about a month, but it helped get us over a huge hurdle at the beginning of our trip. As I’ve learned more about how my son learns, I’ve tried to adapt how I teach. Sometimes I use positive reinforcement, sometimes I use monetary rewards, and sometimes I used withholding privileges. I’ve even drawn up a “contract” that he’s signed with the behavior that’s expected of him. Ultimately what I have realized is that we have continually needed to keep tweaking the way we boatschool to adapt to what works.

  1. Encourage Natural Interests

Our son has a very engineering-oriented mind and loves to delve deeply into something once he discovers he’s interested in it. For example, when he was reading the Percy Jackson series he became so interested in Greek Mythology, he would devour anything I could find on the subject. I even gave him bake-able clay to create tiny shields, swords, helmets and armor. When he read the Hatchet series of books, he became interested in survival skills, so out came the books on that subject. I have tried to feed his interests so that he could gain an in-depth knowledge on a subject and feel a sense of accomplishment. Or, wait, did I feed his interests because it kept him quiet and occupied on long passages? I can’t remember… Either way, it has worked. We have discovered that he also has an affinity for electronics. We purchased a lot of components at Radio Shack, including a “how to” book, and soon he was creating circuits and tripwires and doing all sorts of magic things with breadboards. He was also introduced to a computer program called Circuit Wizard by a fellow cruiser. None of this is part of fifth grade curriculum, but who cares? He’s learning, he’s interested, he’s involved and he’s productively occupied.

  1. Take Advantage of “Teachable Moments”

My husband is really good about taking a random, and seemingly mundane task and turning it into a teaching opportunity. Setting the anchor? Let’s talk about geometry and scope, son. Trimming the sails? Let’s learn about lift. Doing money conversion? Hooray for fractions and decimals! Lifting a 300 pound generator off of our boat?  Time to talk about physics and mechanical advantage. We try to take these teachable moments and relate them to our son’s curriculum. But it doesn’t have to be related. On a road trip to Morocco, we had conversations about different world religions. We talk a lot about weather and concepts on physics, topics that are ever-present on a sailboat. There is always something to teach, but the key is remembering to take a seemingly mundane situation and turn it into a fun lesson. Initially I was very focused on having formalized “lessons” otherwise I felt it wasn’t part of school. Now I believe that nearly everything we do is part of our son’s education, we just have to make a point of teaching as we go.

  1. Everyone is a Potential Teacher

We thought we’d meet a lot of other “Kid Boats” while on this trip. However, we’ve only met a handful of other boats who have had kids around our son’s age. As a result, he has to hang around with adults. A lot. Fortunately, boat owners tend to be a resourceful and intelligent lot, many of them experts in electronics and other technical arts – something of great interest to our son. We have met some wonderful people on this trip who have taken notice of our son’s interests and provided him with encouragement, advice, their time and sometimes even gifts of equipment! He has had conversations with one captain about boat design and building (with a former airline pilot who built his own boat), military tank design (with a retired army tank officer), flora and fauna (with a biologist from Alaska), voltage regulation (with an electrical engineer), and circuit design (with an radio and electronics expert). After one late evening on a friend’s boat in the Bahamas, our son said to us on the dinghy ride home, “You know, adult conversations can be kind of interesting when you actually listen to them.”

As we were crossing the Atlantic Ocean, our son also started an email (sail mail) conversation with a boat neighbor and good friend of ours back home. This friend happens to be exceedingly intelligent, and the email conversation that began as a few fun exchanges has turned into an amazing math odyssey. We’ve actually incorporated it into part of Dante’s curriculum (see #1: “Be Flexible”) and are turning the email exchanges into a mini “book” to be published on our website.

  1. Keep Learning

Personally, I find the curriculum of 4th and 5th grade in California fascinating. We happened to be cruising up the U.S. East Coast during the time that our son was supposed to be learning about American History. My husband and I realized how little we remembered and read extra books on the side just for fun. Our field trips up the East Coast were so much more interesting because of everything we were learning. Before going through the Panama Canal, my husband and I read up on its history while our son was researching a report on the topic. As a result, our transit through the canal was much more meaningful and interesting. Right now, we’re studying Ancient Rome. I’ve purchased a number of Kindle books for our son while my husband and I are simultaneously reading through an adult version on the topic. We actually have family conversations about history and I love it.

I also try to continually learn about teaching and curriculum. There are so many resources out there, and new ones pop up all the time. I am sure I only know a fraction of what’s available so I am always keeping my eyes and ears open.

Our Curriculum

Here is a description of the curriculum I am currently using. It has evolved since we left in September of 2013 and I imagine it will continue to change.

Our school district was in the midst of switching to the “Common Core” standards. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, the state does a great job of outlining what students are expected to learn in each grade by subject.

California Common Core Standards:

Here is a document outlining all standards for each subject for the fifth grade:

I find these documents helpful because I can see what our son’s peers are learning back at home.


For math, I selected the math book that our son’s peers were using in our public school. We simply went through the book chapter by chapter. Of all the subjects, we spend the most time on math. We do this partly because we know that our son will likely choose a career in which math will be important. (Also because math is awesome.) I have not purchased the teacher editions for the any of the textbooks in any subject. It would definitely make correcting faster and easier, but we are already below the water line.

HSP California Math (grade 5). I also purchased workbooks:

We have also supplemented with other math books for fun. While we were in Ft. Lauderdale I came across a great math book at the local science museum:

Perfectly Perilous Math by Sean Connolly –

Through Internet research I also discovered the “Math Dude” and bought his book on algebra. We haven’t used this yet, but I’ve started to read it myself and it looks great. He also has a podcast, which we can’t really use while cruising, but I plan to hook Dante up when we get back to California. The Math Dude’s Quick and Dirty Guide to Algebra by Jason Marshall –

(By the way, if you are homeschooling a girl, Danica McPatrick – Winnie from the Wonder Years – has grown up to be a mathematician and written a series of books on math targeted at girls.)

English Language Arts

For English Language Arts I choose the “Write Source” textbooks published by Great Source. The textbook covers ELA basics and also goes into detail about different types of writing and rubrics for correcting. This has come in handy for our son’s blog posts, which is part of his curriculum while we are cruising.

Great Source Write Source (grade 5). I also purchased workbooks in addition to the textbook:

Dante’s Dory (our son’s blog):

History / Social Science

For fifth grade history I selected a basic history textbook that covers American History. Since we were cruising the U.S. East Coast the summer before our son’s fifth grade year, we covered this entire book (and dozens of related field trips) during the summer. I supplemented this text with some great books I found online by Steve Sheinkin and other authors. It was a great coincidence, but our timing doesn’t always work out that way!

California Common Core Standards also come with lessons provide by the California Education and Environment Initiative that align with some of the standards for history and science. The lessons even come with teacher instructions. We used them for fourth grade and are also using them to supplement our fifth grade curriculum.

Now that we are in Europe, we’ve now moved on to European history. (Again, not something covered in 5th grade California curriculum officially, but who cares?) I’ve purchased a score of digital books from various authors. I also found a series of digital books about world history aimed for kids that’s wonderful. I have read excerpts of the series at different points (for example, I read about Islam when we went to Morocco), and my plan is that the whole family will read the books simultaneously so that we can discuss them.

HSP History (grade 5):

One of author Steve Sheinkin’s great books:

Susan Wise Bauer has written a series of books on the history of the world that are a wonderful introduction to history, starting with ancient times:

There is an endless supply of great history books out there for kids these days. The “Who Was…?” series is terrific, as is “If I Were A Kid in Ancient…” and “Horrible Histories.” Just search

California Education and Environment Initiative:


Our son loves most aspects of science and we try to encourage his interests. We started each year with a science textbook and once we finished it, moved on to the EEI curriculum and other lessons (including Khan Academy videos and books on Kindle.) We are hampered by the fact that we can’t do a lot of experiments in a home that moves. However, we are lucky in that we are surrounded by science living on a boat. My goal is to cover the guidelines in California Common Core, and then follow our son’s interests wherever they take us.

California Science (grade 5):

George’s Secret Key to the Universe by Stephen Hawking and Lucky Hawking:

Ask Uncle Albert: 100 ½ Tricky Science Questions Answered by Russell Stannard:

Music, Typing, Cursive and Art

We use Kiran’s Typing Tutor for teaching typing, cursive notebooks for practicing writing and we have a ukulele on board to have some music in the curriculum. I bought several books on art for children (including this one and we learn about specific paintings before going to large art museums on “field trips.” The Khan Academy has great videos about many famous works of art.

Is Minecraft a Curriculum?

Speaking of natural interests, my son might argue that Minecraft is a passion of his. Personally, I’ve gotten to the point where if I start to hear about my son’s descriptions of what he’s built in Minecraft, my ears instantly begin to bleed. It kills me. I don’t see the appeal of this game, but it is popular around the world (literally) with children my son’s age. One positive thing I will say for this application is that wherever we go, Dante will incorporate aspects of our travel into his Minecraft designs. Riads from Morocco, Art Deco buildings from Miami and Roman colesiums. I guess you have to take what you can get.

Other Resources

Caveat – I’m sure this is just a fraction of the tools and resources available. I’m continually on the search for new ones!

Khan Academy

Recently, I discovered the fact that the Khan Academy has developed an app for the iPad. I love the Khan Academy videos, which have instructional content in every subject area. With the iPad app, you can download videos for watching offline. So I’m able to load up content for our son when I have access to the Internet, which he can later view while we’re at anchor or on a passage. They have great content for math, history, art, and science as well.

Homeschool Brew

I discovered a great resource in Homeschool Brew, a publisher focused on providing affordable resources for homeschoolers. They have a variety of books (many on Kindle) by grade and subject.


iTooch is an app for the iPad that has interactive games and lessons for all subject areas by grade. We use iTooch when we are on a sailing passage or in a road trip in a car. It’s nice to have this as a backup when we can’t get the textbooks out.

Free Books

Did you know that offers loads of free books for the Kindle app? Boatschool kids read a lot (they have no choice) and we were spending too much money downloading books. Then we started to download children’s classics (Animal Farm, Alice in Wonderland, Call of the Wild and hundreds more) for free. Project Gutenberg has a similar problem.

Wikipedia Offline

This is a must for the ipad. When we don’t have Internet access but want to answer a question about something, this has been an extremely useful tool.

There is so much to learn, I sometimes now find that I have a hard time choosing what not to include in our curriculum. The choices seem endless! I try to keep up-to-date on resources and options for our curriculum, but I regularly come across new tools, books or resources and wonder why it took me so long to find out about it. I figure by the time we return home to California and our son is back in public school I will be pretty good at this boatschool thing…



4 Responses to Adventures in Boatschooling

  1. Lyndy Atkinson

    Wow, loved this blog post! We too live aboard and our two girls 6 & 9 are boat schooled. We haven’t started cruising yet but planning too soon and I can’t wait for their life education to really take off! All this post has done is to make me have even more itchy feet! Great read, I hope you don’t mind me sharing a link to my facebook page! Cheers, Lyndy

  2. Lauren

    Great article! We moved aboard yesterday & started school today! We’re based in Melbourne, Australia & aim to cruise the east coast of Tasmania & the mainland starting just as soon as we can get away… Your research is awesome & it sounds like you’re doing a great job. I’m a trained teacher but didn’t it tricky to teach my own kids & it’s been a while since I was in the classroom.

  3. Anonymous

    Lots of great info thank you. You sound like you are doing a wonderful job. I love the idea of learning from life and going freestyle and using what’s around you as tools for learning. Priceless! We have sold up in Brisbane, have flown to Turkey and have rented an old stone house whilst looking for a boat (and homeschooling). It is great to get the point of view from someone whose been doing it a while.

  4. Andrea Ridl

    Hi Jennifer, I’m a friend of Darold’s from MA days and love reading your blogs–so inspirational!! I am so impressed with your boat-schooling. I did want to let you know my children’s school incorporates Minecraft into the history curriculum. In 7th grade they have them research Midieval manors then build a historically accurate version in Minecraft. They then have to protect their manor from a plague and siege. I think there is actually an education version of Minecraft (minecraft edu??) that lets the teacher switch from creative mode to survival mode for the plague and siege. Anyway, here’s a write up on the school project: That website is not affiliated with my children’s school (Mayfield Junior School), but does appear to feature other cool out-of-the box educational projects. Enjoy your trip! Andrea

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