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A Worldschooler's Graduation: Thoughts When Worldschooling and Traditional School Collide

Updated: Jul 30, 2023

Our eldest traveled fulltime with our family for four years and decided to end his travels to attend high school. During the 2022-2023 school year he returned to a “normal” lifestyle, finished his senior year in the local school, and received his diploma.

Rachel, Jasper, & Kemaya before the graduation ceremony. We don't have a full family picture. We thought we'd see him afterwards. But...Whoosh! He was out of there!

Rachel, Jasper, & Kemaya before the graduation ceremony. We don't have a full family picture. We thought we'd see him afterwards. But...Whoosh! He was out of there!


Like other worldschoolers, our lifestyle and education approaches are often questioned by those who don’t understand: family, friends… complete strangers we’ll never see again in our lives. For some of the doubters, it was a relief that Jasper returned to regular schooling. Now he could properly be prepared for the future! In fact, someone even told me Jasper is a better person for going back to school.


For me, it was a novelty. Attending school was his personal choice and I was curious how traditional education feels after roaming the world. Regardless, the implication that a year of high school would secure his future success is irksome. I know some people won’t be able to wrap their heads around our lifestyle, but it’s common to be criticized by those unable to trust what we provide via worldschooling is as valuable as traditional schooling, if not more so.


If I’m honest, it’s hurtful. My husband and I invest a lot of time and energy into our kids and diverse opportunities for them. We are in no way ruining their lives or future prospects, yet we field questions from naysayers all the time… the same naysayers that would never question if high school is adequately preparing our youth for the future.


This contradiction has bothered me since we started worldschooling and the graduation ceremony got me thinking about education as a whole. Why do I feel so confident that my kids are better prepared for the future than their traditionally-schooled peers? What sort of accomplishment is a high school graduation? Is public education providing opportunity, or is it impeding creativity and free will, or is it a bit of both?


I had lots of time to ponder these ideas while we watched the graduating class of 620+ seniors… and many of my thoughts were conflicting.

Final hat toss at graduation in June 2023

Final hat toss at graduation in June 2023


 

First, I need to rewind a bit and give some background details: We've been unschooling our three children since 2018... which is a feat in itself since education is highly regarded in our family. My husband & I met in university; we have mothers, grandmothers, and siblings who’ve taught in public schools; many of our relatives and friends have advanced degrees; our families value higher education; and I even knew to use semicolons to separate these phrases.


Most significantly, my background is education-based with a double major in mathematics and secondary education. I loved being a public school teacher (teaching middle school was my thing!!) and I’ve long been a proponent of public education. My kids all went to public schools prior to becoming worldschoolers.


When we began our nomadic lifestyle, I knew I didn’t want to recreate school at home, lugging around workbooks and adhering to online class schedules. I’d heard a lot about unschooling and was intrigued. Deep down it made sense to me that kids will learn what they need to learn, especially when they see the need to learn it.

Note: Unschooling is not anti-learning. There is so much learning going on, but none of it happens in a typical, school-like manner. Children choose what they want to learn, and adults pave the way so kids can dive into their interests.

We planned our travels for one year to ensure that this lifestyle was a good fit for our family and initially committed to nine months of home education. Additionally, our oldest was an 8th grader that year, no transcripts were necessary for his education. These two factors gave us the freedom we needed to dabble with unschooling with the backup plan of starting a more traditional curriculum in 9th grade if necessary.

Notes on US education laws: We’re residents of the US State of Wisconsin. Our homeschool laws don’t require transcripts, but this varies widely from state to state. High school in the US includes grades 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th and a high school transcript documents education during those four years.

For us, it made complete sense to just observe what our kids learned naturally from traveling, experiencing, and living a diverse lifestyle.


Classes, museums, hikes, parks, tours, ruins, architecture, food, The Camino, and exploring everywhere we go!

 

Fast forward: The first unschooling year was amazing. We learned all sorts of localized history, geography, cuisine, flora/fauna, customs, and language… we were hooked! Quite literally.


One of our eldest’s passions is fishing which opened the doors to so much learning: bait and tackle, traditional fishing techniques, gear research and product warranties, local regulations, migratory fish species, identification & dissection, culinary skills, nutrition, ecology, static breath holds for free diving, boats and motors, navigation, astronomy, small engine repair, communication with locals in a foreign language, skill sharing & speaking skills (video below), sustainability, biodiversity, changes in local fish populations over time, infectious parasites & bacteria, glacial melts, reef conservation, aquaponics, boat remodeling, trading work for room and board, sailing and wind power, boat ownership and licensing, SCUBA certification, etc, etc, etc.

What can you learn just from fishing? Read that last paragraph again!

Our friends, The 5 World Explorers, put together this video in Spring 2021. The "Meet Jasper" chapter runs from 3:00-10:00.

We've met The 5 World Explorers in four places now: 2019 Florida Keys, 2021 St Petersburg Florida, 2023 Florence Italy, & 2023 Normandy France for the castle stay and Worldschool Prom! We appreciate their videos and blog posts so much.


Brag alert… Jasper is a talented angler in any water with any gear. He often fishes super light tackle because it’s awkward to lug around enormous ocean poles and loads of lures while fully nomadic... so his fishing style is more of an artform, a finesse.


Snook, redfish, cobia, sturgeon, black cod (I think), lobsters, John Dory, spearing invasive lionfish, moray eel, New Zealand crayfish, smallmouth bass, tarpon (see how much I've learned vicariously)!


Jasper researches all proper licensing and follows local regulations for any animals he harvests. If we keep them, we eat them and do not shy away from cheeks, eyeballs, brains and broth as we were taught by our Filipino friends in Hawaii (note: some organs are not safe to eat, some fish are not safe to eat raw, and certain fish may be safe in some areas but unsafe in others due to local parasites or toxins such as ciguatera – so much learning).


Plus, incorporating fishing into our travels enhances our experiences. What’s more memorable… reading about the attack on Pearl Harbor or going to see the Pearl Harbor Memorial and then watching your big brother land an enormous omilu (bluefin trevally) just down the shore?

Caught this at Ko'Olina Lagoons right outside the massage cabanas 😂 Omilu sashimi and plenty of fish to fry!

 

Ok, enough fun… One often hears unschoolers explain their education methods as child-directed learning. This holds true for our family, too. Sometimes their interests necessitate taking classes and sitting in on some traditional learning… and that’s totally acceptable. We’re not anti-classroom learning, we just want it to be the child’s choice.


Our oldest is quite driven, and though I converted his unschooled education into a transcript for 9th, 10th, and 11th grades, he was adamant about graduating from high school and receiving a “real” diploma. He had plenty of Science, English, History, Physical Education, Foreign Language, Technology Education, and Industrial Arts experience, but he needed to fill in Math and Civics.


Prior to enrollment, he completed workbooks purchased from Amazon for Geometry, Algebra II, & Trigonometry. I was available to help him as needed, but probably only instructed him for 3-5 hours total for those courses… he wanted to learn these subjects and picked them up easily due to his motivation. Additionally, he took a required Civics course through Kahn Academy.

When kids want to learn something, and see the value of learning it, they will!

Fast forward through some paperwork to set him up like a foreign exchange student (he needed a sponsor in the States because we were abroad), reviewing our homegrown transcript with staff to make sure he met graduation requirements, and setting him up in Wisconsin for the year… and he was set to return to normal life.

 
Empty classroom

A Return to School The year started off well for him and he accomplished many of his non-school goals (buy a car, meet new people, reconnect with former friends). He had all sorts of fascinating classes such as Digital Music Production, Ropes Course, Culinary Arts, Hip Hop Evolution, Field Biology, Outdoor Pursuits (kayaking, rock climbing, hiking), Woodworking... and then Economics, Spanish, and a higher-level Math course to complete the required credits to graduate.


However, when someone has had four years of freeform learning with no pressure, no sitting, no testing, and the liberty to absorb information organically via life experience, the brain has different views of education.

“How’s school going?” “Not bad, but it’s a lot of white rice.”

His district is 71% white (with Asian and Latino descent as the next largest groups), but his comment wasn’t about race. He felt the classroom experience was boring, bland, and repetitive. Everything looked the same: the subject matter, the ideas, the classwork, the routine… lots of it was just monotonous. This surprised me because I assumed his amazing course schedule would set the foundation for a super fun senior year!


He’s not a complainer but we’ve talked about his high school experience and his insights are valid, both from a student standpoint and a former teacher’s standpoint. I won’t share any specifics as it’s not my story to tell… I’d honestly love if he’d compose an article for the blog from his point of view (I'll work on that, but it's likely not his passion).


The following are my viewpoints from thoughts that surfaced while we watched the graduation ceremony.

 

“Graduating from High School Makes Him a Better Person”

All right, circling back to this. I honestly don’t know if it was a joke or completely serious, but I had time to mull this over during the ceremony. Let’s dive in…

diplomas

What makes someone a better person? In my opinion it’s compassion, willingness to help, creative problem-solving skills, perseverance, discernment, and the ability to ask for help when needed. A better person is someone who’s fun to be around and puts others at ease; one who can tap into their own free will; someone dependable and accepting with a good dose of generosity and humbleness and humor.


I have a very hard time extrapolating that these traits are a direct result of attending high school for one year, or even four years! Some of these skills aren’t truly instructed, they’re derived from life experience and relationships with peers, family, and community. However other traits certainly can be taught, or at least demonstrated and encouraged, within a school setting.


 

Creativity & Unique Problem-Solving Strategies:

Theoretically, schools can provide and encourage creative problem-solving within their student body and staff. In our experience, secondary schools don’t have the time, structure, or funding to expand upon the usual academic instruction. It’s more and more common that schools are “teaching to the test” as standardized testing dominates US education. Unfortunately, this also means there isn’t time for frivolous playing around until a solution is reached.


I’m sure there are outliers and some innovative schools & teachers who have ample space and time for kids to participate in multi-subject, project-based learning. Sadly, this is not the case across the board.

right brain vs left brain

I’m making broad generalizations here, but comparatively, worldschooling offers so much more exposure to different thinking patterns which subsequently opens our minds and facilitates thinking outside-the-box.


Jasper noticed traditionally schooled kids just aren’t as creative or persistent in getting what they want (or in some cases even knowing what they want). Yes, they’re creative and bright, but they’re still living within a confined system.

Rewind again: I said this in my last newsletter and it resonates deeply with me. Many of us are taught early on to follow a prescribed path through life: go to school, go to more school, get a job, get married, buy a house, have kids, be grateful.

Sounds great! However, trusting “the path” at face value removes any free thinking about, and responsibility for, how the individual wants to design their life.


As far as creativity goes, once Jasper reentered the walls of the public education system, he quickly spotted a difference between worldschooled kids and their public schooled counterparts. It’s quite difficult to explain unless you’ve seen it yourself… I’ll give it a stab.


When everyone is buying into “the path” they don’t realize the walls that are built around them, everything inside feels safe and normal. Worldschooling spreads those walls so that some uncomfortable experience that was once outside of the wall now falls within the ‘normal zone.’ For kids who haven’t had this expansion, they’re unaware that they’re thinking within the walls and therefore only utilize enough creativity to fill the space they perceive. Worldschoolers perceive a drastically different space and fill it accordingly.


I doubt a year in high school provided an increase in creativity for my child. I’d even say there was less of a reason for him to challenge his creativity because it was rather effortless to find ‘creative’ answers / solutions that lay within the box.


 

Perseverance:

Yes, all the new graduates persevered through their school years and achieved passing grades… proven with a diploma! But can you teach genuine, unhampered perseverance via routine academics?


In my opinion, these kids persevered because they were told to do so. Get a passing grade so you can graduate. In essence, yes, they found their way to the commencement ceremony… but I don’t perceive this as the same sort of perseverance that comes deep from within.

EXAMPLES: Fishing: After 8 hours on the water without a single catch… “Jasper, wrap it up, it’s time to go,” “Awww, Mom! Just 15 more minutes?” 2020 Travels: Canceled plans after canceled plans after canceled plans and we still managed to stay abroad nearly the entire year… and continued traveling once back in the States.

When the circumstances are something in which we’re deeply invested (acquiring a fish, not quitting our travels, etc), that perseverance is genuine, not contrived or forced. We have an internal desire to complete the task, and the payoffs are personal.


If perseverance is learned via our own interests and aspirations (dare I say free-will?) it demonstrates that persistence and determination are worthwhile. Our efforts deliver new skills that are significant to us: better fishing techniques; the ability to continue traveling despite roadblocks; learning that we are resilient, reliable, skillful, and intelligent.


I’m in no way saying that persevering through high school is without its rewards; there is a prize at the end and we do learn we can accomplish goals when we set our minds to it. However, I’m arguing that when we persevere through a personally relevant situation, the experience is more authentic, more satisfying, and the effects are amplified because we discover we’re adept at accomplishing what we want, not what someone else tells us to do.


Worldschoolers are observing perseverance multiple times a day… communicating in a foreign language, navigating new streets, learning the local transport system, observing visa timelines, finding flights & accommodation within the budget, calming the fears of the naysayers, etc. If we didn’t artfully solve these issues one after the other, our travels, and enjoyment of these travels, would fall apart. For worldschoolers, perseverance is an integral, everyday life skill.

 

Discernment: Um, what’s that?

Discernment is the ability to perceive, understand, and judge things clearly, especially those that are not obvious or straightforward” (thanks Wikipedia)

This is observing things with an open mind yet not accepting information on the surface level. When we discern a situation, we’re able to pick it apart, notice what’s biased, remove the misleading elements, and determine what’s true and how it matters to us. In less acceptable terms, it’s a built-in bullshit detector.

The Thinker

High schools can teach basic discernment, but I feel it’s taught within their boundaries and limited to approved topics. It’s okay to question what students are told to examine (the subject material), but if one questions something more disconcerting (say the public education system and how our children spend 15,000+ hours away from their families and need to pass classes with no personal relevance to them), that’s frowned upon and often construed as disrespectful.


Conversely, worldschoolers have exposure to all sorts of viewpoints and perspectives and lifestyles. We haven’t been living in a bubble. We’ve seen and felt life in different surroundings, and we’re bound to adopt new insights based on these experiences.


More importantly, we are better equipped to observe what happens when everyone buys into the same general beliefs. We can see what’s stagnant in those traditional environments, we can see where “the path” has turned into an echo chamber of hearing the same ‘thoughts’ over and over.

And this is where I’m currently struggling. The thoughts may not be our own… go to school, go to more school, get a job, get married, have kids, buy a house, be happy. When I figured out that the American Dream wasn’t my dream (long story short: we did all that but the house + job + kids in public schools held us back from traveling and spending time with our family), I couldn’t help but feel duped. I bought into “the path” hook, line, and sinker to find out that I had lived my life the way someone told me to.


Which brings me to free will… how many of our choices are made without the influence of social structure, standard lines of thinking, or the risk of shame or guilt. And if you’re a kid, it’s even less.


 

Free Will:

I seriously doubt that any child would freely choose to sit in a classroom for 7 hours a day… especially if they knew it was their choice. However, they’re taught from a young age that this is required and expected. If schools teach kids to tap into their free will, there wouldn’t be too many students left sitting in classroom.


Instead they’d be hanging out in the art and music spaces, playing on the playground, lounging in the library, socializing, gaming, fixing each other’s hair, playing board games, cooking, eating, experimenting, and, oh my goodness, following their own interests and learning about the interests of their peers… possibilities are endless.


Removing the handcuffs

Yes, schooling gives us exposure to new topics and opportunities to broaden our interests, but traditional schools have a very tight system in place. Keep up with your grade level, master the curriculum, earn the credits, pass the test. There isn’t room to allow freeform learning. Unfortunately for many students the message is firmly repeated: the only way forward is to go to school, go to more school…


When I was a senior in high school, my “free will” was whether I’d go to University A or University B. I didn’t even know what I wanted to study, but I was going to university. I bought into the system and worked hard to earn my place at the top. I was playing the game and winning! But imagine if I realized I was bounded by “the path’s” walls. The game was playing me and I was completely unaware.


Our son isn’t pursuing university at this time (he’s totally capable of being accepted, but without knowing if he’s going into a field that needs a specific degree, he has options). Instead, he’s looking at getting a young person’s work visa in New Zealand or traveling to Uzbekistan & Kazakhstan or finding a volunteer position overseas. That to me is amazing! At 18 years old I would not have even realized these paths were possible for me.


And this is truly what I want for my kids. I don’t want them bound by someone else’s ideals. I want them to have confidence in themselves and trust their judgment. I want them to live their stories, not follow a path that infiltrated generations before us. I want them to be kind and funny and reliable. But most of all, I want them to live life on their own terms.

I happened to have a worldschooling tote with me at graduation. A reminder that there is more than one path to the same goal: confident, successful young adults!

 

Moving Forward

To wrap up… at graduation I felt everything. I saw the kids who’ve struggled to make it to commencement day; I saw the kids who were happily plodding down the typical path of life; I saw the families beaming with pride; I felt the graduates with frustration, gaining hope that this is their fresh start; I felt the excitement for these young adults to step into adulthood… so many stories, so many emotions. They all deserve a bright and exciting future!

Congrats banner

Before I close, I want to extend a huge thank you to our public educators. I personally know many of these amazing humans and most have a heart bigger than humanly possible. They deeply care about our kids and truly are making a difference for their students.


I also realize for some students, public schooling may be their best bet at getting ahead in the world (or even a daily meal in their belly). For others, it may be their only chance to be part of sporting events or musical performances. Public education absolutely fills a need and the job is often underappreciated. Teachers, support staff, and administrators, I know how hard you work to make your schools successful. Hats off to you!


These things said, I don’t have the answers… what we’re able to do via worldschooling is not easily expandable into a public school setting: multi-subject & project-based learning, communication across age/grade levels, interaction with worldwide lifestyles, immersion in situations where routine daily chores require actual thought and energy, firsthand exposure to history and architecture and culture...


Worldschoolers are pushing their boundaries in ways that cannot easily be replicated... and these life experiences provide our kids with what’s necessary for their bridge into adulthood: persistence, adaptability, confidence, poise, self-reliance, creativity, resilience, communication skills, and realizing that we’re responsible for choosing how to design our lives.


Congrats to the entire class of 2023. May you feel limitless and live your life with intention. I wish you well on your journeys, wherever they shall take you!

 

Hey, just because I'm curious... where do you fall in this poll? I'll vote first and I'm choosing "Confidently unschooling" 🥰

Are you unschooling/unschooled?

  • 0%Not for us

  • 0%Unschooling - curious

  • 0%Currently using some unschooling ideology

  • 0%Confidently unschooling

You can vote for more than one answer.

Endnotes:

No, you do not need to be unschoolers in order to worldschool. Some families carry around curriculum with them, others utilize online classes, and some even enroll their children in schools abroad. The beauty of our community is that we trust you (both kids and parents) to know how your kids learn best!


For those of you new to unschooling or worldschooling ideologies, there are lots of resources:

  • I recommend books by Peter Gray, John Taylor Gatto, & John Holt. Here are 12 Unschooling Books for Rethinking Education.

  • UnschoolingMom2Mom is a great resource to learn more about supporting kids of all ages… everything from free materials to paid parent groups.

  • The memoir, Educated, by Tara Westover… she was not unschooled, as her parents did not pave the way for her learning. However, when she was able to make her own choices, she taught herself math and grammar to attend university (Brigham Young, Harvard, & Cambridge).

  • Inspired to Learn is a collection of writing from worldschooling moms encouraging us to think differently about education.

  • And you can take a 'quiz' to see what type of homeschooling fits your family best. There are many out there, here is an example I found: Homeschool Style Quiz

Cheers to choices!


And for those of you traveling with teens, these posts may also be useful: Navigating the Needs of Nomadic Adolescents Traveling Fulltime with Teens


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2 Comments


gogetajoy
gogetajoy
Jun 29, 2023

Beautifully reflected, embodied, and shared. I can’t agree more with everything you’re saying And boy did I need to read this today as we’re finding our way after worldschooling. What does the next step look like? Where can I find likeminded people and programs for my teens in the USA? How can I create this community? All of this on my heart as we blaze a new path in a new chapter.


I am so excited for Jasper and all of the other kids and families who have created this opportunity. It’s an awakening for so many.


The Coate clan is here in support of all of these ideals! Now if we can just get the rest of the states…

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Guest
Jun 29, 2023

Loved this blog! Many of my thoughts put into amazing words in black & white! What an amazing writer! I always felt uneasy with my own education (public school thru HS and private school for University) and pushed hard against the walls they wanted to box me into. I was very successful in my schooling efforts, but not satisfied in the end. It’s likely why I found it easy to lean into an unschooling concept for my own kiddo (after attempting to homeschool). The pandemic also helped push me (more like plunge!) headlong into the process 🥰 And she loves it! ~Kenia

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