Taking an education on the road


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In these bleak days of No Child Left Behind, when standardized tests are thought to measure the quality of children's education, it may sound like folly to take your kids out of school for three weeks. But having done just that, I'm convinced that traveling with kids is one of the best educational opportunities parents have to offer.

I come by this attitude honestly. When I was young, my parents didn't hesitate to take my brothers and me out of school when they had an opportunity to go abroad. During my elementary school years, I visited Japan, Thailand, Cambodia, Switzerland and Germany. I even spent one school year in Israel. These adventures gave me what my schooling in a Chicago suburb could not: a genuine awareness of the splendid diversity of people and places in the world, and a wanderlust that I have to this day.

So when my husband and I racked up enough frequent flyer miles for four round-trip tickets to Central America, it was a no-brainer to take the kids out of school and go on a three-week trip to Costa Rica. The lure of rainforests and cloud forests, volcanoes and beaches, Tico culture and Spanish language overwhelmed any concerns we had about missing three weeks of school.

Our fourth-grade son's teachers and the principal at Irving immediately grasped the learning opportunity that our trip offered. We agreed that Jeremy would e-mail his classmates with accounts of what we were seeing and doing. His teacher posted these messages and several pictures we sent on a bulletin board in the classroom, turning this into a learning opportunity for all the students in the class.

The middle-school teachers at Julian were understandably more wary of having our daughter miss three weeks of school. But after some discussion, they also embraced the idea that this was not a vacation?#34;this was travel. They sent us off with just enough homework to keep Hannah from falling badly behind.

After all, this wasn't to be a cushy trip. We planned to stay in hostels, where we could meet fellow adventurous travelers from all over the world. We decided to get around on public buses, which turned out to be an adventure in itself. We kept our dictionary and phrase book close at hand and involved the kids in reading the guidebooks and maps.

What did they learn? They learned a lot about the varied ecosystems in Costa Rica and the animals and plants that inhabit them. They learned a little about the geography and topography of the area. Their Spanish improved a bit.

But they also learned that with a little language and a lot of good humor, you can communicate quite well with people who don't speak English. They learned that when you demonstrate an interest in other people and their culture, they open up to you. They learned that if you're willing to tolerate a little uncertainty and inconvenience, you can get off the well-worn tourist path and that when you do, you see things other visitors miss. They learned that with a good map and an open mind, you can go just about anywhere.

None of these things is measured on standardized tests, of course. But what is education for if it doesn't open your eyes to the world outside your neighborhood? Isn't something lost if our kids grow up complacently accepting the way things are because they've never experienced anything else?

We've been back for two weeks. The kids have largely caught up in school. They've gone back to doing homework, practicing instruments, playing with their friends, and eating things other than rice and beans.

But I'm convinced they've changed. I see in them the realization I recall from when I traveled as a kid: that the way we do things is just that?#34;the way we do things. That other ways are possible. That difference is interesting. That the world is a very big place.

District 97 has long promoted what it calls the essential qualities of a life-long learner: knowledgeable person, socially responsible citizen, quality producer, effective communicator, collaborative worker, and critical thinker. It may be possible to raise life-long learners by rigorously adhering to the curriculum and coaching kids to perform well on standardized tests. But I'm sure it's easier when we also expose them to the richness of the world and the people who inhabit it.

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