The numbers of kids being homeschooled in Australia is on the rise, with 12,000 registered in 2014 and an estimated 30,000 more unregistered students, according to the Homeschool Legal Defense Association.
I used to criticise parents who thought their kids too precious for school. Now, I'm not so sure.
Seven months ago my husband and I left our jobs, rented out our unit, and headed off for a year with a camper trailer to see Australia, visiting deaf schools along the way (our older child is deaf and we use English and Auslan at home). For most of this year, however, Kaitlyn's education is my responsibility.
When we pulled out of the drive in Sydney last December our neighbour asked, 'What are you going to do when it rains?' I was more worried about home school. I teach literature at Western Sydney University, but I've never taught children.
When it rains the girls make up games, inventing worlds with sticks and stones and kangaroo bones. At Ningaloo Station, camped on the beach for five nights with no showers or shoes, we ran out of paper and the girls painted cuttlefish, washed in by the tide.
For Kailtyn, who's eight, I bought a journal, math book and kindle. Thankfully, she reads for hours in the back seat. Because she's not in school, she has much more time to read.
Still, I found teaching tricky at first. In the Flinders Ranges, I biked with Kaitlyn to the ruins of an old homestead and asked her to imagine what life would've been like for those early settlers. She didn't want to write what I was imagining.
Now I let her write her own stories (about zombies or a family of owls) when she wants, in the shade of the trailer when it's too hot to play. Her writing's improving, not from me, but from all that reading.
"Yesterday a six year-old boy on the campsite taught Rhiannon how to write 'poo'. Last night she wrote the word again and again until she drifted off to sleep."
Lessons happen anywhere. While snorkelling at Ningaloo, we had an underwater lesson, in Auslan, about tropical fish and coral. On a recent walk to Manning Gorge on the Gibb River Road, I explained the terms 'first' and 'third-person' narrators. As we strolled past boabs, we discussed the merits and drawbacks of each perspective. Kaitlyn's written four stories on the trip so far and she recalled which point of view she chose for each story, and why.
Most days, she does a page or two of math, but we only have up to an hour of formal study. The rest of the day Kaitlyn reads or writes or asks questions: 'How do they train the camels [who take tourists for rides on Cable Beach]?' or 'Why don't the Aboriginals go back to the way of life they had before, now that they can?' I have time for the difficult questions now, in a way I never do at home, when we're always in a rush to get to school or work or swimming lessons.
I've bought Kaitlyn science books on everything from Galileo to insects, and sometimes she teaches me. When we spotted a pod of dolphins on the Eyre Peninsula, she said, 'Dolphins can swim 30km an hour.' When I complained about the flies in the outback, she told me, 'They only live for a week, Mum.'
My other daughter, who's four, recently asked, 'How do you spell helicopter?' It seemed crazy for her to learn to write before she could read, so I tried to teach her to read; she refused. These days, from the moment she wakes until she goes to bed, Rhiannon writes, sounds out words and asks for help when she's stuck. Yesterday a six year-old boy on the campsite taught Rhiannon how to write 'poo'. Last night she wrote the word again and again until she drifted off to sleep, still grasping the pen.
Slowly, she's learning to read what she already knows how to write. It's an odd way to learn, but she's keen, and it's the keenness that counts. Somewhere during the course of formal schooling, kids begin to hate what they're programmed to love: learning. And that's one reason why so many Australian parents are choosing to home school.
What about socialisation? Another surprise this year is how my kids have grown in confidence: they thrive in social situations that they once shied away from. Studies show that children who are home schooled have better behaviour and higher self-esteem.
After our year travelling around Australia, I'll send my children to their local public school, grateful to the teachers there. Twenty-five children are much harder than two. And I want my children to be exposed to different teachers, not just me. But I'm grateful, too, for this year, where the continent of Australia's our classroom and I'm my children's teacher.
Sarah Klenbort is a writer of fiction and non-fiction, who usually teaches Literature at Western Sydney University. This year she's travelling around Australia with her family. Find her at handsacrossaustralia.com