Win for family travel in British court

The dad. Courtesy of The Independent.

The dad. Courtesy of The Independent.

Cheers to Jon Platt.

How else to lead into a story about the British father who fought and beat a silly law forbidding kids to miss school for travel? How else to celebrate a man who established legal precedent for British—and, hopefully, at least eventually—American families to pull kids from school to experience the world.

The story is convoluted to say the least. Last April, Platt pulled his daughter from school on the Isle of Wight for a family vacation to Florida and the Walt Disney World Resort. When the family returned, he was hit with a £60 fine for violating the Education Act, which stipulates that parents are guilty of an offence if they fail to ensure their child “attends regularly” at school. Platt fought the fine. It doubled. So he took it to court.

The battle escalated to reach the Isle of Wight Magistrates’ Court in October, where Platt won his case, but the local authority appealed the decision to the High Court, which this week finally ruled this week in Platt’s favor.

All told, Platt told The Independent said the case had cost him £13,000, which he described as “money well spent”, and has crowdfunded £25,000 to cover legal costs.

Coverage of the decision was fantastic because much of it included running quotes from Platt after his big win. During an interview with ITV’s Good Morning Britain program, Platt said: “If the law required 100 per cent attendance, if the law said your children must attend every single day in order to get a great education, the law would say that, but it does not. We are not arguing on behalf of people whose kids don’t go to school, I’m arguing on behalf of people whose kids go to school every single day and maybe once a year they take them out for five days. It does not harm them at all. How do I know? Because my own kids are doing really, really well in school.”

Sounds like a regular guy airing pretty understandable gripes against an inflexible system. Every district should be lucky enough to have a Jon Platt on the parents’ side. As for moms and dads, any parent who thinks twice before taking kids out of school for a family vacation should think again. There’s learning in travel, too. You might just have to work a little harder for it in the end.

Stand by your (travel) plan

The Rossi family (courtesy of TODAY).

The Rossi family (courtesy of TODAY).

By now you likely have heard of the Rossi family—the Pennsylvania family that pulled 9-year-old twins out of school to go and watch Dad run in the Boston Marathon earlier this month.

Had they done this all quietly, neither you, nor I, nor anyone else in the United States would be talking about it. But, well…the dad is a part-time radio personality in his home region, and let’s just say the family didn’t exactly shy away from making the episode into a MAJOR deal.

I’m not going to review all the facts of the case here; you can read some pretty good rundowns online (such as here and here). The CliffsNotes: The parents, Jack and Victoria Rossi, wrote a note excusing their third-graders for the absences in conjunction with the family trip. After the race, the school principal, Rochelle Marbury, wrote a now-famous letter in which she stated that her district “does not recognize family trips as an excused absence.”

What happened next was the unfortunate part. Rossi wrote a response to the letter, posted it on his quasi-public Facebook page (again, people, even with privacy settings, FACEBOOK IS NOT PRIVATE), and the thing went viral. Since then he and his wife have been on talk shows, and the entire episode has de-evolved into a complete shitshow.

In the process, IMHO, we’ve lost sight of the major issue: Should family trips be excused absences?

I’ve blogged about this before (here, for instance), and, considering I travel for a living, I likely will blog about it again. (Heck, we’re pulling L out of a half-day of school next month so the four of us in this family can go on a vacation/assignment.) My take: Family trips are NOT excused absences. But that shouldn’t stop us from taking them if we think the trips are important and worth taking.

This means I don’t fault Rossi for taking his kids. It means I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Rossi’s rationale/reasoning for why he did it. Here’s a snip from his “letter” to the principal:

“In the 3 days of school they missed (which consisted of standardized testing that they could take any time) they learned about dedication, commitment, love, perseverance, overcoming adversity, civic pride, patriotism, American history culinary arts and physical education…They also experienced first-hand the love and support of thousands of others cheering on people with a common goal.”

Heck, as a runner, I’ll even side with the guy for taking his kids because he wanted them at the finish.

But for him to attack the district for failing to bend its own rules, for wigging out because the principal didn’t genuflect at him for being such an “incredible” and “progressive” dad—I have to ask: Who in the hell does this guy think he is?

Choosing travel over school is a personal decision. It brings with it high reward—learning about dedication, commitment, love, perseverance, and all those other things Rossi mentioned in his note. It also carries high risk—kids fall behind on the curriculum, kids miss out on projects, kids may run afoul of school attendance policies. If we as parents aren’t prepared to deal with the consequences of our decisions on this issue, we shouldn’t be making such bold decisions at all.

Put differently, if Rossi was going to have such a problem with the principal’s reaction to the absences, perhaps he should have thought twice about pulling his kids out of school in the first place.

To Rossi’s credit, he told TODAY that he’s not angry at the school for writing the note and recognizes that the principal is “doing what she has to do,” but instead is taking issue with the district’s inflexible attendance policy.

Again, to that I say this: The rules are the rules, and they apply to everyone. Even local celebrities who qualify for Boston.

The lesson here for traveling parents is twofold. First, do your homework and investigate your district’s attendance policy before you pull your kids out for a trip. Second, take ownership of your decision, whatever that decision might be, and be prepared to deal with the consequences gracefully (especially since your kids will be watching).

The Rossi children—like most Americans—probably see their mom and dad as heroes. Sadly, at least from my perspective, the mom and dad are nothing more than a pair of whiners. You made your bed, people. Now lie in it.

Three strategies for mixing travel with homework

New school, new challenges on the road.

New school, new challenges on the road.

Now that L is a Kindergartner, she has Big Girl responsibilities such as homework. When we’re home, Powerwoman and I make it a priority to build the post-school afternoon hours around these tasks. When we’re away, however, working in her assignments can be a little trickier.

At this point, her “assignments” comprise practicing her letters, studying Spanish words and solving rudimentary math problems on a program called iXL. Still, in terms of logistics, getting the kid to do this homework can be difficult, especially when we’re in a new place and/or a fancy hotel and she’d rather be exploring/lounging/playing with her sister/gorging on room service.

We’ve deployed a trio of tactics to keep homework a priority.

  1. Sticking to a schedule. By far, the most successful way to prioritize homework on the road has been to write it in to a schedule—literally. When we travel, we sit down with L to come up with a schedule, write down our plan, and post the resulting calendar on the wall for L to see. Her kindergarten teacher does this every day in class, so she’s used to it. What’s more, if ever she (or one of the rest of us) deviates from the schedule, it’s easy to refer to the plan and get back on track.
  2. Bring it with. Especially on road trips—or when I’m reporting a story—it can be difficult to stick to a plan. On these occasions, we tend to be a bit more flexible with homework time, and allow L to do her work on the go. Sometimes this means impromptu stops at Starbucks and other coffee shops for 30 minutes of math practice. Other times it means some time on a blanket in a park. While this strategy is not optimal (there always are distractions when we’re out and about), it’s better than nothing.
  3. Clustering. The third strategy we’ve implemented to mix travel and homework has been to cluster busy work into multi-hour sessions at the front or back ends of a trip.  The benefit to this approach: We don’t have to scramble to get L homework time every day. The downside: Sometimes (especially with writing, for some reason), it can be hard to get her to focus for more than 45 minutes at a time.

Because L only has been in kindergarten for something like 50 days, I’m guessing this is just the beginning of our efforts to try and match homework and family travel. The bottom line: Both remain a priority for us, and we’ll continue to try new strategies as she gets older (and as we travel more during the school year). If you’ve got additional suggestions, we’re all ears.

What are some of your techniques to get your kids to do homework while traveling?

Lessons Learned After One Month in London

Another lesson: London parks kick ass.

A major lesson: London parks kick ass.

Hard to believe it, but today is our one-month anniversary on the road here in London. This means tomorrow will mark the longest amount of time our kids have been away from home (last summer, we spent 30 consecutive days traveling in Hawaii). It also means that three months remain in this grand adventure.

Since I’m a big fan of self-reflection, I figured this milestone would be a natural time to look back and “synopsize” (Powerwoman’s word) some of the lessons (and Villano family tendencies on the road) we’ve learned so far.

Public transportation is the ultimate distraction tool
It doesn’t matter if we’re riding a bus, train, or (river or canal) boat—my kids *love* taking public transportation. The passion is so deep that that as soon as we climb aboard one of these vehicles, the girls forget that they’re tired/hungry/cranky/insert other problem here, chill out and, quite literally, simply enjoy the ride.

To put it differently, my Oyster Card is the key to vanquishing tantrums when we’re out and about.

For L, the obsession was born on her very first ride; for R, it was a more gradual process (if you recall, she hated the Tube at first).

Overall, both girls prefer the bus (the “double-bus, as R says”), and like sitting up top. That said, the Tube is OK by them as well, especially if we get to change trains so they can watch (and wave to) trains entering and leaving the station. The bottom line: Public Transportation is our friend.

You can never schlep too many snacks
Back in the 1990s, when my family had season tickets at Yankee Stadium, my Dad would stuff his backpack full of snacks and harass us all game long to eat. I nicknamed him “Bodega Man,” because he often offered a selection that was more varied than the stuff you’d find at the local bodega. He took the ribbing quietly, almost knowing that someday, the tables would turn.

That day is now. Here in London. Every time we go out and about, I’m the dad with the backpack of random snacks. And it always—ALWAYS—comes in handy.

What I’ve learned about being Bodega Man 2.0 is that incorporating a diverse array of snack options actually improves the success rate tenfold.  Put differently: The more stuff you schlep, the more likely you’ll have something the kids will eat.

(Dad, I get it now. Sorry I didn’t learn the lesson sooner.)

Routines rule
One of the most exciting things about traveling and living abroad is the notion that every new day brings new experiences, new people and new points of view. Especially when you’re traveling with young kids, however, there can be great comfort in a predictable schedule from day to day.

Basically, I’m saying that everyone breathes more easily with a bit of a routine.

It was a struggle for me to embrace this approach, but we’ve learned this routine doesn’t have to be elaborate. Aside from L’s school (which she attends weekdays from 9 a.m. to noon), our daily schedule is simple: Wake-up by 7:30 a.m., naptime for R (and downtime for L) around 1:30 p.m., park time around 4:30 p.m., tubs at 7 p.m.

The girls don’t come out and say they appreciate these predictable patterns, but on those rare days when we deviate from the plan—including the one day a week when we pull L out of school to explore London—the free-style schedule triggers a greater number of tired spells and associated meltdowns (as sophisticated as L is, she still is only 4).

Not all playgrounds are created equal
Back home, we can count on one hand the number of playgrounds our kids would rate as “awesome” or “super awesome.” Here, however, it seems there’s a kick-ass playground in every single park.

All of these playgrounds boast crazy wooden play structures, old-school metal slides, and spinny carousel type things (none of which you’d find in the U.S., where child play areas are made to be uber-safe and minimize lawsuits). Most of the playgrounds here also have bigger and boxier “baby” swings, which enable me to get R and L side-by-side and push them both at the same time (this comes in handy when I’m solo with the girls). Some even have huge sand pits. And a separate area for kids over the age of five.

The best thing about London playgrounds, of course, are the cafes; at play time, I’m never more than 200 feet from a hot Americano or a fresh-baked scone.

In short, this family can’t go wrong with a trip to one of London’s parks. (Also: we Americans have a LOT to learn from how they roll with playground development over here.)

I’ll end each month with a similar look-back (thanks, Kara Williams, for the idea). I’ll also use these pieces as an opportunity to mention what lies ahead. On the docket for the next four weeks: R’s birthday celebration at The London Eye, a trip to Bath, a visit from one set of grandparents and a 10-day (half-term) jaunt to Ireland. Stay tuned!

What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned through family travel?

To School or Not To School

How dare we separate these two BFFs?

How dare we separate these two BFFs?

The big question in our flat this week pertains to enrolling L in school during our time here in London. Do we or don’t we? Powerwoman and I continue to go back and forth.

Some parts of the equation are simple. Yes, we took our 4-year-old out of her second year of preschool to be here for the fall. And, yes, we plan to send her back to the same preschool when we return (the folks who run her preschool have been kind enough to save her spot).

We also believe that L (like most kids) thrives in the school environment, and needs the age-appropriate social stimulation that environment provides.

Beyond these truths, however, we are truly flummoxed.

First is the issue of logistics. Last year, at home, L attended school twice a week for three hours a day. This year, when we return, she’ll attend school three times a week for three hours a day. Here, however, they do school differently. Most kids are in full-time school of some sort by age 2. It actually has been very difficult (and incredibly frustrating) to find a preschool equivalent that isn’t fewer than three full days (read: 8 hours a day) every week.

Then is the issue of philosophy. We relish the fact that we have the opportunity to live abroad with the girls while they’re so young. Because we are travelers by nature, we want to show them the city, take them around England, and explore Europe as frequently as possible.

I, in particular, am struggling with the decision, as I’ve taken it upon myself to create a “classroom” out of the everyday, supplementing journeys to different parts of the city with “lessons” before and after.

(Example: we’re attending a cricket match this weekend and I’ve started with stories about the rules.)

Still, the situation raises pretty serious questions. To what extent would L suffer from being out of school for four months? To what extent would enrolling her change the everyday, on-the-ground experience for her (and the rest of us)? How difficult—if at all—would it be for her to adjust to a new school in a new city in a new home? Finally: How might her enrollment impact our ability to travel while here?

Ultimately, I think Powerwoman and I probably will seek a compromise. My hunch is that this compromise likely will involve enrolling L in a full-week, half-day program, and insisting that the school allows us to keep her out one day a week (preferably a Monday or a Friday) to keep up our “curriculum” of exploring through travel.

Is this ideal? Not really. But at least the approach would incorporate both the traditional (school) and something new (travel).

At the end of the day, the school issue isn’t about what’s best for us at all; it’s about what’s best for L. That reality doesn’t change with a mailing address. And it’s a notion we try to embrace regarding both daughters wherever and whenever we can.

How have you handled schooling your kids during extended family trips?

Learning about Learning on the Road

Who needs classrooms when you have this?

Who needs school when you have this?

Nothing embodies my perspective on education quite like the line from Springsteen’s “No Surrender” (off Born in the U.S.A., of course): “We learned more from a three-minute record, baby, then we ever learned in school.”

I certainly held this philosophy in journalism school; even then, I knew my parents were paying to hook me up with an alumni network, and that the real education would come on internships along the way.

Now, as a parent, my wife and I embrace the same sentiment with regard to family travel.

Yes, we regret pulling our kids out of their respective schools (click here for some tips). Yes, we recognize that, in terms of our nation’s standards-based curriculum, these absences create additional challenges (both for our girls and for the teachers). We even acknowledge that there are some social ramifications of our girls being “those girls” who jet off to Yosemite or New York or the Cotswolds.

Despite all of these issues, we still think exploring through travel is the best way to teach our kids about their world.

I’ve been pondering this subject a lot lately.

My wife and I are moving the girls to London for four months this fall, and, this week, we signed a lease on a fabulous two-story flat (it’s in Maida Vale, for those of you scoring at home).

Then, earlier this week, my buddy, Rainer Jenss, wrote this thought-provoking story for AFAR magazine about his experiences on a one-year round-the-world journey with his wife and sons (who were 8 and 11, respectively, at the time).

In the story, Rainer explains his rationale for pulling his kids out of school for the trip like this: “One of the primary reasons we chose to take a yearlong sabbatical with our kids was to enhance their education; to help them learn things no [school] could ever teach them.” Then, he offers this:

    “We all want our children to excel academically. One surefire way to improve their chances for success is to get them more engaged and interested in what they’re being taught. Science: Check out the glaciers at Yellowstone, hike a volcano in Hawaii, or snorkel in the Caribbean or the Great Barrier Reef. History: Visit Colonial Williamsburg, vacation in Rome, or tour Egypt. Social Studies: How about China, India, or, of course, Washington, D.C.”

To be clear: Turning family vacations into learning experiences takes hard work.

You can’t just sloth by the pool all day; you need to be engaged with your kids for pretty much all of their waking hours. You also often need to be engaged well after they’ve gone to bed. The day before I introduced L to Muir Woods National Monument near our home, I was up until 2 a.m. studying stuff to tell her about redwoods. I’m sure I wasn’t the first dad to play that game.

All of this effort usually pays huge dividends. My older daughter still talks about the Sequoia sempervirens she saw that day at Muir Woods. Rainer writes about how one of his sons fell in love with photography after being exposed to it on their year-long trip.

Heck, I think even The Boss would agree (that first record led to a few others).

So get out there. And embrace that learning can happen in any place, at any time, about any subject. Recognizing these truths arguably is the most important education your kids ever will get. It’s also not a lesson they’ll ever learn in the traditional classroom environment.

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