Teachable Moments in Tonga

Walking along the streets of Niefu in Tonga, we stumbled upon a tiny building that was plopped down right in front of the Post Office with a sign out front that read “Library”.  My interest was piqued, and the kids rolled their eyes as I dragged them into yet another island library.  The running joke is that when we get to a new place, Dad always looks for the Wi-fi café and Mom always wants to find the library.  Yes, I admit, I’m a total book geek.  And although I’m slowly learning to tolerate reading on my kindle in order to enjoy current books, there is nothing that fills my soul and ignites my senses like the musty smell of a good, old, yellowed paperback.  I especially treasure the ones I find in which someone has scribbled notes into the margins, dog-eared pages, and underlined favorite parts.  It makes me feel like I’m part of a timeless, universal book club.  I could spend hours perusing through the crowded shelves, glancing through worn-paged books, imagining that hundreds of eyes have them read before mine.  I get absolutely lost.
Take a look, it's in a book...
Now, in the kids’ reality, this usually means being stuck in a tiny, one-roomed building with little ventilation and very few children’s books to keep them entertained while Mom is in another world - hence, the eye rolling and heavy sighing when a library is happened upon.  But this library was different.  Yes, still musty and tiny, but the children’s book collection filled three whole walls!  It was the best little library we’d seen since our afternoon spent in the surprising Dominica Library in the Caribbean.  Within moments, the kids were sucked in, too, tantalized by a new Nancy Drew book they hadn’t read or a creepy Goosebumps cover.  It was a beautiful moment for me.  I stood back and watched, filled with amazement at the bookworm clones I’d created. 

The woman at the desk signed our name on a ledger, I paid 5 pa’anga (about US$2.50), and we were official members of the Niefu Library.  This meant we could check out 5 books for a two-week period and exchange them infinite times.  I felt like I’d died and gone to literary heaven. 

Michael and Elizabeth stacked their chosen books up on the wooden check-out desk, then stuck a few into their bags, but couldn’t help keeping one out to read while they walked to the Wi-Fi café.

Our quest for knowledge in Tonga didn’t stop there, though.  In fact, true to our boat name, we learned a lot as we traveled through Tonga.  The kids researched the Flying Foxes that were screeching in the trees each morning and evening, finding out that they were actually fruit bats and not a vampire species they’d initially imagined them to be.  Binoculars helped them get a better view of the critters, and they would sit and watch them for hours.

A local t-shirt shop, Tropical Tease, unexpectedly offered up our next learning experience.  When we placed an order to print some Field Trip paraphernalia, the ladies working there invited the kids to learn how to screen print!  Both kids brought a shirt into the shop the following day and got to choose the design that they would print onto it!  The screen was centered over the fabric and they pulled ink across the silk stencil with a rubber squeegee.  Their faces lit up when the screen was removed, revealing the design!  A quick blow from a hair dryer allowed them to wear their newly printed shirts right out of the shop, beaming with pride.

Step One: Lay screen flat on shirt in desired location.
Step Two:  Drag rubber squeegee with ink across the print, applying steady movement and pressure.
Step Three:  Carefully remove screen and voilà!
Our next lesson happened by chance. We were sitting with some other families in The Aquarium Cafe one night for Happy Hour, when a young lady from Australia began giving a presentation about the destructive effects of plastics on the marine environment.  (Here's a recent blog post she wrote about her time in Tonga and Fiji.)  All the boat moms glanced at each other and shrugged, "Perfect!  This can count as our science lesson today!" At least 10 boat kids sat there in rapt attention as she spoke about entrapment, entanglement, and starvation of sea creatures caused by discarded plastics.  Elizabeth came back with a mind that was reeling.  She asked me, "But Mom, everything in the world has to be made up of natural things, because that's all that's in the world, right?  How can plastics not break down, when they had to be made out of things from the world anyway?"  Seriously?  Is it time for chemistry already?  I was amazed at how that 20 minute power point presentation led her mind to question and wonder on such a deeper level.  The next day, we did an idea web, recalling the main points of the talk.  Then the kids wrote a persuasive report (Michael's was one paragraph, Elizabeth's was three) giving reasons why plastics are hurting animals and what we can do to help.  Michael came up with a great title on his own - Plastics are Predators - pretty catchy, right?  Since the presentation, Elizabeth's been quick to point out how many plastic containers we have in our fridge, reminds me to bring bags to the store, and even reprimands me for using a plastic straw at restaurants.  If only my explanation of long division could be so intriguing... 

For more reading on the subject, simply Google "plastics in oceans" and you'll find articles like this one.

Impromptu classroom - Environmental Science 101
Yes, Tonga provided many opportunities to learn about the world around us.  In my past life as a public school teacher, I was handed a curriculum and a set of objectives to teach – and that was what I followed.  Sure, I supplemented the curriculum with favorite books or activities to best inspire and motivate my students, but the demands of the required standards left little wiggle room.  The “how” of teaching was my responsibility, but the “what” to teach was decided for me.  When I began homeschooling four years ago, I struggled so much with figuring out “what” I needed to teach them, that I forgot the fun of the “how”.  I sifted through bookshelves at the teacher stores, trying to find my way through theories and practices I had not really learned about in college.  Charlotte Mason, Classical, Unschooling – the options seemed endless, each with their own pros and cons.  The freedom of homeschooling quickly became overwhelming.
But after wading through the “how” – figuring out which teaching style fit me best and also served my two different learners best – I had to figure out the “what”.  I wasn’t handed a stack of textbooks or a set of standards to follow.  That first year, I kept to the Colorado State Standards as listed on the CDE website.  These were my security blanket.  If this whole boat thing didn’t work out, then the kids could seamlessly go back into school.  Unfortunately, that meant we were supposed to be learning Colorado History and Ancient Egypt while we were cruising through the Caribbean.  Really??  What about pirates and ocean explorers?  What about all these island nations and territories with different flags and histories themselves?  I just couldn’t do it.  Colorado standards didn’t make sense for us in the same way.  I’d talk to homeschool moms from back home and hear about American Indian dioramas or models of the Great Pyramids.  Were my kids missing out?  I found myself struggling to maintain the confidence to stick to our own path.  

But as the years have passed, I have found ways to combine the learning in ways that don’t seem daunting - by comparing elements of the places we visit with those found in the American textbooks.  For example, in Tonga, it is a kingdom (one of the last in the world).  How does it compare to a monarchy?  Which countries have monarchies?  How is it different than the democratic government in the United States?  What about the ecosystem here compared to Colorado?  What are the traditions in these places that shape the cultures?  Do we have similar holidays in the U.S.?  It has become a simple way to integrate those set standards into our travels without much stress. 

Just like sailing, teaching is a skill that morphs continuously as we expand our experiences and build upon our background knowledge.  As I learn more, I find there is always much more to learn.  Life is like that in a lot of ways - just one big ole Field Trip, isn’t it??    

Mark and the "school bus" full of boat kids on the way to town.



  1. way cool blog !
    was the 'pirate' gps adventure on tatafa island ? - looks similar
    spent 8 great days myself around nieafu
    great market on the waterfront - food and crafts
    be sure to eat at belle vista cafe - greet melo, owner, for me
    internet cafe next door to bella vista
    bike to makave village - cleanest, healthiest village in tonga ! worth the bike trip
    i share your passion for books too

    be sure to visit norfolk island on your way down to nz

    keep it up - y'all are for sure key players in my travel hero's collection


  2. Such a wonderful way for the kids to learn about the world that surrounds them. Relevant, interesting and self motivated.
    Brilliant! :)

  3. Hi! Just wanted you to know, I've been following your blog from California for several months, as we search for a boat to take our family of 6 (4 kids ages 3, 5, 7, 9) on an adventure through the world. We're hoping to leave next October. Sarah, I was a teacher before kids, and we homeschool now, so your posts really resonate with me. (I'm also a MOPS coordinator, so it was fun to read your bio!) I enjoying seeing what works for you guys as I imagine what school will look like for us next year! Your pirate treasure hunt looked like such a great time!
    Many happy adventures to you all! Looking forward to your next post!

  4. I love reading about your adventures. I am sure your children will have an excellent, broad base of first hand knowledge about many cultures and nature. Wishing you fair winds and good health.


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