This is what it’s like when your classroom is an Airstream trailer and the open road

The Detweiler’s new Airstream.

By: Chloe Portalatin

A ten year old girl wakes up with the sun in her Cloud 9 Airstream, her new home for a year.

Jenna Detweiler and her family had a very special reason for wanting to try a different way of schooling. “The main catalyst was medical necessity,” said Dawn Detweiler, Jenna’s mother. She explained that Jenna has multiple medical special needs, some of which lower her immune response, making school a potentially hazardous environment. “She has severe lung disease which makes her especially prone to develop pneumonia from any little cold or flu that kids tend to spread around in school,” said Dawn. “What is sniffles and sneezing for most kids can be life threatening for Jenna.”

Jenna’s father, Lavon Detweiler, was also traveling a lot for work. The family was trying to come up with a solution that could keep them close while keeping Jenna in an environment they can be sure is clean while still getting a great education. “In an off-hand, half joking way, one of us said, ‘We could take everything with us if we had a camper.’” said Dawn. In late May, they began their trip across the country.

Homeschooling is becoming a more common option for families. A study was taken by the U.S Dept of Education, and it showed between 2003 and 2012, the homeschool community grew by 61.8 percent. By the end of that study, there were about 1.75 million students at home throughout the U.S. And special needs aren’t the only reason why people might choose homeschooling.

From a study by the U.S Dept of Education, 91 percent of people who have homeschooled did so because they were concerned about the public school environment. That’s the reason another student I interviewed, Michael, gave for choosing homeschooling. “I couldn’t stand the annoying people at school,” he explained. The study also found that 77 percent of people wished to give their children moral instruction, which is why my family chose homeschooling, and 74 percent were dissatisfied with the school system academic courses. I am homeschooled, and when asked why, my mother responded, “There was no time to do extra curricular activities like piano or swimming. Because you would be at school, and then there would be homework to do.” Which would go under the 34 percent that chose this form of education for other reasons. For the Detweilers, they fall under the only 15 percent of people who homeschooled because their child has either a mental or physical health problem.

If a child receives special education at school (e.g., special activities during gym or in the classroom) they would need an IEP — which stands for Individualized Education Program, which is a very important document. It’s like a schedule for the child; to find out their strengths and weaknesses to succeed in school, and to put their learning and special activities around that. When I asked, Dawn said yes, she had tried the IEP. But there were some problems along the way, “As it was, we met privately with teachers and administrators who were not very willing or flexible to work with Jenna’s individual needs,” Dawn explained, “They basically said, in their small settings with the resources they had, it wasn’t possible to do something different for one child that they weren’t doing for the rest. It was very frustrating.”

The Detweilers get other benefits aside from access to medical care, like experiences that are rare in regular classrooms. One of the things most kids don’t get to do in school, is to take a “school-trip” to see caves, and connect with history and nature. “I learned about caves, fossils, how old some rocks are, how to tell the difference between coral snake and a king snake, and what a “whistle pig” is. And I got a trilobite fossil that is approximately 520 million years old,” said Jenna. “We have tried traditional schooling since Jenna has grown and has a somewhat stronger immune system. We found that none of us like it as much as homeschooling.” said Dawn. They don’t like the rigid schedule with getting up early, and rushing around, with Dawn saying that they’re “slow-starters” in the morning. In the school Jenna had tried, the teachers were harsh and not patient, which brought Jenna down emotionally. With homeschooling for them, they have all the time in the day to learn what they want, and what they’re interested in. “Being where history happened, doing, seeing, and touching make the learning experience more interesting and real for all of us,” said Dawn.

L to R Dawn, Lavon, and Jenna.

But some people realize homeschooling is harder than it sounds, and don’t end up sticking with it. “I felt isolated at home without other people than my family,” said Michael. He tried homeschooling twice, but in the end, decided to go back to public school. The Detweilers do face some challenges with RV-schooling, too. “Pulling your home down the road is like the equivalent of a traditional home withstanding earthquakes on a daily basis,” said Dawn. “Things shake, rattle, roll and break. So far, in just over 2 weeks, we’ve had a drawer fly out and break, the heat quit working overnight in 40 degree weather, the toilet stopped flushing, the truck needed a new catalytic converter and the engine light came on (in the shop being assessed as we speak).”

Despite the challenges, the Detweilers decided to stick with it and still manage to have fun. Jenna explains her favorite place she has visited (so far) “Lehman Caves in Great Basin National Park. I loved the stalactites and stalagmites and learned about other formations like shields and popcorn. Popcorn really looks like popcorn! It’s where water droplets splash and bounce and then get hard again.”

Homeschooling is an unusual choice that makes sense for some families, and for this family, that’s able to get along so well, traveling across the country and homeschooling turns out to be the best option. Seeing famous landmarks, and learning history and geology hands-on is an educational opportunity most students don’t get. There may be a few bumps in the road along the way, but in the end, says Jenna, “I like that we’re in a small space and if I’m playing in my room, my family is still close to me.”

You can see more of Dawn’s pictures on her Instagram.

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