Education on wheels Kenai family takes home-school studies on the road

Posted: Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Blair and Ronna Martin school their kids at home, which usually means at their house in Kenai. However, for four and a half months last fall, home was a vintage 1976 school bus and the classroom was the western United States.

The Martins and their five kids sons, Josiah, 9, Matheias, 4, Darius, 2, and daughters, DeAnne, 11, and 6-week-old Sonora along with family friend Shay Jackinsky, 14, set out on their extended field trip Aug. 1. With the Martin family van in tow, the group made their way down the Alaska Highway to Minnesota, where Blair planned to modified the bus to comfortably seat and sleep eight.

For six weeks, the group stayed at Ronna's uncle's place near Springfield, while Blair, with help from relatives, worked to convert the bus into a functional educational vehicle. Meanwhile, Ronna took the kids on day trips around the region in the family van.

To make the bus more livable, Blair fashioned sleeping accommodations by removing the side windows and rear exit door at the back of the bus, covering the holes with sheet metal, and installing a loft to turn the rear of the bus into a giant bunk bed. He also replaced the bus's bench seats with half a dozen military surplus airline seats, complete with legal seat belts.


From left to right, DeAnne, Josiah, and Darius Martin pose with family friend Shay Jackinsky beside the Martin's vintage 1976 school bus at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in New Mexico. The Martins toured the western United States for four and a half months last fall as part of their home school education.

Photo courtesy of the Martins

While Blair modified their home school bus, Ronna and the kids visited places as diverse as a corn cannery, the local Sioux reservation and one of Laura Ingalls Wilders' pioneer homes Wilder wrote "Little House on the Prairie" and a number of other books chronicling her frontier life.

Once the bus was ready, the Martins continued to seek out diverse, educational and fun experiences along the highways and byways of the west. In Houston, the family visited NASA's facilities; in New Mexico, they attended the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, featuring all shapes, sizes and colors of hot air balloons from around the world; in San Diego, Calif., they toured Sea World, which offers special home-school programs; and in Northern California, they visited the Jelly Belly factory in Fairfield.

DeAnne, the Martins' oldest daughter, liked the aquatic petting zoo at Sea World.

"The sea rays felt like leather somebody had spread jelly on," she said.


Matheias Martin reaches out to pet a dolphin at Sea World in San Diego, Calif. The park offers programs tailored for home-school education.

Photo courtesy of the Martins

The biggest hits with all the school-age Martins, however, were the more-than-a-dozen state and national parks the family visited.

Josiah admired the erosion that was at work to carve the Grand Canyon.

"It's so cool how water can dig through rock, down one, two thousand feet," he said.

Both DeAnne and Josiah agreed, however, that they were most impressed by Goblin Valley State Park in Utah. The park features hundreds of sandstone hoodoos. The mushroom-shaped pinnacles are created by wind erosion and said to resemble goblins.


DeAnne and Matheias Martin perch among hoodoos at Goblin Valley State Park in Utah. The mushroom-shaped formation are caused by wind erosion and are said to resemble goblins.

Photo courtesy of the Martins

As part of the away-from-home schooling plan, DeAnne, Josiah and Shay wrote about their experiences, including what they learned about the natural features at Goblin Valley.

"We had to write stories for it and that kinda pounded it into our brains more," DeAnne said.

The kids also participated in the Junior Rangers program sponsored by The National Parks Service. The program rewards kids who complete educational workbooks with a badge from the particular park they visited.

The Martins believe in educating with textbooks, but also believe there's no substitute for real-world experience.

By visiting places they've read about in books, "the textbook just comes alive," Ronna Martin said. "The kids are just enthralled they're just excited to learn."

The Martins returned to their family home at the Diamond M Ranch RV Park on Kalifornsky Beach Road on Dec. 15.

Blair Martin was thrilled that his kids got to see and learn so much about their country, however, his most personally satisfying moment came during a quick excursion into Mexico. Blair got to legally park his bus on a beach on the west coast of the Baja peninsula.

"You can't do that in the U.S.," Blair said.

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