Jennifer Miller on Amelia Earhart and Using the World as a Classroom

Noodle Expert Jennifer Miller discusses the bravery of Amelia Earhart and the thrilling lessons one learns when using the world as a classroom.

Who would you pick, alive or dead, to be your teacher for a year? What would you want to learn?

I love the idea of choosing a teacher and dedicating oneself to a topic for a year. The trouble, of course, would be in choosing just one at a time. Immediately a dozen leap to mind, but I think I'd begin with Amelia Earhart. I'm inspired by her bravery, her willingness to pursue her dreams in spite of formidable obstacles — not the least of which was the gender divide — and her adventurous spirit. My grandmother was a pilot during WWII and I've always wanted to learn to fly. It's on my list for the coming decade, and it would be a delight to learn from one of the great pioneers of women's aviation.

What is one small piece of advice that has had a big impact on your life?

Aim higher. Too many people settle for small lives, small successes, and small adventures. I'm continually challenging myself to aim higher, dream bigger, and raise the bar on my own expectations. In a world where lowering expectations seems to be the norm — where family life, education, career goals, lifetime dreams, and general standard of life and practice are concerned, I believe just the opposite. I'm a believer that we, as individuals, are capable of far more than we think, and that the only path forward for the world is in collectively aiming higher.

I believe educational standards should be raised, not lowered, on an individual level. I believe family life should be prioritized and the very best expected from each member. I believe our careers should be born out of our passions and that our passions are best discovered by attempting things that we think we cannot possibly succeed at. I'm continually re-evaluating my life and my work in light of the question, "If you could do anything, what would it be?" And then I set out to do that thing.

Where would you send a student who hasn’t traveled before?

We cannot send a student, she must take herself. If someone has not traveled, I'd talk to her about her dreams, her interests, and her long-term goals. Travel is most useful if it is aligned with the goals and dreams of the individual, rather than something imposed upon a student in a packaged way. This is why so many of the "semester abroad" type programs fall short of their potential.

If I could change one thing about the current educational norm, it would be to mandate a year abroad for every student, and not in a cushy, first-world exchange. It would go deep into the heart of what is most different from one's normal life. There is immense educational value to finding yourself the only person of your particular color, religious creed, or language, within a five hundred mile radius. I would send kids from middle America into the Arab world. I'd send children from poor villages in Guatemala to rural Canada. I'd send European young people to back-water Vietnam, and girls from the heart of Cameroon to Barcelona, or Oslo. The point is not found in the destination; the lesson is in bridging the divide between cultures and beginning to understand that the commonalities far outweigh the differences.

When was a time that you failed academically, and what did you learn from the experience?

The fact that I cannot think of a time that I failed academically is educational in itself. School came easily for me. I read before kindergarten and graduated from both high school and university a year early. I was one of those kids that the system failed, not in allowing me to fall through the cracks, but in not challenging me sufficiently. When I got a degree in education and spent a bit of time in the classroom, I realized that there was no way around that outcome within the system and it was a primary motivator in our decision to opt our own children out of traditional schools.

All kids should fail, academically and otherwise, at some point during their educations. Failure is exceedingly important in developing determination and the ability to think outside-the-box about a problem and find creative solutions that will build success. If we aren't operating on the very edge of what we think is possible for ourselves, it's my general opinion that we need to be aiming higher. It wasn't until I was completely through my formal schooling that I learned to do that.

Why did you go into your field, and how is it different from what you expected?

My degree is in education, but it didn't take me long in the classroom to realize that this was not what I wanted for my own children. Knowing what you don't want, however, is not the same thing as knowing what you do want. It took me several years of reading and careful study to rework my educational philosophy into something that suited our particular family. As I began moving forward with the educations of my children, people began to ask what we were doing and how they could do something similar.

When we began traveling full-time and educating with the world as our classroom, moving further from even the box of homeschooling, I had the opportunity to help other families who live differently to custom design educational plans for their children's unique needs. I began writing about the intersection of adventure travel and education in 2008, and have been published in the travel and alternative education markets ever since.

So, my career has grown out of my passions and my life. What is continually changing, both my expectations and the direction of my career, are the people that I meet. Parents, other educators, writers, passionate learners, and leaders in their fields or communities who are interested in combining education and adventure. There's no way to predict the intersections of other people's passions with my own, but it's a great delight to discover them.

For example, this spring, I'm rolling out the Travel Access Project, with Boots-n-All, which will create interest-driven, academically challenging gap years for graduating seniors. At the same time, I'm preparing to present at a summit for teen girls in the rain forests of Peru on global women's issues and leadership. This summer will find me speaking at a number of big homeschool conventions on the west coast about the intersection of education and adventure for families. I didn't see any of that coming when I decided to rework my career goals around family and full-time travel.

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