Education Vacation

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Ski Family 0201

What kind of mother would pull her kids out of school for a week on the slopes? One with a plan for making every day a learning experience.

The letter comes like clockwork every year, exactly two days after I've notified my daughters' teachers that I will once again be taking them out of school for a ski trip. "It is against the policy of this school that children take vacations during school time. Education comes before entertainment."

And each year, I ignore it. As a parent-more specifically a skiing parent-I know that a ski trip, while certainly entertaining, can also be quite educational. Even more educational than school. In our family, we've come up with a yearly ski trip plan that teaches our kids more in a week on skis than they could ever learn in a week behind a desk.

But let's be honest: The main reason we take our kids, ages 9 and 13, out of school during a non-vacation week isn't education. It's convenience. It's just not fun, easy or economical to take a family ski trip during a holiday week. Frequent-flier miles can't be redeemed; hotels have been booked solid for months; prices are at their highest; and the ski schools, slopes and liftlines are jammed.

Non-vacation weeks, on the other hand, are not only much more cost-effective, they're more enjoyable.

So some years we just have to choose: a few missed days of school or no ski trip at all. That's no choice, especially for our family, which loves skiing together.

That said, I'm willing to risk a trip to the principal's office-and ready to make the case for taking kids out of school to ski.

The Lesson Plan The first step to the educational ski vacation is letting your school know that you will be going. Be prepared. Criticism will follow. But by collecting your child's classroom work in advance, you can plan out homework time for each day and explain to your child what will be expected. Some teachers will agree to let you adapt assignments to fit in with what you are doing on your trip.

Our school was not entirely cooperative, so we went ahead and came up with our own adapted lesson plan when we visited Steamboat Springs, Colo., last year. It went like this:

Math Our younger daughter, a first grader, was required to estimate how many runs and lift rides she thought she'd make the first day and then to keep track during the day. That evening, we compared her estimate to the actual number of runs she completed and had her adjust her estimate for the following day. In the middle of the week, we had her estimate what percentage of her skiing was on greens, blues and blacks. We then counted that up and compared. Our 12-year-old was required to keep track of vertical feet skied with our hand-held GPS. In the evening, she was required to figure out percentages and totals skied for greens, blues and blacks. We then mapped out how far she would have skied from our home going north, west and south using her total vertical feet skied.

History Steamboat Springs, like most ski towns, is steeped in history. Before our visit, we read about the town and about Buddy Werner, the ski legend who grew up there. Then, while skiing, we traced the trails Buddy skied and talked about his life and what it must have been like at Steamboat back in the Fifties and Sixties. At night, we walked through the town and around the mountain's base area and discussed how the town had grown from Indian hunting grounds to a remote ranching community to a ski resort. A side visit to Howelsen Hill gave the girls a real feel for skiing's roots here. We asked our first-grader to draw what she imagined Steamboat looked like in its ranching days. We asked our older daughter to write a journal entry as if she were a young girl skiing in the Fifties.

Science Champagne Powder(tm). It's so special to Steamboat, they have it trademarked. Our science lesson came as a powder day. As we grabbed freshies on Morningside and later in Pioneer Ridge, we taught t girls about the moisture content of snow. We asked them to pick it up, blow it out of their hands, ski through it and compare it to the snow back East. That night we asked both girls, working as a team, to make two lists of adjectives: one to describe the eastern snow they were familiar with back home and one to describe Champagne Powder(tm). We also took part in the Steamboat Ranger Program, which, using signs and maps, shows skiers the plant and animal life of the area. Even if you don't want to take the official program, every instructor and ambassador at Steamboat is trained to point them out for you. Just ask.

Social Studies At Steamboat, this one was a snap. We called ahead to let legendary skier Billy Kidd know we were trying to make our vacation educational, thinking perhaps he'd shake their hands and say a word. He did much more than that. The gregarious Kidd took our girls for over an hour and talked to them about the hard work it takes to be a champion and how you can be a champion in life, not just on the ski trails. He made such an impression on them that both our girls are convinced he is their best friend. And they quote him all the time. That night, our older daughter wrote an essay on how being a ski champion could help you in life. Our younger daughter drew a picture of Kidd and wrote a short piece about how her life with diabetes is like working to be a ski champion.

And then there were the electives: etiquette (I'm a stickler for it on skis); driver's ed (driving in traffic and in snow, safety tactics, local laws); and memorization (at dinner we'd see who could name the most trails in two minutes; our first-grader always won).

Throughout the week, of course, the girls enjoyed the best physical education class they've ever had. We skied full days every day, cycling freely on runs that would have been choked during winter break. We swam after skiing and walked under the stars at night. With more and more families looking to ski non-vacation weeks, resorts are devising ways of making skiing educational. At Ascutney Mountain, Vt., instructor and former Ski School Director Julia Brennan now lists overseeing educational issues in the ski school as part of her job. Much of it, she says, comes naturally.

"The Skier's Responsibility Code is like that book All I Ever Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten," she says. "We teach that code from beginning to end. It sounds trite, but it's true: Skiing is life."

Ascutney also trains instructors to know the flora, fauna and geology of the area and encourages them to tie it into their ski lessons. "They don't just say, there's a nice birdie," Brennan says. In most cases, instructors will know what kind of bird it is and a little bit about its behavior. The resort also directs families to the nearby Billings Farm Museum in Woodstock, a place they consider a must-see. And the marketing department can often set up children with a snowmaking expert to learn how it's done. "That's a great science lesson," Brennan says.

Lenny McNeill, director of skiing and snowboarding at Steamboat and a parent herself, points out that ski school in general is great for kids academically, even on vacations less structured than ours. "The biggest thing they learn and see is teamwork," she says. "Kids come from all over the world and are placed in ski school together. These kids have to learn how to adapt to different cultures, different skiing styles and different personalities. It's a great learning experience that does translate into the classroom."

For the record, she's all for kids' missing school to ski with family from time to time. "Any time spent with family, particularly in a wonderful activity like skiing, is great in my book."

And speaking of books, we did take some along on our trip. Each night we read from The Other Side of the Mountain by E.G. Valens-a young girl-skier's classic. It was the perfect way to end the day and tied in a little American Lit.

So get ready, school system. You'll be sending me that letter next year, too. Lit.

So get ready, school system. You'll be sending me that letter next year, too.

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