333 | Grappling with Grade Levels; Practical or Pointless? (Jennifer Cabrera)
If you've ever said your kid is half a freshman or in 3rd-ish grade, you might be a homeschooler. But should we adhere to grade levels more strictly? Or ignore them entirely? How should we respond when asked about our kids' grade levels, graduation requirements, and future plans? In this episode we'll discuss the pros and cons of labeling our kids with grade levels and expectations. I'll share what my surveyed homeschool readers had to say, and some suggestions for polite but confident responses.
Jennifer Cabrera, the Hifalutin Homeschooler, is the writer of homeschool truth, humor, and inspiration. Jennifer lives in Salado, Texas with her husband and three brilliant boys. She is a licensed Physician Assistant/MPH, but set aside that career for her ultimate life's work. She is also the author of Socialize Like a Homeschooler: A Humorous Homeschool Handbook and Revolting Writing, a hilarious writing, vocabulary, and illustration journal for reluctant writers. She is a featured speaker with Great Homeschool Conventions and her memes and witty insights are widely shared on social media.
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Jennifer Cabrera [00:00:03] Hello and welcome to The Homeschool Solutions Show. I'm Jennifer Cabrera of The Hifalutin Homeschooler and just one of the many hosts here on the podcast. Each week we bring you an encouraging, inspirational, often humorous conversation from this busy and blessed journey of homeschooling our children. Now, while the title of the show is Homeschool Solutions, we do not even pretend to have all the answers to every question related to homeschooling. But it is our hope that this podcast will point you to Jesus Christ and that you may seek His counsel as you train your children in the way they should go. We are so glad that you have joined us here for today's conversation. But before I start this episode, I would like to thank the sponsor of the Homeschool Solutions Show, Medi-Share. Medi-Share is an affordable and biblical health care alternative. Find out more about their ongoing support of homeschooling families just like ours at MyChristianCare.org. And now for today's show.
[00:01:02] Hello and welcome to another Hifalutin Homeschooler installment of the Homeschool Solutions Show. Today we're talking about grappling with grade levels. Is this practical or pointless? Is it petty? Everyone has a different view. And if you went to public school like I did and like my husband did, you probably remember in elementary school celebrating your grade level. Our teachers made shirts with specific colors and cute little names that went with our teacher's last name usually. And we celebrated what grade we were in. Third grade rules. Fourth grade's awesome. And it was this whole build team spirit and competitive chance that we had to feel good about whatever grade we were in and sometimes feel a little bit less about the grades below us or maybe awed and inspired by those that were in the grade above us. Those big fifth graders, they just look so awesome. I can't wait to be a fifth grader.
[00:02:00] I, for one, remember being excited about getting to the fourth grade because the fourth graders got lockers when I was in school, and we could see them all cool and nonchalantly opening their locker and pulling out their pencil collection and talking with their friends and looking like all those cool kids in the movies. And over in third grade, we didn't have lockers yet, so it was going to be great to be a fourth grader. And then you got there and it was like actually more trouble because you had to remember how to open the lock and you had like 5 minutes to get there and get your stuff. So it just added stress, so you knew that by the time you got to the sixth grade—because the sixth graders, wow, they're just cool as a cucumber—I'm going to be awesome when I'm a sixth grader. And the sixth graders, you know, they walked past you with their nose in the air possibly. And especially if one of them was your brother.
[00:02:46] But then you couldn't wait to get to the eighth grade. For me, sixth grade was still in the elementary grades, and seventh and eighth grade were junior high. I just knew everything was going to be better when I got to junior high. Boy, was that wrong. But the point being is that grade levels in school set us apart from people that weren't the same age and made us feel special to be in the group and the camaraderie that we were in with our different color shirts that maybe at field day and— but really it was necessary for the school system to keep everything organized, right? To keep kids organized by general pace of learning and benchmarks, and then it was this big pomp and circumstance to level up the next year, receive your new grade level and your new teacher and use class colors.
[00:03:35] And of course, that carried on into the high school years as well. The ninth graders were fish. Who couldn't wait to be a fish? Not me. And then the 11th graders, you looked at them all that respect. They were— they got it going on. They're almost there. They're about to graduate. And the 12th graders, seniors, of course, were like gods. I remember at our elementary school, the seniors every year would come walk the halls and we'd all stand and wave as they came through in their cap and gown. And we'd cheer them on because they had finished school and it seemed like an eternity and we'd never get there. But the seniors were there for us to look up to and realize that eventually we would be able to get out of these long, cold hallways and classrooms with no windows.
[00:04:19] So when we decided to homeschool, I thought, well, we should keep up with the grade levels and be excited to be in third grade. When we first started, my twins were starting third grade homeschooling, and we kept up momentarily and then we realized— well, I realized how useless and pointless that it was when there were no other grades to compare to or to have camaraderie against. And it really didn't matter. And especially since I started to notice that my children weren't exactly on the grade level that the number specified. In some areas, they were ahead. In some areas that they hadn't even touched on at their school. So we needed to regroup and find what my kids needed. And likely you found the same thing since you've been homeschooling that you don't necessarily follow the number on the outside of the textbook and for good reason. We can be more specific with what our child needs.
[00:05:13] So I put up a little survey on social media to ask other homeschoolers what they thought about keeping up with grade levels. Do you strictly adhere to them or do you just give your kid a grade level to follow in case strangers ask? Do you let them float all over the place and look at people like they're crazy when they're asked what grade level they're in and they have no idea how to answer? I got a lot of great responses. One of the funniest ones I got was someone actually just wrote, "What is this grade level thing that you speak of?" Which is probably true for people that have homeschooled their kids from the get go and never even bothered to follow with along with the grade level, just started and kept going where their kids were at.
[00:05:53] Others responded— quite a few actually responded with something along the lines of, "We give our kids a grade level that they would be in by their age to tell others, but we teach on an individual level and need." And some people said, "You know what? It's just complicated." Some people said, "You know, it's really kind of just easier to deal with the world when you have an answer whether you actually mean what you say or not. Just pick a number." Others said, "We float around on several levels. The kids give confused looks, and that's okay because it's none of a stranger's business anyway.".
[00:06:28] But sometimes we are answering friends and family and we don't want to be rude. Some people say, "Well, we just give them an answer to shut them up," or "We stick to levels, but we don't make much of it so that the kids don't feel like that they're missing out or forgetting anything. They don't really know what they should have achieved on that level. We just give them a level." And others in less free states say that, "We're required to give a grade level, so we're stuck and we kind of have to follow them and report on them."
[00:06:55] And some other comical answers were, "Well, we just tell our kids to tell them whatever number is on your math book." And if you homeschool, you realize that might not go as planned. Because when you ask a homeschooler, "What grade are you in?" You could be prepared for all kind of the following answers. If they do Saxon math, they might tell you they're in grade six five. If they're classical homeschoolers, they might tell you, "I'm in logic grade." If they're an unschooler, they might say, "Library platinum card member." If they're an interest-led schooler, they might tell you, "Mario, world number five." If they're an eclectic homeschooler, they might reply with, "It's complicated. Would you like to see my resumé?" And life schoolers—or those of us seasoned enough to know what to say and when to say it—if you ask them, "What grade are you in?" they might answer as "Well what grade do I need to be and to sign up for this activity? Because I'm in that grade.".
[00:07:55] So some of my respondents actually said that their kids care and want to know what grade they're in, want to know when they're leveling up, like to try to get ahead that way. So I guess that can be an inspirational push for kids to keep going. I am speculating that kids that want to know their grade level like that probably went to public school before, and that's their marker that they want to go by, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. So reading through all of their responses, I got the impression that homeschoolers are all different, which is something I kind of already suspected anyway. And you probably did too. Is there a right or wrong answer on keeping up with grade levels? No. But there are some pros and cons that I'd like to go over.
[00:08:38] So some of the pros for keeping up with a grade level—or at least assigning one to each of your kids—is that when you go outside of the home or outside of your co-op or homeschool group and you want to sign up for something like sports or summer camps or choir or Sunday School or Vacation Bible School that you have an idea of where your kids would fit into these activities. Often we might want to just put them to sound like— well, especially if our kids are ahead, "Oh, my kid does pre-calculus in the seventh grade, so I want to tell everybody that he's a ninth grader." Well, he probably won't benefit from that if he's actually half their size. And just because he can do the math doesn't mean that he's ready to hang with the high schoolers.
[00:09:25] So it might be good to pick an age and then go with a grade that is affiliated with that when signing up for activities. Plus, you don't want to be sitting outside of Vacation Bible School and your kids sweating, "Before I go in here, Mom, please tell me what grade I'm in. So this is not a really big deal and I'm the weirdo in the class." Having a grade already picked out that your kids can identify with and give as a quick answer to strangers and family that just don't get homeschooling is also a good idea to ward off any unnecessary arguments, speculation, questions, or an accusation of ignorance on your child's part. Like "Oh, you probably don't even do school. That's why you don't know what grade you're in." So sometimes it's just a quick way to get rid of conversations you don't want to have.
[00:10:13] Having a grade level that they can identify with also gives kids a way to identify with kids in their neighborhood that they might be outside playing with or kids that they meet in these other activities, like in church choir or at the soccer field. Even if they're all homeschooled and mixed with public school kids, gives them something to talk to, or they hear other kids talking about their third grade class and what they're learning. Then they don't feel so weird when they go, "I don't know what grade I'm in," so it gives them a way to kind of fit in. Not that we always want to fit in, mind you.
[00:10:45] Another reason that it's good, though—for pros for having a grade level to identify with for mom and dad—you have a rough estimate of where to begin looking for curriculum. I know when I first started, I didn't want to see what anybody else was doing. I didn't want to go to conventions. I didn't want to read the blogs. I just wanted to get out there and find what I wanted. Well, it was good that I kind of knew what grade we were finishing and where we were starting, because it did give me a point to start researching curriculum and find where my kids fit within the scale of the grade levels and the different things that were out there. So it is good to have an idea of where they might be.
[00:11:21] It also gives parents and children goal posts and a feeling of achievement when you finish that grade level or that book on that grade level. Even if you're on— math you're, say, in the fifth grade, and history, you're in the third grade, and with your reading, maybe you're in between or writing skills are lacking. It gives goal posts per subject. So you finished fifth grade math. You now you're a sixth grader in math. Or you finished writing book four an it gives you kind of a level-up feeling, kind of like a video game. And we all know kids like video games.
[00:11:55] So another pro to keeping up with grade levels with a number: you can have it be any number you want, especially if you have a child that may be struggling in certain areas that if they were in the public school, they might not actually qualify to be in the sixth grade. By age, though, they are a sixth grader. So you call them a sixth grader. It doesn't matter what curriculum you're using or what level they're at in their reading, writing, or math, or even if they've been tested and compared to their peers or not. It gives you a screen for holding them back without them having to even know about it or feel bad about it. But know that they're right where their friends maybe that are still in school are, or with their friends that are in the neighborhood that they play with every day, that they can say, "Yeah, I'm in the sixth grade," and there's no reason to have to prove that or feel bad about themselves.
[00:12:48] Now on the same measure, we can switch to the cons of having grade levels that we stick to and adhere to, because when we tell someone that they're in the sixth grade and we keep them in the sixth grade and we buy the sixth grade curriculum and we put them with only sixth graders, we're kind of pigeonholing them into complacency and thinking that they can't move beyond that or there's something wrong with being below that. Oftentimes also there's a con of it being not accurate. So just because the school told you that your kid was graduating the fourth grade last year and you've decided to homeschool the fifth grade this year, so you go out and you buy all this fifth grade material and you realize it's too easy or it's too hard, and suddenly you're questioning your entire universe. Oh, my gosh, what have I done? I've taken my kids out of school and the school had been lying to me. I have no idea where they are. Don't panic. Usually you can find some kind of curriculum test— especially like with Saxon math and some other curriculum publishers will have tests that you can give little samples to your child to see about where they are on a level, and then you can vary it from there. So it is a con to pick a grade level just based on age and try to go with that with homeschooling because it might not be accurate.
[00:14:07] Another con to picking a grade level and sticking to it completely with homeschooling is that you might actually segregate your child from would-be friends in different age groups. Sometimes our kids might be super math nerds, but have the maturity level of someone a couple of years younger than them or enjoy something that a kid younger than them they have common with on the block. Say they like to collect bugs. And there's a kid that's three or four years younger or older than them down the street, and we don't want to tell them, "Oh, well, that person's not in your grade level. You shouldn't be playing with them." Because socialization, despite what people say, is one of the perks of homeschooling, because we can pick our friends not based on what block we live on and what grade level we're in, but on interests and common personalities and things like that. And grade levels would create an intimidation type thing. If you're constantly telling your kids, "Oh, you're in the eighth grade, and the kids down the street, they're only in the sixth grade. And I'm not sure that you should be playing together because, you don't mix the grade levels." There's no need for that. There's no needless hierarchy in the world because when we go out to the grocery store or talk to strangers in the checkout line, or if we're at a church meeting or if we're at a homeschool mom meeting, the first thing that we do is not walk up and go, "What year did you graduate? I don't know if we can be friends." That's just stupid. And yet another reason that the entire social construct of school is nothing like the real world, you people who like to say we are the socialized homeschoolers.
[00:15:47] Anyway, back to the list of cons for keeping up and adhering strongly to grade levels. It can give a false sense of achievement or a false sense of failure. And what do I mean by that? Well, in school, as we know, we see a lot of kids that we hear graduating that don't even know how to read, much less write in cursive or know what the periodic table is. But yet they're graduating high school. So they have this false sense of achievement that, "Oh, I've finished the 12th grade. I've got a high school diploma." Did it really mean what they said it meant? I know for me personally, I didn't want to let any of my sons go on to a grade level where I knew they should have learned something prior to being called that grade level because they were out in the community in other non-homeschool related activities, and I didn't want any talk among kids to start turning into questioning of my homeschool kid—which it often did—and them claim to be a grade level they had not achieved and not know facts and how to use things that they should know. So I did want to set them up for that kind of an embarrassment.
[00:16:56] I also think that a con for giving and adhering to grade levels completely was that it sets up a fake sense of failure. If you have a child that's struggling and they can't move on to the next math grade level on the cover of the book, is there a reason to keep badgering them with, "Oh, well, you're 13. You should be on the eighth grade book, but you're still on the sixth grade book." Because we homeschool, we don't have to put that kind of pressure on our kids to adhere to the grade level— that it even matters in life once the school aging is over. We don't have to follow these constructs. We can move at our child's pace when they're ready to move up, regardless of what the number on the cover of the book is.
[00:17:43] So if it sounds like my pros and cons list is kind of arguing with itself, like, "But you said that it would be good to give them a grade level so that they fit in with friends outside of homeschooling." Well, yes. And I also said that you should give them a grade level consistent with what they actually do know so that they don't get into any embarrassing situations outside of homeschooling. Well, yes. And and then I also said that you shouldn't give them a grade level so that they don't feel bad about what they don't know or maybe aren't on grade level or so they don't alienate friends that aren't the same age. And I mean all of that. And I say that because—just like all of the answers on my social media survey—everyone has a different idea and thought process on whether or not to use grades and when to use grade levels and when to adhere to them and when to completely ignore them. And that is the glory of homeschooling. If you find it easier to adhere to grade levels, to stick with this specific published curriculum and to follow it sequentially, great. If that works for your kids and it's working for you, keep on keeping on. We celebrate that. If it doesn't work for you and you hate everything to do with the structured grade leveling in schools and you don't want anything to do with it and you don't want to label your kids and that's working for you then, by golly, carry on. That's the glory of homeschooling. Each to his own. To the success and the strengths of their kids.
[00:19:13] And now I want to talk about the -ish grades. I have an -ish grader. And what do I mean by -ish grader? Well, you're not really sure what they're in, but you kind of want to give somebody an answer. But you really don't want to stigmatize them because they're not really there and you don't really care what people think. So you just say things like, "I have an 8.5 grader or a 9th-ish grader." That's what I have right now. So I have a child who has a very late summer birthday, and—had he gone to public school, and he didn't because he's my youngest guinea pig—he would have started school right before he turned six years old.
[00:19:52] Instead of starting as a five-year-old because his birthday was so late, he would have missed the cut-off and started kindergarten a year later, which meant he would have been almost six years old and one of the oldest in his classroom. However, that year that he turned five—just before he turned five; he was still four—at the time, I decided to pull my other two out of school. They were going into the third grade. We were going to homeschool, and there sat their little brother with not much to do and he wanted to do big boy school, too. So I said, okay. What they hey. It's all new to me. We'll just start everybody at once.
[00:20:26] And I started giving him kindergarten type work to do when I could get him to sit down. And you'd be surprised what a little one can learn when listening to his older brothers learn. He learned a lot right alongside of them and ended up getting ahead. So even though—technically, by school standards—he should be going into the 8th grade this year, he's kind of going into the 9th grade, and I totally plan to start his high school transcript. But in some areas, I don't want to push him ahead because you only get to be a child once and he's kind of on that precipice between my sweet little boy and teenager. So I want this year to be kind of a relaxing transition between the middle school years in the high school years, and I want him to get credit for any high school work that he does.
[00:21:17] But I tell him, "You're just 9th grade-ish." And then maybe sometime during this next coming year, we'll get to do a nine and three quarters grade celebration and we'll make a whole Harry Potter themed movie night or who knows? But it's going to be a blast because I like to come up with weird names for grade levels because he's not all in one grade. And I'm not for sure that I want him to be done early or if we want to do that whole super senior year. So we could call this his 9th grade slash 9th grade-ish year. Or we could go ahead and call him a 9th grader, and then when we get to the extra 12th grade year, we call it the super senior year, where a lot of kids go on to do extra classes that they didn't have time to do before, take a year, kind of a gap year of trade school type things, or do dual credit at a community college. The world is our oyster, right?
[00:22:13] Sometimes we think, "Well, I'll give him another year to move on in maturity before they move on from this house." Or maybe we want to spend a whole year on one subject matter to really strengthen that and make them more competitive in the job market or college applications and things like that. And then speaking of after graduation, once we finally do write that diploma and turn the tassel and whatever or celebrations that you may have planned—and I really have to think about that because I have two seniors coming up this year and I'm super excited and anxious and nervous and all the adjectives—but after graduation, what next? Right? And so we're past people asking, "What grade are you in?" But now we may get questions from family, friends, strangers, "What next?" Is it polite for someone to ask, "What next?".
[00:23:06] I had actually someone email me with this that their daughter had come up with some snarky ways to reply to strangers when they asked, "Oh yeah, what next?" Because she thought, "Well, first off, why is it any of your business? And second, why do I have to know right now? You know, I'm just now 17, 18. Why do I have to have the next 5 to 10 years of my life completely mapped out. And who do you think you are for asking?" So we also don't want to misrepresent the homeschool community and be snarky and rude all the time. And I think that her response was mostly just to be a little bit funny on the email, but to really ask, "Is it okay for people to come up and bombard your child with 'What next? What next?'"
[00:23:47] And I think that there may be some not necessarily malicious, but needling curiosity by people that expect homeschoolers to fail. But as a homeschool mom myself, I find myself asking— we have some senior friends that graduated this year and my first question was always, "What next?" And it wasn't because I was expecting the usual, "I'm going to work or I'm going to college." Homeschoolers are unique. They have opportunities during their high school years that kids that go to public school and private school may not have, and they may have a very interesting plan mapped out. And I just like to hear that.
[00:24:27] My friends have a friend that just graduated who wants to be a writer. And so he's going down the path of discovering how he can get to that goal. And we have friends that are going to vocational schools, and I like to see what they're interested in and what skills they're going to learn. And other kids who are starting out at junior colleges are going to big universities that are states away. And so sometimes when people ask, they're not trying to be malicious or anything like that, but are really genuinely curious as to what your homeschool education has set you up for and really what is next, because the possibilities are endless, and they're nice to hear about the lofty things that homeschoolers are tackling.
[00:25:06] But when we do answer these questions, I think it's kind of helpful to the whole homeschool community and the future generations of homeschoolers and have to go out into the world and deal with the stigmatisms and things that people put on homeschoolers as being weird and unsocialized, that when we do answer, that we answer in an upbeat and positive manner. Of course, you could always turn the question around on the asker and go, "Well, what's your five year plan?" And see what they have to say. Sometimes people are generally interested in talking about themselves and will tell you all kinds of things you maybe didn't want to know.
[00:25:43] We should remember that answering nosy homeschool questions with confidence and respect can help others understand home education better. And it puts the whole homeschool community in a good light. And it may give hesitant families the nudge they need into homeschooling for their kids so that they can better find their purpose in life without being strapped to the expectations of a grade level in an institution that really is not working towards individual success and strength and greatness and God's purpose for them individually. So be nice. Be open-minded about what the asker might— what their intent might really be. Be positive despite perceived sarcasm and doubt of the asker. And explain— or don't explain. We don't owe anybody any answers, of course. But if these are family and friends and acquaintances or people that you would otherwise respect and may be just a little perturbed about the question, even if it's about what grade level your child's in, even if it's about what their plans are after graduation or what curriculum you're using, and why didn't you stick with what the school was giving? Sometimes what comes across as a gouging question is actually a cover for someone who's really thinking about homeschooling but is hesitant and really wants to know what you have to say on the matter and just may not be asking it in the most pleasant way.
[00:27:15] So to wrap up, do we need to grapple with grades? Are they practical or pointless? Depends on which situation you're in. I think that grade levels are practical when you're signing up for vacation Bible school. I think grade levels are practical when you're going to put your kid in an event where they needed to be around kids that are close to the same size as them, so they aren't run over on the basketball court. And I think that grades can be completely pointless when you're at home and you're just working towards your kid's next goal in a subject matter, because the real world does not follow grade levels and eventually your child will achieve and learn what they need to if you keep up with where they are and don't try to shove them into boxes that are not really there. However, let me just say, make sure your homeschooler knows that 14th grade is not a thing; that's probably your age, and you're likely just finishing the 8th-ish grade and going into the 9th-ish grade, and you might be having a nine and three quarters platform party soon. Who knows?
[00:28:21] But no matter what grade you're going into this year or what grade you're not going into or you don't know what the heck this grade stuff I'm even talking about is, I hope you have a wonderful upcoming year and that it all goes according to plan and that no one asks you any really silly homeschool questions that you can't answer with wit and respect and thus proving how awesome homeschooling is. So until next time, stay weird and homeschool on.
[00:28:57] Thank you for joining us this week on The Homeschool Solutions Show. You can find show notes and links to all the resources mentioned at Homeschooling.mom. If you haven't already, please subscribe to the podcast, and while you are there, leave us a review. Tell us what you love about the show. This will help other homeschooling parents like you get connected to our community. And finally, tag us on Instagram at @HomeschoolingDotMom to let us know what you thought of today's episode. Have you joined us at one of our Great Homeschool Conventions? The Great Homeschool Conventions are the homeschooling event of the year, offering outstanding speakers, hundreds of workshops covering today's top parenting and homeschooling topics, and the largest homeschool curriculum exhibit hall in the United States. Find out more at GreatHomeschoolConventions.com. I hope to see you there.