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I'm a wife to my "Mr. Right". A momma of five. A maker of slow food and simple living. A collector of memories, a keeper of books, and a champion for books that make memories. An addict who likes my half-and-half with a splash of coffee. A fractured pot transformed by the One Who makes broken things beautiful. I heart homeschooling, brake for libraries, and am glad you're here with me on the journey! Be sure to subscribe to my daily digest via email or RSS feed. Or, follow along with Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Google +, Youtube, or Pinterest.

Monday, March 6, 2017

How We Homeschool Without Grade Levels

How we homeschool without grade levels

"And what grade are you in, honey?" the little old lady asked my daughter in an impromptu conversation by the produce section. She found my then eight-year-old girl sorting through apples looking for just the right one and thought it odd that a child her age would be at the grocery store in the middle of a Thursday.

It was, I suppose.

Curiosity got the better of her and she began peppering my daughter with questions, a little confused by this homeschooling thing. She rapid-fired one question after another in game show, lightening-round fashion until she got to the one about grade levels.


"And what grade are you in, honey?"

My daughter just stood there and muttered a few numbers in embarrassed confusion. She clearly did not know how to answer that one.

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"She's currently in fourth grade," I said in rescue. I quickly gathered our bag of Granny Smiths, bid the lady goodbye with an awkward smile, and headed towards frozen foods narrowly avoiding another inquisition.

Back then, that silly question always threw my Sweets for a loop. It still does, to be honest. She's currently in eighth grade...sort of.

It's complicated.

According to the public school treadmill, because of her age, she's suppose to be in seventh grade. But she's actually doing highschool level math, vocabulary, and logic, eighth grade grammar and science, and seventh grade spelling. It's a hodgepodge assortment of numbers that makes for a rather difficult "short answer" during a 30 second conversation.

While the grade level number that I've slapped onto my state-required school district letter says EIGHT, any number I assign to my daughter is really just a loose suggestion...something to tell the little old ladies in the produce section.

Grade levels are a necessary evil for traditional schools. They help to corral children of similar age, size, and learning ability into a manageable herd. In the early 20th century when school districts were being restructured and small one-room, rural schools were consolidated and replaced by larger urban schools, grade levels became the standard.

But, they don't have to be. At least not for homeschoolers. Forward motion...constant learning...continuous building of the mind should be the goal. Aiming for some arbitrary number each year seems a little negligent, in my opinion.

How We Homeschool Without Grade Levels

My daughter, like all of my children, excels in certain areas and struggles in others. Homeschooling affords her the freedom to learn right where she's at. She doesn't have to be held back because thirty other kids need more review. And on the flip side, she doesn't have to be drug along to the next topic when she hasn't quite grasped the first one. Her forward motion can be just that...her forward motion.

So, while her quick answer for the curious might be, "I'm in the eighth grade," the more accurate response would be, "I'm in the me grade."

Admittedly, homeschooling without well-defined grade levels can be a bit tricky, especially in a society that thrives on labels and a one-size-fits-all education system. But, I've learned a few tricks over the years to help all my children "me grade" well.

Should you decide to homeschool without grade levels, be sure to keep these few things in mind.

Avoid box curricula

Even if your child is advanced, it's important to recognize his/her strengths AND struggles. While each of my kids are beyond "grade level" in certain subjects, none of them are advanced to the same degree in every single area of study. To push them ahead in everything just because they are ready for greater challenges in some things, would only confuse and frustrate them. 

My daughter is two years ahead of grade level in math, but for many years really struggled with spelling. One of my sons has a mild neurological condition that inhibits his ability to read well, and yet he scores off the charts in vocabulary because of the hours and hours he has heard me and others reading aloud to him. Another son excels in spelling and yet is pretty average at grammar. The point is, very few children learn at the same level in all areas of education. A boxed curriculum is aptly named because it puts children in a box assuming that they can not and should not learn outside of the parameters of a certain standard. I choose, instead, to be eclectic in my homeschool...I order curriculum in an a la carte fashion so that I can design a specific learning level for each of my kids based on their strengths AND struggles. For more on eclectic homeschooling>>>

Advance in academics only

When The Hubs and I made the decision to start both my daughter and our middle son in homeschool early, we did so knowing that they were advanced academically and needed more challenge. However, we also acknowledged that no matter how rapidly they moved through their education, their social, emotional, or physical levels would remain normal. We determined to always keep them at "grade level" whenever they had to interact in non-homeschooling social settings like at Sunday school, on sports teams, in clubs, or anything else that was not academically driven. 

Because while my daughter might be able to keep up with a twelfth grader on a vocabulary test, she certainly does not need to be hanging out with seventeen and eighteen-year-olds in youth group. Instead, you'll find her in Mrs. Hanson's 7th grade girls' group at church on Wednesday nights. By age, she's technically suppose to be in 7th grade and has the emotional and social skills to prove it. When playing basketball for a local Christian school, she suits up as a 7th grader because her physique is that of an average 13-year-old, as it should be. Pitting her against the strength and height of an eighth or ninth grader would make for an unbalanced game and would put her at quite a disadvantage. On the other hand, it would not be fair of me to enter her school projects in the 7th grade division at the county fair. Her work reflects the 8th grade material she has learned and would obviously seem more sophisticated than that of the other 7th grade entrants. Our rule of thumb has always been to advance in academics, but to stick to the status quo in pretty much everything else.

How We Homeschool Without Grade Levels

Be sensitive to sibling comparison

My middle son, like his sister, has always been academically ahead. He, too, has a me grade. But, because his older brother sometimes struggles with reading, I have to be very sensitive when selecting curriculum for them both. I never want my older son to feel less-than next to his brother. Their learning paths are individual and shouldn't be compared. 

Earlier this year when I decided that my middle son would no longer have to read out loud to me every day because he'd proven to have the fluency, accuracy, and comprehension necessary for reading-to-learn, I knew that I'd have to announce this to him in a way that would not crush his older brother who is still learning-to-read. Celebrating one child's success while not discouraging another is a delicate balance, to be sure. In the end, I decided to focus on their individual educational needs. While my middle son reads really well, he could use some extra practice organizing and articulating his thoughts about what he's read. So now instead of reading out loud to me each day, he reads a chapter of his mom-assigned book to himself, writes a short narration (2-3 sentences) to summarize what he's read, and then reads his narration out loud to me. In allowing him to advance in a strength, I've made room for him to work on a struggle. My older son doesn't see this as a brother vs. brother comparison because he knows that he narrates quite well and doesn't need the extra practice. I have been sensitive to make a unique path for each of them to flourish because I don't use grade levels, labels, and comparisons.

Beware of mature content

Just because a child possesses the skill-level to read a particular book, doesn’t necessarily mean that he is mature enough to handle the book's content or themes. In my opinion, it’s better to wait and introduce certain books later on even if that means that, for a time, he isn't reading anything that is skillfully challenging to him. When he is a bit older, he will not only possess the skill-level to read the story, he'll also have the maturity to understand and appreciate it. It will mean so much more to him.

At nine, my daughter was academically ready to read The Bronze Bow, a story filled with life-lessons of redemption and forgiveness that everyone should experience. But, I had her wait, and I’m so glad I did. Later when she read it in junior high, she was able to fully experience the gravity of the story because she was an older, more mature reader.

Not only do I hold off certain books for my children's enjoyment, I also hold them off for their protection. This year, I assigned my "fifth grade" son to read The Boy's Body Book. He's eleven and his body is changing. I felt like he needed an age-appropriate resource to help him navigate through these rough waters. Next year, however, his younger brother will be in "fifth grade." But, at only nine-years-old, he'll not be ready for some of the topics in that book. In this case, his physical and emotional maturity has to take precedence over his academic level.

How We Homeschool Without Grade Levels

In the end

Homeschooling without grade levels is tricky but doable. The state might require a label, that's true, but you should never let that number get in the way of your child's education. Learning...real learning...has no limits, no numbers, no boxes. Real learning is forward motion that works best with a me grade.

15 comments:

  1. YES!! My daughters are in an odd position because their birthday is ten days after the state's cut off, yet they're ahead academically by about two years. We choose to describe their grade level by their age, since that's where their maturity is. However, their academic work is years beyond the state standards for their age. It doesn't matter and only comes up when they're asked by strangers. The point is that they're learning at a comfortable pace for their own strengths and weaknesses. Personalized education at its finest!

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    1. It sure is, Katie! Thank you for sharing your experience. I love to hear how other mommas tackle the awkward questions with grace.

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  2. Jamie, did you use "The Girl's Body Book" with your daughter? Our oldest girl is about ready for something like this resource.

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    1. No. I used The American Girl Care and Keeping of You book along with The Body Book by Nancy Rue for my daughter.

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    2. Okay. I'll look into those as well. Thanks!

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  3. How do you incorporate this philosophy when scheduling your year? I like to spread work out so it lasts the entire school year but how do you handle it when they excel in one subject? Do you let them do more work every day or skip levels or parts of books, etc.?

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    1. Typically, I let them start the year ahead by skipping all the review material if I don't think they need it. Otherwise, sometimes I plan for 1 1/2 lessons each day. However, I don't mind if they work ahead. I just order the next book when needed.

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  4. I loved this post! So much great information! I'm into year one homeschooling or unschooling my five year old. At the beginning of the year I started with full curriculum for Kindergarten, schedules, daily work, although only a hour or two a day but by Christmas I quit. He is gifted, and on the spectrum, which had him multiple grades ahead and emotionally quite behind. We're now unschooling with no grades, no pressure, and no stop and start to our school day or year. It's definitely hard to explain to friends, family, and of course strangers but I'm confident this is best for now. I know as he gets older we'll need more structure but this is working perfectly for us at his stage.

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    1. Most definitely, especially for his age. Kudos to you! It sounds like you have a plan that works great for you and your family.

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  5. YEAH! An article I can show to the ex and parents, that explains, I;m NOT THE ONLY ONE! LOL. We pulled our 9 yr old out of private school and started homeschooling this year as she was struggling in a chaotic class. Shes doing 1 grade ahead in all subjects but spelling and reading, which we discovered BECAUSE of homeschooling, was because she's dyslexic, Yeah school missed it for 6 yrs of repeated testing-grrrr. So by using the eclectic approach like you, I cam help her 'catch up' on those areas, as rework lessons so she can understand them. It was like the light dawning at the end of the tunnel- she CAN be on different levels and she will be JUST fine.she loves not having a boxed curriculmn anymore and I am thrilled how she LOVES school again! Thanks for the great article

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    1. I can totally relate with the spelling issues. My daughter struggled with that for a while. Now she's above grade level and doing great...because we chose to ignore the grade levels and just teach to her skills.

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  6. And then there is the question of whose grade level do we use to measure? Each curriculum publisher has different expectations of what kids in x grade should be doing in each subject. Even the oublic schools have changed their expectations over the years. Compare the 1908 8th grade test to a 2016 test. Or compare kindergarten in 1980 to kindergarten today.

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    1. I actually hadn't even thought of that, Rebecca, but that is soooooo true! Thanks for pointing that out.

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  7. I was homeschooled and always felt that an awkward question as well. Mom knew the answer. But I didn't know, I didn't even care to find out. Now I'm beginning to homeschool my littles. My son was more than ready for first grade, at least in reading and math, and all his friends (both home and public schooled) were starting kindergarten and beginning to learn letters. I hated for people to think I was bragging on him or myself, when I knew he never learned shapes and colors until AFTER his younger sister had learned them. I have decided that since grade levels, like you said, are assigned to group similarly aged kids together for easier teaching in public schools, then I will not look at grade levels as academic achievement. I don't want to let my kids fall way behind, so don't take it wrong. But to me, we say my son is in kindergarten because that tells somebody how old he is. If he continues to advance, I'll still give his grade as the grade his friends would be in. If he does fall behind, I'll still give his grade as the grade his friends would be in, although the testing and actual school records would show a different story. Because the grade, I have decided, is not to describe how much they've learned - like you said, that can be all over the board! It is to describe their age.

    And a note on that, since I was homeschooled and didn't know my own grades, I hate it when I'm trying to find out how old somebody is and get told "They're in 5th grade." What does that mean? To me, it doesn't help! LOL. I'll start to learn as we go through this process with my own children, I guess. :-)

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    1. Sabriena,
      I love the insight you've provided as a former homeschooler. That makes a huge difference in your perspective. My husband was also homeschooled and he is always centering my mind on what really matters because he has walked both the child's and parent's road of this journey. Thank you for sharing your story!

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