homeschooling, homemaking, homesteading...home.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Grade Expectations

Questions directed toward my children about their schooling still throw me. I realize that many (if not most) adults simply do not know how to relate easily to children, and often fall back on the one guaranteed cultural frame of reference: schooling. I also know that many of these people (strangers, friends, or otherwise) do not expect to be thrown a curveball to an innocuous social exchange. When a waitress asks how you're doing today, she really doesn't expect to hear a litany of complaints unrelated to your business together. It's a rote exchange: "How are you today?"/ "Fine, and you?" "What grade are you in?"/ "Second." People (including me) just don't know how to react when the answer is a little less predictable and a lot less definable.

I hope that time will make me more graceful at handling these social situations. I'm pretty good at acting cheerful rather than defensive, but some of the questions people ask my kids are so based on "school" assumptions that I sometimes don't even know how to answer them without giving a full-out informative lecture on the many types of home education and my personal reasons for choosing this for my family. In most cases, neither of us is up for that kind of discussion, and I often find myself wishing I could just feel comfortable lying.

But I don't. I answer.

A few days ago, a store clerk asked my son, "What grade are you in?"

He shrugged.

"Well, are you still in school or are you out for the summer?"

I could see that he was uncomfortable (not with the line of questioning; he's just generally shy with any direct address by adults) and jumped in. "We're homeschoolers. We don't keep a normal school year. But if he were in school, he would have just completed his kindergarten year."

Which is true and not-true. He's the same age as a kindergartener. But we haven't "done" kindergarten. He's done some stuff that's way beyond a typical curriculum. And missed a lot of other stuff that the other kids did cover. What we do is so far removed from the mold of school that it's difficult to draw parallels.

And after all, grade levels are a system of classifying groups of students, by both age and experience level. There's no need if you aren't in the system. He's in a class of one.

All of this goes through my mind and I try to articulate it on the spot, and people invariably get confused. Either they try to clarify and get it so wrong that I end up explaining even more, or they make assumptions and I have to remind myself that I don't want or need to have this conversation and it might be best to escape by giving them something, anything, to which they can relate.


  1. By framing school as "normal" and compulsory (although homeschooling and unschooling are legal and exercised rights in each state) the conversation is off-balance before it begins! You're handling it as best you can and if anyone chips in with brilliance I know it will help me as well.

    Sometimes I say, "My kids don't go to school." This is taken as pretty radical and I get goggled at. Sometimes (if I'm lazy) I just say, "We homeschool". The truth is so many people are unprepared to examine their beliefs and they REALLY aren't expecting it in those trivial day-to-day exchanges.

    You can have perfectly-adjusted, normal, bright, 'academically-achieving' H/Sd / U/Sd / life learning kids but the minute some people get the unschooling import they are floored. A very small minority retains an open mind or expresses curiosity. I always love talking about it but that doesn't mean I want to get into it with every waitress/store clerk/doctor etc we run into.

    Good post, thank you!

  2. My life learning, ungraded daughters started out trying to be polite and educational. But they eventually realized that the questioner really didn't care and got to the point they'd just smile and say, "Third" (or whatever seemed appropriate at the time) and walk away bemusedly, even though they hadn't a clue what grades even were. I'd bat my eyes, pay and leave.

    Or, depending on my mood and the situation (and in spite of myself), I'd launch into an explanation and watch the clerk's eyes glaze over. In those days (1970s/early 80s), homeschooling was as odd as life learning is these days. And now, as then, I'm not sure the one-on-one educative value is worth the effort, especially, as you point out, since the question is similar to "how are you?" and the questioner didn't really want to know.

  3. Thanks for the feedback!

    I think the real issue is what message I'm sending to my kids. It would be very easy to jump in immediately with a believable lie and just get on with my day. But I worry about sending my kids this message that what we do (or don't do!) is something about which to be closeted or otherwise ashamed, and that goes so contrary to the "embracing joy" aspect of our journey. I am sure that when they are older I can explain why it's easier to gloss it over, but I'm treading so cautiously now...

    Again, I'm sure that as time goes by we'll all get more comfortable. :)

  4. I think it would behoove you to decide a stance for yourself in these situations. Because having your choice to homeschool make you feel uncomfortable in social situations lends to others assumptions that your children will not learn how to socialize. Do you see what I am saying? I get why it makes you squirm- but I think you should take a simple but firm position, that doesn't come across as defensive- because if you get defensive, at some point it might make your kids worry that what you and they are doing is wrong, and you don't want that! I don't really have any recommendations for you. I get some weird looks when I tell people which school my son goes to- because Waldorf is called Vrije School (free school) in dutch- and people seem to think that means that there is no discipline or something. As my hubby says, it the "hippy school" and we live in a ultra-conservative Christian city. Of all the schools in the city, all but 7 are Christian schools (5 are public, 1 Waldorf, and one Muslim school). I just tell people very sincerely the truth- my son had been in another school, and it was not a good place for him- that we witnessed so many positive changes in him the instant we switched his school. Or I keep it simple, we tell the name of the school, and field questions as they come. I love his school, and I am not ashamed of it, or the fact that I have become a tree-huggin' hippie. If given the chance I like to make people defend their choice to continue to support the burning of fossil fuels, the bio-industry, and the general destruction of our planet. They tend not to know what to do with that. But those are the long answers. I think in a situation like the one you described, if the kids are being shy and don't answer for that reason, confide to whoever is asking that the kids are a bit shy (which most people understand with kids that age, generally) and say cheerfully that you homeschool. Let them ask questions if they want- but leave it to them. Then you are not defending yourself, like you should have to, and you are not coming across as attacking someone else's choices. Its all very neutral. But thats just what I think