Why I Pulled My Kids Out of Elementary School

A few years ago, I wrote about my decision to pull my son out of preschool, and it’s become one of my most-viewed blog posts. People are still reading it on a regular basis. Clearly this topic is resonating with people—which is great, because it’s time to write a follow-up. Well, a follow-up to a follow-up.

That’s right, folks—we’re homeschooling! Again!

I wrote about our experience homeschooling during the pandemic, and our eventual decision to enroll Curdie in public school for first grade once most Covid-related policies were lifted. If you feel like this blog has become nothing more than a record of all our weird experiments with our kids’ education, you’re not alone. But I really think this particular experiment is going to stick—at least for a while.

When people ask why we chose to homeschool, our answers are too long for the average casual conversation. So buckle up, because this blog post is a long one.

Touch Grass (or at least, touch books)

One thing we hated about public school is the amount of time the kids have spent indoors on screens. When we moved from San Antonio to Houston, I was given a consent form for Curdie to have a tablet in the classroom and at home. I absolutely didn’t want to have an iPad in my house and was encouraged that I could choose to opt out in the classroom, so I checked “No” on the form. His teacher then called me and bullied me into letting him have it in the classroom, at least. I’m still salty about this, especially because the school tried to fine me for a charge cord Curdie had supposedly brought home and lost.

Meanwhile, Faramir was in a windowless classroom all day, and if it rained for five minutes at any point in the school day, the kindergarteners weren’t allowed to go outside for recess, even if the weather cleared up. Wouldn’t want to track mud into the school. It rains a fair amount in Houston, so sometimes Faramir had inside recess all week. And what do they do during inside recess? Play on tablets and watch Wild Kratts. And what do six-year-old boys do when they’re stuck inside 8 hours a day, 5 days a week? Well, some of them start chewing their shirts, papers, and backpack straps to shreds—not unlike a dog who hasn’t been walked.

Since we’ve started homeschooling, screen time has (for the most part) been drastically reduced, and the boys spend a lot more time outside. They can always go in the backyard, and they play soccer twice a week with friends. They’ve even been on several hiking/camping/backpacking trips, since we’re not tied down by attendance rules. It does my heart good when I look around for Faramir and see him sprinting across the back yard in his iconic cowboy boots. He still chews on things, but not nearly as much as before.

Curdie engaged in a baffling activity known as “acorn farming”

Tick Tick Goes My Life (Sorry, Dr. Fullmer)

This is news to absolutely no one, but public school hours are looooong. And I feel like they’re longer than when I was a kid. There’s no half-day kindergarten, no early-out Friday. You can’t possibly spend that much time effectively lecturing a bunch of five-year-olds, and they know it—hence the overreliance on screens. It’s really starting to feel like public elementary school is less about educating kids and more about providing government daycare. I get that in most families, both parents work full time. But I don’t like the idea of my kids being held hostage when they could be home doodling off.

And then there was the dreaded drop-off/pick-up line sucking up an hour of our lives every day. We live too close to the school for bus service, and it was too logistically difficult for me to walk them home every day, so we were stuck. Everyone knows how bad these suck, but it really seemed like the school went out of their way to make it as horrible as possible. I remember one afternoon last year when they arbitrarily decided to end pick-up ten minutes earlier than usual. I had to park my car, get shoe-less Jane out of her car seat, and carry her into the school to sign the boys out—limping all the way because I was 7-months pregnant and had a herniated disc. Meanwhile, Curdie and Faramir had to sit there and wait for me every day, not talking to anyone, not allowed to read anything.

Our homeschool days are almost always done by lunchtime. The kids work hard in the morning, and have the rest of the day to play, read, do science experiments, develop their talents, and even help out around the house (learning valuable life skills in the process)—they have time to just be kids. This week we had a kazoo party just for lulz, and Faramir learned how to make egg salad—one of his new favorite foods, apparently. The boys are actually making progress in piano, and spending time playing around on Scratch or learning JavaScript on Khan Academy. Faramir is almost finished with the Harry Potter series, and Curdie finished Lord of the Rings. It’s amazing.

Out of the Best Books

It became a running joke in our family that you don’t go to school to learn things—you go to make friends.

A series of notes Curdie and I passed back and forth during church last year.

We always knew it was going to be a while before school really challenged our kids intellectually. Tom’s hill to die on is that they learn to read as soon after their third birthday as possible (Jane is the newest graduate of “Learn to Read”—congratulations, Jane!), and as a former kindergarten teacher once told me, “If your child comes into kindergarten reading Magic Tree House, good for you, but public school kindergarten has nothing for your child.” So Faramir was doomed at the outset, and Curdie, who had finished the Harry Potter series just after second grade started, got to sit through phonics instruction all year. One time I asked Curdie if they read books during school. He shrugged and said “Not many.”

To compensate, Tom has been giving the boys reading challenges, where he assigns them four or five books that are at the edge of their reading abilities, with a reward for completion. And after school, we’d have a snack, practice the piano (in Curdie’s case), and then I made the boys do half an hour of Khan Academy. They were breezing through all of it, learning more than they were at school, and we really started to wonder—how amazing could it be if we did this all the time, letting them learn at their own pace, on their own level?

Even babies are in on the fun! Feast upon the words…

I went back to Ambleside Online, the curriculum I used for Curdie’s kindergarten year (in defiance of Charlotte Mason’s admonition against starting formal learning before age 6, I admit). I read over the book lists and just felt this aching in my soul—I wanted my kids to have this. I wanted them steeped in the best books ever written. I wanted them familiar with Rudyard Kipling, George MacDonald, Shakespeare, and Plutarch. I wanted them studying scriptures as part of the school day. I wanted them to memorize poetry and master the skill of narration.

And it’s not all about literature. We love math in our family, and our kids want to be engineers like their dad. I wanted them to have the best math foundation possible. I wanted them to have a deep conceptual understanding of what they were learning, and if they struggled, I wanted the time to help them work through the problem. I didn’t want my daughters (in particular) to fall into the trap a lot of girls fall into, of thinking they’re bad at math because they haven’t been drilled enough and the class has moved on without them.

Singapore Math is awesome

We were always grateful that the gross immorality that has made its way into the public school system hasn’t (yet) taken root in our local elementary school. In conversation, I always found myself saying things like, “If we lived somewhere like California, we would be homeschooling.” But I started thinking: why am I giving my kids a lower quality education just because their elementary system doesn’t (yet) have drag queen story time? Because I’ve drunk the Kool Aid. I’ve read the Charlotte Mason books (well, three of them). I really believe that if we follow correct principles, our kids can have a better education at home. So we decided it was time to do the hard thing.

But What About Socialization?

Ahh, socialization—the redeeming quality of a public school education. The main reason we enrolled Curdie in first grade was so he could develop better social skills. But was the fabled socialization value all it was cracked up to be?

No. No, it wasn’t.

Shortly after moving here, Curdie started butting heads with the popular kid in his class, which got him locked out of the “Boys Club”—an exclusive group comprising every other boy in the class. It was like the plot of some tween-girl movie on Disney Channel. Luckily, there was one other kid who didn’t want to be in the Boys Club, so Curdie usually had someone to play with. We encouraged him to keep his chin up, telling ourselves that being ostracized would build character—although I was already daydreaming about what homeschooling would look like JUST IN CASE things didn’t work out.

Things were better in second grade. The Boys Club had less sway, and Curdie was starting to make a few more friends and enjoy the social environment—for the most part. There was one thing keeping him from fully assimilating: Minecraft.

Apparently, all of Curdie’s classmates play Minecraft—at least, all the boys do. And as we’ve since learned the hard way, if a boy plays Minecraft, Minecraft is all he wants to talk about. Ever. So at lunch, all the boys would sit on one end of the table and talk about Minecraft. All the girls would sit at the other end of the table and talk about the boys they had crushes on (yes, in 2nd grade. Ughh). And Curdie would sit in the middle, eating his sandwich and talking to no one.

We’re not screen-time purists, but we have held the line on video games pretty hard. But when your child comes to you in tears saying he doesn’t have anyone to talk to because he doesn’t play Minecraft, it’s heartbreaking. So we gave in. Now, we already thought Minecraft was among the better games a kid could play, and it’s turned out to be a fun family activity and a way for the boys to bond with their grandparents and aunt and uncle. But Minecraft is at constant risk of consuming their little boy brains, and we’ve had to put strict limits on how much they play just to get them to care about anything else. And there’s a bigger problem: this time it was Minecraft, a relatively harmless game. Next time the key to admission into the social group could be something more pernicious. Our kids shouldn’t have to compromise their values—and our family’s values—to have friends.

Meanwhile, in the dark, windowless cavern that was Faramir’s classroom, our little boy was changing. Before he started kindergarten, he was a happy, social guy who would strike up random conversations with strangers and become everyone’s best friend. By the end of the year, he’d become taciturn and antisocial. He’d been playing with one kid every day for a week or so, and started referring to the kid as “my friend [redacted],” only for [redacted] to turn to him one day and say “I’m not your friend.” Apparently many (most?) of the kids in Faramir’s class already knew each other from years spent in the daycare across the street. Despite starting Kindergarten at the same time as everyone else, Faramir was already an outsider.

(I’m sorry to get political/personal/whatever, guys, but daycare culture is out of control. But that’s a rant for another time.)

I would beg and bribe Faramir to try to be friendly with the other kids. His response: “I can’t play with the other kids, because ninja masters have to go it alone.” When you put it that way…

All this to say that the fabled socialization aspect of public school was…unimpressive. At least for our kids.

It was a bumpy road trying to help Curdie and Faramir find good social environments in the homeschool world at first (we really miss our San Antonio homeschool friends!). We tried a few different things the first half of the year, and none of them were very promising. But we’ve just joined a local performing arts co-op, and it really seems like they’re starting to make friends and have a great time. Their homeschool soccer class has also been a great social outlet in addition to giving them fresh air and exercise.

Whatever it is we’re doing, it’s working, because Friendly Faramir is starting to come back.

Faramir cringing away from the squid he’s supposed to be dissecting

Their relationships with each other have improved, as well. Curdie went from ignoring Faramir when he passed him in the hallway at school (or giving him a thumbs down) to calling him his best friend. They have so much fun with each other and their little sisters every day, and they’re really enjoying playing with the baby and watching her grow up. When Tom and the kids got home from their backpacking trip this past weekend, everyone’s first words were, “Where’s the bub?” They wanted to know if she’d missed them and if she’d gained any new skills. It was adorable. We’ve also gotten to spend more time with extended family than we would have if they were in public school.

Bring Out Your Dead!

Can we talk about what a cesspool of disease and filth public schools are? Last year our kids were sick literally 80% of the school year. Faramir missed almost the whole month of October, and was home sick for both the Halloween and Christmas parties. When my mother-in-law came to babysit when I got induced, I had to make her a spreadsheet detailing all three kids’ antibiotics schedules. Both boys hit their 10 allotted parent-excused absences on illnesses that weren’t bad enough for a trip to the doctor, but bad enough that a sane parent wouldn’t send them to school.

(And then when they missed a Friday to go to their uncle’s wedding, they got marks on their attendance records saying they missed school for an “unacceptable reason”—because staying home to sit on the couch watching Phineas and Ferb is acceptable, but supporting a close family member making eternal covenants and visiting the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry isn’t. Riiiight.)

Okay, you guys know how I feel about masking kids. Jane put this on of her own volition because I was using bleach in the bathroom.

The whole system is messed up. Kids get sick at daycare and have to go to school because their parents can’t stay home with them. Then they get other kids sick, and those kids’ parents have to choose between sending them to school too impaired to possibly learn anything, or jump through hoops to avoid getting labeled truant if they stay home, where they’re missing out on activities and lessons. And did I mention they keep all the sick kids in windowless classrooms all day, not even letting them go out for recess? It’s frustrating, and I was over it.

I know what you’re going to say: “But Elissa, it’s good for kids’ immune systems to wade through cesspools of disease and filth.” And while I’m with you that the occasional cold is good for you, spending most of the school year on Amoxicillin just can’t be. And even if it’s good for the kids’ immune systems, it wasn’t good for mine. The last three weeks of my pregnancy I had a cold, a stomach bug, and cholestasis (okay, that last one wasn’t the school’s fault…at least, not directly. Maybe my liver gave it up because I broke down and took Tylenol one too many times. Or maybe it was the steady diet of Zicam. Who knows?).

Now we still get sick, but it’s not a constant thing, and antibiotics are only occasionally necessary. And when kids are sick, it doesn’t necessarily derail their entire learning process. We do as much school work as the kid can handle, and take it easy the rest of the time. Nobody gets left behind, and nobody gets held back.

In Conclusion…

None of these things by themselves would be enough to make us pull our kids out. And even all together, we might shrug and say, “Oh well, that’s just the way things are.” Except that I’d homeschooled before, and I knew that things didn’t have to be that way.

It’s not all sunshine and roses over here. Homeschooling is hard, especially with four kids—one of whom can’t walk or eat by herself and is literally sucking the energy out of my body. I am more tired than I’ve ever been in my life, and yet the house looks like I’m lazier than I’ve ever been in my life. And I’m still grieving the plan I’ve had for my life since childhood: be extremely present for my kids, and write tons of fantasy novels in the quiet hours while they’re at school. Well, the “extremely present” part is more true than I expected, but the writing part…not so much (still making progress, but extremely slowly). I’ve had many, many moments when I wanted to load everyone up in the minivan and drop them all off at the elementary school, which beckons to me with its red bricks and out-of-date marquee every time I drive anywhere.

But there have also been moments when it feels like everything is falling into place. When the kids are devouring ideas and stories and laughing hysterically at France’s attempts to colonize Florida. When we have amazing gospel discussions and enjoy classical music together. When I look back on what I’ve done that day and think, “This is what God made me for. And it’s pretty awesome.”

We’re still figuring everything out, but the plan is to stick with it at least through middle school (6th grade here in Texas) and then reevaluate. But for now, prayers for my sanity are always appreciated—and if anyone wants to borrow any number of kids for any amount of time, let me know! The oldest one makes pancakes, if that sweetens the deal!

I’m Not a Poet (and now I know it)

My six-year-old is a poet.

Over the past year, Faramir has been working on his poetry skills. After counseling him that poetry is not a suitable career for the father of our grandchildren (come on, the boy wants ten kids! He’s going to need a STEM salary), we’ve been aggressively encouraging him to pursue it as a hobby. I for one am a big fan of his work.

Also, his handwriting is fantastic.

So for Valentine’s Day this year, I had this great idea to write Faramir a poem. It just seemed like a great way to connect with him and show interest in his hobbies. So I set about trying to put my appreciation for our amazing and hilarious boy into verse.

Until recently, my poetry consumption began and ended with Ogden Nash. However, the kids’ homeschool curriculum has us working through William Blake, Robert Lewis Stevenson, Sara Teasdale, and A. A. Milne, and I guess you could say I was feeling inspired. After all, I am a writer-type, and although I generally lean more toward the prose side of the spectrum, I dabbled in poetry a bit in high school as an outlet for teen angst. These poems were hilariously awful, but they were in iambic heptameter, dangit! And having spent the last ten-ish years trying to improve my writing skills, I assumed my efforts would yield better results. Plus I’ve…read…books since then! Yep, read much book with big wrinkle brain. Much book make rhyme words sound good for son.

The first problem appeared quickly: I couldn’t just write a poem for Faramir. Curdie, his older brother, has reached the calculating age of almost-nine, and has a finely-honed ability to detect discrepancies in time and effort when it comes to gifts. So I’d need to write him one, too. And three-year-old Jane is just learning to read! Wouldn’t it be cool for her to read a poem about herself, written by her very own mom? Lucy would probably just eat anything I gave her, so she didn’t need a poem. But Valentine’s day is supposed to be about romantic love—I realized I should probably write one for Tom, too. So, with a few weeks before the big day, I committed myself to writing four poems.

Well, with apologies to Uncle Ben, with Much Book come Much Standards. Poetry is hard, y’all. My first efforts to sit down and compose verses worthy of the English poetic tradition (or at least good enough for my kids) yielded little more than staring open-mouthed at a blank word document and typing and deleting the same few words for hours. Then Baby Lucy got really sick and I didn’t have the mental energy to write for a few days. And then Jane got whatever Lucy had, plus a double ear infection. Parents of multiple small children know how this goes.

This brings us to the evening of February 12, when I was still dejectedly plunking out iambs and pushing Rhymezone.com to its limits. I brute-forced my way through Faramir’s and Curdie’s poems, but they were clunky and pretentious, and I was starting to regret the whole thing. But with Jane still running a 105-degree fever, it looked like we weren’t going to make it to either of the Valentine’s Day parties we’d planned on, so I at least wanted to make sure the kids got something special from their mom. Rather than stare at the empty page where Jane’s poem was going to go, I put my head down on my desk—and a tantalizing little line ran through my head…

“I have a little Chungus that goes in and out with me.”

No, my shoulder angel chided. That’s Robert Louis Stevenson’s “My Shadow.” That’s plagiarism, and plagiarism is bad.

But it’s in the public domaaaaiiiiin, my shoulder-devil crooned. Everybody uses that poem.

Meanwhile, the poem had started to write itself, and it was much better than anything I’d written so far. So, with a deadline looming, I surrendered to the devil. Really, only the first stanza was stolen from “My Shadow.” Once I’d pulled my brain out of the sick-kid-parenting swamp where creativity goes to die, I’d apparently gotten into a good enough mindset for the words to flow.

Still, I didn’t end up finishing that night, and the next night after taking Curdie to Activity Days, picking up Jane’s antibiotics, and spending eight minutes inside Hobby Lobby browsing the sad Valentine’s clearance leavings, I had about half an hour to put the finishing touches on the poems and package the kids’ Valentine’s offerings before bedtime. (I never did end up writing anything for Tom. Sorry, dear—consider this an IOU.)

In the end, Valentine’s Day was a bummer, but the kids love their poems (even the clunky, pretentious ones), and Faramir and Jane are still carrying them around the house, which is adorable. The antibiotics are kicking in, and it’s back to business as usual around here.

I guess if I’ve learned anything, it’s not to schedule time-sensitive creative projects during cold and flu season when I’m already overwhelmed with homeschooling, a baby, and the day-to-day demands of four kids who are home all the time. And also, I should probably stick to prose and leave the poetry to the professionals—and Faramir. And also, plagiarism is bad—but it can also be fun!

(No, that is not a good lesson to learn. -Shoulder Angel)