What Is It Like to Homeschool?

Sharon September 8th, 2009

I get this question a lot.  Or I get the corrollary “I could never homeschool.”   When I hear this, I don’t assume that people mean “I could never actually teach an 8 year old the multiplication tables, or what a cell is” - because obviously, nearly everyone could.   I think most people who find homeschooling unimaginable envision home education as a smaller version of public school.  They imagine that it would be the parent’s job to keep their children firmly at their desks, to reproduce school in all its forms, to follow exactly a curriculum, and the thought isn’t very appealing. 

I’m not saying there are no parents who do this, but let’s just say there’d be a lot fewer homeschoolers if you had to.  We certainly wouldn’t do it.  The techniques required to manage a classroom of 28 six year olds or even sixteen year olds are totally different than to manage a “classroom” of a 9 and 12 year old who are your own kids, or, for that matter, a room of an almost-four year old, an almost-eight year old and an almost-six year old.

So I thought it would be worth describing what it is like to homeschool - or at least, one way it is possible to do so.  My intention is not to try and persuade people who don’t want to to do so, but to demystify something that might come up for any of us.  Because, as I write in _Depletion and Abundance_ any of us may find a reason to homeschool - just as the most committed  homeschooler may find themselves needing to send their kids to public school. It isn’t an either/or thing.  First of all, some kids are better suited to one technique than another - some kids simply can’t handle public school, or can’t get their needs met there.  The same is true with homeschooling - one child might flourish while another ends up battling with their parents, but does great in public school. 

Moreover, we’re all subject to circumstances beyond our control - sometimes kids gets sick and need to be taught at home for a time. Sometimes events close schools for extended periods.  Sometimes we have life changes that require educational changes.  Even if you don’t want to homeschool, you should at least have some sense of what it entails, if you get stuck doing it involuntarily.  For example, it is perfectly plausible to imagine that if the flu outbreaks this year are severe, school districts may close for extended periods, and you might want to continue teaching at home - a short break is fun, but bored kids stuck inside with nothing structured to do can be, well…annoying.  Trust me, even if homeschooling isn’t your dream, you’ll be glad to have something for them to do!

I realize we are enormously fortunate in that we have parents around during the day - I know single mothers who homeschool and work full time, or two career working and homeschooling families, and am always impressed by how hard they work - but I don’t know if I could do what they do.  I know people who supplement their children’s education remarkably after school as well, and around their full time jobs, and I’m awed by their commitment.

I’m a lazier person than that, and of course, very fortunate - in some ways, I homeschool because doing all the things we’d like to do around a full time school schedule just seems too hard - we homeschool because we like to spend time at home together.  I homeschool because there are so many things that my kids need to learn that school won’t teach them, and it seems so hard to do that at the end of a long school day.  But that is a luxury not everyone has.  I realize that - but also realize that if schools are ever extensively disrupted, someone - parents, a neighbor, a friend, a family member - will have to meet these needs around work schedules.  There may come a time when economic demands mean we have to homeschool and work out of the home full time - and it is worth being comfortable with home teaching beforehand, and having a mental sense of how it might work.

So here’s what it looks like here.  We do morning prayer before we go out for chores, and brush teeth, etc… Eli gets on the bus for school and then once everyone is milked, fed, etc… we all troop back and start school.  We tend to do one or two subjects a day, and for a comparatively short time - the thing to realize about homeschooling is this - you don’t have to spend four days explaining fractions so that every kid in the class gets it, you just have to spend as long as it takes.  And if it turns out that your kid isn’t ready for fractions, or isn’t responding, unless you’ve got an immanent test, you can say “ok, we’re going to do Venn diagrams instead” and come back to it.  You aren’t trapped by any rules, other than a general sense of what your kids should be learning.

We had planned to do ancient world history for a while last year, but Simon conceived an interest in modern history, so we switched.  We were teaching him recorder, but he didn’t like it, so now we do Piano (we already had the piano, obviously).  Simon is a self-driven kid in a lot of ways - he gets obsessed with things and wants to focus exclusively on them - he’s gone through bird phases, astronomy phases, Shakespeare, the Blues, the Multiplication Tables, …right now he’s obsessed with the chemical elements.  That wasn’t on my 3rd grade curriculum plan, but who cares? 

For some homeschoolers, the kids interests would guide everything.  We’re not in that category - I’ve got no problem with unschooling, but I’ve also got no problem saying “ok, we’re going to work on this, now.”  Right now we’re doing that with Isaiah - he’s not reading yet, in part, I think because his brother Simon reads to him constantly, and because he’s entering 1st Grade in his Hebrew School, he really needs to learn to read.  Last year we let it go, this year, we’re pushing a bit harder - and he’s more interested (he loves to cook and wants to be able to read recipes independently).  We insist the kids do music practice, do their chores and learn things they don’t care about sometimes - because they don’t always know when learning something will be helpful to something they do want to to do.  I want learning to be fun, but I don’t think it always has to be fun every second - but that’s a philosophical approach.

Besides memorizing Tom Lehrer’s “Elements” song (the chemical elements as of 1950 something sung to “I am the very model of a modern major general”) tomorrow, and reading Simon’s chemistry book and looking through cookbooks for Rosh Hashanah recipes, our school day will include reading the Torah stories that accompany the New Year’s Liturgy, painting the birdhouses the kids have been making and putting them up, taking another stab at a multi-perspective history of the ancient world, beginning with a children’s version of Virgil’s founding of Rome (so far the story has been really grabbing them), English and Hebrew reading lessons for Asher (still mastering his letters) and Isaiah (sounding out words), and making a pumpkin pie - Isaiah will read the recipes, Asher will help get out the ingredients, Simon will handle the lighting of the cookstove fire (with help), and Simon and Isaiah will add  pumpkin seeds to their seed-saving project. 

The whole thing will probably take less than two hours, perhaps not including the pie-baking time.  We also get pie out of it ;-) .  Much of the time is roughly indistinguishable from a lot of time we spend with the kids anyway, reading stories, doing our work with their help, and hanging about, singing, talking and giggling.   The next day we’ll work on math, poetry and music - making up insulting couplets, cutting pies into pieces (and eating them) to be counted, added, subtracted, and divided and divided again according to one’s abilities and age.  It is always hard to figure out what is work, and what is play.  Simon is old enough to do some work independently, so he can be doing math problems while I’m helping Isaiah with his reading and getting Asher to sort blocks by shape.  Sometimes we’re doing other stuff while we do it - I fold laundry while quizzing Simon about spelling, or answer Isaiah’s questions about birds while I’m doing dishes. 

Does it work, this informal approach?  It seems to - the kids are on grade-level pretty much across the board, and wildly above it in places. Simon reads at 7th grade level (he won’t be 8 until November) and is the consummate astronomer’s child, able to describe explain what a gamma-ray burst is, just in case you were wondering.   Isaiah alrady knows the lower multiplication tables, can bake cornbread, make bread and cookies with almost no help from memory and can identify more plants and their uses than Eric by a good stretch.  At 3, Asher can already sing the first verse of the Elements Song, recite the Prelude to the Constitution (no, we don’t teach that, he’s been listening to his big brothers ;-) ), make up new tunes to “Adon Olam” and explain that he’s a carbon-based life form. 

They are not geniuses, or even unusual children - Simon can’t write neatly, Isaiah doesn’t read yet, Asher still can’t eat without dripping.  Their knowledge is broad in some places, and imperfect in others.  What is different about homeschooling is simply this - they haven’t yet learned not to be having fun while learning.  And their parents haven’t yet hit the point where teaching isn’t fun.  We all stagger along as best we can, learning and getting things done, and mostly, having a good time of it.


29 Responses to “What Is It Like to Homeschool?”

  1. Erika says:

    I really appreciate the prelude to your homeschool “schedule” you gave us! It is a great way to introduce the subject to folks who may be resistant or nervous about even thinking about homeschooling. I’d love to find myself homeschooling my kid(s) (I have no children… yet) when they are “school-age,” but I’m not sure how it would even work; it’s great to see examples that are working!


  2. Heather says:

    I love homeschooling my kids. This year we’re doing 3rd and Kindergarten. Its absolutely the best decision we ever made. We have so much fun learning things together. There are still struggles over things occasionally, but mostly its just wonderful.

  3. stu says:

    I love this. You’re kids are going to be some of the coolest people anyone will meet. And I bet that for you, returning to those subjects as an adult, gives an entirely new perspective and understanding of some things.

    I love that subjects and ideas are taught when the child is ready for it AND interested in it - half the work is already done, and all they have to do is willingly absorb! I know that when I was a child in school there were ideas that I didn’t necessarily understand or find interesting, and simply regurgitated what I was told and then forgot it.

    Allowing them to absorb something that they are ready and willing to digest seems to be a much more effective approach!

  4. homebrewlibrarian says:

    My sister and husband decided to homeschool when their first child was born. After four children - she’s a pro! Their oldest is now in high school and they chose to continue at home but now they incorporate online classes for the subjects that are beyond their ability to easily absorb and explain (or as my sister explains it “when we couldn’t stay one step ahead”). Reading how your family goes about learning and teaching sounds an awful lot like her method but she also includes extracurricular activities with other homeschool families (she lives in a more urban area) as well as through the YMCA.

    Her kids are all smart, happy and can interact easily with others from young to old. In this case, homeschooling was the right answer. If there is any difference between her method and yours it is that they do not live on a farm. While I’m just the tiniest bit jealous that our parents chose the public school route, her kids are going to turn out splendidly.

    Another vote for homeschooling from someone with no children!

    Kerri in AK

  5. Christina says:

    I had a conversation with someone about homeschooling today while sitting in the salon chair getting a haircut. (Bizarre, because I take my glasses off for the cut and was talking with my eyes closed the whole time!) He’d been laid off and was back to school for a teaching credential - always happy to expose an educator to what homeschooling really is, as opposed to what’s in their mind’s eye about it.

  6. janine says:

    I am always delighted to hear about successful homeschooling families.

    My own public school experience was awful, and overall, I and wasn’t impressed with the education given my children either.

    I would have loved to homeschool my own children, but had serious differences with my husband on this issue. (He saw us as a two career couple with jobs outside the home.)

    Meanwhile, my parents always seemed to be doing exciting work that I longed to be a part of. Therefore, my sincere admiration to those who are able to pull this off.

  7. Lori Scott says:

    Home schooled for years and it was the best decision we ever made. My routine sounds a lot like Sharon’s with the exception that we would listen to the radio news (no TV reception) each morning at 9.00am, discuss the foreign articles and find them on a big world map.

    Sometimes this led on to further exciting discoveries about geology, social studies, history, politics etc and sometimes it was a slow news day.

    One of the best things we ever did was those occasional days when for whatever reason, we all just couldn’t face school that day. We would negotiate to make the time up elsewhere and have a surprise day off. It felt so good!

    There were really no negatives for our experience.

  8. John Andersen says:

    We homeschooled our daughter from 2nd through 12th grade.

    She is a junior at Willamette University. Her major is math. She has a tremendous scholarship/grant package. In her “high school” years, she competed on a public school speech and debate team. She also volunteered as a docent at the Oregon Historical Society. She got a perfect 800 on the reading portion of the SAT.

    I mention those things to hook the skeptics.

    But better than all of that bragging material is her attitude towards learning. She loves soaking up new knowledge. She loves deep academic discussions. She writes very well. Her vocabulary is excellent. You couldn’t pry her away from her studies if you tried.

    I attribute most of this to homeschooling.

  9. Lorna says:

    Both of our daughters were home schooled. The oldest left school in 7th grade and opted to go back to school for her last two years of high school. Our younger daughter was home from 4th grade until she left for college two years ago. Homeschooling was a wonderful experience for us, and I could give you a long list of my daughters’ accomplishments. But what really made our experience so wonderful was the gift of time we were given to spend with them. I have many wonderful memories of long talks when my daughters would come out of their rooms to discuss whatever they had been reading or studying. We would sit at the kitchen table and discuss everything from the history of ancient Egypt, to whichever Jane Austen book they were reading, to how to study for their SAT’s. It really was a luxury to be given this gift. We got to know each other very well, and we had so many opportunities to convey to our daughters our sense of values and ethics. There are many reasons to have your children learn at home, but the opportunity to spend time with them is by far the best reason.

  10. Tammy and Parker says:

    Although I’m a former teacher and my husband a current school administrator, we’ve chosen to home school our youngest son, Parker

    Parker is medically fragile and while almost four he looks about 2.5. He’s trached, g-tubed, O2 dependent and the cutest kid ever.

    He also sports an extra chromosome and school districts in Utah are about 1,000 years behind reality in the area of special education.

    I’ve had a bit of a time finding my groove with this. Teaching a child with Ds is different from teaching a typical child. And for me it is better to get several months of units down to the art projects instead of rushing around every Sunday night all year long.

    But I’m loving it. And Parker is really taking off.

  11. knutty knitter says:

    I homeschooled the eldest for a year but was really pleased to find an excellent school for him. He has minor autistic problems, is gifted (not academic!) and dyslexic. I didn’t need to take on the youngest because that school is really good. Eldest is back in the state system at present but I would be prepared to do it again should it become necessary. Probably in about two years when youngest has to leave the present school.

    viv in nz

  12. Rob Hopkins says:

    Greetings! I am just writing to let you know that I have nominated your wonderful website as one of the 7 blogs to which I have awarded the Kreativ Blogger award. Have a look over at http://www.transitionculture.org see the esteemed company in which you sit! The latest post also sets out the ‘obligations’ that go with winning it, mainly to nominate 7 others as being your favourite blogs. I hope this leads to more traffic and to more support for your great work!
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    Transition Culture.

  13. Deb says:

    I pulled my daughter out of public school for her first two years of high school and taught her at home. My husband was all wigged out that she wouldnt be able to get into college if she wanted to with that on her record so I wrote up an educational plan with goals and measures of achievement. Then I pretty much ignored it. She has learning difficulties of the dyslexic type, tested incredibly high on an intelligence test and formal educational plans were a disaster in public school. She wanted a formal diploma so she went back to a different school for the last two years.

    We spent the first three months doing as little structured work as possible. I read to her, she read to me. We watched documentaries from netflix and looked information about them up on the internet. We learned a little latin together, mostly for fun. She learned it faster than I did and ended up teaching me. I got a microscope second hand so we grew pond scum and looked at it and drew it. We dissected and drew all manner of,um, things the vet brought us. She spent time with the vet learning anatomy and how to care for animals. We looked at human hair, dog hair, wool, alpaca, cat hair and some deer hair her father brought in when he shot a deer during hunting season. He brought in the deer heart in after hunting and we drew it. We learned the times tables and division. We worked on mental math. We went to the art supplies store and got a couple of big pads of newsprint and some good drawing paper and a bunch of pencils, charcoal sticks, erasers etc. She spent hours drawing. We learned how to do suduko puzzles. We played cards and board games. We got wordless picture books from the library and wrote stories based on the pictures. She wrote letters. She knit socks and spun yarn. She kept a sourdough and made bread. I made a date with a Muslim woman I know to learn about her religion. We went to visit a rabbi to learn about his religion. We visited a Wiccan to learn about her religion. We spent hours at the library. We did housework.

    The best educational tool, tho, that we spent money on was her horse. She got a 3 yo halter broke stallion at an auction for $500. She helped the vet geld him. We found her a mentor/trainer and she worked at training him for competition with guidance. She cleaned stalls for his board. She traded helping the vet on calls for his vet needs. She kept the accounts on what we spent on his hay and feed and was responsible for all his feeding and watering. She took him thru county fair to State Fair in 6 months using a borrowed saddle and a second hand show outfit we jazzed up and altered at home. She learned confidence, persistence and patience.

    That was just the beginning. After awhile I added in more formal subjects like Algebra and Geometry, a biology and chemistry program and a structured reading list. I put together an American History program for her. She worked on grammar, punctuation and spelling-hugely difficult for her. She learned how to write a coherent sentence, how to link those sentences into a well constructed paragraph and how to use those paragraphs in a well reasoned piece of writing.

    I kept any formal book type learning to a maximun of two hours a day. We took occasional days off and a couple weeks in the summer. We took a month off during the Christmas holidays.

    It was the best two years I have spent as a parent. We grew closer than we had been since she was a preschooler. She went from a kid who thought she was too stupid to learn to a poised and confident teenager who taught herself whatever she needed. We learned to live together in some form of harmony and enjoy each others company.

    I do have one regret. I regret that I didnt homeschool her from the beginning. It was lack of confidence that kept me from doing it. I spent too much time listening to other people and not listening to myself. She is in a pre vet program now and doing well. She still has some problems with the learning difficulties but has the emotional/mental wherewithal to figure out how to cope and to ask for help if she needs it.

    It’s not for everyone but if you can do it, it’s the best experience.

    Deb in Wis

  14. Sharon says:

    How wonderful - thanks so much for everyone who is sharing their experiences. For those of you with experience homeschooling kids with disabilities - Tammy and Deb, may I email you at some point - I’m planning a piece on preparing to homeschool (either full time or in the face of systemic disruptions) with kids with special needs. We currently send Eli to school, because there’s a fabulous program for kids with autism that has been wonderful for him, but we also try and make sure that we can meet his needs if there’s ever an extended disruption of services (in fact, we had a water-main break at his school last year that had him out for three weeks, so it isn’t just “zombies” kind of stuff ;-) ). Simon has minor fine-motor disabilities that he’s mostly not aware of, just gets a little frustrated that he has a hard time with physical skills - his 5 year old brother rides a bike much better than he does, and his handwriting is terrible - but I’d be glad to get input from other parents about homeschooling special needs kids.

    And Rob, thank you!


  15. heatherB says:

    Sharon, you scare me sometimes, you really do. Hanging out the washing, it crosses my mind that learning to knit socks could be handy - 2 days later the sock rant. Homeschooling has been on my mind the last few weeks, and voila! And many more. My oldest goes to a fabulous school, that in many ways espouses the ideas of unschooling, number 2 starts kinder next year. The $1500 term(each) is challenging enough on our meagre income, but as we geographically move toward a more sustainable, self reliant life, the fuel/ travelling time etc bothers me. The irony of buying a farm to survive peak oil, and proceeding to spend nearly 4 hours per day driving to and from school is overwhelming. But I dont feel capable of doing what the teachers at The Cottage School do, and part of me doesn’t want to try. This post has given me lots of food for thought, and sadly will undoubtedly result in many sleepless nights, but thanks for the alluringly attainable picture you have painted!

  16. Brandi says:

    The decision to homeschool is tough. After all, we want to do what is best for our kids and it can be tricky. We have decided to homeschool our two youngest children (4 & 5) and leave our oldest autistic son (9) in school. We feel our 9 year old thrives on the structure that school outside the home provides. My 5 year old also has an autism diagnosis but is very high functioning and tends more toward anxiety so homeschooling with a lot of play time with other kids seems ideal for him. He just is so much more relaxed when he knows I’m right there.

    Our neice lived with us for a few years and we suffered through 6th and 7th grade. It was horrible. I’m only in my 30’s and I went throught the same school district but this “Oh, kids will be kids” attitude has gotten WAY out of hand. In the real world its called harrassment/sexual abuse - but the Jr. High administrators told us - “kids will be kids — she’s in 7th grade now, she needs to learn to grow up”. It’s really quite disconcerting.

  17. Deb says:

    You can email me, Sharon.

    I pretty much flew by the seat of my pants most of the time tho in the back of my head I always had an idea of where I wanted her to be in a year or so. I never had daily goals. A lot of what we were doing is learning how to learn, Abby’s way, if that makes sense. I didnt buy any curricula except for a spelling book and a Latin program for 6 months.


  18. curiousalexa says:

    The thing about homeschooling that intimidates me is the attention kids seem to require (hey, that applies to parenting, too!) My 7yo roommate loves school, and has no interest in homeschooling, but I keep wondering how I can add to her formal learning, as well as potentially replace it if need be. (Her mom, my adult roommate, is a nurse. Her clinic system is already seeing a lot of flu, has been all summer, and is bracing for a rough fall/winter season.)

    So I’m in the odd place of not being a parent, and yet somehow having this kid around… [g] (I’m the one home in the afternoons.)

  19. Tammy and Parker says:

    Would love to have you email.

  20. margaret says:

    Thanks for this post. I am considering the homeschooling option for my 7 year old. She’s not happy in school, and I’m not thrilled with the homework battles. So hearing your approach is helpful. A worry I have is that she would lose out on social interactions with other children (being an only child) if she were not in school.

  21. Sharon says:

    Thanks Deb and Tammy. Margaret - my kids do get less total social interaction, perhaps, than the other kids - for both good and ill. The upside of this is that lots of the consumer culture, and some of the darwinistic social pressures of school are somewhat elided. The downside for a smaller family than ours would be less time with other kids - that said, however, my kids spend a *lot* of time with other kids. They attend Hebrew school, swimming lessons, participate in sports, sing in the chorus and go to homeschool groups, as well as having a lot of playtime with neighboring kids. This week, for example, we went apple picking with friends on Monday, on Tuesday a neighbor’s son came over and had lunch and played with us. On Wednesday it was just us. This afternoon is weekly neighborhood playdate after school (a tradition for 6 years now), Friday is homeschool group, Saturday is synagogue, Sunday Hebrew school. It really depends on how you do it, but there are so many opportunities for socialization out there…


  22. Zach Frey says:


    Ah, yes, “socialization”!

    I’m always tempted to answer the question “But how will your children get their socialization?” with “Let me get back to you when we’re not so busy with their activities…” :)

    There’s always the snarky right-wing answer too, of “What if I don’t want them to become socialists?” ;)


  23. Deb says:

    Margaret, I’m going to put my two cents in, not trying to persuade you but to give you food for thought.

    If your child isnt thrilled with homework, can you spend a day at school and try to understand why? Too much or too little structure? Personality differences with the teacher? A curricula that doesnt fit her learning style? Problems with the other kids?

    If you wish to homeschool, can you keep her in school for music or art classes? Some school districts will allow that and it may be an option.

    Think about what you mean by social interaction. Does your child need lots of friends or just one or two good pals. Is your child a joiner-loves group activities with lots of kids. Can you give your child contact with other people outside the family thru playgroups, homeschool groups, family or activities in your community?

    Have you talked to anyone in your area about homeschooling? Other parents are a wealth of information, especially if you are undecided.

    Have you read any of the mountains of literature on homeschooling out there? There’s a lot of opinionated stuff and, personally, I took most of it with a grain of salt but it is a source of ideas.

    Have you done a pro and con list? It seems like a simplistic thing to do but writing down what you see as good and bad really helps clarify your thoughts if you have concerns. I asked alot of people why I shouldnt homeschool my daughter rather than why I should-it was very useful.

    If you decide to homeschool, can you commit a couple of years, at least, before you rethink whether it’s a good idea. It takes awhile to find the rhythm that works for your family and you wont know in 3 months or 6 months whether this is a good idea. Can you live with that?

    My 2 cents.


  24. Enrico Lamperti says:

    It’s really interesting to read how you homeschool. I believe “personalized” education brings better results, though it’s harder than leaving kids at school and then just teach them a couple of things at home.
    When I was at elementary school my mother used to give me some extra “homework” to supplement the subjects I learned at school. It wasn’t “fun” for me, but I learned important things (venn diagrams, among them!) that I found useful later.

  25. Erika says:

    Thanks for sharing, Sharon! I love your schedule!! I’ve been tempted to homeschool my son since he started going to school, but I work full-time outside the home.

    So far, the school has not killed his interest in learning, though he HATES homework with a passion I don’t see anywhere else. He’s 9, and reads at 10th grade level, but math hasn’t clicked for him yet. I want to help, and we do explore all kinds of wonderful things, but he’s such a perfect candidate for homeschooling…leave him alone with an idea and some books and he’ll read as much as he can then ask forty million questions.

    It’s someting I’d do in a heartbeat if circumstances change.

  26. Kim says:

    This is a very interesting post for me.

    I have been tossing around the idea of homeschooling my 8 year old son. Great food for thought. I’m going to show my husband your post.

    Great info,


  27. Licia says:

    I am reading about homeschooling and appreciate the information. I am currently not working and really not very pleased with my 4th graders performance at school. He’s one of those sliding between the cracks kids. Not bad enough to test like theres a problem but just can’t keep up with what’s going on in the classroom and I’m afraid it’s going to catch up with him in 6th & 7th grade.

    Can you provide me with any information or direct me on what steps I would need to take to start the homeschooling process? Is this something I can do for the remainder of this year and then try the public route again next year?

  28. Jill Allannah says:

    What a interesting post. I just love the blog! Keep up the great job :)

  29. pre-kindergarten curriculum says:

    On the same wavelength as the The Chatelaine's Keys » Blog Archive » What Is It Like to Homeschool?, issue, Friends, let me emphasize again the importance of looking into home schooling now. This is not the public school system you attended. Things have changed. Make the move if you can now to get your child started in home schooling. And, if possible carry this on to the 4th grade.

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