You know the saying, “If you aim at nothing, you will hit it every time?” It is true. Without a vision for where your co-op is going and what it aspires to accomplish, you may hit some random good things, but you will your co-op will never be all that it can be. The Bible puts it succinctly in Proverbs 29:18. “For lack of vision the people perish.” VIsion, vision, vision!
It is a good think to ask yourself, and your group, “How long will this last?” Our core group has committed to seeing this through to graduation. Things come up and life surprises us. We graciously allow friends to back out if co-op is not working for them. But we ask, whenever possible, for more than a year to year commitment.
That may not be what you are looking for right now. But strongly consider creating a plan that takes you through high school. Sure, that plan will get tweaked. God may lead you in a different direction. But practicing the idea of a long range vision will pay off in incredible dividends. It keeps you committed, innovative, and flexible if you know you are in this for the long haul. It also motivates you to work through inter-personal issue, for yourself and your children, if you are fairly certain this will be a long term situation or relationship.
“Begin with the end in mind”. This has been my motto ever since I heard homeschool guru Renee Ellison apply it to homeschooling when my oldest was still missing her front teeth. To make this relevant to homeschooling we can ask ourselves another question: what do we want the kids to know? When we sniffle into our tissues at high school graduation, what do we want to have covered? What subjects, what books, what life skills, what museums, what field trips, what math, what poetry and what scripture do you want them to have memorized?
Think it through and dream with your spouse, then swap visions with your co-op buddies, and even dream with your kids, if they are old enough. Turn the dream list into an outline, and then keep the outline handy for planning every single year. Figure out what to teach when and jot down ideas of books, plays, and poems you want to use. Maybe even create a vision statement. Then, as you keep learning and growing, allow yourself the freedom to alter the plan.
Next you can ask yourself the most important question of all, the one concerning the character of your children – who do we want them to be? My co-op sisters and I remind ourselves frequently that we are cultivating souls. We are nurturing the spirits of our children. And this is not some new age, feel good, mumbo jumbo. This is an understanding that imparting knowledge to our children means we teach them who they are in relation to their Creator, that they are created for a purpose much higher than, but still involving learning in the best possible ways.
WHO DO I WANT MY CHILDREN TO BE? __________________________________________________________
Write down basic co-op rules and expectations. Don’t shy away from this one. It is one of the secrets to a healthy, happy co-op. Are parents expected to be present always? Some will tend to make excuses, then eventually start dropping kids off. This becomes unfair to the teachers. This WILL happen if you are not careful. Some parents doing all the work also creates resentment and takes the joy out of teaching. Co-op works best when everyone’s part is clearly defined and everyone does what they are expected to do.
Make sure parents have a solid understanding of their roles at the outset.
Without requiring the involvement and responsibility of teaching a class we find that co-op quickly becomes a drop off service or a sort of free school where the parent misses out on the opportunity to see first hand what the child is learning and foster discussions at home. It helps you know what to work on for the rest of the week. And most importantly you will know how your child is behaving, in order to correct and nurture character issues as they pop up, rather than later when they are firmly entrenched in the child’s character.
Uncomfortable conversations are a part of interactions with other humans. Approach them prayerfully. Know who is in charge. Appoint one or two moms as the ones to go to with problems and the ones to be respected as final decision makers.
Co-op provides accountability. Our area of weakness as homeschool parents may be staying on track or getting into a solid routine. Free spirits generate a lot of creative energy, but not the academic discipline required of a teacher. A shared vision goe a long way toward keeping everybody on track.
WHO WILL BE IN CHARGE? WHY? _____________________________________________________________
WHAT ARE SOME BASIC RULES FOR MY CO-OP? _______________________________________________
When you have a family or two on board, then next question is what are the individual skills, gifts or talents of each parent? You may even want to recruit with that in mind. In fact, this is co-op distilled down to its simplest form: You get together with other families to do the things that are better done cooperatively! If Mom A is good at art and Mom B has a science degree, assuming Mom B prefers not to teach her kids art, you have the makings of a great co-op.
In our co-op, each mom teaches at least one class. We have pooled our gifts and talents and assigned our friends to teach our children in areas that they are strong and we may be weak. In our co-op this looks like foreign languages for a mom that teaches ESOL, history and logic for me as a lawyer, preschool activities for a mom patient with little ones, baby duty for moms with no free time for planning or new to homeschooling and still in learning mode.
For our co-op, since I have my Juris Doctorate and have practiced law for 20 years, I was the obvious candidate to teach government, logic, and debate. My friend who teaches ESOL at night was the clear choice for Latin and Spanish instruction, and the arts and crafts mom was the indisputable contender for teaching the cut and paste crowd.
Of course, what you are excited about and what you enjoy teaching figures greatly into the who-teaches-what equation. Children catch your enthusiasm and your vision. They also catch your lack thereof. Do not volunteer for something you do not want to teach. Co-op does not have to cover everything. It should not cover everything. Each co-op should reflect the unique skills and gifts of the parents. Individual families may have certain needs. A mom may have trouble with math herself, and feel inadequate to teach it. This does not mean co-op is required to meet that need. Teach to your talents.
WHAT DO I HAVE TO OFFER? WHAT CAN I TEACH? ____________________________________________
While co-op does not exist to meet every need, co-op can support your weakness as a teacher. I spent my educational career avoiding math. So you won’t find me teaching math. I studied music in undergraduate school and law in graduate school. This makes me pretty well qualified to teach logic and writing. I usually teach history and literature in our co-op, too. We have a mom that teaches ESOL and has a knack for languages that is our Latin anchor and has taught Spanish as well. We had a preschool teacher that really knew how to streamline our work with our little ones. Teaching to your talents does not mean you have to be an expert in the subject. But it should be something you enjoy and a subject that inspires you.
We create syllabi and search out books and seminars that help us delve deeper into our assigned or chosen subject matter.
Of course, some parents will have the necessary task of taking care of the younger siblings. We have several moms who enjoy playing with the little ones, reading stories, painting with water, playing bubbles, balls, nature walks and scavenger hunts, going on “bear hunts”, and acting out other favorite stories.
WHAT DO OTHER PARENTS HAVE TO CONTRIBUTE? WHERE I CAN I RECRUIT TALENTED PEOPLE TO HELP FILL IN MY GAPS? ______________________________________________________________
How often will you meet is a basic question to ask your co-op. We started a habit, right at the beginning of our work together, of taking off the last week of every month. It started because I traveled with my husband for work the last week of the month. When my kids added lots of extra-curriculars in middle school and high school I was no longer able to spend time away from home like that, but the tradition of a week off of every month turned out to be indispensable to teaching from a place of rest. It became a day to schedule doctor appointments, field trips, or just to catch up on school work.
We take a few extra weeks off at Christmas time, to enjoy the festivities and keep ourselves as low stress as we can. We meet at a park, so when the weather gets really hot, we are finished for the school year. The first week in June is as late as we go. And we try to be finished in time for everyone to travel for Memorial Day and to start hitting the homeschool conventions. We start after Labor Day to accommodate both the Florida heat and travel schedules. Learning by seeing and doing has far greater impact than just reading about a place, after all.
Eventually, because of a lot of little ones that needed naps, we cut the day a little shorter and added a second day a week for our middle and high schoolers. We tried filling in that extra week each month with an extra class for our Big group, but it just led to exhaustion and frustration – for me who taught the advanced classes. Time to alter the vision! We accomplish much more in a regular once a week format and everyone prefers the more regular schedule.
When we did a film school course in a co-op format, we scheduled it for once a month. We chose a co-op format because we knew the kids would benefit from discussion and group exercises for this particular course. It is not fun to film with no actors. And it is no fun to have a discussion by yourself!
The length of the day is going to depend on what you want to cover and how old your students are. It took us quite some time to figure out that shorter days are better. Because we meet outdoors, we don’t try too hard to fight the weather. We finish in May to avoid the heat. We cut the day short or choose to meet at someone’s home if the rain is projected to last more than an hour. The more babies, the shorter the day. Nine to noon is honestly all it takes for a weekly lesson in literature, logic, writing, and history, plus homework assignments, for our high school students.
Do not try to cover too much. A co-op should not be the mainstay of your schoolwork. If you are an arts co-op, leave out math and science. It is far better to do a few things well than to do a lot with mediocrity. Some subjects are better covered at home and others are best taught one on one. Do not lose out on the major benefits of homeschooling by becoming overly co-op focused. Your vision for co-op should be a supplement to your overall vision for your homeschool.
WHAT ARE MY NEEDS AND LIMITATIONS FOR CHOOSING FREQUENCY AND TIME OF MEETING? ____________________________________________________________________________________________
Keep your curriculum and book choices simple and affordable. You do not want to haul around a lot of books and supplies. You will also want to be thoughtful of budgets and finances. Our big vision should never put us in debt. That being said, I have tried to do it free or nearly free and the quality suffered. Investments that have endured include the picture books covered in the Five In A Row series, The Story of the World history series, the Mystery of History series, and Biblioplan Family Guides. I have created co-op friendly materials incorporating art, music, and poetry.
Time your book purchases for the best used book times. We find this to be at the beginning of the summer. Families are looking to purge their bookshelves and have finished school work for the summer. If you wait until the end of summer, you will be competing for the last few used copies with thousands of other homeschoolers.
Choose non-consumable books if you have large families. I love the Classical Academic Press programs for Latin and Logic. They are consumable workbooks. Our larger families have not written in them, but answered questions in a notebook in order to preserve the book for the next child in line.
Another great question to ask yourself when deciding what to purchase is, “What does my space allow?” Room for storage is something that I have l learned to consider when purchasing for school. A digital copy of a novel is a better choice for small living space, even though I am a big fan of paper books.
WHAT WILL MY CO-OP BUDGET BE? WHAT MATERIALS WOULD I NEED? WILL OTHER MEMBERS BE ABLE TO CONTRIBUTE FINANCIALLY? WILL THAT BE NECESSARY?
When you begin to teach a co-op class, you begin to understand the dynamics of classroom management. Children affect other children in ways that might surprise you if you do not have teaching experience. I taught music for a half of a school year after college and promptly decided to go to law school. I do not enjoy quieting, calming, shushing, asking kids to sit still, or giving permission for anyone to use the bathroom. To keep the class manageable means to keep the class small. If you find the class growing larger and more unmanageable you must find more adults to help out, preferably parents. Parents sitting with their own kids can see what the issue causing the noise or movement is and correct the behavior as it develops.
If you are having consistent wiggling and talking issues from the whole class, then the class is too long. I sense even from the teenagers I teach that a break is needed. Sometimes they will gently suggest if I get carried away. No one wants to teach kids who don’t want to learn.
You will get to know various learning styles. Some kids need to see the words on a page to comprehend them. Other students learn better when they are being read to. Some need to read aloud. Others need freedom to wiggle while they listen.
We have had students in our co-op with mild learning disabilities that cannot handle the heavy reading load I require in the upper grades. Fortunately, most classic books have an audiobook version available. I allow modern English translations and abridged versions. Occasionally I even encourage a comic book version to start with! The more familiar a kid is with the story, the easier it will be to read. I work with children with challenges and allow them to skip chapters of non-fiction works. And if the book brings them to tears too many times, I let them off the hook.
If you are not a teacher by training or profession you may not even realize that you have a teaching style. But you will discover that you do. Do not intimidate kids, do not yell at them, do not make your learning environment scary. Let them potty and get a drink. I encourage my older students to bring a drink and snack to class. I encourage them to bake something nice and share it with me!
Do encourage participation from every student. Don’t let one or two always dominate conversation. Be prepared to wait a minute or two after asking a question while a quieter student thinks about his answer. Encourage younger ones to sit still for a five minute story with a promise of a stretch break right after. Group activities are perfect for teaching cooperation and self-control, skills that must be learned. Don’t let talkative siblings speak for terse ones. Do find ways to mix the age groups up and encourage the older ones to teach and assist the little ones. Let the big kids in on the end game – your vision for the little kids.
Discipline has to be considered as well. My suggestion is that parents stick close by so you never have to do more than correct a student and send them to the parent if infractions continue. If every parent is participating and classes are small, discipline should not be a problem. If it is, the offending family just might not be a good fit.
A healthy Co-op should grow with your kids. If it doesn’t, change it or drop it. Each co-op family should be fully committed for the long-term, yet hold any program loosely. The child, her education, and your relationship with her are the important things. Co-op is a helpful tool, a wonderful resource, but not the end game.
HOW WILL I HANDLE CLASSROOM MANAGEMENT? HOW DOES THAT EFFECT WHO AM I AM WILLING TO INVITE TO CO-OP WITH ME? DO THEY SHARE MY VISION IN A PRACTICAL SENSE? ___________________
Let me address a question that comes up for many co-ops when the students reach middle and high school. Do I assign them a letter or number grade? I have done it both ways and I have solidly determined that grading is not my job. The only tests I give are essay style. When I review an essay, I give feedback. We read our essays aloud in class and my middle and high school students offer each other both positive and negative feedback. If the essay really falls short, I require them to re-do it and turn it in to me again. And I mention whatever gaps in understanding exist to their parents, if they do not already know.
I require my students to share their essays with their parents. I expect that middle grade students have worked through the essay alongside mom or dad. A co-op, at least the kind I describe and advocate here, is not a school. We are homeschoolers and the parent should assign a grade for a transcript if one is necessary. I am happy to consult about grades. Fully involved parents know where their kids are at.
WITH THE INFORMATION I HAVE NOW, WHAT IS MY VISION FOR CO-OP?
IN A COST – BENEFIT ANALYSIS (WHAT IT WILL COST ME IN TIME AND MONEY WEIGHED AGAINST WHAT BENEFIT MY FAMILY WILL GAIN), WILL CO-OP BE BENEFICIAL TO MY FAMILY? ______________________________________________________________________
WHO WILL BE A GOOD FIT FOR MY FAMILY AND WHY? ________________________________________________________________________________________________________
HOW WILL I POLITELY DECLINE FRIENDS WHO WANT TO JOIN, BUT ARE NOT A GOOD FIT? ___________________________________________________________________________________________________
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