So how do you start your co-op group? Co-op is short for “cooperative” so you will need at least one other family to engage in cooperative learning. When I was homeschooled there were far fewer homeschoolers out there. We co-oped for a number of years with our cousins. To co-op, you need a co-op group.
Co-ops were actually popularized by Cynthia Tobias and her KONOS curriculum, the first curriculum written with co-ops in mind. It was a unit study style learning, where a particular topic was studied, such as “Native Americans”. We would then incorporate all the subjects we could, while learning about the First People’s tribes and customs in a hands-on approach. We attended the Seminole Pow-Wow, researched and created costumes for ourselves or our paper dolls, mapped tribes on an outline map, checked out books of Indian fables from the library, built a teepee, cooked fry bread, and presented reports on the history and culture of the tribe we had researches, complete with sand art, beadwork, or other art demonstration. I have fond memories of studies on rocks and minerals, Colonial America, World War II, and agriculture.
With so much fun to be had learning so many things, let’s get started! I am often asked: how you find good candidates for co-oping? Think of it this way: who do you want to do life with?
I was part of an attachment parenting Yahoo group once. Through the group I was contacted by someone who recognized my name. It was an acquaintance from college. We had been music majors together and had graduated the same year. We had a lot in common. She had a son the same age as my oldest daughter. We started with playdates, began to throw some educational activities in, and eventually met regularly for preschool lessons we put together ourselves. Six kids later for her and two more for me, Katherine and I are still at it!
A friend from church once told me that she would like to introduce me to another mom from her son’s preschool class with that was interested in homeschooling. She gave my number to this lady. We met at a park. We both had two daughters of similar ages and she was pregnant with a third child. Immediately we liked each other. She was warm and open with a winsome personality. She was very intelligent and asked good questions. We shared similar faith backgrounds. Her adventurous two year old jumped off the picnic bench and ended up with a big lump on her forehead. The lady attended to her daughter with barely a hitch in her lively conversation. I saw at once her relaxed style would complement my intensity. Meegan and I have been having a blast ever since. We share a similar interest in the philosophy of education and how it is played out in the lives of our children. We share biblical values and emphasize character in our children even more than education.
This awesome friend told me about her neighbor who had begun homeschooling. She did not yet have many opinions on educational philosophy and was willing to give ours an ear. She was thoughtful and wise for her years. I observed she had children with different learning styles that she worked side by side with, showing incredible patience and creativity. She is the kind of person that thinks before she speaks and gives sacrificially. Tatiana’s steadiness and frugality complemented our free spirits. We have been teaching our children alongside this Proverbs 31 gal and her eight ever since.
I was acquainted with a mom that had two older sons close in age to my younger siblings. She had a very young son as well, the same age as my oldest. Ours were the little people at homeschool support group events. She ran a drama group for homeschoolers. We began to get together for preschool park playdates. Her experience and artistic flair (and eagle eye and baby holding gifts) enhanced our effectiveness. Life has thrown at her a little of every kind of ammunition available in a first world setting. You name it, Lorri has probably dealt with it. Yet she handles it all with grace and resilience. She is the big sister that I go to when I can’t be the big sister anymore (I am the oldest of eight). Jesus took Lorri home during the COVID pandemic. Our co-op style was owes much to Lorri’s energy and creativity, early on in its formation.
That is how our core co-op group first came together. Now we have Andrea’s enthusiasm and experience and Beth Ann’s generosity and kindness. We miss some old friends that have moved on to other places and other things. We love you, Sue, Tammye, Ms. Amy, Stacey, Ana, and Theresa! This year brings us more new mommies. But mostly we grow because we just keep having babies! We have even had grandparents reading stories (Mrs. Racheslon fondly became known as Ms. Memaw) and helping out with babies and toddlers.
We have met families through other families, church, activities, support groups and neighborhoods. I suggest you start with a homeschool support group. All of those families are at least interested in homeschooling. When you have become acquainted with other homeschool families, there are some things you should be looking for in potential co-op comrades.
Co-op works best when homeschoolers share a vision for similar end results. I am fond of admonishing homeschool families to “Begin with the end in mind’. It is costly – time, money and all other resources – to flounder around and constantly experiment, not really knowing what you are looking for as a completed education. If you brainstorm, as parents and as fellow co-op laborers, what you want out of your co-op, it will save time and money in the long run.
Ideally you have done this for your own family and checked to see if the potential co-op goals fit within the framework of your own goals and vision for your children’s education and character.
We once joined a science co-op group. Miss Christy was a wonderful teacher that taught really fun things like shelter building. But the majority of the parents in the group had a philosophy of letting their children do whatever they wanted, with no interference or direction. As they built shelters these kids took freely from the supplies my daughter had gathered and declared her, a newcomer, as not part of their village. Having a personal philosophy of letting children work out differences themselves with a little parental direction, I looked to the parents to see if they would make any suggestions or correction to their kid’s behavior. The behavior was ignored. As it devolved into lord of the flies shelter building I decided our parenting and education styles were incompatible.
Occupying your children with some activity that is educational is good. But it is not the same as teaching and learning with your child. They are different educational and parenting styles and incompatible on a sustainable level.
It seems silly to quiz a fellow mom on her plans for SAT prep and college admissions when both of your children are in kindergarten, but as you converse you can discover, in an organic way, what direction her hopes and dreams for this kid are pointing her.
I know many homeschool families who do not plan for their children to attend college. Some families find apprenticeships and vocational schools much more appealing. Some have family businesses that they are grooming their children for. This doesn’t make your college bound child incompatible educationally, but it does eventually drive what they are learning and how long with will co-op with you. Many families take homeschooling year by year, never committing to more than one year at a time. This is helpful to know if you plan to invest long range planning and resources. Some families prefer to use virtual schools for all subjects. I think of this more as virtual school than homeschooling.
We have been discussing what AP exams, CLEP tests, and SAT or ACT prep our co-op can prepare us for. Our different backgrounds in science, humanities, and business bring certain assumptions with them and hence different goals. We then have to decide if a co-op group supports those goals or those are best pursued individually.
Do you plan to homeschool through high school?
How do you feel about standardized testing?
Which are your favorite books on homeschooling?
What does your child want to be when they grow up? How serious are they about it? How do you feel about it?
Which are your favorite curriculums or resources?
What activities does your child enjoy?
These “get to know your homeschooling style” questions reveal much about where someone is in their homeschooling journey and where they are likely to be headed.
When I advise homeschoolers to pick families with similar goals for a co-op group I do not want them to mistake this for similar families. We need not fear diversity. Our little co-op has racial diversity, economic diversity, family size diversity. We come from different denominations. But our visions for the end results of the education we seek to provide are very compatible.
Coming from different places and different backgrounds provides some different life experiences to draw from. We originally hail from Florida, Michigan, Connecticut, Texas and Pennsylvania and have ethnic heritages that cover a good portion of the globe. This provides colorful perspective for teaching and learning.
We have some large families in our co-op groups and some smaller sizes. Often large families come with financial restraints that help us think carefully about the resources we use, re-use, purchase, and resell. Obviously non-consumable books are very important to us. Often we write in notebooks and leave otherwise consumable workbooks for the next child down. This helps us to remain environmentally responsible as well as financially responsible. It also forces us to be creative with the resources we have. But when it comes down to really good, time tested curriculum we are not afraid to invest. Not everything can be done well on the cheap. We do try to use mostly reading books that are available at the library and keep art supplies limited so we can purchase higher quality.
Cheap art supplies are very frustrating for children to use. Ever try to color a nice picture with those waxy crayons they give away for free at restaurants? Good crayons and markers are fun. Poor quality crayons and markers are a very unsatisfying art medium.
Our co-op families come from different denominations: Presbyterian, Baptist, Catholic, home church, non-denominational. We do worship the same God, which gives us similar worldviews, parenting practices, and a moral code that we follow and expect our children and each other’s children to respect. While I value differences of all sorts in discussion with rhetoric level and even dialectic level children, I would like my young children to have the values I am teaching them reinforced by teachers that they encounter on a regular basis. It is very difficult to teach history and its related social subjects like logic, government, economics, geography, and art without transmitting a particular view of the world to the student. So in choosing my co-op partners I would need to know them well enough to be sure their views on things that are important to me do not directly conflict with my own.
Of course, I do not expect any co-op family to agree with me on everything, but I want to know how they handle conflict, what they view as the really important things in life, how they expect their children to treat authority as well as other children, and their general philosophy of education. Some may not have thought through the answers to these questions, but they do have a view of sorts and it will always be exposed by their behavior, whether negatively or positively. I don’t know about you, but I do not have valuable education time to waste on interpersonal conflicts with those that are supposed to be helping me teach my kids.
Where are you from?
How many siblings do you have?
Where do you fall in the birth order?
What church do you attend, if any?
Do you think there is any kind of solution to (insert latest news headline)?
Do your kids like craft projects?
There is so much out there for homeschoolers to spend money on! Where do you put your money?
Homeschooling is a journey, so if you cannot find a match, look for someone willing to explore and learn. Your educational philosophies may gel in time.
Another consideration is whether your educational styles and philosophies match or at least are compatible. An unschooler who joins a classical co-op may not share the same priorities. They may skip memory work they deem monotonous and end up with a frustrated or embarrassed child who cannot recite with his class.
A kindly intended word of advice to my unschooling friends from a fellow free spirit and a second generation homeschooler who has seen the end result of many an educational experiment: Make sure you understand the unschooling philosophy and how to do it well. Be positive that your self designation as an unschooler is not just a lack of discipline on your part, as the homeschooling parent. Ask yourself if unschooling is code for disorganized, unmotivated, misordered priorities, or burnt out. If it is, you are not alone. We all have our tough years. Find a mentor mom, a weekly podcast, an encouraging blog, or a book to dig into for help. I love Pam Barnhill’s Morning Basket podcast and Managers of Their Homes, Teri Maxwell’s homeschool scheduling system.
We have found, as have many others, that the Charlotte Mason method is very compatible with classical education. Our outdoor venue lends itself well to that gentle art of learning for our younger children while our older students are taught with a more rigorous, classical method. Just beware of runners – you know, those little kids that run away every time you put them down. We had one; thankfully we had a super vigilant mom that never let her get out of sight. That little runner is a rising cross country and high school track star now!
To clarify our end goals and to make a road map to accomplishing them, we have read and discussed books, like The Well Trained Mind and A Thomas Jefferson Education. We have attended seminars and workshops like Classical Conversation’s Parent Practicum and our state’s homeschool convention. Going to convention with your homeschool mom pals is a great idea. It gets you on the same page, lets you all look at curriculum together, and it’s just fun to be together outside of co-op, making memories. Memories like the time we went to an Italian restaurant after a long day of seminars and exhibit halls to decompress, debrief, and discuss. Apparently studying Latin does not help us figure out which is the ladies room and which is the men’s room in Italian. Oops!
Look for fellow homeschoolers that share similar parenting styles. While no two families parent precisely the same (heck, not even your co-parent has your exact parenting philosophy), broad, overall parenting styles should mesh well together. I require a certain level of respect and cooperation out of my co-op students. If a fellow co-op parent is unwilling to require respect of their child, it will cause stress and frustration in me that will make co-op not worth my time and effort. I can teach my kids myself at home and not have to deal with a problem child.
All kids go through problem spots and experiment with boundaries. I am willing to correct my co-op students with reinforcement from their parents. I am unwilling to have a student disrupt or hurt other students on a regular basis. If you notice a family allows their children to treat others with rudeness or does not require them to sit and finish any activity, they are probably not good co-op candidates for getting serious work done. Likewise, if your style is more relaxed and a potential teacher seems to require military precision, your styles will not integrate into a peaceful, low-stress co-op.
When we were first experimenting with our preschool co-op a friend of a friend, a very nice lady, brought her toddler, one of those tough boys that is always into things and requires extra patience and training to steer that energy in the right direction. He was clearly the light of her life, but more than she was equipped to handle in that particular stage. Her exhausted exclamations over his mischief were repeated dozens of times over the two hour period. He got the other little boys overly excited and they began to run like a pack of wolves through the house. My preschooler was knocked over by the “pack of wolves” enough times that next time I asked her if she was ready for co-op she cried out, “No boys! No boys!” The little instigator was not a good match.
Differences in style and personality can complement each other. If we have an intense personality in co-op, we will need some laidback moms for balance. I have no idea who that type A might be in my co-op! If you don’t know who that crazy is in your group, ask these secret questions: Is it me? Answer is probably yes. If answer is no: Who stays up at night worrying about co-op? Still no: Do we ever get anything done? If not, you might need to recruit a slave driver, oops, I mean powerhouse mom.
WHAT QUESTIONS SHOULD I ASK OF MY CO-OP SHORT LIST PARENTS?
A good venue is hard to find. If you find a large enough space that meets your needs, consider yourself blessed and treat it well. We outgrew a private home, even a large one, a number of years ago. Churches often loan space, but most require a group to pay for insurance these days. We have found parks to best accommodate our needs.
Working outdoors has its advantages as well as its disadvantages. The greatest advantage is the calming effect that outdoors has on wiggly little people. Charlotte Mason said, “Never be indoors when you can rightly be without.” She is correct. No homeschooled student should suffer nature deficit disorder! There are too many wonderful opportunities to breathe fresh air while we go about our homeschool day. Sometimes I send my highschooler outside to do her work, especially when she feels stuck in an assignment.
A Texas study showed that children did better in school when allowed four outdoor recess breaks for free play. (Jarrett, O. and WaiteStupiansky, S. (2009). Play, Policy, and Practice Interest Forum: Recess-It’s Indispensable, Retrieved from: http://www.naeyc.org/files/yc/200909/On%Our%20Minds%)
A public park is usually free and the space has fewer limitations. Picnic tables are usually moveable, so it’s easy to configure the space the way we want it. We meet in a park with several pavilions surrounding a playground, so that we have the option of spreading out to avoid disturbing another age group’s discussion or project. Often our little ones are situated on a blanket, under a tree for reading stories or narrating a story with puppets.
Disadvantages to outdoors are wind that blows papers and projects and well as weather considerations. Our Florida climate is very hot until mid-fall and warms back up by May. A park meeting mid-day in summer is craziness! But all winter it is glorious. We have house options for back-up, but the playground allows us to get work done while little ones play and make all the mess they care to without anyone feeling badly about dirtying someone’s home. If you decide to use a home, leave ample time for clean-up. Train the children to leave whatever space they use better than they found it.
The best solution we have found to the problem of wind outdoors is having each child bring a clipboard to co-op. They are sold at dollar stores. This keeps all of our papers together and provides a place to store anything we have cut out for a project, until it is glued. If you are meeting outdoors, I recommend keeping the paper projects to a minimum. It avoids frustration.
WHAT ARE POSSIBLE CO-OP MEETING PLACES IN MY AREA? _________________________________
A co-op group should not get so large that you run into classroom management problems and have too high a student to teacher ratio – the same problems that plague traditional schools and that we are trying to avoid by homeschooling. The more families involved, the more potential schedule and inter-personal conflicts. Creating your own school is something you want to set out purposefully to do. You do not want to start a co-op and have it grown into a school if you are not equipped and excited for that prospect. Growing too big, too fast is a sure path to co-op burn out.
When we first began co-oping, when I was about 13 or 14 years old, we had a very small co-op. Just our family and our cousins. We had lots of fun and could be very flexible. But if one family got sick, it shut down co-op for the week. Think through how flu season, family vacations, holidays where school is out and otherwise free parks may charge admission will affect your co-op. Build a catch-up week into your schedule.
Consider your families. Young families may grow larger through the years. Homeschooling can grow large families. I think a homeschooler’s willingness to open themselves to bucking the cultural norms and opening themselves to bigger dreams and greater possibilities has the tendency to open their minds to other counter culture possibilities, too – wonderful ones, like life is precious, we do not have the control we think we do, and trusting in God frees us from the rat race. Or perhaps it is something in the homemade bread or garden soil we use. Could be fertility mites from excessive volumes checked out of the library. Libraries are a home away from home for homeschoolers. There is the old “No TV?” joke I heard constantly as the oldest of eight. Not funny, actually.
Whatever the cause, large families come with multi-level age groups. We have found that a mix of family sizes has served us perfectly. Smaller families increase our numbers of teachers and helpers. Large families tend to be flexible and adaptable.
Homeschoolers tend to be less concerned with grade levels and age differences. Groups in the same classical learning stages can often learn together. Siblings close in age often learn the same material. Age grouping considerations are not as important as learning stages and age appropriateness of the activity, whether it be discussion of war, writing paragraphs, or handling scissors.
ARE THERE SUBJECTS AND AGE GROUPS THAT CAN BE COMBINED IN MY CO-OP GROUP? _________________________________________________________________________________________________________
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