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Why co-op?

  • January 21, 2022
  • By Donielle
Why co-op?

The first chapter of How To Rock Co-op:

The why is the real question to ask, because your why is your motivator!  When things are challenging, as they will be at some point, your reason for co-oping will carry you through.  It will keep you from quitting.  Your “why” will give you the energy to plan better, bring more enthusiasm and passion to the classroom, and deal with children’s behavior and issues.  The “How to co-op” will flow naturally from the “Why to co-op”.  Before you go any further stop and jot down an answer to the question, “Why co-op?”

WHY CO-OP?  ________________________________________________________________________________________



That is the question you should ask yourself about homeschooling as well.  Why am I homeschooling?  Why do I use the books and curriculum I am using?  And why is my day structured this way?  Is it because this is how my own school day was structured in my childhood?  Are these the books and tools I saw used in traditional school?  By the way, your curriculum is what you teach, not the specific books you use, but I will use the word “curriculum” to refer to books as well, because that is the common usage among homeschoolers. 

After you know your “why” you will be able to implement more effective changes or innovations.  Think about it this way.  You tell your preschooler to eat his vegetables.  He eventually obeys and eats them.  But you are guaranteed to have this same conversation and struggle the next day.  He is has no personal motivation.  You serve him veggies the next day.  He asks “Why do I have to eat them?”  You answer that it makes him grow up big and strong like daddy.  Now he has a dilemma.  Is his desire to be a man like his dad stronger than his dislike of broccoli?  Different toddlers will make different choices, but a meaningful motivation now exists.

An example from tummy time

I remember all of the baby magazine articles from when my oldest was born.  Most scared me to death about ever letting my baby girl sleep on her tummy.  Then there were some that reminded me tummy time is important for developing core muscles in my little one.  I was more terrified of my doll being on her tummy than I was weak core muscles.  Death or flabby belly?  I dutifully did our 15 minutes sessions but then flipped her over quickly for fear that would be the death of her. Then I learned there was a lot more to tummy time than strengthening muscles. 

When I learned about the brain needing the feedback of being on the floor (on the tummy) and researched exactly what the statistics were on SIDS, I had a “why” for tummy time.  With a rational reason motivating me, my third child, as soon as I was able to discern that she was not high risk for SIDS, spent all of her time on her tummy.  I became a tummy time fanatic.  I even required my big kids to get down on their tummies to play with her. 

Rational reason

My rational reason for tummy time informed my behavior.  I wanted my baby to have optimal brain development.  I no longer feared her dying.  My “why” changed the way I lived, conducted my activities, and parented my infant.  Your baby experience might be quite different, but the point is that my daily life and routine changed when I had a “why”.

Your rational reasons for co-oping will determine what kind of co-op you create, who you co-op with, what you study in co-op, how long you meet and how many years you keep at it.  Knowing your “why” is the first step to successful cooperative “co-op” learning.

Know why you do what you do!

What kind of co-op are you?

The first order of business is to determine what kind of co-op you are forming or have created.  I have seen success and failure in a number of formats.  There are pros and cons for each. 

I have a friend that runs one of the most amazing co-ops I have ever seen.  Her curriculum and focused discussions are exactly what one looks for in the finest private schools.  Professionally she is a teacher.  She charges a fee for her co-op.  She devotes a great deal of time and money teaching her students.  Her services are always in demand.  She requires some parental involvement.  She basically runs what amounts to a small private school that meets once or twice a week with homework and follow up at home.

This type of co-op requires one to know what they are doing.  You cannot teach others on a trial and error basis.  It requires quality because you are essentially offering an educational service.  The pros are that you are in control and get to make the rules.  Classical Conversations is a very popular version of this.  It is a wonderful program with high standards.  Larger cities have many once-a-week enrichment co-ops to choose from.

Type 2

Some co-ops function like drop off educational services.  I have seen this type of co-op work well for support groups.  Parents still teach, and other parents have support roles, since there are often many more families than classes offered (or needed).  A small fee is often charged for supplies or materials.  With written rules and parent-teachers held to agreed standards, this is an enriching option.  This style works remarkably well for upper level science classes that need labs, band or group music classes, art, or other classes that require some specialization to teach.

Type 3

I like to call the third kind “Full Parental Involvement”.  This one used to be the most common form.  It is the most difficult to do well.  It is truly a cooperative effort.  This is the format we have worked hard at creating and is the most valuable for long term educational goals and building solid friendships, relationships and fellowship.  This is the format we will be discussing, primarily, although these concepts apply to most other co-op formats just as well.

WHAT KIND OF CO-OP DO I ENVISION? ___________________________________________________________


A day at our early co-op

A day in our early co-op days, with small preschool and kindergarten aged children, looked something like this:  We met at a park with a playground and fenced splash pad.  It had a single, large pavilion with several picnic tables.  We started with the Pledge of Allegiance, had a short show and tell time, created Lapbooks, took nature walks, had a story time, games, and free play.

Later, we had to divide into two groups, with older elementary students and preschoolers.  The preschoolers enjoyed a Charlotte Mason approach to learning, while the older group got a little more serious about academics in the classical style.  As our families grew, our needs changed.  We ended up with four groups:  We called them Bigs, Mids, Littles and Minis.  When a “micro” group seemed to be emerging, we began to call them Pre-Grammar, Grammar, Upper Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric.

Perfect things for co-op

Our Bigs participate in what we call “Colloquium”.  It is a Latin word for conversation.  Transitioning from the dialectic to the rhetoric stages in classical education, much emphasis is placed on discussion.  This is one of a co-op’s great strengths for older students.  Discussion of abstract or mature subject matter is difficult within a family full of younger children.  There should always be on-going discussion between student and parents about the concepts being studied in your curriculum.  But guided peer discussion is great practice for both a university and a work environment. 

Upper elementary and middle school aged students are often transitioning from grammar stage to dialectic.  They start Colloquium in seventh or eighth grade.  We start them with logic and lay the foundation for tougher reading and worldview assignments and discussions.  We found this so valuable that for those later middle and early high school years, we added an extra morning of learning.

Debate is something co-op has been great for.  Just like discussion, formal debates, and even informal ones, need several students to carry out.  The students enjoy working in teams, especially boys against the girls.

I firmly believe that Shakespeare should be acted, not just read.  It helps to have a group when you are doing a “reader’s theater” style scene from Hamlet or Henry V.  Hats, props, funny voices, and accents all add to the fun.


Reports with projects have been an effective co-op addition.  This is a great activity to teach upper elementary school children to speak clearly and confidently in public.  It is a tough assignment for shy kids, but we encourage them to do their best, even if they need their moms to stand up with them at the beginning.  My middle daughter’s favorite project was reporting on the Apostle Peter’s vision.  She served “millionaire’s” bacon to co-op as the project portion.

Co-op is great for those ages when the kids want to fill out Valentines with lollipops stuck on them.  Of course, we phased it out for the older kids as it became awkward.  Co-op is also good for serious group projects, like the plates we decorated for Thanksgiving and sent into a company to have the drawing printed on.  My teenage daughters still look at those plates each November and laugh at the stick figure Pilgrims with giant hats and the goggly-eyed turkeys.

Co-op is perfect for having a families already assembled for group discounts to field trip destinations.  Admission to museums, historical homes, and theater productions is always cheaper at the group rate.  We even did a co-op camping trip when we studied the old west.  The tent camping in River Ranch, Florida, was perfect for studying the wilderness.  We covered more hands-on fun in one weekend than we could have in several weeks.  We learned how to build a fire, cook over a fire, work with ropes and knots. The kids played home on the range tag, and many other cowboy and pioneer type activities.  Some years we have re-enacted the shootout at OK Corral, gone to Native American festivals at our local reservation, and created our own currency.



Co-op history fun

We play lots of review games for history, at co-op, that are more fun with other families.  I pass out sticky notes with a person they have studied that year.  They put them on their heads or backs and walk around asking the other students yes or no questions to try to guess which historical figure they are.  For historical events we play a version of charades or pictionary where they act out, in teams or individually, the event in their sticky note.  Or they draw it out on whiteboards or large sheets of paper.  We’ve even done at “Outburst” style games where they name everything they can as fast as they can about a person, location, or event.

We playing a matching game where every student gets either a name or a fact about those historical figures taped to their front.  They then walk around trying to find their partner, essentially matching the figure and the fact.

They have also demonstrated understanding of a Shakespeare play by condensing it into one hilarious, fast-paced minute, and performing it for the group.  Anything they need to perform is better when they know they are going to perform it for an audience.  They same goes for reciting or reading famous speeches.

Read about it, then GO!


For more history fun we have had them create a packing list for traveling to the New World, with limitations on space, weight, and money.  For the Great Depression I gave them an assigned family to support, an income, and a 1932 Sears catalog reproduction, so they feel the pain of choosing who to clothe and what they could do without.

I assigned them to take The Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass and turn it into a play.  They performed it for us and it brought us to tears.  One year during our medieval history cycle I had them turn their favorite piece of literature we had read into an illustrated children’s book.  I saw clever renditions of Beowulf and touching stories from Confessions of St. Augustine.  They wrote poetry in the style or meter of Dante’s Inferno.  The group is both accountability, and a place to share something they are proud of.

When the kids were fairly young, while studying the Bubonic Plague, they created their own version of tag, they christened it “rat tag”.  A single “rat” chased the other kids and whenever the “rat” caught a child, that child counted to ten in place.  If no one revived the “stricken” child within 10 seconds, he became another “rat”.  The game nicely illustrated how rapidly the plague spread.  The games ends when everyone is a rat!

We could study history all by ourselves, of course.  But so many of these ideas work well because we do them with a group!

Learning Stages

For the unfamiliar, these three classical learning stages, grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric, often called the trivium, are the way we learn most anything.  First, we learn the vocabulary, concepts and facts.  This is the grammar stage.  Next skills are put into practice and concepts compared, discussed and refined.  This is the dialectic stage.  Finally, the material is owned, defended, and expressed.  This is the rhetoric stage.  Sometimes they are also called the knowledge, understanding, and wisdom stages. 

Dorothy Sayers coined this terminology in a famous essay and homeschoolers have taken it and run.  Don’t confuse this terminology, though, with the actual classical trivium, the first three of the seven liberal arts.  Sayers was relating these three learning stages to these three classical subjects.  We still call Grammar by the same name, but dialectic would be called Logic today, and Rhetoric might be a combination of persuasive writing, speech, and debate.  Mastery of those three would lead to the quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music.

These three stages of learning roughly correspond with elementary, middle and high school.  You can read more about the stages of classical education in The Well Trained Mind by Susan Wise Bauer or Teaching the Trivium by Harvey and Laurie Bluedorn.  

Chronological History

We use a four year chronological history cycle as our curriculum spine.  This means that we base literature, writing, geography, and art on the era and events in history we are currently studying.  Practically, this looks like choosing a reading list in year one (ancient history) that includes Plato’s Republic, Homer’s Odyssey, and Iliad for our high schoolers; The Bronze Bow and Ben-Hur (abridged) or The Eagle of the Ninth for our middle group; D’Aulaires Greek Myths and The Golden Goblet for our younger group.  It means using IEW’s Ancient History-Based Writing Lessons for writing and mapping out the places we are reading about for geography: Mesopotamia, Ur, the Nile, and Hadrian’s Wall.

A four year chronological history cycle divides the study of world history into four years.  The first year of the history cycle we study ancient history, usually up to the Roman Empire.  The second year is medieval history, up to the Renaissance and Reformation.  The third year is up to the late 1700s or early 1800s, and the fourth year takes us up to modern times.  Then the cycle repeats itself.  Having been exposed to introductory history in the previous cycle, the student is ready for a deeper study of the subject matter when the next cycle comes around: one at the grammar stage, a second at the dialectic stage, and a final study during the grammar stage.

Additionally, our middle group studies Latin, while our oldest students, who have typically studied four years of Latin, may have moved on to studying Spanish (particularly helpful in the area of the country we live in). 


The third group, Littles or Pre-Grammar (essentially preschool or kindergarten), participate, as they are ready, in the memory work portion of our history program.  Our main focus for them is the literature segment.  We use classic children’s books, fables and stories, spending several weeks reading through the books, with group friendly activities after.  Making masks and using them to act out the story is one on the kids’ favorite reinforcement activities. 

We have enjoyed lapbooks, too.  We have used the Five In a Row curriculum to help choose quality books for our Littles and Minis.  Many of the included activities work well for outdoors.  In the Hands of a Child’s website has many nice lapbook templates that correspond to the books in the Five in a Row volumes. 


A lapbook consists of paper folders in which we glue pockets, puzzles, fold outs, and other innovative paper creations that help us focus on and remember what we are studying.  Take Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel for instance.  When we created a lapbook for this children’s book, we wrote out vocabulary words like “furnace” with their meaning on an accordion folded paper and glued the end to the folder so it popped out when opened.  We made a booklet of construction vehicles and glued it in our folder.  We identified steam shovel parts on an illustration and glued that in our converted file folder. 

In years where the group was predominantly boys who hated scissors, crafts, and cutting, we skipped this.  With larger numbers of girls, this was a favorite activity.

These lapbooks make it easy to reinforce what was learned.  The children can show their grandparents their colorful folder and as they explain each fold out, they are reviewing what they learned.  You can make your own custom fold outs and inserts based on the ideas in The Ultimate Lapbook Handbook by Tammy Duby or purchase a kit from In the Hands of a Child  There are also lots of ideas floating around Pinterest.

Memory Work

One of the best features of our co-op is the memory work segment.  In fact, it is the activity we lead with.  A primary feature of classical education is recitation.  Memorizing is a time-honored and proven -many times over- method of teaching.  Do get turned off because you, as an adult, do not like to memorize.  Sadly, your brain is way past memorization as a simple, rewarding activity.  It becomes just plain hard work after puberty. 

But pay attention to little people: they memorize everything they hear repeated – books, movies, advertisements.  It is easy for them.  They are going to memorize, so why not have them memorize something that will benefit them?  My website,, has memory work lists, ideas, and resources.

Co-op friends and teachers mean accountability.  Kids work harder if they know someone who cares will be listening to them.  We divide the kids into small groups and have our oldest students serve as memory work tutors.  We put shy ones with big sisters and friends, and competitive ones with students that would offer a friendly challenge.

Our secret for early classical co-op success

Kids not skilled at using scissors can find lapbooking frustrating.  We found a great approach that works for both the cut and paste crowd and the rather-be-running-crowd.  All the credit goes to our dear friend, Tammye.  While studying ancient history, we selected Aesop’s Fables for the younger crowd’s literature segment.  Tammye took a fable, stretched over several weeks, and started each class by reading the short fable.  Then the class created hand puppets or masks of each character while they shared the details of the story back to the teacher. 

Next, they chose parts and practiced acting out the fable with their masks.  On the final week the performed the fable while it was read.  They had a brief copywork page for each fable, usually copying the moral of the story, with an illustration to color.  It was the perfect example of early classical learning and the students loved it.  We have used the same approach for tall tales of the old west and legends from around the world.

The success of this method lies in a four prong approach: 1) the repetition of the story, 2) narration verbally and by acting out the story, 3) copywork related to the story, 4) acting out the story to learn to speak in front of others.  Oh, and some silly fun, too.  It covers all of the ways children learn, or learning styles, and does not make them sit still for long.

If you are unfamiliar with copywork, it is literally copying out sentences or paragraphs from literature.  If you want to master something, imitate a master.  Children will have to practice writing.  Should it be dull, inane sentences?  Or should they copy well respected authors, while internalizing vocabulary and sentence structure?

Occupying the Littlest People

The toddlers need something to do while we teach our older children.  They might as well do something useful and educational!  Like play games with chalk, bubbles, balls, songs, and hand motions.  They can listen to short stories laying on a blanket in the shade, learn sign language, or go on nature walk scavenger hunts. We have plenty of snacks on hand for them.  A hungry toddler is an unhappy little person.  Toddlers invented being “hangry”!

Toddlers are content if they can stack things, collect things, and dig.  Parks provide plenty of collecting and digging.  It is always a little more challenging indoors.  The best activities are, of course, the ones that keep them occupied and not hanging off mom’s leg while she is trying to teach.  Play dough, sorting, categorizing, and maneuvering objects with tongs or clothespins can be both engaging and great for brain development.  I love the activities in A Year of Playing Skillfully.












By Donielle, January 21, 2022
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