Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Benefits of Homeschool Co-ops

Last Tuesday night was our monthly homeschool support group meeting, and the topic was "Co-operative Learning: Enriching your Homeschool Experience through Co-ops". Several people shared their experiences and I think we all had roughly the same message. Co-ops, however they are structured, offer a lot of benefits to homeschooling families, including accountability, friendship, reinforcement of weaknesses, and cost-effectiveness.

What is a co-op? Generally speaking, a homeschool co-op is two or more families meeting together on a regular basis to share a learning experience. Let me explain that further by describing several of the co-op experiences I have been part of during the past 15 years of homeschooling.

Multi-family Enrichment Co-opNot long after Lighthouse started in 1996, several parents met at a park to talk about meeting together once a week for parent-led enrichment classes, and the Lighthouse Co-op was born. We held a planning meeting for all interested families in our group, and sketched out a structure. We would meet on Thursday afternoons for 2 1/2 hours at our host church. Noting the ages of our children, we decided that we would divide into classes for K- 2nd, 3rd-5th, and 6th-8th grades. A room would also be set aside for a nursery for babies/preschoolers. Each age group would meet for a 1 hour class, have a 15 minute snack break, and then have another 1 hour class.
Parents then volunteered to fill in the teaching spots, drawing upon talents or children's interests for class ideas - art, Spanish, poetry, rockets, guitar, creative movement, edible science, knitting, woodworking, animal study, fairy tales, etiquette, soccer, first aid, cake decorating, essay writing, American Girls, auto maintenance, dinosaurs... Many classes were free; some ( like art & cake decorating ) charged a small fee for materials. This Co-op met for 8 weeks in the fall, and then met again in the spring with a new set of classes. It was a wonderful experience, exposing my children to a variety of skills and subjects that I might not have attempted - and lots of friendships were planted there.

Multi-Family Curriculum-based Co-op
A little over three years ago, a group of friends met together to discuss starting a weekly Co-op based on the Tapestry of Grace curriculum. This Co-op started out with 13 families but has now grown to 18 families, and meets every Friday from 9:30 - 2:30 at a local church where we rent classroom space. There is a class for each of the TOG levels ( Lower Grammar K-3rd, Upper Grammar 4th-6th, Dialectic 7th-9th, and Rhetoric 10th-12th) as well as a PreK class and nursery. Two moms act as directors, giving some leadership to the group, but basically everyone gives input and all parents divide up the teaching responsibilities for the year, with at least 2 moms per class. Every family in this co-op uses the Tapestry of Grace curriculum, using Co-op to share and enrich the learning that is going on at home during the week. The younger kids do lots of show & tell and hands-on craft projects. In the older classes, there is the addition of fact & concept review (usually through a game like Jeopardy), writing, and discussion. Once a quarter there is a Unit Celebration, usually held in the evening so dads can attend, where we culminate that 9 weeks of study with displays, performances, and maybe a meal. Unit Celebrations have included a Family Seder meal, Medieval Feast, Colonial Field Day, Shakespeare Night of the Arts, and South American Festival. 

Yearlong Academic Co-opI have done yearlong science co-ops with both my elementary and middle school kids. When Sarah was in 8th grade and Eric was in 6th, we did Apologia General Science. To keep us moving along and to make things a little more fun, we met with one other family every other Friday to do the experiments together. This worked great, and I found that not only did the kids enjoy doing the labs with their friends, but it kept us on schedule because we knew we had to be ready for " co-op day". I found another friend who wanted to do Physical Science together the following year, and we followed the same routine, working through each 2-week module on our own and then meeting every other week at my kitchen table to review the chapter and do the experiments together. When Amanda was ready for Apologia General Science, I put a note out on my support group's email list, looking for a couple of girls for a co-op, and ended up with a group of 8. We rotated homes each month, and the hostess mom would be in charge of supervising and reviewing that module. Again, the accountability was great and the girls eagerly looked forward to Co-op day, forging relationships that carried on outside of the academic setting.

Small Multi-Subject Co-opThose co-op experiences led me to pursue even more similar situations, as I saw lots of good things happening both for me and for my children. A friend and I decided to get our 2 girls together twice a week for writing and Latin - I taught writing and the other mom taught Latin. Since we both had younger children as well, one mom played with the younger children while the other taught, and then we switched. We used Write Shop for writing and Latina Christiana for Latin, which were very easy to implement this way. A year or two later, another friend and I decided to do something similar with our youngest boys. She has the boys to her house one afternoon a week and she teaches them science. Last year we added Latin as well, using the Latina Christiana DVDs. I teach art at my house on another day. This arrangement has worked wonderfully.

Short-term Co-ops   Years ago, when my oldest daughter was really into the American Girl books, I hosted an American Girl co-op at my house, which met once a week for 10 weeks. We read the books of one of the American Girl series ( Kirsten first, then Addy and Felicity - back when history and learning were still a focus of the AG company ) and talked about the stories together, then did crafts and cooking projects together, and worked on a final project to present to the parents at our final meeting - we did a concert of Civil War songs for Addy, and I remember that we made a video for Kirsten, although I can't remember what of! Although I led each meeting, the other parents helped by taking care of my younger kids and providing materials for the crafts and cooking projects.

Although a co-op is by no means necessary for successful homeschooling, our family has loved sharing learning experiences with other homeschool families in this way, and the benefits have outweighed the drawbacks ( which include added responsibility for planning, loss of some flexibility, and time commitment). Perhaps you'll want to incorporate some of these ideas into your homeschooling as well.


carol said...

Wow, that's pretty intense. I was feeling smart because I started a neighborhood play group for my two year old

Carol Topp, CPA said...

Thanks for the glimpse inside of all of your homeschool co-op experiences. You have really done a variety of co-ops! Thanks for taking the time to describe them. You really shows how varied a co-op can be.

It should not really be that hard to start a simple co-op. Of course, it can get more complicated if the co-op grows and if you need to pay rent, be insured, etc. That's why I wrote my book Homeschool Co-ops, to help homeschool leaders manage their co-ops well.

I love hearing stories about how creative homeschool parents can be! It sounds as if you have a lot of great times and your kids loved it too! I hope your co-op(s) continues to be a blessing to your family and other homeschool families.

Carol Topp, CPA
Author of Homeschool Co-ops: How to Start Them, Run Them and Not Burn Out