“Mystery Boxes” and the Scientific Method

My daughter had an interesting exercise in her college chemistry lab which we modified for use at home and again later for a group science class. It is a lesson in using experimentation to make a hypothesis (first guess) and then prove whether or not that theory is correct. These directions tell how we adapted it for a co-op class with two dozen 7-12th graders. If you want to do it at home for only 1 or 2 students, you will obviously only need one set of Mystery Boxes.

Matching Mystery Boxes were prepared in advance for each team of students: an item or group of matching items were placed into a cardboard box that was large enough to allow the items to roll around freely. (Sizes and shapes of boxes may differ, and the contents may vary in quantity to increase difficulty for advanced students.) The box edges were taped shut, and each box was marked with an identifying number. Teams of 4-6 students were each given a set of six boxes to test, and the students were instructed to use the Scientific Method to determine what was inside each box.

When a student picked up a box, he wrote down the number of the box and his hypothesis of what he thought might be inside, then proceeded to tip, shake, rattle, and listen to prove or disprove his theory and make a conclusion. Each box was passed around to teammates to see if they all came to the same conclusion. When each team had completed its series of several boxes, the boxes were opened to reveal their true contents. Teams were to be as certain as possible of their determinations and not show the contents to other teams. Sample items used in the Mystery Boxes were paper clips, a pencil, marbles, coins, or a large eraser (only one type of item per box). You may choose to use items that are more difficult for older students: several cotton swabs, large rubber bands, pencils in one box and pens in another, a spoon, etc.

The items should be common to everyone, but they are in uncommon circumstances, making them surprisingly tricky to identify. Do we really notice the differences in sounds made by coins and paper clips? How can I determine if the object in this box is a pencil or a pen? Why does the object in this box roll easily this way but seems to slide that way? A delicate touch is needed to tip the box slightly and make a pencil roll slowly enough to hear its six sides or discern its eraser end from the pointed lead end; extreme concentration is required for hearing a few large rubber bands slide softly across their box.

Tips for the Mystery Boxes lesson:
— All Mystery Boxes should be prepared in advance by the teacher so that students have no clue what is inside.
— Objects should be ordinary, common objects, familiar to students.
— Use only one type of item in each box (i.e. do not mix pencils and pens in the same box).
— Objects should roll, slide, or move easily if shaken. Do not use a single tissue, cotton ball, or similar (relatively weightless) object which cannot be sensed in the box.
— Boxes should be large enough to allow objects to roll or slide freely: front to back, side to side, up and down.
— Boxes should be securely sealed to prevent objects from falling out or students from peeking in.
— Multiple items should be used if a single item alone will not have enough identifiable characteristics (a single coin will not be as effective as multiple coins).
— When preparing boxes for a large group class, separate the group into teams and have duplicate sets of boxes so that each team works on the same items. Number the boxes and keep a (hidden) list of their contents to prevent confusion. (All boxes marked #1 contain pencils, all #2 boxes contain rubber bands, etc.)
— Various sizes and shapes of boxes will keep team members focused on their own boxes: “Our #1 box is large and flat, while their #1 box is smaller and taller; they probably don’t contain the same things.” The order of testing the boxes is up to each team: they do not have to proceed in numerical order.
— A set of six boxes (per team) kept each team of five to six students busy for an hour testing, comparing, and discussing. When a team declared that they knew what was in a specific box, I did not lie about the contents, but slyly asked, “Are you sure?” to keep them reasoning and retesting for a longer time.
— I did not tell students what types of items to expect; they were told only “common, everyday objects.” Students had to use their own knowledge to decide what was inside.
— Students must depend on hearing alone (cannot see or feel box contents). Tipping and shaking each box is acceptable, but squeezing or crushing the box to feel its contents is not permitted.
— Thinking skills become better developed as this exercise progresses. Students should test all boxes, and then go through them again, using the knowledge gained throughout the testing process in retesting each box.
— Students may compare the characteristics of boxes with each other (i.e. this box sounds more like coins than that box does).
— Provide paper and pencils for students to write down their hypotheses, reasoning, and conclusions. This is the essential portion of the lesson: learning how to write down their process of experimentation. Students may use their own notebooks, or you may choose to make form-style “lab sheets,” but writing down the process changes this from an entertaining party game into a profitable science lesson.

[For more information on cooperative classes and group activities, visit Topical Index: Co-op Groups.]

What Makes a “Bad” Co-op Class?

It has been my experience that a “good” teacher can present any information to any group of students with success. Why? Because the “good” teacher knows how to reach the audience. When things go wrong, and classes turn “bad,” there are usually a few common elements.

1 — A teacher (whether a parent from the group or a guest speaker) with a condescending attitude toward the students (or toward any other parents who may be present) will ruin the atmosphere of cooperation your group has worked so hard to establish.

2 — The material is too time-consuming. A full-year class (such as geometry), if your class meets only twice a month, will attempt to cover too much information during each class period. Some students may have difficulty keeping up.

3 — Too much (or mandatory) homework may conflict with the student’s regular schedule of classes at home. Again, some students may have difficulty keeping up.

4 — Do not expect all students to be on the same level. Some students may be well experienced in the subject matter, while others may be brand new to the topic, regardless of the age group.

5 — A public school format will be foreign and uncomfortable to homeschoolers who are used to self-directed learning or unschooling methods. (Do not expect all homeschooled children to sit quietly and raise their hands to speak.)

6 — Avoid anything that ridicules or excludes those students who cannot keep up.

7 — Presenting material in a boring manner (such as lecture only) will be less preferable to hands-on, interactive methods.

8 — Too large or too small of an idea will not work well in the time allotted.

9 — Focusing on the wrong age group will keep the class from being effective. Be sure students are not too old or too young for the type of information presented.

10 — Separating students to work independently (by themselves, not in small groups) defeats the purpose of a co-op group class. Individual work can be done at home; the large group provides the benefits of multiple views and perspectives. (In a class such as creative writing, students may do some of their work at home and then bring examples to class to share with the group and discuss their progress.)

Co-op classes should always be considered as supplemental to each family’s home education schedule, unless other arrangements have been made with all participating families prior to the class itself. Consideration for the students’ interests and abilities will turn any homeschool class period into an adventure, whether the class is in your home with a few children or in a large group setting. Opportunities for casual interaction among students will make your co-op class a memorable and enjoyable experience for all.

[For more information on cooperative classes and group activities, visit Topical Index: Co-op Groups.]

Co-op Classes: The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly

Based on my experience, the most important thing to remember when teaching a co-op class is to keep focused on the students and on what they are taking away from the class. I have taught many co-op classes, covering a wide range of subject areas. I have sat in on other Mom’s classes while acting as an assistant (read: crowd control) or just eavesdropped from afar, and my children have told me about other classes in great detail. Over all, the most successful classes have been the ones that focused on the students, providing them with a larger perspective that they could not obtain in the smaller setting of their home situation. For success with any classes you do, seek to present material that is more easily demonstrated in a larger group than at home with only a few students — the things that are difficult to do at home are the things that are appreciated most in co-op groups.

One of the groups we belonged to included a Mom who would occasionally come up with what she considered to be a “great idea” and proceed to plan it all herself and present the class. Her independence and initiative were never the problem, but often the ideas were things that had worked well in her home with her one child, and they did not succeed in the large group setting of co-op day. She would pick a storybook to read aloud to the primary grades and serve snacks that had been mentioned in the book, or have the children make a craft that applied somehow to the story. At home, the children could have snuggled close to Mom during the story and helped in preparing the snacks. The large group required the children to sit as an audience and try to see the pictures as the book was held up in front of the group. The snacks had been previously prepared (for convenience) and were served to the children as they sat around a long cafeteria table. Elements for any story-related craft projects were also prepared in advance for the convenience of controlling a large group around scissors and glue, but leaving the children to experience all the creativity of picking up Piece A and sticking it to Piece B. The great idea for connecting the student to the story was lost in the crowd, and suddenly the homeschool activity took on a very classroom atmosphere, complete with admonitions to sit still and not talk. Just because someone has spent time organizing an activity does not make it a worthwhile group activity or even guarantee that it will be enjoyable for the participants.

There are some projects that can work equally well both at home with only one student or in the mass assembly of a co-op group. One high-school-aged boy was very interested in aerodynamics and presented a brief talk to the entire group on the basic principles of flight. He then passed out inexpensive, purchased kits for each child to decorate a simple, but durable Tyvek kite. Once the kites were properly adorned with crayons and markers, a few more instructions followed on assembling the kites, and we all trooped outdoors to a large field for flying lessons. Any parents and older children with kite-flying experience were in high demand, running from child to perplexed child, getting the kites to lift off and sail on the breeze. While I have always enjoyed flying a kite or two with my own youngsters, the sight of 50-60 kites all aloft at once was spectacular!

I had produced a trivia game for my children, using basic information on the fifty states of the U.S.A. While it worked fine as a family board game, we were able to change the rules a bit and revamp the scoring system, enabling us to play the game with our large group of middle-school-aged students. I carefully divided up the roster of students ahead of time to balance it for introverts and extroverts, older and younger, regular attendees and likely no-shows, giving me four relatively equal teams. Study materials were made available so that everyone had a fair chance, and we assembled to play the game — TV game show-style. It was such a hit with parents and students alike that we continued it for several sessions. The outcome of this highly entertaining venture was that the students learned a great deal: research skills from studying the materials, memorization of historical and geographical facts, teamwork as they conferred over which answer to give, leadership and submission as only the Captain of each team could offer the answer. The only person not incredibly thrilled by my ingenuity was the Mom who taught the same students vocal music immediately following my time period. You see, I had not considered that aspect and foolishly handed out prizes of candy bars and lollipops — which the children did not save for lunch break (as I had so naively imagined) but promptly popped into their mouths on their way to her class. She later kindly, but firmly explained to me that it was quite difficult to produce the proper notes through throats coated with sugar and with sucker-sticks protruding from mouths. Oops. In future sessions, I cautioned my contestants not to eat their rewards until after lunch, under penalty of Mrs. Musicteacher beating me to a pulp and thereby cutting off their supply of contraband goodies.

Our group had the wonderful asset of a few parents who were involved in local community theater. Their personal dedication in transferring their experience to our co-op group allowed our students to put on wonderful productions. Those families spent their summer afternoons reading piles of scripts, searching for something appropriate to our group’s ages and abilities. The result was a fantastic treasure trove of undiscovered talents as young actors, singers, and stagehands found their niches. Scenery and props were created by students, and costumes became cooperative efforts among the Moms who swapped fabrics, trims, and patterns.

We also were blessed by the athletic abilities of parents who not only taught a team sport, but also took our students a step further by hosting an invitational homeschool tournament. Even the students who chose not to play on the sports team learned hospitality and organizational skills. Other homeschool co-op groups came from across our state to participate, and all of our students and parents had some hard choices between working shifts at the concession stand and cheering on players in the games.

Older students can assist your group through child-care, but be cautious around a student who prefers to “hide” in the nursery, rather than interact with the larger group. The student can easily slip through the cracks by excluding him/herself from group activities, when it may only take a little gentle encouragement to bring that student out of his/her shell. Many loners secretly desire to interact, but are afraid of rejection. A girl in our group was too shy to join in with the students her age for any activities we sponsored, and her mother arranged for her to do child-care for a nearby women’s group that met during the same time as our homeschool co-op classes. My desire was to see the girl overcome her shyness and be drawn in more to the high school group, but she continually withdrew herself to the point that her family dropped completely out of our group. Our loss as well as hers.

When families do participate in group activities, you can expect some changes to occur. Wallflowers often come out of their shells, and you get to watch them discover many previously hidden talents. New families may join your group for its advantages and fellowship opportunities. Some families may protest (to the point of leaving) any changes or any style of activities that they do not like. Be sensitive, but do not become doormats. The few should not dictate to the many.

What is your objective in offering a co-op class: to present material that is more easily demonstrated in a larger group than at home with only a few students, or to entertain a group of children for a few hours offering little or no educational value whatsoever? Personally, I have traveled great distances with my children to participate in co-op activities, whether classes or field trips, rising extra-early and packing sack lunches for the day’s excursion. When the effort provided a tremendous boost to their understanding, it was all worth it. On the other hand, some activities were nothing more than a waste of gasoline and cost us dearly in precious time away from our other studies. By sharing the good, the bad, and the ugly experiences we have endured, it is my desire that you will be able to turn all your co-op classes into good ones.

[For more information on cooperative classes and group activities, visit Topical Index: Co-op Groups.]

How to Come Up with Co-op Classes

You and your fellow homeschoolers are interested to cooperating together to do some group activities or classes, but you wonder where you can find ideas for the best classes for your particular blend of students?

1 — Borrow ideas from other sources, then modify those ideas to fit your group.
Start with my list, talk to other homeschoolers and other groups, browse through homeschooling websites, or just let your mind wander. Adapt things to a larger or smaller scale to fit your group’s students. Scale back information for your younger students, or expand the scope for your older students.

2 — Poll families in your group for ideas, suggestions, and abilities.
Whether you hand out informal surveys at a Moms’ Meeting or request that members call your “idea committee” with their suggestions, learning the desires of your member families (parents and students) will provide a good starting list: I’d enjoy a group class about… I have trouble teaching… I’d like my kids to know more about… Brainstorming sessions with other parents and students can bring up a surprising amount of information: I have this hobby… I know how to… I know a person who can do…

3 — Favorites and standby’s
— Our group tried to do a musical or play or a program of vocal music each year, rehearsing throughout a semester. This type of activity is a favorite both with students and parents: the children enjoy it as a fun, non-textbook experience, and the parents love seeing their children blossom with newfound confidence and abilities that may be difficult to impart at home.
Team sports were another regular standby, allowing the students to continue developing their abilities in basketball or volleyball. Players and non-players alike benefited from seeing teamwork in action. Non-players were recruited into supporting roles for managing competitions and concession stands.
— Many of our families felt writing was their weakest area of teaching, so we tried to have some form of writing classes each year: journalism, creative writing, poetry, novel writing, etc. The group classes provided the students with friendly, non-threatening competition and a wonderful melting pot of ideas.
Art classes were another favorite among the students, and we had several Moms who were able and willing to give basic instructions.

4 — Strive to provide the areas that are difficult to do/organize.
Some things are worthy of your efforts, even though they are not easily done, spur of the moment events. Yearly photos and testing are examples of events that require no talent other than organization from your member pool. Often with events like these, many parents are needed for traffic-flow, crowd-control, or just to serve as room monitors. A parent who shies from the task of teaching a large group of students may not hesitate at making the series of phone calls required to set up an event led by someone else.
— Science (group lab experiences)
— Hands-on history (field trips or special events)
— Standardized testing
— “School” photos

5 — Utilize or follow the natural inclinations of your group’s students.
Aeronautics, fashion history, and journalism were the strong interests of some of our students. We often allowed an older student to teach a single session class in his favorite field, sharing his knowledge and interest with the others. We took field trips and held multiple session classes to explore other favorite fields and spread the enthusiasm around to other students.

6 — This is a good idea; let’s find a way to teach it.
Discover your “growing edge” by daring to tackle something new. I have been a fan of the space program ever since NASA launched their first manned rocket, but I never dreamed I would lead dozens of children on a virtual trip into space! One Mom suggested it, we asked a few questions, did a little research, made a few phone calls, and I soon found myself spearheading an endeavor taking upper elementary through high school students on a space shuttle simulation trip to the moon. The hard part was all handled by professionals at a science museum, and I just coordinated the logistics of dozens of parents and their students (with my daughter’s capable tutoring in computer databases), telling them who had to be where at what time. It was a great idea, and we found the way to make it happen.

Another time I mentioned an educational game my children enjoyed playing, and asked if anyone else would be interested in it. Suddenly I was challenged with revamping the table game into a team sport, building a scoreboard, and posting the needed information to a website for the students to download. Again, we had a good idea and modified it to fit our group.

7 — Do not allow 1 or 2 dissenters to veto a perfectly good idea.
If you have majority support for the class, interested students, a willing and able teacher, and all the necessities (access to any required special materials or locations) for holding the class, then do it! One or two objectors should not be permitted to ruin a good opportunity for all the others by whining until they get their way. Encourage any who disagree with the idea to make alternate plans for the day, then proceed.

One time, children from a certain family were enthusiastically participating in a long-term group project when one aspect of it brought strong objections from their father. Those students withdrew, their vital positions were filled by other students, and the project was allowed to continue for the benefit of the group. However, I was very nervous for a while, worrying that the entire group could actually be forced to sacrifice their united efforts for the beliefs of one person.

Ideas for classes can come from the most unusual sources. Even the smallest of ideas can be expanded to fill an hour of time, and larger ideas can be spread over several meeting periods. Once you have an idea for a co-op class, talk to others in your group and see what they think. Do not be intimidated by a lack of experience. Everything was done for the “first” time sometime. Seek input for ideas, then seek help in transforming those ideas into reality. If the idea is good, surely you can find a way to make it work.

[For more detailed information on organizing co-op classes, see Co-op Classes: A Primer. For general information on cooperative classes and group activities, visit Topical Index: Co-op Groups.]

Rules and Discipline within the Co-op Group Setting

In discussing the many different aspects of co-op group activities, I have so far avoided an in-depth examination of discipline within the group setting. While I have touched upon the ability of homeschooling co-op groups to offer opportunities to expand children’s individual talents and interests, I have only hinted at any disciplinary restrictions for the group itself. This, then, is a further consideration of group dynamics and some of the “hot spots” that I have seen arise in multiple homeschool group situations. I am also including certain specific episodes that resulted in group discipline: rules that ultimately restricted everyone’s behavior, for better or worse.

“DO’s” — The Types of Rules to Consider Implementing
Time Segments? 1-hour classes? 2-hour classes? If your group is large enough to offer more than one class on co-op day, you probably need to consider the ideal length for those classes. When just a few families get together once-a-whenever for a project, the only limiting factor may be naptime for the youngest members. If you are attempting to schedule co-op classes for multiple age groups involving dozens of children, you may need more structure.

Hall Monitors? If you are blessed with a large facility (church or community center) where your students can spread out into multiple classrooms, you may be faced with occasionally wandering children. Students new to the facility may get lost or confused or need help finding their classroom, the restroom, or Mom (if she is occupied in another classroom). In such a case, an extra parent assigned to direct foot-traffic can be a wonderful blessing to the little lost soul who thought she knew the way to the restroom.

Children in Parking Lots? This is another aspect of the “wandering child” issue — Abbie left something important in the car and runs out to retrieve it, not expecting another family to be arriving late, and they are not expecting any children to be dashing through the parking lot. We all try to keep hold of our youngsters in large lots (such as Wal-Mart), but we tend to relax around our small group of friends. To prevent tragedy from sneaking up on us, small children should be discouraged from leaving the facility unless accompanied by an older sibling or parent. Any family attempting to move their vehicle should walk completely around it first — you may never discover a child sitting on the ground behind your car, but you might find Benji’s jacket or Charlie’s notebook before driving off without them.

Discipline? A Moms’ Meeting is the place to discuss and decide together how discipline should be administered during co-op classes, so that all parents are aware of what the agreed-upon procedure is. My personal recommendation is that the parent should deal with the offender for any significant problems; the teacher or other adult witness may need to describe the situation to the parent first, if the parent was not present during the incident, then leave the parent and child alone to work it out according to their family’s rules. [more on this below]

Gender Bias? Classes can be gender-specific without being gender-restricted. We once offered our teens a class in cake decorating, something many of the girls were interested in learning. One of the boys from the group also signed up to take the class; he had had some experience at home and was not intimidated by being the only male in the room. He also had the last laugh on the other boys who tried to tease him for taking the “girl class” — the boys did not have an alternative class that day and instead were recruited for an assortment of heavy-duty cleaning projects around the building.

Age Bias? An older student can effectively sit in on a class meant for a slightly younger age group, but a younger student may not work out as well in a class intended for older students. Accelerated learners may have an advantage in academics, but usually have not achieved the maturity to go with it. Our group had many such debates about “David” who was advanced several years in his schoolwork and wanted to attend all the group activities designed for the students in his grade level. However, the other students at that level were high school teenagers, and David was quite a few years younger. Although he (and his parents) believed he was the intellectual equal of the teens, he was not equipped emotionally, physically, or in any other way to participate in the teens’ social events. The high school classes also were not a good “fit” for him: even though he could handle algebra and read high school literature, he could not discuss many of the broader topics (such as current events, the stock market, or vocational options) that the other high school students were interested in studying. His emotional/philosophical level was still in elementary school, where his age placed him.

“DON’T’s” — The Types of Rules to Avoid
Public Schoolism: If your members are primarily unschooling types, definitely stay far away from any rules with a public school flavor, such as walking in precise lines to change classes. I have stated in previous articles that homeschooling brings out the individual differences in our children and that public school-ism emphasizes the one-size-fits-all approach. Avoid zero-tolerance-type universal rules for governing single incidents; instead, take the initiative to speak to the one at fault.

Dictatorships: Allowing or relying on only one person to coordinate all activities endangers your group’s unity and must be avoided at all costs — your desire is to have a homeschooling cooperative group, not to become the flying monkey minions of the Wicked Witch of the West. (Forgive my bias — not all people who lead groups fall into the control-freak category; I have just been stung too many times.) Discuss your concerns together as a group and make sure all opinions are expressed, polling each member individually, if necessary. Secret ballots and suggestion boxes will not encourage the timid member to speak up as much as a friendly, non-threatening atmosphere will. Welcome all opinions, whether agreeing or dissenting, and discuss the pro and con sides of all options. In the end, even the most adamant dissenter can feel good about a group decision if she feels her concerns have been listened to in the process.

Do Not Overrule Parental Authority: Assume that parents know what is best for their own children. Assume that parents already have their own set of rules for governing their family. Realize that what you do not allow in your family may be perfectly acceptable in another family, and what you find acceptable behavior may be extremely offensive to others. Realize that families will usually try to respect the wishes of the group, even if those rules do not mirror their family’s preferences.

To Discipline or Not to Discipline — What Happened & How I Viewed It
The following stories involve students of middle school and high school age, mostly because that is the time when children are more likely to exert their own opinions. Rebellion from good kids is often channeled toward creative outlets, rather than becoming destructive or damaging. What one adult considers “rebellion,” another adult may consider “self-control” — based on their point of reference. Over the years, I have witnessed some remarkably creative rule-breaking in otherwise well-behaved children, who had simply been pushed to their personal breaking points. These accounts are true; all names have been changed to protect the guilty. Learn from them what you can, realizing that no amount of planning can cover all contingencies, but it is better to speak to one individual about a problem than to try to legislate major rules that affect everyone else and still do not get through to the offending person.

Erica sneaked up behind Frank before class began and pinched a pressure point on his neck. Thinking it was his friend George, Frank whipped his arm around and caught George in a headlock — only George was really Erica. Not a problem, thought Frank, Erica is quite a tomboy herself and usually wins in a good wrestling match with her brothers, so Frank followed through with his takedown. Erica was delighted with the opportunity to wrestle someone besides her brothers and gave it her all. An unsuspecting adult happened to witness this seconds-long encounter, walking in just as Frank maneuvered Erica toward the edge of the stage they were wrestling on in an attempt to frighten her into letting up, since her strength and experience were greater than Frank had anticipated. Mrs. Conclusion Jumper immediately lived up to her name, shreiking for the “fight” to stop, and sending everyone within earshot into panic mode. Frank was severely reprimanded for exhibiting such behavior toward one of the girls, and Erica was never faulted for starting it all. Frank’s mother was finally summoned from another room when Frank protested that he was merely defending himself against an attack from behind. Frank and Erica’s parents saw through the whole scene immediately and concluded that nothing extraordinary had taken place, with the exception of Mrs. Conclusion Jumper’s reaction. Frank and Erica remained good friends, both knowing the incident was all in fun. Frank and Erica’s parents remained good friends as well, also knowing that their children were responding in ways that would not have been given a second glance at home. Mrs. Conclusion Jumper is still upset to this day. [Although no other wrestling matches ever took place, there was soon a rule forbidding any and all rough-housing, especially on the stage area.]

Harold and Ivan had opted not to participate in a class they found uninteresting. Finding themselves without a room to sit in, since all rooms were being utilized for classes, Harold and Ivan decided to wait on an entryway staircase until class was over. Then Harold and Ivan found a football. Being athletic teenage boys, they saw nothing wrong with carefully tossing the ball back and forth across the entryway, from one set of stairs to the other. Enter Mrs. Conclusion Jumper. Again. What had been a fun way of passing their time suddenly became a big deal — at least to Mrs. CJ. No windows had been broken, no property had been damaged, no small children had ever been put in danger, and no parents had objected to Harold and Ivan’s attempt to bypass boredom. Except Mrs. Conclusion Jumper. [Next rule on the ever-expanding list: no ball-throwing unless as part of a gym class.]

Kip was the lone wolf of his church group, seldom joining in with activities, and preferring his own company to anyone else’s. I was illustrating a Sunday School lesson on Jesus calming the storm and had arranged the chairs into a long, narrow boat-shape and had the students choose their own seats as the “disciples.” Kip sat in the very back row. By himself. As I read the story and set the mood with a sound effects tape of thunder, wind, and rain, some of the students began saying they felt raindrops. There in the back was Kip, leaning his chair back far enough to reach the drinking fountain behind him and flicking handfuls of water over the group. Seeing that what probably began as a way to annoy his classmates was quickly becoming a valuable visual/tactile aide, I continued with my presentation. By the time Jesus had calmed the seas, Kip had stopped flicking water. As I later dismissed the class, I caught Kip by the arm and held him back while the others went on ahead. Expecting to be rebuked yet again for disruptive behavior, Kip was genuinely surprised as I thanked him for adding so much to my simple lesson and told him how much I truly appreciated his ingenuity and courage to do what many adults would have objected to. Kip beamed. From that day on, Kip was more attentive in my classes. Years have passed since then; Kip went to college and has become a teacher himself. [Not a homeschool group story, but valuable nonetheless as an example of a student’s “rebellion” being turned into something creative.]

Logan was not a teen fashion model, but he could have been. He followed many fashion trends, especially the pulling-your-jeans-way-down-to-expose-the-top-of-your-boxers fad. He would leave home wearing his belt, but remove it as soon as he got into a class without Mom. The other teens objected, but learned to ignore his less-than-modest couture. When the elementary girls began tripping on the stairs while watching Logan walk past, I knew it was time for something more to be done. I spoke with Logan’s mother, suggesting that perhaps a parental word could convince him of the far-reaching effects of his behavior. She insisted that what looked like boxers was not really underwear, that he was in fact wearing other underwear beneath them, and that the boxers were just decorative. In a group striving for modesty, her argument did not really work, especially when she called herself the group’s “Modesty Cop” and insisted on strict modesty from the girls (for the protection of her sons). [Countless rules were made regarding modesty, but the offenders seemed to be as energetic as the rule-writers, resulting in no changes — except perhaps in attitudes.]

Mark and Nyle were sitting in the designated “study hall” area, having opted out of an uninteresting class (with parental permission). The day was hot and the building was growing warm, despite the air conditioner’s best attempts at cooling. Mark and Nyle discussed their preferred outdoor activities for the period, not realizing that Mrs. Suspicious lurked within eavesdropping distance. When the boys rose to walk to the hallway drinking fountain, Mrs. Suspicious incorrectly assumed they were headed outdoors, in flagrant violation of a newly implemented rule against leaving the building during classtime. Mrs. Suspicious reported the suspected plot to her mentor, Mrs. Conclusion Jumper, who confronted Mark (Nyle had successfully managed to disappear when he realized what was about to happen). When Mark told Mrs. CJ that she did not have the facts straight, she blew up and took the matter (and him) to his mother. Mark’s mother defended her son, much to the dismay of both Mrs. Conclusion Jumper and Mrs. Suspicious, who still continue in their efforts to spread negativity wherever they go. [A rule was posted to forbid any child from leaving the building. However, it was so poorly written as to leave one questioning whether older students who drove themselves to classes would actually be allowed to return home.]

Oliver was a wonderful boy in a man’s body. A high school senior, older brother to many siblings, and one of the oldest students in our group, Oliver became a role model for the younger children, whether he wanted to be one or not, but took on that responsibility with great diligence. Oliver was genuinely respectful to all adults and other students, but exhibited a wry sense of humor that some stoics failed to understand. During one field trip to a mansion-turned-museum, his tour guide singled out Oliver as being The Ultimate Troublemaker, which Oliver assuredly was not. Mrs. Tour Guide continually directed snide remarks to Oliver, cautioning him not to touch things, not to do this, and not to do that — none of which Oliver would have considered doing in a place as renowned as this museum. After nearly an hour of such undeserved verbal abuse, Oliver reached above his 6-foot frame and flicked a small sign sticking out above a doorway. The sign spun around and around on its holder, revealing a very tiny portion of the emotions churning through Oliver’s mind. A new parent to our group witnessed only the sign-flicking incident, but not the insults which prompted it, and reported it to the trip’s coordinator a day later, feeling it had been disrespectful and improper public behavior. The coordinator contacted the parents who had been with that particular tour group to obtain as many facts as possible and was able to straighten out the entire ordeal to everyone’s satisfaction. Oliver was ultimately commended for exhibiting tremendous self-control in flicking only the sign, when undoubtedly the presumptuous tour guide deserved much worse. [A prime example of “rebellion” under self-control.]

Cross Jekyll and Hyde with Eddie Haskell for my personal pet peeve: children who change behavior as soon as their parents leave the room. You probably remember Eddie Haskell as the guy on “Leave It to Beaver” who spoke so politely to all the adults, but was the biggest jerk on the planet to the other kids. Fortunately for Wally and the Beav, Ward and June Cleaver saw right through Eddie. An Eddie obeys all the family rules until he gets away from his parents, Eddie speaks disrespectfully about his parents and all other adults, and Eddie encourages his friends to adopt similar attitudes toward their own parents. Eddie has not been taught to have respect for others but to act politely, especially to adults, so Eddie puts on that behavior around the adults and appears to be a model citizen and the ideal child. Once the adults leave the room, however, Eddie the Jerk comes forth. Eddie can be male or female and any age. My personal strategy to guard against my own children becoming an Eddie was to give them the freedom to be themselves around both their friends and me, without fear of my teasing them about things they said or did.

Most discipline problems that arise in a group can be dealt with individually, without affecting the entire group as a whole. Specific incidents often have the effect of illustrating to every child present what types of behavior are or are not acceptable, again without the need for universal legislation. Realizing that each family has its own policy for behavior and discipline and respecting those differences will go a long way toward balancing group dynamics. Often a simple explanation to my children that “if those were my kids, they wouldn’t get away with that” was enough to satisfy any protestations over differences in value systems. Open discussions, common sense, and respect for others will prevent most problems before they start.

[For more information on cooperative classes and group activities, visit Topical Index: Co-op Groups.]

Possible Pitfalls in Homeschool Groups

In my eleven-year career as a homeschooling Mom, I met a lot of other homeschoolers and worked with many homeschool groups, both as a participating member and in collaboration for joint events. I have been asked to elaborate on some of the “pitfalls” that can come up in group situations, including warning signs and advice for how to avoid trouble. This will be a collection of problems I have seen over more than a decade; these are not inevitable trouble spots that every group is doomed to suffer. I read recently that a truly wise leader is able to discern trouble before it develops, and that this type of discernment is a rare quality. I believe that “forewarned is forearmed” — if you know what to watch out for, you will be more likely to avoid it.

Temporary Problems — associated with co-op classes, field trips, special events, etc.
Classes: Using sign-up sheets to anticipate attendance can eliminate many surprises. Start well in advance (3-4 meeting times, including Moms’ meetings, class days, etc.) to publicize upcoming activities and give families notice of what will be held, when it will occur, and what they need to provide (extra fee, special equipment or clothing). If your members know about it, they can plan for it. Asking families to sign up in advance allows the activity’s coordinator to plan for the size of the group: large enough facility, enough equipment and supplies, extra helpers, etc.

Field Trips: Crowd control and safety are probably my biggest concerns on a field trip. Parents need advance warning if there will be safety or space limitations: do they need to make alternate arrangements for their toddlers, should they bring the stroller or leave it at home, do their children need to wear specific clothing? (My children and I usually dressed nicely for public group outings, but if the field trip included touring a cattle barn, we did not want to wear sandals.) Once your group assembles at the field trip location, it is rather late to announce that no one under 5 is allowed on the tour. (It has happened.) Publicize the starting time for field trips and encourage everyone to be on time (although not too early), so that the business is not disrupted while waiting for stragglers. The sign-up sheet can come in handy here as well, giving the activity leader an idea of which families to expect. A warning phone call to the site’s tour guide a day or two ahead of time will also enable them to plan ahead, in case they need to split your group for more than one tour, have enough souvenir gifts for all, or mark out a special parking area.

Special Events: Again, sign-up sheets and advance publicity can solve a host of problems before they happen. With events that lean more towards a party atmosphere than educational endeavors, individual family standards of acceptability may raise concerns from time to time. Not all families will agree on music styles or games played at roller-skating parties: one Dad adamantly voiced his objections to nearly all the bring-your-favorite-Christian-music that was offered, unwilling to consider even straight-from-Scripture lyrics to be acceptable because of the instruments used or the “beat” of the music (even though the CD he brought used the same instruments and kept the same beat). We also found that doing the hokey-pokey and the “chicken dance” could be surprisingly controversial. Our local rink plays an elimination game using a large die and numbers on the rink floor — I had never considered that to be a “dice game of chance,” but others did.

Some people felt that music (other than hymns) should not be played at all for parties held in church buildings, so before the teens’ formal dinner the kids were expected to stand around discussing current events over hors d’oeuvres and punch. It resembled a bad cocktail party scene from a low-budget movie. After dinner, the teens were provided with ping-pong and foosball — one table each for two dozen people. No board games, no music, not even a hint of dancing, just a severe lack of forethought. (Another consideration: a strict dress code for modest attire was issued ahead of time, but nothing was said to those who chose to ignore it.)

One family hosted their own party for all the teens: everyone was invited to a private home, and the family imposed no restrictions on what music could be played (or how loud), or what games could be played, or how much food and soda the kids could consume. We parents relaxed and chatted in the kitchen and dining room, while our teens migrated from basement family room to living room/den to second floor kids’ rooms and back again. The teens had freedom to watch videos, play computer/video games, listen to contemporary music, and just be themselves, giggling all the while. It still ranks as one of the most enjoyable evenings in the group’s history.

Whether at a group-sanctioned event or a potential instructional class, we had a small disagreement over card games. A few of the boys were playing poker (not for money, just for fun) during free time on a co-op day; another time several teens requested a class on learning to play “Pepper,” a popular non-gambling card game. An assertion was made that some of our member families would be offended by standard playing cards, and that only “Uno” cards were acceptable. I did a little investigating on my own and never did find any families who actually objected to cards, but nevertheless our teens were scolded for even wanting to play.

Hosting sports tournaments, theatrical performances, or other invitational events will require accommodating strangers to your facility: directing traffic from the parking lots to the restrooms, providing food or drinks at a concession stand, or providing secure dressing rooms for participants.

Food presents another concern all by itself: how far should you go to accommodate people with food allergies? What types of food should be made available at certain events? Will beverages be enough or will you need something more substantial? Is the food allowed in all parts of your building or must it be restricted to one area? Do not overlook recruiting a large clean-up crew!

Discipline (More in-depth aspects of this will be addressed in a future post.)
Any significant problems that arise during field trips and classes should be the responsibility of the parents of the children involved. In the rare event that some children are not accompanied by their own parent(s), they should be designated as the responsibility of some parent who is present. The leader of one group I was (briefly) associated with insisted that all discipline was to be handled by the event coordinator of each day’s activity — oddly, the same super-controlling woman was always in charge. I did not agree — nobody supercedes my authority over my own children. However, an activity’s coordinator will receive any negative feedback from businesses that your group tours, and she will be expected to contact individual families to resolve problems.

Some type of group administration will be necessary, if only to facilitate planning meetings, serve as a contact person for the group, or make short-notice decisions on behalf of the group. Some groups have bypassed a formal administrative body by delegating all planning responsibilities for one month to a member family, with all families alternating in turn. New families are allowed to watch and learn for several months before taking their turn at coordinating activities.

Officers: When a more active schedule requires advance planning and coordinating multiple events at once, the family-of-the-month method may not work, and your group may choose to elect officers and/or delegate responsibilities to specific committees. A governing body reduces the risk of burdening one Mom/family for life while the others casually revel under her fabulous gift for organization. However, there are many concerns that are often overlooked in the zeal to establish a more formal administration. How long will the term of service be: one year, two years? Can a member serve multiple terms in succession? Can a member resign from her position for a season and then serve again at a later date? If an officer is obligated to step down (i.e. due to health reasons or moving away), how will her position be filled? Can you recall (force out) a leader who later proves to be unqualified or a Nazi-like control freak? Right now, you are undoubtedly thinking of the wonderful, caring women in your group and cannot imagine an uncooperative person in the bunch, but beware — I have seen difficult problems arise from the meekest individuals.

When taking nominations for officers, select an impartial member (or possibly more than one) to contact each nominee as to whether or not she is willing to serve if elected. I witnessed an eager volunteer who telephoned each fellow nominee individually (yes, she was nominated herself) and worded the conversation so that each other nominee humbly decided to remove her own name from the ballot on the assumption that she did not want to detract from the election of someone more qualified. Mrs. Zealot happily succeeded in running unopposed, although each of the others was much more qualified. After the election was final, the others casually conferred and discovered exactly how they had all been duped, and it was a devastating loss to the group as a whole.

Another sly character to watch out for is the self-appointing power-seeker. She rises to power in a small group that has been coordinated primarily by one person, by repeatedly offering to pick up the mundane tasks. She appears at first to be a godsend, since she does relieve much of the busywork and often shows up early at events to help set up and stays late to clean up. However, her personal agenda will be evident to the watchful eye: she rarely speaks about the desires of the group, preferring to steer all activities toward her own tastes. Waiting patiently for the traditional group leader to suffer an illness or family emergency, Mrs. Usurper will then make her move, volunteering to “help out poor Mrs. Leader” by taking on even more of the administrative duties. The other members, innocently caught by surprise, will not feel justified in objecting, since the normal leader does seem to be overwhelmed by her temporary circumstances. Once the power-seeker has obtained her seat of authority, watch out: things can only go downhill from here.

Meetings: When Moms’ Meetings are held in the evening, snacks and desserts can usually be skipped or replaced by ice water. Any one truly needing extra calories will probably bring her own snack. Fellowship inevitably occurs during every lull in a meeting, but softly ringing a small bell is a gentler reminder than a gavel that more business remains.

A printed agenda is a handy tool to let everyone know what topics will be addressed and how quickly each needs to be handled, but be sure to allow some time for any new concerns that arise. (If there is no other new business, you get more time to fellowship.) Encourage the group to make firm decisions, and then quickly move on to the next item of business.

Allow all concerns to be heard and addressed fairly. Understand that one person voicing a concern represents at least 10% of your group, perhaps more. (If the group leader has an intimidating personality, 90% of the people may disagree with her but be afraid to speak up.) Many women will extend their “submissive wife” role to the point where they are unwilling to voice any dissenting opinion, even for the good of the group, feeling it is their “duty” to accept what life deals them and carry on.

Growth: Expect change in your group. Anticipate it and be ready for it. Welcome new families who will join for your advantages and your fellowship. If your group offers an environment that others find desirable, your numbers will increase. If your group refuses to adapt, you will lose members. Either way, you will experience change. Look at your group as you look at your children: you want your children to grow and mature and learn; desire that for your group’s membership as well. I included new people into my conversations with old friends and encouraged shy members to be my helpers, and they all eventually became active contributors to the group. [Note: I have led student classes and delivered topical addresses to Moms’ meetings, but I have served only on planning committees. While some of my suggestions may sound as though I was an “important” member of a group, I never held an office — these are roles I expect any average member to be able to fulfill. The “members” of today are the “leaders” of tomorrow.]

I found it surprising how many people were afraid (or too conceited?) to speak to newcomers, feeling the newbies should introduce themselves and automatically know who was responsible for what. “Primary group” is the syndrome of allowing new people to come, but never really allowing them to become part of the group — always reminding them that they are newcomers, no matter how long they have been attending. Some of the original members may protest (or even depart) at any changes or styles that they do not like. Be sensitive to the needs and desires of all, but do not become a doormat for the few who insist everything meets with their approval. Newcomers need to be welcomed, introduced around, and encouraged to help out. If you plan your activities very far in advance, they will have a good feel for the spirit of the group by the time they are ready to lead something themselves.

Religious or Political Differences: “Christian” groups may want to publicize their faith base (including it in the group name is often enough) so that newcomers will know what to expect. The same applies to any group that is trying to maintain a specific emphasis, such as a Jewish group, Latter Day Saints, or even a strictly secular group (desiring no religious emphasis). In my experience, it is not necessary to require members to sign a statement of faith or contract for membership. Welcome any who want to join your group, knowing that if they are not comfortable with your emphasis, they may choose to leave again.

Politics, while important to all of us, are best left out of the group environment. One group I attended was led by a family of extremely zealous political affiliation. They had no qualms about calling each family, requesting support for the candidates of their choice. While I may have agreed with their choice on some candidates, I did not agree as vehemently on all, and it made for uncomfortable group relations. I also feel that all contact information gathered from group members (addresses, phone numbers, email addresses, etc) should be kept private (within the group) and used for group business only. I do not need any more unsolicited requests to support another member’s church, missions outreach, political campaign, or business venture.

Most problems that arise in homeschool groups can be avoided through careful advance planning, trusting your fellow members to handle their own families, and being cooperative and considerate of others. If a member of your group is concerned about a potential trouble spot, discuss it with her, and work together to prevent its becoming a real problem. Some problems happen only once and serve as learning experiences for us all (such as how to transport a Mom with a badly broken arm from the center of the roller rink floor to the nearest Emergency Room). Other trouble spots can be the tip of the proverbial iceberg, concealing a huge problem that lurks just out of sight. Anything that causes concern is worthy of attention, and often difficulties can be simply resolved with a kind word at the appropriate time and place. Ignored problems rarely solve themselves, but the person who is brave enough to confront trouble head-on before it gets out of control is nearly always victorious.

[For more information on cooperative classes and group activities, visit Topical Index: Co-op Groups.]

Ideas for Special Events

My definition of “special events” is educational events of a larger scale than a class, though perhaps the culmination of a class. Special events are planned and hosted by your own homeschool group, even though you may also include other groups by invitation. This list contains all the special events we can remember from our eleven years of homeschooling. I am still purposely not including details, so that you can be creative in structuring your own events. If you desperately need explanations for certain events, I will be happy to oblige.

Adopt-a-Family Christmas service project
Art Fair
Basketball games (competitive w/Christian schools)
Basketball invitational tournaments (Elementary; Jr. High; Sr. High)
Book-It pizza party
Career Fair
Caribbean Cruise Night (cruise ship activities fun night)
Challenger Learning Center (major project, considered event/field trip/classes)
Christmas recital/recitation program
Citizenship program and essay contest
Concession stand at sports tournaments
Farewell picnic (summer)
Float entry in local parade
Graduation ceremonies (K, 8th, 12th)
History Fair
Instrumental band performance
Literature Fair
Mother/daughter Victorian tea
Music festival (w/Christian schools; vocal, instrumental)
Musicals (K-3rd, 4th-12th)
Operation Christmas Child service project
Parents’ dinner out
Patriotic program (vocal music)
Performance and exhibition program (spring)
Pizza-and-a-movie night
Play (rehearsals and performance)
President’s Physical Fitness Challenge
Roller-skating party
“School” photos
Science Fair
Speech contest (Elementary, Jr/Sr High)
Spelling Bee
Standardized testing
Teens’ canoe trip/river float & picnic
Teens’ Christmas cookie baking/delivery and caroling (service project)
Teens’ formal dinner
Used book sale
Valentines Banquet (for parents; served by students)
Volleyball tournament
Volunteer workday service project
Welcoming picnic (fall)

[For more information on cooperative classes and group activities, visit our Topical Index: Co-op Groups.]