Co-op Classes: A Primer

If your group is attempting to try a co-op class for the first time, or if you want to expand from an occasional class to offering something on a regular basis, this article is an effort to cover as many aspects as possible concerning group classes. Some suggestions may seem obvious, but when you begin to tackle this type of project, even the simplest details can slip by, unnoticed.

Start small. If this is your first foray into co-op classes, begin with simple ideas and single session classes, rather than attempting a major project. Your group will need a few successes to provide the confidence and perseverance needed to carry through a massive undertaking. I recommend trying a few independent classes first, one or two per semester, rather than starting with a full, regular schedule of ongoing events.

Who is qualified to teach? Unskilled or untrained “teachers” may be the best. (See Who Taught This Kid to Walk, Talk, and Potty) In my experience, it usually works best if a Mom teaches a certain age group who also has a child in that age group: she will already know how to relate to them. There are exceptions, of course, but this is a basic guideline. My children took some co-op classes from a few former schoolteachers, both Moms and Grandmoms, who were usually not familiar with homeschooling. Their classes felt like school. Nearly every family in our group was homeschooling to avoid the downsides of public school classrooms, so these classes did not really fit well. The material covered was sufficient, but it was just presented in a very non-homeschooly manner. One certain teacher repeatedly boasted that she could put up with anything, since she had experienced having a student die in her classroom. My thoughts were, I don’t care how much you can tolerate, I am concerned with what my children are going to learn.

A guest speaker is an easy way to start. The speaker may be from within your group, or a friend or relative of someone in your group, or a total “outsider,” as long as they understand that they will be speaking in a homeschooling atmosphere (children and parents in a wide range of ages, not all sitting perfectly still in rows of chairs, allowed to interact and ask questions, etc.). This sounds like a no-brainer, but we actually did have a speaker who honestly had never addressed this type of group and did not know how to react. A sample “guest” is anyone who can show off his hobby to your group and tell the children how he got started in the hobby. Lots of show-and-tell, passing things around so the students can see up close, and a simple hands-on activity can transition a short, dry speech into a great co-op class. A woman whose hobby involved identifying rocks and minerals did a marvelous class for our elementary students, and one of our Moms spent an hour with the same group, explaining all about horse tack and how each piece is used. She finished her class by demonstrating how to lasso a calf, using a bale of straw for the proxy animal.

Where can we meet? Depending on the size of your group, you may be able to meet in someone’s home, or you may need to look for something larger (another area where advance planning is critical, if reservations are required). A backyard can suffice if the weather is predictable. A park shelter-house is another alternative, but weatherproof shelters may require a rental fee. Church classrooms or fellowship rooms are often a good solution, as most churches do not require fees for their members to use. Community centers may also offer free rooms for educational activities. In my area, many rural school buildings have been converted into small-town community centers (where schools have consolidated and no longer use the smaller buildings). We took advantage of a school-turned-community-center’s gymnasium building for most of our events (it included several smaller areas we used for classrooms). Another private gymnasium was located nearby for when our Gym Nights got too large for the safety of tiny people (we split the group by ages and reserved both gyms). Our yearly membership fees provided sufficient rent/donations to cover the facilities. We also used a nearby church in the same town for our Moms’ Meetings and other events, such as graduation.

Why and how should age-groups be separated? If your group contains only a few children nearly all the same age, separation is probably not required. Age groups become an issue when you are dealing with dozens of children spanning many grade levels. For some show-and-tell classes, one group may work just fine; for more intense classes, separation will become necessary based on the skills required. I have seen that no one rule applies to all classes, and parents should be able to decide which classes their children attend based on each student’s maturity and interests. If an older student has a particular interest in a topic being presented to a much younger class, offer to allow him to help as the teacher’s assistant or to teach a class himself.

Age-groupings can vary with each class topic and often overlap, so publicize the requirements well to avoid confusion and assumptions. I feel overlap is something that can be easily dealt with: if siblings prefer to stay together instead of being separated into different groups, it will usually not be a problem unless the skills required outweigh the student’s interest level. Exception: be aware that when a student is far advanced in academics but young in age and maturity, he may not be a good fit in most high school activities [more on this here]. Some situational breakdowns may help your creative processes for dreaming up classes (these are not hard-and-fast rules that apply to every class, but ideas for occasional, special groupings).
— Non-readers and early readers — Pre-K thru 2nd grade, may include preschoolers and toddlers as well as early elementary students (reading ability is not required for the class)
— Early elementary — 1st thru 3rd grade (reading ability is helpful)
— Upper elementary and middle school — 4th thru 8th grade (more advanced abilities and interests)
— All elementary — K thru 6th grade (abilities not crucial to the class, but topic interest covers all)
— Middle school and high school — 6th grade and up (maturity level is not crucial to the class)
— 7th grade and up (more maturity is required than early middle school level)
— High school — 9th grade and up (most advanced abilities and interests)

What about the babies? If it is at all possible, hire someone to do nursery care for your group, freeing all the moms to do something with the older children. My husband said he would volunteer to play with the babies and toddlers, just so he would never have to teach a class, and that hiring child-care workers would force him to get involved with the students. If hiring is not an option, at least strive to alternate nursery workers so that all Moms get multiple opportunities to work with the students. Another option (if group nursery is not available) is to ask another Mom to tend your little ones while you teach, and then you volunteer to tend the little ones of another Mom so she can lead a group. Older students can also help out with child-care, but beware again of the student who wants to “hide” in the nursery, rather than interact with the larger group.

Should parents be allowed to sit in? Emphatically, YES! But do not just make them sit passively in the back, use them as helpers. When I did my TV-game-show class (details here), many Moms gathered in just to observe. I put them to work. I had planned on having to handle all facets of the game/class myself, but since there were so many eager audience members, I began drafting volunteers as score-keepers and judges. More interaction between students and adults also leads to a more relaxed relationship between both groups. Some parents were encouraged to take leadership roles later on after they got to know the students better through assisting with a class. Extra hands are always a blessing: homeschooled children are accustomed to having a parent close by to give quick response to their questions, so more adults in the room means more attentive help for the students. (If parents do not sit in on classes, you will need another separate area for them to sit and “socialize” so as not to distract the classes.)

Will we need snacks, etc? If you are only meeting for an hour or two, snacks may not be necessary, but bathroom breaks should always be considered. If you are meeting long enough to need a snack break, you can choose to alternate among the families bringing treats for all, or just let each family bring their own. I prefer having each family provide their own snacks — families with food allergies or special dietary concerns know best what their children can and cannot eat, and when the sensitivity is extreme, some people cannot afford to take chances. Offer a quick, friendly reminder of where the trash goes, so that everyone can clean up his own area after the snack break is over, and provide a roll of paper towels and a spray bottle of water for the inevitable leaky jelly sandwich. When holding more than one class session in a day, allow a sufficient break between classes for bathroom visits. The length of the break will be determined by the number of participants and the facilities available: obviously, if only one restroom is available, the break will take longer than if multiple bathrooms exist. (Note: a ready supply of toilet paper, facial tissues, paper cups, and paper towels will make co-op days run much more smoothly.)

What should we do with the older kids? Even a small group of older students can become a class by themselves. Perhaps this can be the ideal opportunity for a rather shy Mom to step out and share a hidden talent with just a handful of students. High school students need more intellectually stimulating material than their elementary siblings do, so think big and ask them for their input. What would they like to study as preparation for college? Vocational-type classes (Dads, Grandads, or the local hardware store owner sharing about the jobs or hobbies they have had) can give confused high school students a glimpse into many different fields. Once again, the co-op class setting provides the opportunity to do things that do not work well at home, so use this situation to its fullest. Creative writing is an area where a group of older students can share their work with others and trade ideas, but be aware that teens often are reluctant to share with others, especially if they do not know each other well. Our high schoolers tackled a variety of classes together, from cake decorating to stock market investing, from novel writing to Spanish. (long list of class ideas here.)

If your group has only one or two older students, you might choose to give them positions as teaching assistants (or teachers of classes), child-care, or whatever appeals to them. If the students do not enjoy the responsibilities offered to them, they may build resentment toward the group as a whole, so emphasize what they are getting in return for their services (example: the confidence and self-esteem from actively helping to lead a class, plus public speaking experience).

We had several students all working from the same math textbook who enjoyed comparing their progress and helping each other understand difficult concepts, so a “Study Hall” is another possibility for a few students desiring to work together. Individual Study Hall is also an option for the student who just is not interested in the classes being offered (it happens). One of our shy Moms quietly crocheted while candidly supervising the Study Hall area. A few of the students timidly approached her about teaching them to crochet — they were fascinated by the process. The next class day they all showed up bearing yarn and crochet hooks, and another class (and a new teacher) was born.

Should these classes offer homework? I feel that homework, if offered, should be optional, unless other arrangements have been made in advance. Some classes we held (such as novel writing) asked the students to work on their projects at home and bring them back to the next class session. When a family’s homeschooling schedule has been worked out prior to the class’s beginning, any homework from the class may conflict with that schedule. If a family can consider the class and its homework requirements when planning their schedule, things will work out much better. Not being aware of the requirements ahead of time, I had to redo my students’ home schedules to accommodate work of the novel writing class, and later switched my son’s novel attempt to “audit” status (I did not require him to complete the project) when I realized he needed to read more in order to see how books handled descriptions and narration. (See Tests, Book Reports, and Other Un-necessities for more of that story.) Many students will have family chores and responsibilities in addition to their own homeschool work, so co-op classes either need to be planned out well in advance (to be fitted into the family schedule) or have short assignments that can be completed during the class period. Instead of assigning homework, teachers could make an “idea sheet” of further work suggestions available to any Moms who are interested in taking the class further with their students.

Should everyone be required to attend? It would be very difficult to hold a class that interested every family. When contemplating classes, field trips, or special events, it is a good idea to poll the Moms as to how many families will actually participate if a certain event is held. Sign-up sheets (family name and number of participants) can provide teachers with an advance head-count for ease in preparing materials. A common planning mistake is to ask, “Does this idea sound interesting?” An event can sound interesting, or be something that I think others would like to do, but not be something my family would participate in. Expect a few families not to participate. Allow families to decline involvement. One group we belonged to expected every family to attend every event, whether it fit your children’s ages and interests or not. We were often scolded by the leaders for not attending events and told that every family was expected to attend in order for any event to be considered successful. That group was not fun. Guilt-Free Homeschooling will allow each family to do the things that fit their interests without feeling obligated to participate in the things that they will not enjoy.

Should we allow drop-offs? We all may have occasions when we could use the opportunity of dropping our students off for the duration of the classes, while the parent attends to other business. However, I feel certain limitations should apply. Rushing one child to the nearest ER for stitches is always an acceptable reason for asking me to watch your other children unexpectedly; getting your nails done is not. Dropping students off should be the exception and not the rule. Parental involvement is the backbone of homeschooling — if someone wants to drop her children off on a regular basis, maybe she should consider public school. Any children present without a parent should be old enough to care for themselves for most needs, should not experience separation anxiety or Mom’s-gone-now-I-can-do-what-I-want behavior problems, AND they should also be under the supervision responsibility of another adult who is present. Emergency situations do arise, whether for medical attention or discipline, and having some adult delegated by the student’s parent as interim guardian will cover a great number of problem situations. Once in a while, we may all have the need to drop off a child, but homeschool group events should never become a “Mom’s-day-out” type of babysitting service — that takes the “cooperation” right out of co-op classes.

Dare to try. Planning, organizing, and teaching co-op classes have taught me a great deal about myself, about my children, and about others. Getting involved and trying something new has opened doors I never dreamed possible. (These words you are now reading, for example.) Letting our imaginations run wild, we came up with class ideas that were terrific, a few that flopped, and others that we never had the chance to try, but I am sure they would have been wonderful. Dare to try something different and see what you can learn.

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

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