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.]

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