When I first decided to homeschool my twin boys, now 12 (though it really wasn’t much of a decision, since I was sure from the start), I envisioned a group of homeschool parents taking turns having the kids to their homes, creating fun, low key classes or activities in various subjects, depending on their backgrounds or expertise. I must have heard about this type of thing existing somewhere, or maybe it just seemed like the obvious way to go.
I mean, why wouldn’t homeschool moms want to share the burden of their children’s education, giving each other a chance to have much-needed breaks and spicing up their kid’s experience with the added benefits of a social group and different teaching styles?
As with so many of life’s visions, of course, when it came time to try this idea out, the result fell far short of the goal (very far, in this case, unfortunately). For my part, I have tried to be honest about my own shortcomings; I could have put more effort into the process- at least, I could have before we started building a house and had a baby, all in the same month (yes, it’s true!). And that’s just it. While initially I felt hurt and frustrated that my offer of an earth craft class, which met successfully every other Friday for almost a year, was never reciprocated with another class offer- I have realized that there are too many factors to consider when it comes to how much homeschool moms can give.
Living in a rural environment as we do, there are limitations on the number of people who can participate in anything. I have run into it with every event or class I have tried to organize or be involved with. The homeschool community is no different in that regard. And to add to the problem, the majority of homeschoolers in this area are doing so for religious reasons, and since our intentions are secular, the pool of families to collaborate with is even smaller. So perhaps I should not be surprised that after that first, hopeful attempt, we have never been able to share teaching with another family. I should be grateful that we have a thriving cooperative an hour away in a city 3 times our size, which we participate in once a week ( and I am grateful!) I should accept the shortcomings of the rural , conservative valley where we chose to live and raise our family.
But, for some reason, I just can’t stop brainstorming, scheming and dreaming about ways that we might be able to create some kind of educational cooperative, collective or group in our beautiful town. Every time I start to give up, I meet another mom who is beginning her homeschool journey and looks just like me at that time- hopeful, idealistic, and a little annoyed that local moms like me haven’t stepped up and created a beautiful educational collective. And when I stop to think about it, I realize that changing the landscape of education in our culture is one of the most important goals I could set for myself to work on. So, now that our house is livable (if a long way from finished) and my youngest is becoming incrementally more independent (though deep in throes of the “terrible” twos), I find myself reaching out little tentacles, making small, manageable attempts at creating a network that could turn into something like the vision I’ve carried for years.
One of the most important parts of this process, I’ve learned, is to set the expectations as close to the reality of your environment and resources as possible. For me, this means keeping things SMALL, in every sense. Because we can’t count on a consistent, large group of families to attend classes, anything that’s structured needs to be flexible, with a variety of possible goals and structures. For example, if a class starts out with 6 kids and ends up with only 3 attending, a group project or game or other activities may have to be scrapped.
It also means keeping the costs to a minimum, and, this is crucial- the time commitment for volunteer parents. As my own story illustrates, the tipping point for a busy homeschool mom can come at any moment, so asking for the least the amount of headache/stress/prep time is usually best. For example, expecting teachers/moms to prepare a detailed curriculum ahead of time is probably not a good idea.
On that note, one of the problems with the initial homeschool group I worked with locally was that most families were not on board with (or even familiar with) the concept of unschooling. In talking with the moms involved, I realized they were intimidated about preparing a class for multiple children and making it “good enough”. From my perspective, any time spent with other kids, exploring and learning, is highly productive and worthwhile- regardless of specific educational standards. So, another crucial piece is to find- or convert- enough families to the benefits of spontaneous, student-led learning. Having a few resources handy, like articles, books or videos, can be really helpful with this, as is coordinating a low key discussion time for moms (over coffee, kids welcome, etc).
A crucial planning point for creating any kind of cooperative is space. While some families may have houses with large gathering areas suitable for a group of kids and all the supplies that accompany them, many do not -or would not be comfortable subjecting it to the inevitable chaos. In our effort to find a free or affordable space available in the daytime, I realized that, ironically enough, churches were probably our best resource. Most churches have some type of large meeting area, in many cases already designated for children. Because most church events tend to happen in the evening or weekend, these spaces are empty throughout much of the week. We were able to find a church with relative ease that was happy to have our group meet and, though I was a little concerned at first, did not, as I had worried, express any interest in our religious affiliations. And though we donated a nominal amount for utilities, they didn’t charge us a thing.
If you can collect few moms (or dads??) who are willing to take a turn and a free or low-cost space to use, you’re most of the way there! The question of what to study will naturally follow, and in some cases the answer might be obvious, if the families know each other and have shared interests. Sometimes though, especially if there is a broad range of ages- one of the challenges with putting together a cooperative in our town since there are not enough kids to break into grade/age-based classes- the question of what to study can be rather confusing. My approach to this would be to pick something that can be done by different ages and skill levels without the need for complex preparation or expertise on the part of the teacher. Crafts or cooking are perfect examples. Younger children can make simplified versions of a project or receive more instruction, while older ones can be free to work independently and elaborate at will.
Another great way to add variety to your coop is to bring in non-parent teachers. Every community is packed full of older adults who may have any variety of skills, expertise or knowledge. Many of these folks have enough time on their hands to host at least a few classes or workshops, and would appreciate the opportunity to connect with younger generations. Make it clear that the setting is informal- they don’t have to have specific teaching experience or cover technical or academic information. An introductory lesson to the guitar, knitting, woodworking, stories from a war or historic time period, creative writing, public speaking, civics and government- there are endless topics that could be covered in a small class or workshop. If the structure is kept simple, the goals flexible, and every opportunity for learning is embraced, a small homeschool cooperative should be possible in almost every community- and the benefits are far reaching.