Tag Archives: homeschool co-ops

Homeschool Pods

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Our crew, back in the day. I think we were studying American history, because this is Mount Vernon. They’re probably not supposed to jump off that little wall.

Okay, since I popped back in here after a slew of angry spam, I realized I have another thing to say about schooling options right now for struggling families.

Now there are all these models floating around for support structures for homeschoolers. There are class centers where students sign up for individual classes, “microschools” where a group of parents hires a teacher for a small group of kids, online schools that offer just a few classes or do it all for you… I like a lot of these models and we’ve even used several of them. Especially as my kids have gotten older, it’s nice to have the option of sending them to a quality teacher at a center or enrolling them in an online class for a subject I can’t teach. And if other structures help families feel more secure or work better, especially for working parents, then I’m all for them. Education can be done so many ways.

But it has occured to me several times that the way we did it back in the day when Mushroom and BalletBoy were small, could be perfect for the pandemic times, assuming you can get a group you trust and want to “pod” with. I assume you’ve all heard about the pod concept where you stop distancing with a couple of families and share resources in various ways, as well as try to keep each other a bit saner. Everyone has to agree to limit their contacts beyond that group, but within that structure, it seems like it’s worth the risk for many people. Everyone has to follow the law and decide what risks you’re comfortable with, obviously. But since a lot of families are considering this sort of approach anyway, it’s out there.

When my kids were little, we did have a co-op, but we didn’t hire a teacher, rent a building, or charge any fees. We didn’t develop or choose a curriculum or try to figure out how to cover reading, writing, and arithmetic together. We were just about four families (though we were sometimes three or five) and met just once a week, though more often could have been fine, especially in this environment where you don’t have other activities taking up your time. We changed it at various points, but the gist was just that we rotated parents as teachers. The kids picked a topic to study. Dinosaurs, American history, secret codes, poetry, money, the human body, robots and inventions, and so on and so forth. Then each parent would teach something for a day. The kids would come over, do a bunch of activities, then spend the rest of the day playing hard and running around until someone decided we had to beat the traffic and stop.

Later on, we changed up our model so that one parent oversaw a whole unit with lots of meetings about a topic the kids were learning about. Then we rotated for the next unit. We were part of another co-op where the parents picked the topics and we picked big themes for the kids as well.

Math, reading, and writing? Those were for the parents to be in charge of because not every kid is ready to do the same thing at the  same time. Not every program works for every kid. Plus, you should do those for a few minutes with younger kids every day.

I have the most idyllic memories of those co-op days. We were together for many years. The kids once learned about poetry and went to the aquatic gardens to write poems about lotuses and tiny wildlife in the pools. They once learned about the Gold Rush and spent several hours, in the rain, “mining” for gold. They once learned about crystals and grew colorful ones stretching down from strings into jars. They planned camping trips together. They cooked food together. They invented board games and put on shows.

All these other models could be right for these new families in this hard time. But also, you don’t have to have a school or a microschool or an outside teacher. You definitely don’t need an online based option or a curriculum in a box. Keep up your kids basic math, reading, and writing just a little bit. Get a math program, make sure they’re reading some books or teach them phonics if they’re still learning, and make sure they put pencil to paper sometimes. And then for everything else, it’s okay to think way outside the box. It’s okay if it’s loose and fun and wild. Whether you’re alone or with others, if you have elementary schoolers, whatever works is whatever works. But if you are with others, think about keeping it open ended and child led. You really can’t go wrong if you’re just trying something, letting them ask questions, letting them play.

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Our Beloved Co-op

Our tiny co-op had its final meeting last week and I’m still a little weepy when I think about it. It was time to end. Several kids are headed to school. My kids are starting high school, which brings with it some specific challenges in terms of getting in academics. But this co-op has been in existence for an amazing nine years, which is a really long time for a small, family based co-op.

We ended with an overnight camping trip that the kids planned. The kids planning it was pretty essential. Since its inception, this has been a child-led co-op in various ways, becoming more and more child-led as they grew and matured.

I keep meaning to write a more detailed post about our co-op. I don’t think this is that post. But it’s been a really amazing ride over the years. When we started, the kids picked the topics and the parents taught the lessons. We rotated houses week by week. We made decisions based on consensus, a habit I picked up working in Quaker schools. They learned about things like dinosaurs and history. When they were really little, we used to operated the “Co-op Time Machine,” a pillow fort in the basement that traveled in time to visit the Big Bang, among other things.

At some point, we transitioned to asking the kids to plan the units and decide exactly what they wanted to do. They put on a play, made a movie, staged a fundraiser, wrote their own roleplaying game, and many other projects.

Over the years, there have been all kinds of co-op experiments. The kids played with “co-op money” one fall, playing an elaborate game of trading goods and services. The kid who sold muffins every morning was the winner, I think. There was a co-op yearbook several years, as well as a co-op newspaper created by BalletBoy that ran several editions for a couple of years. Kids came and went over the years, though a few families remained the same.

Co-op has been a hugely stable force in our lives for so many years that it’s staggering. Most schooled kids don’t get this type of stability in their peer group. I feel so lucky to have gotten this experience for them.

As we left the campsite for the final meeting, it was us and the other original family who had been there since the beginning. That’s it,  I realized. There’d be no more co-op. In the fall, the kids opted to do a STEM-centered day of classes once a week.

I feel like nowadays, if a co-op doesn’t have a slate of classes, a rented space, and an official nonprofit designation it’s not a co-op at all. However, this little, free endeavor has been perfect for us. It took the parents sharing a powerful vision for the kids. It wasn’t without its rocky moments and the kids are hardly perfect to each other. Many of the projects fizzled into nothing much. However, this is what homeschooling can, especially for the K-8 years. Cheap and child-driven. Filled with play and friendships.

To Co-Op or Not to Co-Op

Impromptu midday nature hike. File under stuff we have more time for because I committed to having more time at home this year.
Impromptu midday nature hike. File under stuff we have more time for because I committed to having more time at home this year.

When I first got into homeschooling and began to join the online community of homeschoolers, I noticed an undercurrent among the people who had been at it for a long time. “Homeschooling is changing,” they said. Sometimes as a complaint, sometimes in awe of the expanding community, sometimes just as an observation. I took their word for it, and I could certainly see that it had changed from the early days, but I didn’t feel it.

Well, I’m still a newbie by many standards, but I can tell you that I feel it now. Homeschooling is changing. Do I sound like a crotchety old timer? I feel a little like one sometimes.

In the last two years, four co-ops have arisen within a few miles from where I live. These aren’t the sort of homegrown co-ops that meet at people’s homes with a couple of families that were around when my kids were younger (like the one we still participate in). They’re incorporated non-profits with rented space and actual budgets or, in the case of a growing Classical Conversations group, part of a large national group. One of them is for kids to do up to four days a week. Another is for three days a week. The largest, which is new this year, is for only one day a week, but is so large that we’ve gotten some pushback from friends about not joining. As one friend put it, “It’s like everyone you’ve ever met all at one co-op.” Well, not quite, but it does seem that way sometimes.

Did I mention that I feel like an old fuddy duddy? I’m glad these options are suddenly out there and growing. None of them were around when my kids were starting out, which is really a testament to how quickly things are changing and I suspect they’re changing nationwide. But I’m also glad that charter schools in my city are growing and improving. I’m glad that online learning is growing and becoming a viable option for more families. I’m glad that the public schools in my city are improving. I’m just happy that more families, at least in my little corner of the world, have more options than ever before, many of which break the mold of sitting in a classroom all day. However, that doesn’t mean I’m jumping on the bandwagon for any of those things. Especially in the case of interesting new private school models and co-ops that rent their own spaces, these options are expensive. To join that co-op would run us several hundred dollars, not to mention a lot of free work hours from me teaching.

For a lot of the new homeschoolers I’ve met recently, finding a community that meets several days a week in a formal setting is the ideal of homeschooling. I don’t disagree that it can work for some people, but it’s definitely not my ideal.

My ideal is following my kids’ interests and needs on an individual basis. My ideal is having a schedule that’s open and flexible enough to allow us to drop everything to go apple picking or fossil hunting or to see friends unexpectedly. My ideal is learning without an institution. We don’t always achieve those ideals, but none of them are served by being in a group several days a week. That, to me, sounds like school by another name. Potentially a better model of school, but still school.

There is something really inspiring about the way in which homeschoolers are creating these learning communities. Some of them are especially great for parents who work full or part time but still want to find a way to homeschool. However, one of the things I want new homeschoolers to know is that you can do this on your own too. You can educate your kids without a co-op if you want to. You can educate your kids without a curriculum too. I know it sounds crazy, but there’s a certain joy to reinventing the wheel for your kids and learning how to teach them by simply teaching them. Not only that, but there are a million models for making friendships and community in homeschooling. One way is by creating something that requires administrators and accountants, but another is by creating something small. We have gotten so much joy and love out of a free, informal co-op that is run as much by the kids as the adults. We have also gotten more social skills and teamwork skills from doing Destination Imagination than I think could be gotten in nearly any classroom.

So we’re sticking with our group of just a few kids and our activities that we already have. Maybe we’ll re-evaluate down the road, and see if I’m willing to give up a few more days of home school in favor of community school.