If you are looking for a way to break away from the monotony of textbooks and wish to add a little life to your curriculum, co-ops are the way to go! I’m not referring to such things as enrichment classes which can serve something like 80 families and 150 students, though in a sense, they are a co-op. What I’ll be discussing here is small co-ops of a handful of families focused on studying the same topic for a set amount of time. When planning a co-op there are several things to be considered: How do you go about choosing families for your co-op? How controlling should you be? What type of problems might you run into? How can you choose and limit activities? I will give you the basic model we created that has proven very successful for co-ops I have been involved in, and then go on to answer the other questions and concerns. In another article, I will share some of the different events and activities we did as a group.
Ideally, the co-op should enhance your chosen topic without putting undo time and energy constraints on its participants. Your co-op doesn’t have to be a year long thing. You can plan a 1 or 2 month commitment if you want. Truthfully, I can’t co-op continuously. At most, I can do two years in a row. Co-ops expend a lot of creative energy and can burn you out if you don’t take occasional breaks from them.
We’ve been involved in a number of co-ops over the years. Some have been wonderful. Some have added extra stress to our home school. Some were just for a social outlet. By the grace of God and the pioneering spirit of the early home school families, we managed to create a beautiful model with the first co-op we attempted. For the most part, we have used the same basic set up for all the other co-ops we ran. Here is the model we created:
- Keep it limited to about 6-8 families (You will likely need to “close” your group at some point to keep it from ineffectively growing out of control.)
- Choose the families carefully; you need to have similar expectations and similar commitment levels.
- Choose a topic to study together; let each family study the subject as they see fit at home, but focus on being prepared for upcoming co-op activities.
- Lay out a schedule for the semester/year appointing two families to organize the events for any given month. (It works much better to have two moms working together rather than assigning one mom to take on all the planning for any given event.) Every month a different set of moms steps up to the plate so there is not too much burden on any one family. Alternatively, we had each mom team take two months in a row and then they were done hosting for the year.
- We liked to meet twice a month, once for a field trip or speaker pertaining to our topic of study and once for a group event (a themed banquet, learning new skills, an art project, each family giving a presentation, etc.).
- Limit your activities. Weed out those that are less valuable or too demanding in time, money or energy. Even still, it is possible to incorporate several different activities into a single group activity day.
- While only two families are involved in the organizing for each month (Be SURE to rotate this responsibility!), ALL the families are assigned a contribution of some sort whether it’s bringing supplies, bringing food, preparing their own presentation, etc.
- Make a clean “end” to your co-op, thereby freeing yourself to move on and/or create a new co-op with other families (or some of the same). Things get stale if the same 6 families keep trying to carry on co-ops together year after year.
The chemistry of the families involved can make or break a co-op. Be a little exclusive here. If you have a friend or two that you know would love to do this with you, invite them privately and let each of the 3 families invite one other family to the group. You don’t have to advertise that you are starting a co-op. Personally, I have a hard time saying no to anyone, but when it comes to co-ops, if you’re not willing to draw some lines, you may as well skip co-oping. Completely open co-ops are dsestined to fail.
You have to have somewhat like-minded families for this to work. If one family wants to be really laid back and focus on crafts and another family wants to have each child deliver a 10 page report, you’re going to have problems. If two moms are working their bottoms off and the other 4 are sitting in the other room just chatting with one another, that’s not going to work well either. You need families committed to participating and not just taking. There’s nothing wrong with focusing on crafts OR research papers; just make sure the group is like-minded.
Another question is what to do about younger siblings. We have always allowed preschoolers to participate. And it was an unspoken rule that parents would keep their younger children involved or otherwise involve them quietly in a corner of the room so as not to disrupt the activity or stress the hostess. It is also important to understand the necessity of respecting the home and belongings of the host family. Again – Keep your co-ops small and manageable.
There are other reasons for limiting the size of the group. First of all, if you are meeting in somebody’s home, it’s unreasonable to have 30 kids show up. Secondly, it’s important that everybody does their fair share. If every participating family doesn’t have to carry a share of the load, you will end up with uncommitted families that will take advantage of those that are willing to put in the work. Usually you want at least 2 families working together to “host” any given event, but if you get more than 3 or 4 families hosting, it becomes “too many hands in the pot”. Finally, you will find if you limit the number of families, it will be a more intimate group where real friendships have a chance to blossom and grow and it is unlikely that anyone will be ignored or left out. Also, it’s less intimidating to plan and activity or make a presentation before 12 peers than it is before 30. Big enough to share the load, small enough to avoid cliques – that’s my recommendation.
If you don’t know many families, you may have to just publicly put your feelers out there on your local home school forum or facebook group. If that’s the case, really spell out what you are looking for – something like this:
“Fun family of upper-elementary students looking for 5-7 other families to co-op for two months on the Solar System and two more months on the Oregon Trail. You can choose to join us for either or both studies. We will not be following any particular curriculum. We will have a planning meeting for each co-op to decide exactly what we want to do as a group, but other than that focus, you use whatever materials you like to study the subject. We will meet twice a month for each co-op alternating between field trips or speakers and hands-on activities and presetnations. You must have a student in the 3rd – 5th grade level to join. Older and younger siblings are welcome to participate as well. We expect all children to be kept under control and to be respectful and cooperative. Each family will commit to helping organize one of the two events for each study. Failure to hold up your end of the bargain may result in asking you to leave the co-op so other “cooperative” families can fill your spot. We will limit the co-op to a maximum of 8 families. If more families than that are interested and willing to commit, we may break into two groups. If you are interested, please call …”
You can also put out a more general announcement such as, “Is anybody else studying The Oregon Trail or the solar system? We might be interested in doing a few group activities together.” Gather whoever is interested, then split into groups based on ages and/or levels of commitment. It’s possible only one or two families end up responding and it becomes evident you won’t work well together. If that’s the case, just graciously decline and say you’ve decided a group might not be best for you at this time.
With a little planning, a good dose of commitment, and the careful choosing of participants, co-op groups can add tremendous depth and fun to your home school experience.
Next time, I will share some of the things we’ve done together in co-ops and other ideas for group activities.