Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Homeschool Coop Part 2

I just put aside my small pile of pond books, having finished preparing to lead a pond study tomorrow for our coop, and I have a little energy left, so I thought I would at long last get back to describing the coop we are currently a part of (see the first post, about the coop in Virginia, here).

For being such a small town (about 8,000 residents when the University is off session - add 20,000 during the school year), the homeschooling community is large and diverse.  Just in the past year two coops have formed, and we were fortunate to connect with one that fits us pretty well.  We are made up of 9 families, with kids ranging from infant to 10 years old.  When they began, they would meet in a different location every week, depending on the needs of the class being taught (field trips, local farms, meeting room at the library, someone's home), but this year we decided to find one location in which we would congregate.  I think this makes a lot of sense - the kids become comfortable and we don't have to spend a lot of time "policing" the space, meaning, they come to understand the rules of the space quickly;  the teachers are not sent scrambling for an appropriate and comfortable space every month; we had a space to store a few art supplies.  The space we used was in an old high school now used as a community center in a town 10 minutes away.  We used the lunchroom and kitchen (a great bonus!), the gymnasium and stage, the library, and an art room.  There was also an outside space and a short nature trail behind the building that we made use of quite a few times.  The cost for renting the space for a full day every week came to $20/family/month, though we have a sliding scale and plans for a fundraiser to help offset costs.

When we started the year, we were meeting for one hour of class time, lunch, and a lot of unstructured playtime.  This was fine when the weather was nice, but it soon became apparent that too much unstructured, unsupervised play inside the LOUD gymnasium was making all of us cranky! So we began to consider what else we could do with the day, the space, and to make the most of the longish drive some of us were making to be there. By the end of the year, our day looked something like this: 

Arrive 9:30
10 - 10:50 Kitchen Science (this was open and optional, but the parent teaching requested an rsvp in order to know how many to plan for) - other kids played in the gym or arrived later.
11 - 12 Parent-lead class time - one class for older kids (6-10), one for preschoolers (0-5).  The classes offered this year lasted a month each, and were varied: soccer skills/body awareness, fire safety, US politics (the structure of our political system, how voting works), book making, electromagnetic science, poop (love how I throw this in there?! digestive system, animal scat, owl pellets, etc.), spring science (wind, water cycle, clouds, plant dissection/seed growth), architecture.  Preschool class was basically story time followed by an activity/nature walk/art time.
12 - 1 Lunch and play time
1 - 2 - This began as "centers" time, where we set up various centers each week and the kids chose what they wanted to do.  Build with legos, play board games, draw, use playdough or clay, knit...This would have been more successful with a bit more parental involvement.  We then decided to bring in an outside teacher to teach an "elective".  This increased our monthly obligation by $15/family, with which to pay the teacher.  Classes offered this year were drama (both age groups put on plays around the winter holidays - pretty darn cute!); creative writing; conflict resolution; putting together a newsletter.  There are classes offered for homeschoolers at local art centers, yoga studios, etc, and we've talked about bringing in a teacher from those organizations for a month at a time.

There were a few field trips woven throughout the year as well:  the kids went to meet some of the local (and newly-elected) politicians; we visited the firehouse up the hill; most of the group traveled to visit Falling Water, a Frank Lloyd Wright creation in Pennsylvania.

We are still figuring out whether or not we want to get any bigger, and how we'd like to structure our classes next year.  Up for discussion:  split the older group into two? do this on an as-needed basis?  team teach each class? choose a subject matter or focus to help define the year?  A family joined us about a month and a half ago, and we're all really happy to have them with us, their 3 girls are definite assets to the group, but the mother pointed out at our last lunchtime parent meeting that we should really strongly consider a parent's ability to contribute to the group when inviting a new family to join.  She commented that while she loves her kids and really enjoys homeschooling, she is actually not that great with children nor with teaching a large group of kids! We all laughed, because while this might be true, she brings with her a wealth of knowledge about the natural world, having been a naturalist in Montana for years, and a quick willingness to brainstorm and help create a class. She makes a good point though - none of us are trained teachers, we are all learning on-the-job, as it were, and it takes a lot of energy and cooperation to make a coop work.  It was helpful at a point early in the year to start designating an organizer for each season - too much democratic group decision-making was proving too exhausting and not very effective. I would also say that what I miss from the Virginia coop is having like-minded parents as coop members.  We are all respectful about our differing parenting and homeschooling styles, but it would be so much more enriching to have that added layer of support to what we are doing.  I see Eliza, our social whirlwind, making some good friendships and enjoying the time to run with the pack. Ani is still finding her way a bit, not being one to naturally want to join in and do what the others are doing.  She is ready for a break from regular coop, I think, though she also has made some friends that she talks about a lot at home.  I enjoy the contact with the other parents, and really enjoyed teaching my class, and I'll be interested to see how this group matures in the coming year.  
We are just about in summer mode right now, with very loosely structured gatherings at local parks and nature centers.  We'll continue to meet through the summer, with park days and the occasional field trip or group hike. And before too long, we'll be ready to begin again...I'm sure I'll think of some more things that might be of interest to someone wanting to begin or join a coop, but that energy I had has now seeped out through my fingertips!

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