Monday, October 20, 2014

To Co-Op or Not to Co-Op

I have a confession to make.  I am not in a good place.  For too long, I have tried to do too much.  I have become a slave to the curriculum.  I have made a lot of the mistakes I listed in the last posts.   And I am exhausted, spent, uninspired.  I have considered ending my career as a homeschooling mom. That is the ugly news.  I see the effects on my family and know that it takes time to undo the damage, which is the bad news.  The good news is that God is dragging me through this, showing me where and how to lighten my load and my family's load and proving to me how He truly redeems bad situations.  Thank you, Jesus for unconditional love and faithfulness!  My situation has been what has inspired past posts, but it is also coloring this post.

For those homeschooling newbies out there, "co-op" is shorthand for "co-operative education."  A co-op is a group of homeschooling families getting together at a regular time during the school year in more of a classroom environment with either:
1.  The parents take turns during the course of a school year teaching a particular subject(s) OR
2.  Parents with different skill sets gather to teach to their particular skill set in a barter-like system.

I have been involved in a two-family barter-like co-op, a medium sized co-op and recently a big co-op.  Generally, the co-op organizers expect you to make a school year commitment, so don't join if you are not absolutely sure you can make the commitment.  And there is usually a nominal cost involved.   As always, there are good things about them, bad things and sometimes ugly things.

The Good:
  • Co-ops can lighten your load if they are organized right.  Just having one less thing to do can be amazingly helpful.
  • Co-ops can be a way to forge life-long friendships with your kids.  They also provide your kids a break from their siblings and a non-family socialization.  This is especially true of smaller co-ops.
  • P.E. co-ops specifically can help introduce your kid to team sports without having to actually sign up for one.
  • Co-ops expand your child's horizons not just through the curriculum, but also to get them used to other teaching styles.  It gives  you a chance to witness other teaching styles.
  • Co-ops can be a way to forge life-long friendships between mothers, who can encourage you when you are having a tough day/week/month.
  • Co-ops are a great way of showing God's grace to people who are not in your family.
The Bad:
  • Co-ops require more work in the short term.  I know this sounds like the opposite of the first bullet in the "Good" category, but the week you have to teach will require a lot more preparation from you than your normal, non-co-op days and teaching a classroom is harder than teaching just a few kids.  You have to work to get your own kids out the door with all of the supplies they need for the classes, plus possibly breakfast/lunch fixings.   Some co-ops will require you to have your teaching plan prepared a week in advance.  If it is a barter-system and a big co-op, they might make you have your year planned.
  • Being involved in a co-op when you have babies, toddlers and pre-schoolers can be extremely difficult, especially if there is no child care for younger kids provided.  I speak from personal experience when I say that teaching a class of homeschooled kids when you have a toddler who wants your undivided attention sucks all energy from you and leaves you a brain-dead jellyfish for the rest of the day.  If the co-op does not provide child care for younger kids, my advice is to find one that does, pay for child care, or if those are not options, wait to join until all your kids are old enough to participate.  
  • If you do not view co-ops properly and adjust your schooling accordingly, you could be adding to your kid's stress level.  Consider it school.  This might sound like "duh", but many moms I have met, myself included at one point, considered it more of an "extra-curricular activity."
  • After co-op is done for the day, give you and your kids a chance to decompress, especially if you or one of your kids is an introvert.  
  • The bigger the co-op, the higher probability of bullying, both with adults and children, even in Christian co-ops because all have sinned.  Double the probability for P.E. co-ops., though my only experience with a P.E. co-op involved watching middle school kids play team sports with elementary aged kids in a beautiful display of grace (I totally miss H.A.M.I.C. PE, which unfortunately dissolved shortly after I move away.  This was purely a coincidence and is a perfect lead-in to the ugly part)
The Ugly
  • Sometimes, co-ops fail.  Co-ops involve a lot more imperfect people managing things.  Tempers flare, harsh words are spoken, feelings are hurt.  This happens with the adults as well as the kids.  Grieve, wail, mourn.  Forgive.  Learn from your experience.  Protect your family above all else.  
  • If the co-op is unorganized or takes on too much for its size, the burden created by the co-op becomes heavier than the load it lightens.  I had to bail on a co-op two weeks into the "school year" because too many families decided to bail on the co-op and the workload for the remaining families was too much.  This realization totally conflicted with my desire to faithful to my commitments, but I also envisioned me having weekly breakdowns from September until May trying to meet its requirements.  Remember that if it comes down to a co-op or your mental stability, always let your mental stability win because your mental stability affects your family's mental stability.  Protect your family above all else.  
There are a few different options to co-op classes:
  • Paying for outside classes.  I generally outsource art classes because that is an area where I have no talent.  For a couple years, I paid for my kids to be in a PE group.  Last year, a group of families with high school students got together and paid a teacher to teach chemistry.  They also paid facility fees and lab fees.  There is a higher cost, but a lighter load than co-ops.
  • Social-based homeschooling groups:  These are valid options if you are looking for support and friends without the additional burden of having to prepare lesson plans.
  • You could consider a two-family co-op more of a barter system than a "real" co-op.
  • For older kids, outside apprentice-ships in an area of their interest.  This requires research.
Above all, don't load yourself down with too many activities, even if those activities look incredibly enticing because they will put unnecessary burdens on you and your family.  Protect your family above all.

Happy Homeschooling (or not!)

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Curriculum Cunundrum

In the last post, I discussed reasons for homeschooling.  This week I am tackling the next subject:  curriculum.

Homeschooling parents who are now grandparents will tell you that we have it easy because when THEY were homeschooling, there were only a few curriculum packages out there.  However, to a newbie homeschooling family, they might view the huge variety of curriculum out there like a Sudanese refugee might view a trip to an American grocery store--too many choices can be overwhelming.  My purpose is not to tell you curriculum XYZ is the best, but to help you think through your choices. Before you choose a curriculum, here are a few things you might want to figure out first (which, by the way, is not necessarily what I did.)

  • Figure out your kids.  What motivates them, what interests them, and how do they learn best. To help you on that last item, you can buy, or even check out of your local libary, How they Learn by Cynthia Tobias.  She talks not only about different learning styles and different processing styles, but she also talks about how kids thrive in different environments.  She gives practical ways to assess your children.  For instance, my youngest needs silence while the rest of my kids like music.  This means that my original plan to have us all studying together in one room might not work out well.  One child really likes to do all their work on the sofa, rather on the recommended desks.  If you have really young kids, spend your time in homeschool figuring these things out.  
  • Figure out what is your family's identity and what is REALLY important to you.  For instance, we generally are a family who loves to read, watch movies and do stuff outside, like camping.  My husband and I are also science geeks.  The thing is, you will not be able to focus on everything without driving you and your kids crazy and making school dull drudgery.  Make sure they get the basics, like reading, writing, and math, but anything else is extra.  And there are ways to incorporate other subjects within those three.  For example, history has the word "story" in it.  Historical fiction or just "living history books" which is a fancy way of saying history lessons written in storybook format is a great way to get some history in your kids. 
  • If you have more than one kid, chances are, that at least one of your child will not line up with your family identity.  My husband and I are science geeks, but we have a really talented artist in our family.  I had all of my kids take art lessons, but she took more because that is what she really liked to do.  Another family I know is a couple who both majored in art, but their oldest is really into programming and science.  This is proof that God has a sense of humor.   If you keep your schedule down to basics, you are far more adaptable to add extras based on your kid's interests.  Now if you your kids are 
  • When you go looking for curriculum, you need to know the underlying teaching philosophy behind the curriculum.  I have found really good website to describe the different philosophies at The Homeschool Diner.  Go there and figure out which philosophy resonates with you, then go search for curriculum within that philosophy. 
  • Also ask yourself what you want out of the curriculum.  Do you want something that is very structured, a curriculum that you can pull "out of a box" or do you
  • What is your budget?  This will have a huge impact on what you will choose.  There are some free curriculum out there.
  • Don't be a slave to the curriculum.  It is very easy to serve the curriculum rather than letting the curriculum serve you, especially if you buy a box curriculum.  The box curriculums usually give you more than you can possibly do in a week.  Decide what you want to do and ignore the rest.  There is another way in which you can be a slave:  if the curriculum is not working for you or your family, don't be afraid to dump it.  Dump it mid-season, especially if you or your kids are finding yourself having a breakdown more than once a quarter over it.  If you can't afford another curriculum, use the library to have your kids explore their interests, take time to explore your community by going on field trips or just take some time off while you figure out a replacement.  The best curriculum is not necessarily the most expensive one.  
The Good:  Know that this is a continuous process.  Your kids will change, their preferences will change, your educational needs will change.  You will not scar your kids for life if you choose a bad curriculum.  There is no perfect educational process and no perfect curriculum.  Let go of perfectionism.  For me, this is a daily process.  Even this year, I re-evaluated the curriculum I had been using and decided to dump most of the stuff we had been doing as "non-optional" and change it to "extra credit" because I was trying to do it all.  
The Bad:   This requires a lot of work and, like laundry and housework, might seem to never end
The Ugly:  Curriculum research can easily suck up more time than you actually spend teaching.  Set a limit for research and get your spouse involved or even another homeschooling parent.

Next subject:  Co-ops