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The Key to Exceptional Co-Op Days

By Jessica Hulcy
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #52, 2003.

How to make your co-op days exceptional homeschool days.

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Jessica Hulcy

Tripp, Caroline, Melissa, and Elizabeth
As the cars pulled up to the Alexander Mansion, doors popped open, and young girls struggled with their hoop skirts as they exited. Feet on the ground, they straightened their shoulders, lifted their skirts, and glided through the double doors as if hoop skirts were part of their daily attire. Inside, Confederate soldiers stood by the fireplace sporting $5 gray suits from the Goodwill Store that had been bedecked with gold fabric, braid, and buttons. Most wore gloves; some even wore swords.

Since it was December, the Mansion mantles, tables, and grand stairway were hung with Christmas swags. Even the large fichus trees were decked for Christmas in white twinkle lights. After a several course meal, the tables were cleared and the dancing began. Waltzes, English country line dances, the Virginia reel, and mixer round dances were danced by all from age five to fifty plus. Cameras flashed to capture this once-in-a-lifetime Civil War Ball with all its gaiety and gorgeous dresses. Months of preparation and planning had made this event a huge success for my junior high and high school American History co-op classes.

Commitment To Truly Teach

It is easy for anyone to comprehend the necessity of planning and preparation to make such a large-scale, junior high/high school event successful. Certainly all the costumes, renting the Mansion, choosing the menu, finding a dance caller, teaching the dance steps, and much more had to be orchestrated. Anyone can see that! But can anyone see the equal necessity for everyday planning of homeschool and co-ops for elementary-age students? Don't you just open the craft book on co-op day and go with it? Sadly, many parents are doing exactly that, to the disservice of their children.

When I began homeschooling 21 years ago, most parents studied and prepared 24/7 to adequately teach their children. Every homeschooling mom I knew was at the library immersed in the topic she was teaching her children.

Greg, Jared, and Dale in San Antonio
However, as the homeschooling movement aged, the 24/7 attitude was shelved, and the preparation pendulum swung in the opposite direction in favor of busy moms merely making assignments and then leaving children to learn on their own. True teaching in homeschool is fast becoming a lost art.

Let's get one thing straight. It is the parent's job to teach and the children's job to learn. Children are not in charge of both teaching and learning. So... Rule # 1 of Co-oping: Commit to teaching your heart out on co-op day.

Choosing Co-op Partners

Just because a homeschooling family lives next door, does not make them the "right family to co-op with." Ages and gender of children are very important considerations. Do not expect your 13-year-old son to be delighted at the prospect of homeschooling with three girls ages 10, 8, and 6 just because they live close. He is a young boy on the verge of puberty, and he would like friends with common interests, just as you and I would.

As parents we want to honor those natural desires our children have as long as they are helping to fashion a child of God. If our children do not enjoy the people they co-op with, then what is the point?

Jared as Albert Einstein
Likewise, co-oping must be a fit for the co-oping moms. I know some lovely homeschooling moms that love the Lord, but I would not choose to co-op with them. Why? Some are not workers and would be content to let me do all the work. Others dabble in homeschool, but never actually teach their own children, so why would I suspect they would teach a co-op? Still others do not have obedient children, so why would I think they would require my child to obey? Pay attention to "red flags" that warn of significant personality or character traits that would hinder a great co-op year.

Pray for wisdom and discernment before you commit to co-oping.

Rule # 2: Choose co-oping partners after much prayer and based on the combined best... the best children for your children and the best moms for you.

Set Policies Avert Problems

The time to formulate co-oping policies is before you begin co-oping, not in the heat of a crisis or at a crossroads of differing opinions. Policies run the gamut from how much money to spend on supplies, to the importance of picking up on time, to who will clean up, to what children will be allowed to do at recess, to what to do in case of an emergency, to what happens if something is broken, to how to discipline each other's children. All these decisions should be made as a group at a meeting in the summer before the co-op begins. It is impossible to think of all the different scenarios that might occur; however, the more you discuss and the more you resolve, the less problems you are bound to have.

If problems do arise, the best policy is to nip them in the bud. Scripturally we are commanded to go to our brother or sister and resolve those difficulties. Even though set policies are a tremendous buffer, the bulk of your co-oping problems are going to be resolved, because the hearts of your members are seeking to serve the Lord by serving each other.

Rule # 3: Avert problems through set policies, prayer, and honest exchanges.

Jessica Hulcy Teaching about Plants
Plan For The Year

The first three rules of successful co-oping lay the foundation for co-oping while the next three actually build the house. Co-ops begin planning the entire year by deciding what units will be taught by what mothers; however, the real planning for each unit happens as each teaching mom gathers information and resources for each unit. The key to my successful co-op lies in my billfold - five library cards that allow me to check out 35 books at a time. Most of my information for elementary history, art, music, science, and literature is acquired by reading library books right on my level, with sufficient pictures, and short enough for my time frame - children's books!

Past learning what to teach on co-op day, the day itself must be planned out to the letter if it is to run smoothly. When I was teaching Texas history, I could not just up and drive four hours to the Alamo without careful planning. Besides, that careful planning helped me discover the best day to visit - the only day of the year re-enactors and the descendant of Santa Anna were there. Likewise, if I want to have each child make a piñata, I not only have to research how to make a piñata, but I should make one prior to the co-op day to see what difficulties might be encountered, what changes need to be made, and what supplies work best. On the actual co-op day there must be enough scissors on the tables, enough glue, enough of the correct colors of tissue paper to make the craft flow smoothly.

Rule # 4: Plan the year, the month, the unit, the day, and even the crafts and activities to the letter.

Agree On Level Of Student Commitment

What, if any, homework should be required? Should the children prepare before they come to class? These questions need to be addressed in the summer meeting. With children of differing ages, levels of performance as well levels of preparation will vary. Likewise, some students read earlier than others and moms need to determine how to challenge without crushing, how to individualize without destroying the group. Remember, it is your co-op and you can make all the exceptions you want. Just make those exceptions group exceptions.

Flower Costumes
Leveling should be built into the planning of each unit. When I was teaching a physical science unit, each child was required to give a culminating report on a particular scientist and his contribution to science. While a younger student gave a report on Thomas Edison and explained how the light bulb worked, an older student tackled (on a very surface level) Einstein and his Theory of Relativity.

Rule # 5: Leveling of preparation and performance must occur in co-ops due to varied ages and abilities.

Barrage Students With Information

If it is the teacher's job to teach, then on co-op day I am well read, full of information, and shift into broadcast mode sharing information all day even through hands-on activities. While teaching the character trait of Orderliness, we do a unit on the orderly creation and structure of plants and animals. As we walk through the fields gathering flowers to key out, I am doing more than just finding a flower in the field and identifying it in a flower book. I am explaining larger concepts of families of flowers. I pick up an aster or a black-eyed Susan and introduce the composite family.

Each composite is really not a flower, but rather a bouquet of flowers, since each petal has its own pistil and stamen attached. I then pick up a wild onion and begin explaining the lily family, identified by its parallel-veined leaves and three sections in the pistil.

Do moms need a botany degree to teach plants in co-op? The answer is no. The key is in the curriculum you choose and the children's books you read from the library. The curriculum I choose is naturally my own. Even in elementary school I insist on introducing the terms thallophyte, angiosperm, and gymnosperm when teaching plants. Four years ago Drew hopped into our last night production dressed as a mushroom, huffing and puffing, "My name is thallo...phyte. Thallo means sprout and phyte means plant. That's me. I sprout from nowhere." You can bet Drew never has forgotten the word or meaning of thallophyte.

Rule # 6: The teacher should barrage students with information on co-op day.

Books could be written on co-oping, but really all co-oping requires is common sense and following the Boy Scout motto of "Be prepared." Planning, planning, and more planning is the key to co-op success.

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