Tag Archives: back-to-school

Ask a NextGen Homeschooler: What about “co-op” schooling?

14 Sep

Welcome to “Ask a NextGen Homeschooler…” It’s your turn to ask the authors of NextGen Homeschool — four formerly homeschooled moms who are now homeschooling our children — to weigh in on your homeschooling questions. From the practical to the personal, all questions are welcome — whether you’re a current homeschooler or just homeschooling curious!

This week’s question is: What about cooperative — aka “co-op” — homeschooling? The “co-op” homeschooling landscape has changed significantly since we were all homeschooled. Back then, we were fortunate to have occasional park days and group field trips with other homeschooling families. Today, “co-op” opportunities are more prevalent than ever as the homeschooling community has grown — especially in populated areas. With so much available, what do NextGen Homeschoolers choose to utilize and why?

NextGen Author Cristina Eklund
Was homeschooled since the 6th grade
Began homeschooling in 2010: Son (6) and daughter (4)

After attending two different co-ops in the past two years and learning about how several others work, here are my personal opinions regarding incorporating a “co-op” into your homeschool plans:

1) Decide if you are joining the co-op for social or academic reasons. Ask yourself: Am I joining because I’d like my children to learn how to interact with other kids? Or am I joining because I feel like I could really use some more support in a particular academic area?

If it’s a social reason, be ready to train. There are great Christian moms out there — myself included — who still don’t have their children’s behavior down to a science. Be prepared for many learning experiences alongside your kids in loving, forgiving and saying “no” when necessary.

If it’s an academic reason, just make sure you are aware of the responsibilities and expectations of the group. There be a lot more work than you are ready to take on. Or it might be the push you needed to get some science experiments done!

2) Establish common goals. A co-op can be anything from meeting for a park day once a week to meeting twice a week to cover history and Spanish in a group setting. The most important thing is that you and the other moms are on the same page as to what you’d like (or not like) to accomplish. When more moms start to join your group, be prepared for more ideas — which could help or hinder your co-op. Keep your co-op goals in focus.

3) Lay the foundation first. Whether you are starting a co-op or joining an existing co-op, it’s important to know things like, “will this be a Christian co-op or open to all homeschoolers?” Again, you might think this is a given, but it’s not. And there’s no right answer, only the one that works best for you. Do you want to be a part of a mixed group or do you feel spiritual agreement is important to the education of your child? If these questions aren’t addressed from the beginning, they will likely play a role later when subjects are brought to the table on which you have different worldview perspectives, and this can cause division in the group.

4) Smaller is better. Large co-ops are great, as long as you are breaking up into smaller groups at some point — not more than three or four children per adult for most teaching situations. There should be clear parameters as to how many kids and what ages you’d like to join. Not to be exclusive, but to ensure the time is productive and organized — accomplishing what was expected to be accomplished. I think there has to be a really strong leadership group with a vision to pull off seven or more family groups without details falling through the cracks.

One-on-one groups are still my favorite. Find one family whose kids’ ages are in common with yours and take turns covering subjects such as art, art history, science projects, etc., and meet once a week or every other week. The ideas are endless — and it gives your kids something to look forward to during the week.

5) Seasons in your life change. What was a great idea one year may not be the next. Don’t feel bad about changing course: Do what’s right for you and for your kids.

I am the first to say “yes” to everything. I like meeting new people and getting in on what’s good to get in on. But there comes a point that it truly does more damage than good. You are tired by the end of the week, your kids are tired of you yelling at them to get in the car because you’re late once again, and you find your whole goal of homeschooling — to establish good character, consistent rhythms and routines in your home, and reading all those great books — has gone out the window.

I can say that being a part of a co-op has never failed to allow me to be in touch with other great moms. But once you meet some families that work well with yours, joining a co-op simply to hang out with them is not your only answer, though it might be a good start. Impromptu visits to share curriculum and drink coffee once a month or fun picnics will do just as well — and sometimes save your sanity.

NextGen Editor Renée Gotcher
Was homeschooled in 11-12th grade
Began homeschooling in 2010: Three daughters ages 11 1/2, 10 and 5

Back when my mom started homeschooling in the late 80s, I only had two years left of high school. Most of my college requirements (especially in math and science) were completed already, so I don’t remember my mom looking for co-op educational opportunities as much as social ones. We did attend park days and field trips with other families, and our support group even had a “promotion night” at the end of the year to celebrate graduates at all ages.

When I started homeschooling, I was really excited to learn about the vast opportunities available now. In fact, the support group I joined was offering weekly co-op classes for elementary ages & teens taught at a classroom-like location, covering subjects such as art, language, music, geography and writing. I dove in right away, because in my mind this was the perfect blend between the mostly solo homeschooling I had experienced and the traditional school atmosphere. Even though it was nice to have subjects like art and music covered by parents who excelled in these areas, I was really looking to fill our social needs more than anything.

However, our support group had grown so much that year, the formal weekly co-op wasn’t going to be sustainable for the future without a major shift in the group’s mission and administration. So in our second year of homeschooling, I had to look outside our group for existing co-ops other than the field trips and monthly activities provided by my group. In the end, our only weekly co-op was an organized homeschool PE program, and once a month we did elementary presentation day with our support group. We also did weekly AWANA at our church, and the girls had lots of friends they enjoyed spending time with there.

It was an easier schedule to maintain, for sure, but I found that I really did miss the regular social interaction with the other homeschooling moms. Plus, my eldest two daughters were entering the “tween” phase, and I could tell that they needed more opportunities to develop healthy friendships. The final straw that broke this mama’s back was when the homeschooling family around the corner — who also had three daughters of similar ages to mine, making playdates and impromptu social times a snap — moved to Wyoming in the spring. All three of my girls were losing a close friend, and I was losing a mama friend too!

This year, our homeschool support group decided to hold a co-op workshop over the summer to introduce the idea of establishing small co-ops on our own within the group. We currently have more than 70 families in membership, and the idea was that if we could help connect families with common goals and children of common ages with one another, co-ops could flourish in a more organic way. I knew I really wanted a co-op for myself and my girls, so I was really excited about this idea.

At the same time, I had been feeling a nudge from the Lord to do a tween girls book club, both to give my girls a good social opportunity and turn them on to books with Godly character focus. I shared the idea at our co-op workshop, and before I knew it, I had a handful of moms of tween girls interested in starting the book club with me! God is awesome that way: He really brought a wonderful group of moms and girls together with a common mission and focus. Getting the logistics into place has been a breeze because we’re all on the same page.

The co-op is a little larger than I had planned: We have 13 moms, and more than a few have more than one daughter participating. At our first mixer yesterday, I counted 33 total moms and daughters chatting up a storm in my house — and that wasn’t everyone! We decided to split up the girls into three small discussion groups by age, and every meeting will conclude with at least an hour of social time and snacking. Moms will be taking turns providing snacks, supervising the younger siblings during discussion time, and hosting at their home. We’re reading the “Secret Keeper Girl” fictional series by Dannah Gresh first, and many of the moms will also be doing the group activities from Gresh’s “8 Great Dates for Moms & Daughters” together as well.

I completely agree with the advice my sister Cristina shared. Co-ops can be such a blessing when they meet the needs of your family! But they can also get you off track, keep you too busy, or distract from what you personally want to accomplish as a homeschooling parent. I do think that it’s vital to find some form of support with other homeschoolers in your community, though. Pray about it, and I believe that God will open the right doors for you to find the support you need.

NextGen Author Rosanna Ward
Was homeschooled since 8th grade
Began homeschooling in 2005: Two homeschool graduate daughters & two sons (7, 1)

In the past, I have been a minimal homeschool group participant and never did formal co-ops (unless you count the days we school with my sister and her girls). My girls were middle-school age when we started homeschooling, and they didn’t really like going to new things. They had their neighborhood friends and church friends already, so they didn’t feel the need for anything else.

We did participate in one small support group, but we barely met once a month and did about three field trips a year together. I enjoyed the fellowship with a few other moms, and the girls got to spend some time making new friends. But that group disbanded years ago, and we never bothered to try again. We were busy and hanging out with my sister’s family — along with weekly PE class, a random homeschool skate day and some family field trips —  and that was enough to get us through.

But this year, I felt a major change was in order. Joel is the only one I am schooling at this time. He is in 2nd grade work, and he needs lots of activity to stay busy or else he just wants to play video games and watch cartoons on Netflix. We already meet with my sister’s family twice a week for joint schooling and go to a weekly PE class, but I felt that wasn’t enough this year.

So we signed up for soccer and piano. So far so good. So I decided I’d also join the Victory Homeschool Group and enroll Joel in their Monday co-op classes. He will be taking art and science, as well as participating in a Lego Club, on Mondays. And I must admit, I am feeling isolated and in need of friendship.

Already I am starting to feel too busy. Monday is co-op from 1:00-4:00pm. Tuesday is soccer practice. Wednesday my toddler Leif is at Mother’s Day Out. Thursday Leif is at MDO again, and from 10:00am-2:00pm my sister Liz comes over here, plus we have 2:00pm PE, 4:30pm piano lesson, and a 7:00pm soccer practice. Friday we are at Liz’s house from 10:00am-2:00pm. Saturday there are soccer games. At least soccer is over at the end of October!

Joel is loving it all right now. He has also had a chance to go skating twice since school started. We went to Homeschool Skate Day a couple of weeks ago, and a week ago we went to the Victory Group Kick-off Party at a skating rink inside a large church.

Yeah… So attending that kick-off party reminded me why I didn’t like joining groups in the past. It is excruciatingly painful trying to meet new people — for me anyway. I’m not exactly shy, but I’m not very outgoing and I just felt very awkward all night. The boys played and made new friends, but I just stood on the sidelines watching and trying to find someone I thought I could start a conversation with.

The biggest problem I realized right away was that I was pretty much the only one there without her spouse (and it wasn’t publicized that this was a bring-your-spouse event). Add that to the fact that most of the people already knew each other and had things to talk about. I’m not saying people weren’t nice: They said “hi” and welcome, but then they moved on.

At one point I went to the bathroom and checked the mirror to make sure my clothes were straight and that Leif hadn’t left stains on my clothes, my hair was still in place (somewhat), and that I still had makeup on — so that wasn’t the problem. I tried to smile friendly and I even stepped outside my comfort zone (even more) when at one point I started a conversation with someone who I thought might have a friend in common with me. Nope — that conversation lasted about two minutes.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not judging the people there for not inviting me in or being more friendly. I have been where they are, with all my friends around me and so much to talk about and catch up on that I totally didn’t realize there was a new, nervous person in the room. It is hard to think about drawing new people in when you are in your comfort group. Especially if that new person looks awkward and you aren’t sure how to approach them. I just hope that once Joel starts class and we are around the parents a little more, things will get easier. Because I don’t think I can handle another night like last night.

We attended our first co-op day this past Monday afternoon. I took Leif to the childcare, then found Joel’s art class. After taking care of that, I ran a quick errand. I was back by second hour, when Joel had science class. I had a conversation with a couple of moms about curriculum before I picked up Leif, and that was enjoyable.

During the third hour, there is no childcare available so Leif and I tried hanging out in the cafe. After chasing Leif around for 30 minutes, I finally gave up and went to Joel’s third hour class, which was Lego Club. He was having fun and I discovered there were other moms sitting in the back of the room talking, so Leif and I joined them. I talked for a bit with a mom I somewhat knew. By now, the fact that Leif hadn’t had a nap and had eaten very little lunch was quite apparent so we left as soon as class was over.

Overall a good first day, and I will be better prepared with lunch and activities for Leif next week to help make it a more enjoyable experience.  🙂


How do you view co-op homeschooling opportunities? What do you utilize and why? We’d love to hear your thoughts on this important topic!

We are also taking NEW questions for upcoming “Ask a NextGen Homeschooler” features. Send your questions to nextgenhomeschool@gmail.com or post them as comments to this article (and let us know if it’s OK to quote you if we use your question). We look forward to responding to your homeschooling questions!

Gearing up for back-to-school: Gotcher family

20 Aug

By Renée Gotcher

This past week — per my three girls’ eager request — we started school a few weeks earlier than I had planned. I’m sure the fact that their neighborhood friends had already started back to the local public school had something to do with it. But whatever the reason, I was glad to see they were so excited to start — even if I wasn’t.

Truth be told, I’m still in the process of purchasing curriculum, gathering books and lining up homeschool co-ops and extracurricular activities for us to participate in. However, I thought this could be a good opportunity to do some core skills review and test out the new systems I have set up to keep us running more smoothly this year — and hopefully, keep the school area from becoming a dysfunctional chaotic mess as well.

The first “iteration” of the cubby shelving idea, which got messy but just needed some tweaking to fix.

In the past, I have organized and reorganized several times throughout the school year. So far nothing has stuck with us: Not a single curriculum package, filing system or “cubby” shelving strategy, daily planner or homeschool tracking system. We live and we learn, especially in a homeschool environment. Although I’ve pinned many colorful, quaint schoolroom photos and snappy organizational tools and tips to my Pinterest dreamboard, I had yet to come up with something both beautiful and functional for our family.

This summer, my goal was to take what was actually working for us and improve upon it in a more organized way. Not a radical revamp, but a refinement — and beautification — of our homeschooling area and systems. Here’s a glimpse of what I’ve been up to the past two months to “gear up” for back-to-school time…

Shopping for deals

One of the most important factors I believe most homeschoolers face when planning for the new school year is a budget: We’ve all got one, and for some (myself included), it can be pretty tight. Over the past two years, I’ve learned to dismiss past memories of the long and “necessary” school supplies lists provided by classroom teachers and create a list of the tools we do actually use throughout the school year. This step in and of itself saves you money, as well as the fact you’re not limited to certain brands when you are the teacher making that judgement call.

Personally, I’m not brand loyal when it comes to consumable school items like pens, pencils, crayons, paper, notebooks, folders, glue, etc. I know my girls, and I don’t expect things like a subject binder to last more than one school year: Whether the favorite color changes, the scribbles on the front cover are no longer cool, or they’re no longer into Hello Kitty, they will probably need and/or want some new things. So I stay alert to the weekly deals at each local store and gradually compile the new year’s supplies when things are super cheap — and by super cheap, I mean 50 cents, a penny and even free at times!

Only $2.15 net expense at OfficeMax after rebate on the printer paper – all 10 file folders were free with $5 purchase!

The consumables I mentioned above always go on sale somewhere at some point for as little as a penny or free. This year, I have purchased all of the above for 10 cents or less. I’ve even filled up a box of items we can use for our Operation Christmas Child boxes this fall. OfficeMax has consistently offered free items every week since July when you spend $5 or more on “non-Max-value” items. To make the most of this, I have purchased a $5 item that also qualifies for a full in-store rebate, so that eventually I’ll get that $5 back too.

For anything more expensive, like a new backpack, lunchbox, or advanced art supplies, I wait for clearance and/or steep discount coupons. With this strategy, I’ve been able to assemble a great art toolbox that includes acrylic paints, pastels, charcoals, canvases, glue guns, fabric glue, etc., as well as update the backpacks and lunchboxes every couple of years.

I believe you can stock up your homeschool area with all the supplies you’ll need for a productive year very inexpensively. Curriculum, on the other hand, isn’t as easy to come by for free or at a discount unless you’re willing to spend some time researching your options — and be patient. For more advice on curriculum savings, see our recent “Ask a NextGen Homeschooler” column on this topic.

Refining an almost-functional system

While I was filling the top shelf of the pantry with boxes of this year’s school supplies, I did my best to keep the girls from impulsively putting new items into the existing school area. I knew that we would continue to use the “formal” dining area for school (fully visible from our front door), and that new furniture to reorganize (or just hide) the overflowing cubby bins and teetering stacks of books and folders was not in the budget. So refining — and hopefully beautifying — our existing space was my best option. Until that was accomplished, I wanted nothing new to be buried in the existing clutter.

I figured out one thing that was working for the girls and had the potential of keeping our school area pretty clean and pristine: The cubby bins. However, the fabric bins I purchased last year got stretched out by the weight of heavy workbooks, and the handles became shabby and weak from constant use. That was an easy fix: I purchased new, more sturdy, fabric bins with leather handles. They fit our existing shelves perfectly and look great.

This was my one “splurge” in the prep process (about $9 per bin). I debated repurposing baskets I already had in use elsewhere or purchasing less expensive options, but the bottom line was that they had to be the right size for the shelves (so they didn’t stick out) and sturdy enough for daily use. Since this shelf can literally be seen from our front door, I also wanted them to match and fit into the color scheme of the rest of the decor for that room — something that didn’t scream “kid zone” as loudly as before.

Within each cubby are conveniently camouflaged workbooks, 3×5 card file boxes, library books, journals, spiral notebooks, and anything else that would not easily stack on a visible shelf. Next to each girl’s cubby is an exposed shelf that holds her curriculum books (which usually stack quite neatly), her bible, and her new personal school supplies box (more on that later). The girls love it, and it’s easier on the eye than last year’s stacks and stacks of books and folders falling from the shelves.

Next step was keeping tools like pens, crayons, highlighters, and such in an easily accessible place that could also be easily cleaned up at the end of the day. For this, I purchased two types of clear bins: One per child with tools that are specific to them (and that they can take with them to other areas of the house or outside to work with), and another that is “all purpose” and divided by tool type (crayons, colored pencils, highlighters, markers, etc.) This — hopefully — solves two previous problems: They now have both a portable solution where their personal tools are self-contained, as well as school “area” tools that are easy to clean up and don’t belong to anyone (preventing constant “that’s mine!” arguments).

To complete this task, I enlisted the girls to help me sort through boxes and Ziploc bags full of crayons, markers, etc. We tossed out every dried-up marker, chewed-up crayon, and nub of a pencil, and aggregated all the “worth using” implements into their specific boxes. When we were done, the girls were thrilled. “I am so glad we did this Mom,” one shared. “Now when I want to work on something, I won’t waste any time with junk that doesn’t work!”

Mission accomplished.

So far, this new system of splitting up the school supplies is working as planned. When someone is in the mood to color or work on a school project at the dining/school table, they can pull down whatever supplies are necessary  — share with whomever has decided to join them — and put the supplies back quickly when finished. On the other hand, someone who wishes to work alone outside on the patio table or in their bedrooms can take their personal toolbox and do so easily, as long as they return the toolbox to the school area shelf. We’ll see how this holds up, but so far it seems to be efficient and keeping our school area clean.

The last area that needed work was the student/teacher “in-out” box. This year, I took a leveled file folder stand from my personal desk and gave each girl a “to do” folder: In the evening, I put print-outs and any independent work for the next day in their folders, and when they’ve completed them and I am done checking them, I’ll put them back in the folder so they can be added to their individual binders later.

My goal with this system is to have independent work ready so the girls can start whenever they are ready in the morning and go back to it during times of the day when I am not working with them directly. Plus I can find their finished work easily when it’s time for me to review it.

This has been one of the easiest fixes to make a big impact: This Saturday, my 5-year-old (Kindergartener) Elise noticed that she already had sheets in her “to do” folder for Monday, and asked if she could just work on them right now. Why not? She ended up completing Monday’s work in about 30 minutes and starting on a new creative art project, which is also almost done. Now instead of catching up next week because we had friends in town visiting for two days, she is actually ahead of the lesson plan. I love this new system!

One other previously troublesome issue was the easy accessibility of extra “supplies” that the girls or I might need during the school day — everything from refill staples and tape to scratch paper and ink for the printer. To meet this need, I brought down a nice set of portable drawers from my home office to use for everything extra that I wanted tucked away neatly.

This has also turned out to make a huge difference right off the bat. The girls know exactly where the extras can be found and aren’t wandering up to my office for tape or paper clips, and there are no longer stacks of extra everything sitting on the dining room table waiting to be put away at some later time. Everyone was able to get their school work done without having to wander around for supplies, and the area was returned to a relatively clean state at the end of each work period. Victory, as far as I’m concerned!

Although I wasn’t expecting to get “started” with school in mid-August, I am thankful that this week of review and test-run of our refined school area has been both successful and fun — re-energizing my daughters and giving me some peace of mind that this year we might be able to maintain an active — and attractive — school area. I am really looking forward to implementing our new curriculum and other exciting plans for this new year in September (more on that later). Until then, I hope you’re off to an inspired start as well — and if not, that you’ve received some helpful info from my sisters and I to get yourself and your family ready for a great start very soon!

“And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; for you serve the Lord Jesus Christ.” — Col. 3:23

— Renée Gotcher is an entrepreneur, writer, wife & home-educating mother of three daughters: Audrey, Claire and Elise. Renée was homeschooled during her last two years of high school and started homeschooling in 2010. She and her family currently reside in Castle Rock, Colorado.

Gearing up for the “official” start of school: Ward family

10 Aug

By Rosanna Ward

Although my son Joel and I have been reading and doing math facts practice all summer, along with golf and swim lessons, August 6th will be our “official” back-to-school start date. That means back into (um… or beginning) a routine: bedtime, awake, chores, breakfast, devotionals, no cartoons, and a full school schedule starting at 9am and stopping at 3pm.

Does this mean I make my 7-year-old boy sit at a desk for that time period? Like that’s even possible! No, this year I am planning “centers” (kind of like a Montessori thing, I guess). He will have a lesson plan with assignments in Horizons workbooks for each subject, but because he usually finishes each assignment in less than 15 minutes, each center will have other activities to do.

For example, we will start off the day with math. Joel will do a math facts practice sheet (5 minutes), followed by his Horizons assignment (15 minutes). Then he will have 20 minutes or so to enjoy a math “center” activity, such as a math game on the computer or iPad, math bingo or the math dice game, or some other activities I have. I found a great Web site for creating math facts worksheets called Math Fact Cafe.

After math, we move on to reading, then English, all with the same concept — an assignment followed by some time in a “center” activity. After lunch and a short break, Joel will do science and history the same way. I am hoping this will solve the “starting at 9am, done at 11am, and bored the rest of the day” problem we experienced before.

I have also put together “center” ideas for my toddler. He now has a “town” rug with all of his cars and floor toys, as well as a table and chair for his art, play dough, and small manipulative activities. I am doing all of this in our home office space this year, hoping to contain the mess.

Something I started last year that I plan to maintain is the Prize Bucket. It worked great as a motivation tool and also helped me be able to say “no” when I take the boys to the store and they want me to buy them things.  I recently refilled the Prize Bucket with Matchbox cars, airplanes, flashlights, fans, gum, Toy Story figures, candy bars, stickers, trading cards, Angry Birds toys, etc. I really need to get in the habit of picking up clearance toys for this, because those little $1 to $2 items can add up quickly. However, it really seems to motivate Joel to focus on getting things done.

Everything in the Prize Bucket has a points value, and once a month, Joel can take the points he has earned and buy things from the bucket. Last year I kept track of his points with a punch card: For some reason, it was hard to keep track of the points this way, so I may try something new this year.

I plan to award points for meeting different 2nd grade standards, such as reading a certain amount of pages. Last year I awarded points per book, but we are moving from short, easy-read picture books to “chapter” books this year. I will also award points for doing math facts in a certain amount of time. Our goal this year is to get addition and subtraction facts to 3 minutes or less. We are also going to work on writing skills. Points will be awarded for good spelling, vocabulary tests, and creative sentence writing, as well as copy work and some dictation.

All of these subjects have pretty objective standards, but one of the bigger areas we will be working on this year is attitude.  We are trying to eliminate the “whine” —  I am still coming up with a way to award points for this.

I bought the Well Planned Day Planner at the Tulsa homeschooling convention this spring, and I am trying to be better at filling it in this year. My goal is to stick to a plan and a routine a little better than last year. Next up in the planning stage is field trip and outside activity scheduling.

Rosanna Ward is a devoted wife of 19 years and mother of four children, two of which are homeschool graduates. She currently homeschools her 7-year-old son Joel and her youngest son is a toddler. Rosanna is a homeschool graduate and has been homeschooling for seven years. Rosanna loves to study History and Genealogy: Her genealogy blog is called “Rosanna’s Genealogical Thoughts.” She and her family reside in Sand Springs, Oklahoma.

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