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Starting a Homeschool Co-Op: Getting into the groove

22 Oct

By Renée Gotcher

Last month I wrote a post about starting my own homeschool co-op for the first time — a tween-age Girls Book Club — after my sisters and I addressed the question of co-op schooling in our “Ask a NextGen Homeschooler” column. Since that time, our book club co-op has had two more meetings in October and are planning a fictional character costume party at my house on October 31 (rather than a “halloween” party).

Here’s an update on the progress of our new co-op and what I’m learning as the co-op coordinator…

Content

The girls have now finished reading two of the four books in the Secret Keeper Girl fictional series. So far, the girls are really enjoying the books and are very engaged during discussion time. Because we had such a large group of girls (13), we have split them into two groups — one for 9/10-year-olds and another for 11/12-year-olds — and thankfully, another mom in our group volunteered to lead most of the discussions for the “younger” tweens. I am leading discussion for the “older” tweens, and I am writing the discussion questions for both groups.

One of the reasons I chose this series to kick off the book club co-op was because the books already include great discussion questions at the end in a section called “Girl Gab” — making my job as discussion leader much easier! In “Girl Gab,” readers are encouraged to “gab” with their moms about these questions and share what they’ve learned through the story and its characters. I use these provided questions as a starting point and develop more questions on my own, drawing from the input I get from my two tween girls during our own “gab” time before each book club meeting.

In our co-op, moms are reading the books along with their daughters, and the girls are bringing notebooks with the “Girl Gab” discussion questions answered to be prepared for discussion time. Some moms are having their daughters read aloud to them, others are reading the books aloud to their girls, and some moms (myself included) and daughters are reading independently. Because we decided that our mission was primarily social and character development, and the reading was secondary, the variety in reading approaches is perfectly acceptable.

It turned out that within the participating families we had another set of younger girls — four girls ages 6 to 8 — that would be coming with their siblings to the book club, so we decided to have a reading program just for them. This “younger readers” group is reading “In Grandma’s Attic, Book 1” a few chapters at a time, and during their discussion time, the mom leading this group reads aloud before discussion time. This is working out well for their ages and varying reading abilities. So far, they love the book, and they’re getting a chance to warm up to the book club concept.

Logistics

Coordinating such a large group of moms and girls can be challenging at times. However, the plans we made to split up the co-op responsibilities for the entire semester on a simple chart has been working seamlessly! Each meeting we have four moms splitting up the snack duty, one mom watching the littlest siblings, one mom coordinating clean-up at the end, and the host mom is providing coffee, tea and water. So far, this division of labor has made it possible to feed and entertain all 32 mothers and daughters (and some extra siblings on occasion) without putting too much of a burden on any one co-op member.

Our two October meetings have been hosted by a family who lives in this beautiful log-style home in a scenic, rural part of Castle Rock, and we’ve been blessed with perfect fall weather on our meeting days. The girls have been able to play and snack outside during our social hour, while the moms are getting a break to enjoy our coffee chats relatively kid-free inside the kitchen.

The only logistical problem we’ve had is breaking up the fun at the end of the afternoon. We had planned for an hour of social time and concluding the meetings at 4pm, but so far we have been going until about 4:30pm or later. The girls don’t mind, of course, and in all honesty, I don’t think we moms really mind either. But I am keeping an eye on this to make sure we aren’t inconveniencing any families by going over time, and maybe we’ll just decide to end at 4:30pm in the future when we evaluate our co-op.

Communication

I quickly discovered that keeping 13 different families in the loop at all times regarding the logistics and issues of our co-op isn’t as easy as continually sending e-mail updates. Not everyone reads their email every day or downloads attachments right away, and I found myself doing a lot of resending, reminding, and answering the same questions over and over via email. Only a few moms in our co-op are on Facebook, so a Facebook group was not an alternative, and one mom and daughter are not members of my local homeschool support group, so we couldn’t use a private forum on our group’s Web site to communicate in a central place.

One day while I was contemplating what I could do to centralize our co-op communication, I received an e-mail from Shutterfly inviting me to set up a “Share” site. I clicked on the link and in about an hour, I had set up a private share site that includes a shared photo album, our events calendar, links to maps for all the host homes (we have had a few moms get lost already), our responsibilities sign-up chart, all the documents we’ve created to use for our co-op, a discussion board, and more! I love that the site automatically emails a weekly update to all our members as well as reminders for every event I’ve posted on our calendar. I can also easily send an email whenever something on the calendar has been updated or I need feedback (like a special snack signup reminder for the upcoming costume party), and all the email messages provide direct links back to those items on our site.

Problem solved, right? Well, almost. Most of the moms have used the new site and are interacting with it for snack info, dates, directions, etc., but a few moms have yet to log in to the site. And even though the auto-generated email reminder went out about this past week’s meeting a few days in advance, one mom missed that reminder and completely forgot about the meeting. We all had a good laugh about it after the fact, recalling how many times we’ve completely botched our own family scheduling.

But it made me realize I couldn’t rely completely on the share site to make sure we’re all on the same page. In our world of smart phones, Facebook, email, cool Web collaboration tools, and information overload, there’s no guarantee that your message is being received by everyone, every time. Since I don’t have time to call and check in with every mom before every meeting, I’m hoping this is just a blip and that for the most part, we’ll keep running smoothly with the help of this share site.

Or maybe I will try texting reminders next time?

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.

NGHS Journal: Unexpected gifts on an atypical schooling day

10 Oct

Gotcher Family Homeschool — Day 28 — October 9, 2012

Today was a great homeschooling day. Not because it was “ideal” in terms of schedule, flow, and checking off a lot of boxes on the “to do” list. But God was in charge, and I believe a lot was accomplished today for His greater glory!

We didn’t get off to a great start. The girls decided to have a “slumber party” last night and sleep together in the full-size bottom bunk. Despite many “go to bed” calls from our bedroom, I heard their giggles and voices well past 1:30am. I found out tonight that they were actually up past 3am… Needless to say, everyone was sleepy and we didn’t get going with our day until about 10am.

Because my two youngest girls had Worship Dance class at noon, that didn’t give us much time to accomplish anything before we had to be out the door for the 20-minute drive to class. With this in mind, I told my eldest two that they could independently work on their presentations for tomorrow’s Elementary Presentation Day with our local homeschool group. Breakfast was eaten at the school table today, and somehow I also managed to squeeze in a shower before we were out the door.

But not before I spent at least 15 minutes doing my personal devotion time and bible reading. This has become a non-negotiable for me. No matter how off schedule I am going to be due to sleep issues, missed alarms, or simply not being disciplined enough to wake up early, I spend the first 15-20 minutes of my day filling my mind with God’s truth and talking to Him. I read from a daily devotional downloaded to my iPhone, highlight key scriptures, tap in some personal notes, recite some key verses several times to get memorization started, pray and wait on the Lord.

It might not seem like a very big deal for those who are disciplined in a daily morning devotional hour, but for someone like me who used to jump (literally) out of bed after hitting snooze several times and immediately hit the ground running — and not stop until I hit the sheets exhausted at night — this shift in gears was a huge change that took a lot of retraining.

No longer am I hitting the to-do list with a pit in my stomach that is further exacerbated by the two-plus cups of coffee that I would call “breakfast” and send my day into hyperdrive. Instead, I receive my energy for the day from God’s presence and words of truth, and I rise with a sense of peace and purpose received from time spent in prayer and praise.

I’ve also substituted those two cups of breakfast coffee for an energy-boosting smoothie: Greek yogurt, a banana, and a few ounces of “Blue Goodness” juice quickly whipped together with an immersion hand blender. There’s still some coffee involved after that, but it’s no longer all that sustains me until noon.

Back to today: We made it to the first of two back-t0-back dance classes, but we were about 10 minutes late. I had sacrificed my post-breakfast coffee to get there on time, so after dropping my 5-year-old Elise off in her class, I swung right back out of the parking lot to the nearest drive-through Starbucks. When I returned to the church where the worship dance classes are held, I settled down in the lobby couches with the other homeschooling moms passing time during the first session of classes while my two eldest got some school reading done.

This week, I was also suited up to participate in a fitness walk that one of the moms offered to lead during the second session of dance classes starting at 1pm. Last week, I had waved off the opportunity so I could get some lesson planning done on my laptop, but when the moms returned sweaty and panting, I realized this wasn’t just a leisurely walk — those mamas got a workout! Today, I couldn’t wait to join in and get some much-needed exercise.

The fitness walk was fabulous! The mother who led it has some experience with leading this style of interval training, so our walk was infused with interval stops of sit-ups, push-ups, squats, lunges, and more — even the infamous fat-burning “burpee” move! Sharing this invigorating workout with other time-crunched homeschooling moms added another layer of support and fun to the experience. I found myself wishing we had dance class twice a week just so I could get another workout in with these inspiring ladies!

Those squeezed-in conversations with other moms in my shoes are such a blessing and a gift. This time, it was sharing ideas on how to get out more with our kids and encourage some family fitness along with all the extracurricular “PE” the kids do through all the wonderful programs out there like CMA’s Worship Dance. It was discussing how we deal with the Halloween “dilemma” in our families and what God has revealed to us personally on this topic. It was laughing about who was sweating more, panting louder and cheating on her push-ups. It was nourishing in all the ways we need to be fed as a community of homeschooling mamas.

After both Elise and my 10-year-old Claire were done with their dance classes, we headed back home for lunch, after-lunch chores, and one more hour of schoolwork before the girls would be “excused” to play outside with the neighbor friends who would be home from school by about that time. Once the girls were outside, I turned to getting all of my “computer” work done: Checking email, updating Facebook for the NextGen Homeschool blog, handling updates for the local homeschool group Web site (which is my board member responsibility), updating our family’s online homeschooling planner/tracker, etc. My awesome chef of a hubby was making chili tonight, so I had extra time to get all my to-do’s accomplished before dinner.

Tonight I was really motivated to clear my plate because it was time for our local homeschool group’s twice-a-month mom’s prayer meeting. This is something new to our group’s calendar, and it has quickly become one of the things I look forward to most every month. It’s informal, open to all, and it’s been awesome to see how God has drawn certain moms consistently to participate in a couple of hours of honest sharing and focused prayer for our families, our group, our community, and more. In just two months, we’ve already seen a lot of answered prayers and God working in miraculous ways through our prayer time.

Although there were just four of us there tonight, I believe God knew exactly who needed to be there and why. We discovered that there were more than a few common themes challenging all four of our families — and that by bringing us together, God revealed His wisdom and solutions throughout our prayer time. God also spoke to me directly through a scriptural truth He had placed on another mom’s heart to share with me. It was so undeniably for me in this very moment in time that I am still in awe of how clearly God chose to speak to me, and it was a message I desperately needed to hear.

Today was a great homeschooling day. Not because of what we did, but because of what HE did. Tonight I am thankful for God’s many, many gracious gifts today. Thankful that He was ever-present with me and my family today. For providing fellowship. Even time for fitness. Lots of fun! Friends. Fruitfulness. Family. Forgiveness. Faith-building. Fear-banishing. Filled hearts. Freedom! Freshness.

“But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord.” — 2 Cor. 3:18

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.

Starting a Homeschool Co-Op: Girls Book Club, Day One

26 Sep

By Renée Gotcher

A couple of weeks ago, my sisters and I addressed the question of cooperative schooling — aka “co-ops” — in our “Ask a NextGen Homeschooler” column. Since that time, the co-op I talked about starting this year (a tween girls’ book club) has had a social mixer and our first official meeting. So far, so good! If the first meeting is any indication of what’s to come this semester, then I think we’ve got a really great thing going. I thought I would share a little more about what I did to get the ball rolling, as well as a play-by-play of our first official meeting day…

The Idea

As I mentioned in our recent co-op schooling post, 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. If there’s one thing I have learned after two years of homeschooling ups and downs, curriculum change after curriculum change, and being involved in too much/too little in the co-op arena, it’s that giving God the reins of your homeschooling plans is the most important thing you can do. Good ideas are always just that — good. A God idea, however, is always a great idea — because you have His strength to back you up and He is glorified!

As I prayed for direction this year, this idea kept coming back to me. Just when I was trying to give up extra responsibilities and remove things from my “to do” list permanently due to health issues, God was giving me an idea that I knew would require my leadership, extra time and effort. I was worried about taking on an entirely new enterprise — even if it would meet my homeschooling goals for my tween daughters. But as God continued to nudge me, I remembered that God equips those whom He calls to do His work.

“Now may the God of peace … make you complete in every good work to do His will, working in you what is well pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.” — Hebrews 13:20-21

The Preparation

Over the summer, I did some research on Christian books for tween girls. This included some Web browsing and asking fellow moms of tweens what they’ve seen and heard of. After identifying a few potential book series and authors, I checked out as many as I could from the library (I am all about free) and started reading them. I also had my eldest daughter Audrey read a few of my top picks to get her opinion. She is a voracious reader, and I knew she would not mind reading them again for book club.

I also thought about the mission for this co-op: It would be slightly educational (reading is learning), but more importantly, it would be a social opportunity for moms and their tween daughters to get together on a regular basis and share in our homeschooling journey — and support one another. Yes, I hope we’ll learn a lot from these fictional Christian characters and their true-to-life situations. But mostly, I hope we create tighter bonds between the moms and their daughters, and supportive connections between the moms who are coming together, as well as the girls.

To achieve this, I came up with a suggested format and started pitching the idea to moms that I thought would be a perfect fit for this group. We also had a co-op workshop near the end of the summer with our local homeschool support group, and I shared the idea there as well. Before I knew it, we were going to be full with more than 14 families wanting to participate! The fact that many of the moms shared with me the same desire to accomplish this mission was confirmation that God wasn’t just moving me, He was moving us. Praise Him for the wonderful and mysterious way that He works with us when we are listening to Him!

The Structure

We had a “planning” meeting at the neighborhood pool to discuss the structure for our Girls Book Club soon after identifying the moms who wanted to be part of the co-op. Thanks to the wonderful guidelines provided by the veteran homeschooling moms who hosted the co-op workshop, we made decisions about frequency, group size, responsibilities to share, and a “code of conduct” we would communicate to the girls about what was expected from them to be part of the “GBC” discussion time. We also agreed to use the Secret Keeper Girl fictional series by Dannah Gresh to read for the first four book club discussion times.

It’s not always easy to be on the same page about some of the logistical things, especially when siblings of varying ages are involved as they most often are with homeschooling families. For example, several moms had sons or other children that wouldn’t be part of the book club. What will they be doing while mom and daughter are in the book club? Many girls already had other extra curricular activities (like riding their horse everyday for training purposes) that are hard to get around. Also, not all moms could stay for every book club meeting due to activities for other siblings or prior commitments. And so on and so forth… you know what I mean if you’ve been homeschooling for a year or so.

Praise God that we were able to accommodate the needs of almost every mom and daughter who wanted to be a part of this semester’s book club! Another confirmation that we were on the right track.

What we came up with was a twice-a-month meeting, made up of a 45-minute discussion time and an hour of social time plus snacks. Moms are sharing the responsibility of providing snacks, watching the younger siblings during discussion time, and supervising cleanup. Three moms have divided up the “hosting” responsibility of having the book club at their house (I am one of those three moms).

I had planned to lead the tween girls discussion time since it was my idea and I was happy to do it. However, we had such a large group of tweens (14 girls to be exact) that we decided to break them up into two groups, and another mom had to step up and lead that second group along with me. Praise God that happened too — a mom who had lots of experience leading youth groups and women’s groups volunteered almost immediately. Finally, we found that we had a small group of “younger readers” (girls from 6-8 years old), and one mom stepped up to lead a book reading and discussion time for them while their older sisters were doing their book discussion. How awesome is that?

What I’ve learned so far is that the key ingredients to structuring a new co-op are a common mission, agreement on the logistics and expectations from the students and participating parents, and divine intervention. I believe that when God is calling families to come together for His purposes, He truly makes provision for all the details.

The Launch

One week before our first official meeting, I hosted a social “mixer” at my house so we could just spend some time getting to know each other. (Unfortunately I forgot to take pictures at that gathering!) That first gathering of 33 moms and daughters was a lot of fun, but also a bit hectic — revealing a few little holes in our structural plans that we were able to patch up before our first meeting. I’m really glad I decided to do the social time first, because the girls and moms were able to make connections before we would have to do anything “organized” together.

Our first Girls Book Club meeting was the following Wednesday, September 19, at my home again. My eldest daughter Audrey (a pastry chef in the making) decided to bake Red Velvet cake pops for the girls to dip into dark chocolate and decorate as they arrived. I love the fact that I can leave my little hostess in charge of things like beautiful snacks and decor: She is so fabulous at it, and I am free to take care of things like making sure our husky’s fur isn’t all over the house and that we have a pot of hot coffee made for the mamas who will need it when the 3 o’clock slump hits.

This turned out to be an especially helpful idea because it took at least 15 minutes for all of the moms and daughters to show up, and Audrey was able to take them back to the kitchen in small groups as they arrived to dip their cake pops and decorate them. Then we set them back on the stand to “dry” while we did the group activities.

Because we had just received the books a week ago, we didn’t have a reading assignment for this first meeting. Instead, the girls played a get-to-know scavenger hunt game, followed by table time in which we reviewed the GBC discussion tips sheet we’d prepared and played “Pass the Teddy Bear & Share.” Passing the teddy is the method we had agreed upon to make sure the girls all get time to talk during discussion time. Since we didn’t yet have a book to discuss, we practiced with some basic questions about their favorite books and fictional characters.

The “rules” for Pass the Teddy Bear & Share are that the girls will pass a teddy bear around the table, and only the girl who is holding the teddy gets to answer the question until it is passed to another girl. If you’re not holding the teddy, your lips are sealed — and you also can’t hold up your hand to be “next” while anyone is still talking. If someone wants to add to what the girl speaking has said, she can request the teddy by raising her hand after the speaker is done and passes her the teddy.

After a few questions, the girls got the hang of it and our little discussion was in full swing. The girls were much chattier and forthcoming with answers than I had anticipated, with only a couple of girls being hesitant to take the teddy and talk. I am really glad we came up with the discussion guidelines in advance, because it was a lot easier to point the girls in the right direction when they were talking too long or not giving each other their full attention. Overall, I think we’re going to pass that teddy a lot — and have some great discussions this semester!

The all-important snack and social time is my favorite time of the meeting — because I can finally relax! The girls came through the kitchen like a swarm of locusts and consumed their decorated cake pops and everything else in sight, then went to play outside in the backyard.

The moms congregated inside and outside for coffee, iced tea and what was left of the snacks. I was so glad the weather was warm again and everyone could enjoy our backyard. It was also nice to be able to have plenty of space for the girls to run around and work out their energy without disrupting the moms from having great conversations. Even the little sisters got a chance to hang out with the big girls and play!

Although I am really pleased about the relative success of our first meeting, we hit a few bumps too. For starters, we have already lost one mom and daughter pair due to their already packed schedule and finding it hard to fit our book club time slot into the agenda. It was bound to happen. We had a few moms that couldn’t stay for various last-minute reasons, so they were missed during our highly anticipated mama social hour. Life happens. We also had one girl who had to leave early for a sports team practice, so she missed the snack and social hour entirely. Thankfully her season will wrap up in October and it won’t always be the case, but guess what — it happens. And it will probably happen again.

I can’t speak for all the moms participating in our Girls Book Club co-op, but I can honestly say I’m not worried about how this semester will unfold. I knew before I started that I couldn’t attempt to do this if I wasn’t going to hand it over to the Lord completely and let Him be in charge. I prayed for the right families to be involved, and I believe that has already happened. I prayed for my girls and that my original mission for this co-op would be accomplished for them, so I am trusting God to work in their hearts in a way that only He can. I prayed for the moms and daughters who would join us and that their own journeys with Jesus and each other would be strengthened, so I am releasing that to the Lord because I am just the vessel being poured out — and He is filling me and will fill them.

Upcoming meeting days may be hectic. It might snow two feet on a day that we plan to meet at one of the more remote homes on our hosting schedule! Someone who’s signed up for snacks may not be able to come at the last minute. Kids get sick. Family logistics change. Another family may have to drop out. I don’t know… but thankfully, God does!

I am up for the journey because I know He’s leading us. And I trust my Good Shepherd.

“For I, the Lord your God, will hold your right hand, saying to you, ‘Fear not, I will help you.'” — Isaiah 41:13

— 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.

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