Monday, August 18, 2014

Co-op Caution

Below is an article I’ve written about co-ops. It came about partly as a response to many families contacting me in a quandary about their participation in a co-op, or the lack of finding one available to them. It was also inspired by new homeschoolers contacting me, and the first question they often have is: “Does CHEE offer a co-op? And if not, is there one available to join?”. I love co-ops… home school families working and learning together. It is not my intention to be critical of or discourage families from this wonderful option for home school families. However, I do see some “side effects” and as a support group leader, I feel a responsibility to address the issue for those who may be struggling to make decisions this summer for their family. So, please know my heart is to equip home school moms who are desiring to do what is “best” for their children, and I just want them to know they have lots of options.  : )


  While I advertise co-op opportunities and see certain benefits in participating in one, I also have some reservations about the co-op culture I see within the home school community. Please allow me to share my thoughts on participating in a co-op. My intention is not to discourage families from joining or forming a co-op, but I think there is a need for a discussion for those weighing this decision for their family. Personally, I often enjoy learning in a co-op setting, and have spent many of my 19 home school years participating in one type or another. I’ve also spent many years not participating in a co-op setting, depending on the needs of my children or the situations of my family. Joining a co-op is not always a good fit for every home school family or every season, and I think it is beneficial to chat about that. I mention this because I am seeing a trend of homeschoolers, (especially new homeschoolers) feeling that they must find a co-op to belong to, and I’m concerned that they understand that if they find a co-op that works for them… great, but if not, that’s fine too. There really is value in being comfortable with just mom and the kids learning together at home. Again, if you find a great fit out there, then wonderful. But if you can’t find one available or are feeling some stress or pause over the issue, don’t hesitate to reevaluate your decision to participate. Let me share a few of my thoughts.

Co-ops can be a great place to find fellowship and encouragement, for both moms and kids. But there are some disadvantages to a co-op as well.

Advantages/Blessings -
* Encouragement/fellowship for both moms and kids.

* Accountability/motivation to complete certain school work or subjects.

* Homeschool friendships and belonging to a “home school community”. My parenting style is one where we limit outside friendships as an effort to guard and retain the hearts of our children. I don’t like competition. : )  And I like to foster primary friendships between siblings when we can. But this is a little parenting “secret”, so I look for opportunities to foster the “illusion of friends“ (that‘s a private joke, by the way). What I mean by illusion, is that while the friendships are important and valuable, they don’t become the primary influence in my children’s lives. A co-op allows for group/family friendships to develop, but doesn’t allow a lot of opportunity for intimate, one on one time, and personally, that works best for us.

* Some courses intimidate mom and we can get them done more easily in a co-op or small group setting.

* Co-op can offer a chance for our children to learn under the teaching of someone else, and to work with other teaching personalities, which can be a nice skill, especially for older students, as long as that person sees themselves as a facilitator, and not an authority over our children’s education.
* In a co-op setting, we are able to be blessed by the gifts and specialties of others, and in turn share our gifts or specialties with others, and everyone is blessed in ways they may not be able to offer alone.

* Co-op can be a lifeline, especially for teens, who benefit from feeling part of a community, and learning along side like-minded, home schooled teens.

Disadvantages/Burdens -
* Someone else dictates what your family will be learning in a given year, rather than the freedom to follow the Lord’s leading specific to your family and children.

* Co-op can end up steering your homeschool ship. Many other worthy endeavors get shelved to meet the demands of what we are doing at co-op. Sometimes it’s worth that. Sometimes it’s not.

* Co-op sets the pace… there is a loss of freedom in slowing down or speeding up in response to your children’s strengths or weaknesses, or your family‘s schedule, etc. When the pace is set by the co-op, it can lead to a sense of failure, just because you aren’t meeting outside expectations imposed by the co-op. But this is the nature of group learning vs. individual family learning.

* Dependency… sometimes moms become dependent on the co-op leadership to decide what to teach or how to teach, and lack confidence in their role as the authority and primary teacher in their home school, because they aren’t operating in that role. Once a co-op opportunity is no longer available, moms feel lost and are at risk of looking for other options, such as traditional school or parent partnerships, where someone else has responsibility/authority for educational decisions, etc. Again, mainly from a lack of confidence.

* Can be difficult to drag younger siblings through a co-op day… missing naps, routines, etc.

Suggestions - These are just my random thoughts on the topic.

* Understand that participating in a co-op is one option and can be a blessing, BUT it is not necessary for a successful and joyful and fulfilling home school lifestyle. Family IS enough because God made families to live together and learn together. Everything else is extra. : ) In fact, oftentimes a co-op can be a distraction from what your heart would really prefer to spend time on each week. So decide carefully and don‘t feel a co-op is a Must.

* Perhaps if you have younger children ( approx. 7 and younger) a regularly scheduled Play Day would be a better fit, since there isn’t the need to put academic demands on our young ones, but the social friendship time would be a fun activity to look forward to each week or bi-weekly. This relaxed “get-together” time could apply to those with older children as well, of course.

* I feel strongly that a home school co-op should look and feel like FAMILIES coming together for fellowship and learning together, not like a school, where someone else is in “charge” of our children and us. I think that is a dangerous trend and blurs the purpose and lifestyle of home schooling. As co-ops grow larger, it is easy, if not necessary, to follow a more administrative model of learning together, so there can be an advantage to fewer families meeting together. Just be mindful that a co-op respects your role as mom/parent and doesn’t usurp your role as the primary “teacher” of your own children. Even with more academic subjects, a co-op should offer a “facilitator” and always expect parents to use the tests or evaluations, if any, however they deem fit in their own home school records. Co-ops should be a tool and resource for home school parents. They are not an entity that home school parents should “answer to” as any sort of authority over your family‘s education. That is a public school model that we want to avoid.

* As an alternative to joining an existing co-op, or if one is not available, consider asking just one other family (or maybe several!) to join you for a “club”… science club, history club, writing club, music club, book club, etc., and learn something together. Sometimes these smaller “co-ops” allow for more flexibility and are geared more specifically to the interests of the few involved. Small groups foster closer family friendships while fulfilling all the other benefits of a larger co-op. Mom’s can take turns “teaching” or one can “teach” while the others host at their homes, or both teaching and hosting can rotate. You have lots of options… be creative and create something that fits your family well.

* It is a good idea to be familiar with who will be “teaching” your children, especially for certain subjects. Respectfully, there are some topics that we don’t agree on, and might not appreciate another viewpoint being taught. For instance, it would be important to me that all science is taught from a creation/young earth worldview. Sounds like a given in a Christian environment, but not so now days. Our churches are infiltrated with Theistic Evolution as a worldview (this seems to me like a way for Christians who have been raised in public schools to try and merge their faith with their education… but that is another article.) Another subject that we might be concerned about is history, since views on patriotism or America’s role in history vary.

* Be familiar with the educational style or philosophy associated with a co-op. There is not one right method to home school. And from relaxed/unschooling all the way to strict classical education, I have seen both success and failure along the way and in the final product. I respect all methods and love to see families pursue and implement the educational method that works well for them. However, be cautious about a particular method being imposed on your students if that is not a good fit. Understandably, a co-op will tend to reflect the educational method/style of those who are organizing it, so just be sure you are comfortable with that. And if at some point you find that either you can’t meet the expectations or you are disappointed in the lack of academic requirements, it may be time to step away or form something that is a better reflection of your own style and philosophy. It is somewhat like finding a church… often they each have their strengths and while they may be doing good things, the emphasis might not be a good fit for your family.
* If you still have very little ones, consider postponing co-op participation a few years, when everyone is done with naps and all the children are ready for some group learning time with friends. This goes back to the Play Day alternative idea. If you have a large age span with your children, you can look for or create an environment where the little ones are incorporated or there are provisions made for moms with small children.

* I have found that middle and high schoolers seem to benefit from a co-op the most. I am not suggesting that families with younger children are not welcome and a blessing at a co-op, or those children don‘t also enjoy co-op. Rather, I mention this for those with younger children who are struggling with the pressure to join a co-op because they feel that their children are missing out on something important if they don’t. I just want those families to feel the freedom to stay home and learn together in a relaxed environment… reading on the couch, toddlers playing on the floor, babies crawling on everybody… ahhh… some of the best memories of home schooling!! : )

* For those with older students, co-op can meet a need for fellowship and foster a sense of community. Under supervision and with parent involvement all around, this can be a very good thing. As our teens are growing up, their world expands outside of just the family and a co-p setting can be a nice place to form friendships with other Christian homeschoolers, which helps teens remain content with your family’s decision to home school high school. And there can be rich fellowship, inspiration and motivation as they tackle upper level courses with others. This is not necessary, but is an option that should be considered.

I hope these thoughts are helpful as you may be thinking about what to put on your list for this coming school year. I hope you have a sense that you have options and that a co-op experience is not the measure of success in home schooling, and also that you can create your own co-op if there isn‘t an existing one that suits you well. As with most opportunities, there are both pros and cons, and often the blessings outweigh the burdens. So proceed with caution, in your consideration of a co-op, thinking about the needs of your family. And above all, prayerfully seek what the Lord would have this season of home schooling look like for your family.

1 comment:

  1. Hi. I liked your point about forming "clubs" like science clubs history clubs, writing clubs, music clubs, book clubs... and note too that this "co-op" concept is all about working together as a club. Unfortunately a lot of people only associate "co-ops" with the acedemic sorts that look like a one day a week "school." How great it is to be reminded that one can create any learning opportunity cooperatively with other like minded people and that it can look like and be about whatever the families participating want it to be.

    Also, I would like to mention that monthly "homeschool support" group meetings, like for example, CHEE, are important to homeschoolers. Homeschoolers need support groups much more than they need "co-ops. This is because these places of the meeting-of-the-homeschool-mind have always been a place for parents to combine efforts of all kinds. Over the years it has become more particular for moms to meet than dads, who at some point, were able to relax on the homeschool issue and focus more on work... likely this ovccured more as homescholling became "legal," However, we need homescool support groups to meet with like minded people and exchange ideas. It is in fellowships like this where friendship and trust form that many great ideas for planning learning experiences, like clubs or co-ops, for homeschooing families have been birthed.