Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A Charlotte Mason Homeschool Co-op

I have been contemplating homeschool co-ops quite a bit lately. A Classical Conversations program is starting up in my area and I am thinking and praying about enrolling my children in it. However, it is very pricey. Also, Classical Conversations is obviously a classical program and I prefer using CM methods to educate my children. I have a slight fear that a strictly classical program would overwhelm them. For a year my children and I were involved in a traditional homeschool co-op. It had its pros and cons and someday I might write a blog post about the pros and cons of co-oping in general. For now, it will suffice to say that I have been weighing those pros and cons a lot lately and dreaming about my “ideal” homeschool co-op. Specifically, as a Charlotte Mason enthusiast, I am envisioning a co-op that incorporates her wisdom and unique educational philosophy.

My ideal Charlotte Mason co-op would meet for 2-4 hours weekly. Depending on the class or topic, each lesson or class would range from 20 minutes to one hour. Rather than tackling the core subjects, I would leave those classes at home because we all have different preferences for curriculum and methods, as well as children with unique learning styles. I believe that a mother is the perfect person to make those decisions for her children and to be the primary teacher for core subjects. Instead, I would like a co-op to address those “extras” that make a CM education so rich. To clarify, I know that Charlotte Mason did not consider these said topics to be extras at all and she fully included them in her core curriculum. I am labeling them as extras because so many of us have a difficult time including them in our daily lessons. We are able to finish math, spelling, language arts, reading, history, and science without much of a struggle, but when it comes to picture study, composer study, hymn study, or nature study, we often fall short. In order to avoid the exclusion of those wonderful subjects, many CM-focused mothers would benefit from implementing them within a supportive, like-minded group.

All moms involved in a CM co-op should concur in at least one respect: All should be attempting to include some of Charlotte Mason’s ideas in the education of their children. Perhaps each mom should be required to attend a Charlotte Mason support group or to verify that she has read at least one book about a Charlotte Mason education to ensure that she is familiar with the philosophy.

Now for a few more logistics. Mostly, a CM-inspired co-op would not need to have classes segregated by age. Families could participate in the majority of these activities together in one group.  All moms would be required to participate in the teaching and organizing of the co-op, whether it be as the director or as a teacher, assistant teacher, field trip organizer, or snack coordinator. If classes were held in the morning, everyone could bring a sack lunch and eat together at the end. For an afternoon co-op, ending with a snack and fellowship time would also serve the purpose of allowing the children to get to know each other and build friendships.

Following are the results of my brainstorming session for co-op class ideas using a Charlotte Mason model:

1. Circle Time - I really like the idea of beginning together as a group and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and singing a hymn together. Perhaps pre-designated children or families could then recite a poem, present something learned during the week at home, or prepare another type of “show and tell” to present during circle time.

2. Art Appreciation - Picture study in a group could be just as simple as it is when completed at home. Charlotte’s desire was to familiarize her students with at least six works by the same artist in order for the children to become familiar with that artist’s style. The easiest way to acquire art prints for your group would be to use those that moms in the group already own and are willing to share. Copies of famous art works can be printed online and oversized art books can often be found in the “bargain books” section of large bookstores. For example, I once purchased an oversized book of art by Georgia O’Keefe for $12 at Barnes and Noble. For picture study, the teacher would show the art print being studied to the group and then the class would discuss (narrate) it. Also, the teacher might ask the students to write or draw their impressions of the picture (this is also narration). These simple steps could completely encompass a Charlotte Mason art appreciation class. Of course, it would be great to include skill-based art lessons in the class as well. As a person with no creative art skills, I love the idea of my children learning drawing or painting from a  mom who possesses those skills. Although this obviously would not be a necessity, it would certainly be a nice addition. If an actual art curriculum is desired, look at Artistic Pursuits for a curriculum that includes the technical and expressive aspects of art as well as picture study. Visit http://www.artisticpursuits.com/index.html for more information.

3. Music Appreciation - A co-op music class could be taught in so many different and effective ways that it would be challenging to decide on only one. Charlotte Mason’s students studied classical music, so this should be an integral part of a CM music class. The music of the studied composer could be played for 10-15 minutes at the beginning of class while the children quietly drew in their sketchbooks or completed another quiet assignment. An appropriate selection from the wonderful Classics for Kids composer story CDs could also be played during this time. Following this, group singing with piano or guitar accompaniment would be enjoyable for the kids and allow them to learn hymns, folk songs, or patriotic songs together. Singing is an activity that is naturally enjoyed in a group setting. If those in the group desired more structured musical instruction, basic music theory or simple recorder lessons could easily be incorporated into the class.

4. Literature discussion groups/book clubs - These groups could be divided by age or interest and could be quite informal. For preschool non-readers, it could be as simple as story time with a quality picture book or two. There could also be a group of younger beginning readers that would read picture books for their book club discussions. Additional groups would be designated that read chapter books and increasingly mature literature. Essentially, the kids in each group would read the same book at home and then discuss it together weekly in their literature group or book club. Remember, dialogue and discussion (i.e., narration) yield relationships and retention. An adult facilitator could be available to keep the kids on track and to ask open-ended questions when there was a lull in the conversation. Discussion questions are available online for many literature selections and published guides can be purchased inexpensively. One very important rule for these groups: NO TWADDLE ALLOWED!

5. Memory work - If the families involved wanted to include memory work in the co-op, scripture, poetry, and the history timeline, among other topics, could be utilized. There are many music CDs available to help us memorize scripture or other materials more easily and it might be fun for a group of children to listen and memorize together. My personal goal for group memorization would be to prevent the children from experiencing any pressure from it. Such stress would squelch the desire to learn faster than almost anything, I think. To me, this is one huge difference between a CM education and a classical education. Followers of Charlotte Mason believe that education is “a science of relations” and that a large amount of rote memorization is not the factor that best maximizes learning potential. Also, in keeping with Charlotte’s philosophy, competitions and rewards should not be part of memorization. Memory work, especially in a co-op setting, should be low-key, non-competitive, and fun. That does not mean that memorization should not be utilized at all; Charlotte Mason’s own students certainly memorized information. But the amount and scope of memory work should be left at the discretion of the parents without putting unnecessary pressure on the kids. Charlotte Mason believed that education is a gentle art of learning.  Memory work might have a place in a CM homeschool co-op, but it must be done in a gentle way.

6. Shakespeare - There are so many Shakespeare enthusiasts in the world, and for good reason. Why not find out if there is a mom in your group who loves Shakespeare? If there is, ask if she is willing to tackle the job of teaching and inspiring the children to understand, enjoy, and even perform Shakespeare!

7. Handicrafts - Charlotte Mason differentiated handicrafts from “futilities”, which would include the mindless cutting and gluing crafts that are often seen in classrooms and Sunday schools. Charlotte was advocating that children learn crafts that take time, patience, and concentration. Essentially, she wanted them to learn life skills. Examples of handicrafts would include sewing, knitting, beadwork, needlepoint, woodworking, and basket weaving, among many others. Most modern women do not possess a lot of “handicraft skills”, but often we each have skills in one or two areas. Moms in the co-op could take turns teaching the handicrafts that they know to the group, allowing the children to learn and experience a few throughout the year. Wouldn’t it be a great opportunity for moms to learn these skills right along with their children?

8. Nature Study - I can think of two primary ways to effectively incorporate nature study into a CM homeschool co-op:

  •  Physical co-op classes could occur three times per month, with the fourth week  of each  month set aside for nature walks and excursions. After all, Charlotte believed that children needed to regularly and actively experience nature. This would also be a nice opportunity for a once-a-month group picnic! Of course, alternate field trips or activities  could be planned as back-ups for inclement weather.

9. Latin - Charlotte Mason felt that Latin is easier for children to learn than is English grammar. Indeed, she believed that Latin helped children to better understand English grammar. This is another example of a subject that might be beneficial for group study.

10. Hero Admiration - Charlotte Mason believed that education should encompass all that is good, noble, lovely, and worthy of admiration. While we all know that children crave heroes to look up to, most of us also know that the roles models provided by our culture (i.e., Hollywood) are not good, noble, lovely, and worthy of admiration. Instead, historical biographies and literature provide our children with examples of people who have demonstrated character worth looking up to. Our children can learn courage, for example, from many throughout history who have faced and overcome nearly impossible circumstances. Reading biographies about various historical figures, from Pocahontas to Harriet Tubman, has been very beneficial for my oldest daughter. I believe that such biographies have strengthened her sense of empathy toward others and have caused her to feel more grateful for her own life as well. But how can hero admiration be made into a “class” for a homeschool co-op? Here are a couple of ideas:
  •  A simple book club that reads and discusses historical biographies.

  •  Youth With a Mission (YWAM) publishes numerous biographies of “Christian  Heroes” and “Heroes in History”; unit study curriculum guides are available to  accompany each of these books. These unit study guides contain ideas for some of the  following activities and assignments related to each biography: Essay writing, creative  writing, hands-on projects, critical thinking, devotional application, meaningful field  trips, service projects, current events, life skills, project displays, oral presentations, and  more! Unit studies typically have a vast array of ideas to pick and choose from. A unit  study based on a Christian hero or historical figure would be a lot of fun for a group of  children to complete together. For more information, go to http://www.ywampublishing.com/c-39-hero-biographies.aspx.
Although I have never seen or attended a Charlotte Mason homeschool co-op, I would truly love to be a member of one. Perhaps I will take the initiative to start one in my area some day! For now, I simply wanted to share my ideas with others who may be thinking about this very thing. I hope you have a blessed week!