Teaching a homeschool science co-op: General Notes

In September, 2013 my family moved from the Mammoth Lakes area in California to the San Diego area. One of the reasons for moving was that my then 13-year-old homeschooled son wanted a community of kids who he felt he had more in common with, AKA kids who were also homeschooled. He had friends in the small mountain community where we lived, but all of them attended traditional school. He was beginning to feel like an outsider and different in a way that worried me. We moved to San Diego and soon met homeschooled kids who he liked and identified with. The move has been really good for our whole family. My husband was already down here a lot helping one of his older sons get a business started. We have three older sons who all live in San Diego County with their wives and girlfriends. We even have a granddaughter who is almost 3 years old who lives in San Diego. It’s great being closer to her. I also love the group of homeschooling moms I have met.

My son wanted to take some classes with other kids, something he hadn’t done since kindergarten, his one and only year of attending traditional school. Someone recommended a group in Orange County that had some classes that looked perfect for him. One of the classes that they planned on having was a middle school/high school biology co-op. I signed my son up for this class. He was about to begin his last year of middle school, eighth grade, and had already worked his way through my biology course. He didn’t really need a biology course at that point, but I figured that taking a class with other kids would be a bit distracting for him, so maybe it would be a good fit for him to retake biology while he figured out what it was like to take a class with other kids.

I won’t go into all the details, but suffice to say the teacher that was supposed to teach the class canceled. The woman who runs the group contacted me about potentially teaching the class. I said no way. I need to write Earth and Space 2. She found another biology teacher who also fell through. At the end of it I finally agreed to teach the co-op class, all for my son. HE SO OWES ME for all I do for him!!! Not that I regret teaching the class even for second. I LOVED!! It! Still he owes me big time, just saying 🙂

I learned quite a bit about using my book for a co-op too. Things I hadn’t thought of when I wrote it. Things I really want to share with you. I decided to write a series of posts detailing my thoughts about co-ops in general, and using my book for a biology co-op specifically. This should be thought of as a series of teacher’s notes. It is written for my book, but honestly much of what I learned is general for any science co-op.

REAL Science Odyssey Chemistry 1, Blair Lee author
RSO Chemistry 1, Blair Lee http://www.pandiapress.com/?page_id=86

The Structure

  1. We met one time a week for two hours. I provided all supplies.
  2. We went through one chapter’s worth of material from RSO Biology 2 each week.
  3. I e-mailed students telling them the material they were responsible for that week.
  4. When we met for class, there was a 15 to 30 min. session at the start of class with me explaining the material for that week. The rest of the time was used for the lab. The review notes in RSO Biology 2 Teacher’s Guide help make this so much easier.
  5. I was available for help, I still call them office hours, before each week’s class. I just had to know ahead of time.

The Big Surprise

The big surprise was the diversity and eclectic interests of the students in the co-op. I am a big fan of homeschooling. I think the real strength of homeschooling is this diversity and the time, space, and energy to pursue these eclectic interests. But I hadn’t thought what that would mean from a teaching standpoint. I am going to go point by point with the differences and how I handled them.

  • What do you do when you have students who are being educated using different styles?

I had students who were being de-schooled, unschooled, classically educated, and parents who were flexible to however I wanted to teach. I had to decide how I was going to handle this, and so will you if you are going to teach a co-op class. There are a couple of different ways that I see to handle this:

  1. I decided to be flexible. That is my personality though. I am a very casual person. I sent the assignments to each student every week. If they did the assignments I graded and reported back to the student. If they didn’t, I was okay with that. A couple of times during the semester I did make sure that the parents knew when the students weren’t doing the assignments. I really left it up to the parents. I assumed that even for those students who were being de-schooled or unschooled that anybody taking my biology class wanted their student to learn biology. I decided to let the parents and the students figure out what that looked like within the framework of the material that I was assigning. The students that did not turn in projects did not get written feedback from me. Of course, I did give them feedback on the work that they did in class. I think the thing to remember in these sorts of flexible situations is that there is a desire to learn that subject. I didn’t have any problem with students being there without participating while they were in class; everyone did the work then. I had teens and tweens so there were a couple of times when I had to bring the attention back to what we were working on, but that would’ve happened either way.
  2. Decide on a structure. Make students responsible for the assignments. If you are going to assign grades you have to have material. If I were going to have all students accountable for turning in all the work, I would sit down with parents before they sign their kids up for the class and make sure that they understand what you are going to require. If you go with this structured approach, you want answer keys to the work. Grading is a LOT of work.
  • What do you do when you have a range of ages?
  1. I grouped my students by age. I kept the co-op small, nine students. I had three groups of three a younger middle school group, an older middle school group, and a high school group that included my son even though technically he was still in middle school. These three groups worked really well together. A couple of my students who were not doing much of the work did more work any time the group was working together.
  2. I highly recommend having groups of two or three students if you are going to run a lab class.
    • The members of the groups themselves will help each other if the lab is complicated.
    • It helps with limited resources like microscopes.
    • It made it easier for me when labs were complicated having fewer numbers to work with. Instead of working with each student individually, I was able to work with each group.
    • One of the groups only wanted to work together on some of the projects. I was very flexible with this. That group usually preferred working singly and I let them.
  3. I assigned the older students more work, and I had higher expectations for them. Most of this work was in the form of reading articles and watching videos. I had the high school group focus on epidemiology as it related to the weekly topic throughout the year.
  • What do you do when you have a range of abilities?
  1. Just because you have a range of ages does not mean you have a range of abilities. One of the first tasks at hand should be determining the overall level of science in your class. For example, my biology textbook has a heavy-duty microscope component. My son was the only person who was experienced in overall technique when it came to the microscope. Even some of the students who had used a microscope before really needed work with their microscope technique. What I learned is that there is an emphasis with looking at things through the microscope, but not an emphasis on learning how to do a good job preparing slides. Those students, even though they understood what they should be seeing, were at a beginner level as far as slide preparation and overall manipulation of the slide on the stage.
  2. If you do have a range of abilities and you’re going to pair people into lab partners you should decide ahead of time whether you’re going to pair students who are at similar levels or disparate levels.

Things You Need for a Co-op

  • The list below is what I think you need to run a co-op, this is my personal opinion. If you have different thoughts about any of this feel free to comment. In fact, if you have thoughts about anything you read in here I would love to hear from you.
  1. A textbook or some sort of complete reference material
    • Different students access materials differently. This is one of the most important things to remember when you are teaching any class anywhere. A lot of us are homeschooling because the traditional method in school didn’t work well for our students. As someone running a co-op class you need to be sensitive to the fact that some of your students are going to access material visually, some (in particular in a science class) kinesthetically, some orally, and others will learn using all of these. You need to make sure that students have access to this written component so that they have it to refer to and their parents have it to refer to.
    • A textbook will help you, the teacher, pace your class and figure out how and what material to present.
    • If you’re using REAL Science Odyssey Biology 2 the textbook will tell you what labs to use with the theory. I will be posting unit by unit any additions to labs, so that they work for the amount of time allotted. Some of the labs that are in the chapters did not take an hour and a half. I’ll make notes within the posts on this blog explaining what I had students do in the co-op class on those weeks.

      RSO Biology 2 http://www.pandiapress.com/?page_id=86
      RSO Biology 2 http://www.pandiapress.com/?page_id=86
  2. You will need permission to take and use photos if students are in the photos. It’s a minor point, but it is one that you might as well deal with at the start of class. Some parents do not care and other parents do not want their children in photos.
  3. A plan: The plan will be aligned with the textbook for the most part, but you should really go through before you teach the class and figure out some of the logistics. Your plan should address things like:
    • Are you going to take any field trips? If you are, do you need permission slips and will there be an additional fee for those field trips?
    • How many weeks will the class run? RSO Biology 2 is a 32 week course. Are you going to teach a 32 week course? Or are you going to teach a shorter course? Maybe you are just going to teach evolution, genetics, and anatomy from it. You should figure this out ahead of time. (I am a fan of teaching the complete package, but sometimes there are time constraints.)
    • Some labs run over in time. You should prepare parents ahead of time when this will happen.
    • Teaching takes a lot of energy. Make sure you have breaks built into the schedule when you need them.
  4. What is your policy if any kids miss a class?
  5. What is your policy if you, the teacher, cannot teach a class?
  6. Could you use any help? If so, you could have parents rotate once a week helping or you could offer one of the parents some sort of benefit for being the parent helping to teach the class.

This is all I can think of at this time, but knowing me I will continue to edit this. Today is June 12, 2014. Look for me to be adding the specifics for each unit over the next month.   This was dictated using Dragon software. Sometimes weird typos creep in using this. If you notice any do me a favor and let me know. Thanks, Blair