Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Hosting a Course for Homeschoolers

This year my husband and I decided to host a homeschool course on astronomy. We have it at our house every Wednesday and listed it with a Yahoo homeschool support group, a general homeschool support group, and our local classical education group. We offered the course for free on Wednesday evenings. The format of the course is an hour of presentation time and an hour of observation time (which had lengthened considerably from the advertised one hour total). The response was fabulous. The follow-through was not so fabulous. Here's a summary of our experience to date and some details of what I would do, or what I feel it is important to understand, for a second go-round.

My husband has been an amateur astronomer since his own high school years. It's a hobby that he's come back to time and time again. I had once bought a telescope for my father and quickly realized that astronomy was not as easy as 'point it somewhere and see what's out there.' There are certain terms and knowledge that are much easier to learn in person than through a book or trial and error. I thought that there were probably a bunch of homeschoolers who had purchased telescopes only to figure out, as I did, that it wasn't particularly easy. When I asked him if he would be willing, he jumped at the chance. He started planning the course before I even had a chance to ask if anyone was interested.

We decided that the best bet was a weekly class beginning in winter. Winter is a wonderful time for astronomical observations due to the clear, low-humidity sky and the early sunset. January was also a good time to start something new, like a new semester time. We knew that the course would have to be timed for hubby to get home from work and so that the observation time would be in the dark. The start time necessarily moves later and later with sunset and daylight savings time. With the class being very late, homeschoolers would be most likely to be able to attend given that they can sleep late if necessary. Since hubby was making the course up from scratch, he got to decide on the scope of the course (all of the universe), the type of presentation (detailed overview), the order in which to impart information (since it is a general information course, he presented information about Earth, then the Moon, then the Earth-Moon-Sun system, then the other planets of the solar system), the presentation style (power point slides with people seated around our home computer monitor), and the length of the class (this was actually defined by the scope and the method of presentation).

I had anticipated a decent drop-out rate. I made the assumption that a few homeschoolers would jump at the opportunity and not fully understand the effect on their schedule. Homeschoolers are usually able to determine that something is or is not working for them and adjust it. Flexibility is a big reason to homeschool but that type of behavior can be frustrating for those trying to offer a service. In only our first month, we had a number of people miss the class because of other commitments or come fairly late. After one particularly bad week, we had to really clarify whether some of the people coming were actually willing to commit to the class. After the first two months we settled down to a regular attendance of seven kids along with my own oldest. It was unfortunate because we had a waiting list and we had been willing to host as many as 12 children. If we had known sooner the true interest of many of the families, we could have invited kids from the waiting list. Most of the kids seemed interested. Some of the kids who did leave after the first month did not show much interest anyway.

As it stands now, the kids who are attending have wonderfully thoughtful parents who arrive on time and take a serious interest in the topic as well. I think the class is now composed of homeschool kids AND their parents! Many of the attendees do additional work on their own and bring it to share. Hubby has been very impressed with the level of interest and how well the class seems to work with a large variation in age (7 through 14 year-olds). Some of the parents have been teaching some lessons to their kids about sitting patiently and contributing constructively.

Overall I would say it was a very positive experience for us. Hubby definitely offended at least one person after stating that her level of commitment (missing four classes in a row) would inhibit her children's understanding of the class too much. Everyone else we met has been very positive, even when the scheduling did not work out for one reason or another. Science seems to be the type of coursework that could really use some hands-on help in the homeschooling community. There just aren't that many homeschooling moms who have the background to present it on their own. There are a number of curricula that I haven't looked at and there are math and science-type moms out there, but I definitely perceive a lack of science related coursework, even in co-ops. Hubby and I both have some ideas for more classes.

Lessons we could take away from this would include:
  • Preparation of the course a few weeks in advance and having a detailed outline was invaluable. If asked a question, hubby could say that he'd be talking about that in a few weeks because he knew what and when he was going to cover. As a corollary, he could discuss it fully at the time if he knew it wasn't going to be covered.
  • Prepare for what you'll be covering in that class in advance. Account for all of your material and have it on hand and enough of it. Hubby reviews his presentations the evening before, checks the weather, decides what objects he'll be observing, and takes out the telescope before the kids arrive.
  • In cases of inclement weather, have some activities planned. There were some 'labs' that we felt would be beneficial to the presentations, but decided to save them for evenings that were cloudy.
  • Be sensitive about bad weather. We were hosting at home and it's easy to forget that others have to travel further and may not have the same level of risk tolerance as someone who is used to driving in blizzards to get to work everyday.
  • Ask for some money. I wanted to offer the course for free and we did. We also found that when people didn't have to commit to it with money, they were less likely to commit to it with time and respect. If your goal is to make a business doing this, then perhaps check out what similar activities cost. I've seen extra-curriculur classes (like sewing) for $10 per class per kid. That would be about $43 a month for a weeky class of an hour for each child. Decide if you'll have people pay by class, by month, or for an entire session.
  • This is a great way to meet other parents and other homeschooled kids.
  • This is not a great way for your kids to make friends. We did not start this course with friendship in mind. It is a structured course with little free time and the kids and parents are there for the class. Kids make friends when they get a chance to play together. If you want friendships for your kids, this would introduce you to other homeschooled kids and they would have something in common, so you could try to arrange a play date. Actually, it turns out the kids have a great time playing together while they're waiting for their turn to look through the telescope and both of my daughters consider kids from the class their friends. I don't know if the sentiment is returned. I guess we'll find out at the end of the class.
  • Announce the class with a set schedule. If it is interesting enough, people will make it anyway. In this area there are so many different activities each family may be involved with that we could have gone crazy finding the optimum time. If you really want specific people to come, hammer out some detail with a smaller subgroup, then do a general announcement.
  • Belonging to some groups really helped get the word out.
  • The course could be weekly, every two weeks, or monthly. We chose weekly because we felt we could support it (wasn't a big hardship for us) and the amount of material would take too long to cover any other way.
  • Make clear what type of class you're running. I made sure to point out that this would be a lecture class with additional time outside in the cold weather to look through the telescope.
  • As part of your announcement, explain how long you feel the course will last. We knew that we were going to run from January through May, at least.
  • Decide whether or not you will have room for the parents and let them know if they can stay, if they should drop off, and whether they can sit with their kids. It turns out that every parent we have prefers to take the class with their kids. I don't know if that is so they can keep an eye on them (make sure they know how to behave in a group classroom situation), know what they're learning so they can discuss it later, don't have to make small talk with other parents (a big chore for 2 1/2 hours), or because they find the information so compelling they really want to know too. We had enough kids drop out made it possible for kids and parents to take the class together. The parents seem to enjoy it.
  • Have a talk with your own child about the type of behavior you expect from them. My daughter felt that because it was held at our house, she could come and go from the class as she pleased or playfully tease daddy like she normally would. We had to explain that this was a class we expected her to attend and that her side comments were distracting and could be misconstrued by others attending.
  • If you're holding a class after hours and it's science related, expect a lot of dads to attend! We love our dads (and moms too, of course). I just find it fun that the dads are into the class and the moms are getting a break. The moms who attend are really into it as well (and may be getting a break from even smaller ones at home).
  • Weekly classes in your home require housework (at least a clean bathroom, uncluttered presentation area, clear path to move in more chairs, a location for coats, and a kitchen that inspires confidence that people won't need to be treated for food poisoning if they eat something cooked in it). I have actually found this to be particularly beneficial for me because I can now host people at my house when usually I would ignore it long enough to become a complete disaster. I find the motivation to have it presentable each week has had a positive outcome on my desire to keep it decent daily.
  • The kids will happily eat all of the food you prepare. The parents almost never partake. I haven't figured this one out yet. I don't know if they don't eat because they're worried about putting me out (already made the food, you know), don't want to gain weight (certainly a possibility), don't think they'll like the food (I thought I was the only picky one), or want to leave as quickly as possible (most likely explanation). That brings up a whole other post topic about how boring entertaining is in our health-conscious, drunk-driving-sensitive time.
  • Having a four-week old to take care of when starting a new course makes it extra difficult to prepare snacks!


LB said...

Thanks for sharing your wisdom in this effort, Kim. It all rings true for me, too (but for the 4 week-old). Good for hubby in letting the dabbler know that her lack of effort would impact her children's ability to follow the class.

Bottom line: build it and they will come. Homeschooler addendum: lock the doors at 5 after and they will be on time.

Kim said...

It's been a great experience. I didn't mention it, but we also get goodies! Chips, cheese puffs, cupcakes, and a weekly loaf of freshly made bread! Yum, yum. Makes it all worthwhile. The whole idea come from you, by the way! I thought your idea of doing a science co-op was brilliant.

Sebastian said...

Great post. I would add one more addendum. Don't take families' choosing not to join the class personally. There are a couple classes that I would have loved to have the kids involved in this year. But we are already committed to taekwondo during the day and I am finding that we are stretched thin. Thin enough that I don't feel that we always get enough of our school work done.
So set up a great class, enjoy those who can come but don't hold it against those who don't sign up or find that they can't keep up with it.
You might also consider a shorter session at first to allow for dropouts and adding in new families.

Kim said...

Great point. We had a number of people who were interested but who already had activities at that time or who were just already too busy. Deliberately choosing to keep my schedule very free myself, I know that it is mostly a family decision and usually doesn't mean anything negative about the host.