Starting your own Charlotte Mason co-op might sound a bit intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. Let’s talk about that today. And here to join me is a long time Charlotte Mason co-op director and starter, Laura Pitney.
Sonya: Laura, how long have you been directing a Charlotte Mason co-op?
Laura: Well, officially, probably about five years with the one local to my church and to our family. I have also been part of a moms group that has been meeting monthly for about 10 years. Both of those have definitely fed into me and our family, and I have been super blessed to be part of it.
Sonya: So how did you start the co-op then? Are those two connected somehow?
Laura: I feel like, looking back, they were; but at the time we had our monthly moms meeting, where we would sometimes go through one of Charlotte’s six volumes, or sometimes we’d go through an inspirational homeschooling-type book or topic or video series—all things that were pouring into our homeschool lives. So because that group was up and running and established, as I grew as a mom and as a teacher and some of my friends grew in that same way, it naturally led into, “Hey, why don’t we get together and teach some subjects together, our children together?”
Looking back, I definitely would say they were related, and some of the families that were originally part of it have moved or switched directions. So it’s different families now than it was even five years ago or 10 years ago. The more you talk and you even socialize with your friends at church or whatever other social outlets you have, just talking about it kind of feeds into, “Hey, let’s get together.” And that’s naturally how mine started.
Sonya: So if someone wants to start their own co-op, their own Charlotte Mason co-op, what are some of the things they need to be thinking about?
Laura: I would say, decide what kind of co-op you want to be. Whether it’s an academic co-op for certain Charlotte Mason subjects or if you want to do a nature day or just want to do the monthly book club, decide what your vision is for the group. Then you will be able to tell people, “Hey, come let’s meet for coffee once a month and talk about nature study or how to do a picture study or…” Once you know the type of group you want to have, then you can help get word of mouth out or start mentioning it to people.
Sonya: So then people know what …
Laura: What they’re getting into.
Sonya: Yes, what they’re committing to. Exactly. I suppose you might also need to decide what ages you’re going to accommodate, or do you just wait and see who comes?
Laura: My first priority has always been my own children. So, if I am the one that wants to do the co-op and direct the co-op and organize the co-op, I feel like it is natural for me to want it to fit where the ages of my kids are. My starting point was, “How will this benefit myself or my own family?” I knew that in order for it to be a complement to our homeschool, that’s what it would need to be versus a burden when I was trying to play around all the other million options we might have. That was where I started, ages that were appropriate for my own family, but then as interest showed and ages naturally spread out, we talked through logistics of that. But I started with, “Okay, I have a second grader and a fifth grader and a ninth grader, so that’s what I’m going to plan around.”
Sonya: That makes sense. Then, also I would think location would play into this as well. That’s another decision I’m sure you had to make.
Laura: Yes. There have been times where we’ve met at a local park monthly and that worked well, and that was a good option because it didn’t cost us anything. Over the years we have been blessed to be able to meet at my church, and they have a fellowship hall that we can gather in and do the different lessons and activities. I would definitely start brainstorming what options you have that are probably free first—and that genuinely is probably what everybody wants. Sometimes if you really, really want to see the group happen, you might have to all pitch in to do a rental fee or something. But I would just brainstorm to see what options you already have in your life, or a friend may know somebody that has a room you can use, or you can even open up your home, if that’s something that you feel like you want to do.
Sonya: Good. Then you’ve been talking about, if you are going to direct this, what if somebody wants to start this co-op but they don’t feel like they have leadership skills, they don’t necessarily want to be the one in charge. Is that a possibility?
Laura: For sure, and that definitely happens. I would suggest forming a leadership team. You may be the visionary, where you have the desire and the dream, and this is really what you want for your children, but you don’t necessarily want to do the administration or plan out logistics or organize it. So, start praying and asking and searching and figure it out. If you could get four or five other moms who want to come alongside you and form that leadership team to where you can delegate and say, “Here’s my vision. Okay, y’all do it.” That’s okay to do. It just depends on your personality and what you have time for, the commitment that you have, but that leadership team would really give life to your group. You can’t do it all. You can try, and you may last for awhile. I know that was my situation, and I just think there’s wisdom with having other brains to collaborate, to figure out how to make it a successful group.
Sonya: Well, especially, I would think if you want to grow, you have to be able to scale. And as you said, you can do only so much, especially when you’re homeschooling your own kids too. You don’t want to neglect your own children for the co-op’s sake. It needs to complement. So with that in mind also, another big decision, then, once you have your leadership and your other parents involved, is figuring out classes.
Laura: So there are two ways to look at this, and it’s just going to have to be something that you decide in the situation. I don’t think you can necessarily plan one way or the other. You can have teachers or moms who are part of your group who have talents they want to share with the group, and you can base your classes based on what they’re willing to teach and share, utilize their skills and the things they’re specialized in. But if you’re going be a Charlotte Mason focused group, there are certain classes that should be part of that co-op. I call them our CM 101 classes: we’re going to do art study, we’re going to do composer study, we’re going to have a time for recitation. There are certain classes I want to be part of our group.
Alongside of that, if I have moms who say, “Hey, I’m really good at teaching theater, I’d love to do a theater class,” or, I have a mom who’s really good at science and she wants to do a couple of experiments just to give them some hands on experiences. It’s hard to plan one way and then end up with, “Oh, wait, I have all these great moms who could do these certain subjects,” but then you could plan around the teachers and miss out on the Charlotte Mason subjects. So that’s absolutely no help to anybody, because it’s just fitting the pieces together. But as the director or the planner, I would definitely encourage that person to say, I want this to be a Charlotte-Mason-based co-op. These are the classes I for sure want to have part of the group, and then as moms present themselves and say, “Hey, I’m willing to do this,” or, “Have you ever thought about teaching this class?,” then those can be complements to the core CM classes that you want part of your co-op. So, it’s kind of a tricky scenario, but having flexibility and having that person who can see how to organize it all together would be beneficial, and it’s okay to let them do it if that’s not you.
Sonya: Well, it sounds like it’s very much like we do with our own home schedule. You have certain things that are set, but then you sprinkle in other things that might change every term.
Laura: Correct, that’s a great illustration for that. If you’re already homeschooling then you can see that and how that natural progression happens.
Sonya: Yes. Now, along with the classes then, there’s probably some materials that you’ll want to use. So how do you handle that? What kind of decisions need to be made about materials?
Laura: Well, for me, I don’t go too much outside of Simply Charlotte Mason’s resources. That’s been a go-to for me over the years. I’ve adapted them to fit a co-op setting, or there may be situations where we only need to buy one of the resources and then we’ll just share in different ways, like maybe home extensions or things they can do at home. So, resources for me, I’ve always used the SCM resources, and they’ve been a really great fit for that group setting, but also keeping it intimate and simple. There have been times where I’ve had moms who say, “Hey, what about this?” or, “What do you think about this resource?” I always am glad to take in the suggestions and the ideas, because there are great things out there I may not know about. So, I always want to give the attitude that I don’t know it all and I’m not “my way or no way.” There are so many good ideas. I always screen it though, and then usually there’s a follow-up conversation about, “Yes, this will work great,” or “No, I don’t think this is good for a group setting or …”
Sonya: Or for a Charlotte Mason approach or for the values of your group.
Laura: Correct. So there’s a lot to consider with that. And especially if you have new families who want to learn about Charlotte Mason but maybe still have traditional mind-sets about certain things. I don’t want to deter them and just say, “No, that’s wrong,” because that’s not their intent. But there’s a learning curve there, and as the director and the leader, I want to encourage them to jump into the Charlotte Mason method and philosophy without being a dictator with it, if that makes sense. So there’s a responsibility that I have to encourage them and love them and point them in the right direction. Keeping good Charlotte Mason resources helps everybody be on the same page.
Sonya: One thing I’m very excited about, as you’ve been leading your CM co-op and we’ve been discussing all about that, is how you’ve helped us develop resources for groups specifically, and those are brand new. Right now we have group lesson plans, group courses. Like you said, you would take SCM resources and make them work in a group; we’re now coming out with lesson plans that do that already for the groups.
Laura: Yes, ma’am, it’s very exciting.
Sonya: Talk a little bit about what’s available for those who want to start a Charlotte Mason co-op.
Laura: Sure. So, one of the big dreams that I know SCM has had is, “How can we help build communities who really love Charlotte Mason methods and philosophy?” Out of that love, these resources and things have developed. One of the options is we have some video courses. There are some that are basic courses—this is what to ask, this is what to look for, here’s some encouragement—and those will be available for whoever wants them. If you really want to dive in and dig deeper, we have some paid courses you can purchase that’ll walk you through that, the in-depth process of all the things we just mentioned: location and teachers and policies and fees, and all those things that just may seem really overwhelming starting out. Those specific courses are created for the purpose of giving you the tools and the encouragement you would need to start a group from scratch.
Also, there are ladies out there and teachers out there who have been doing co-ops for a long time, and they just may want help and say, “You know what? This is streamlined, this is something I can just either switch over to and do this with the SCM resources,” or, “You know what? That’s a great idea. I want to implement that,” or, “This is adapted for a group setting, this would be perfect for our next term.” So some of it can definitely be a la carte to help complement a group that’s already established, but there are also a lot of great resources to really help you build up and start a CM community.
Sonya: It’s always great to hear how a Charlotte Mason co-op can just grow into a beautiful community to encourage the home education as well as the group education. And I’m sure that all of your comments, all of your wisdom and insight, has helped a lot of people know that it’s not that hard to get a co-op started.
Sonya: It takes some work, I’m sure, but it doesn’t have to be intimidating. You can do it. Is there anything you want to encourage people with as we wrap up?
Laura: The biggest thing I would say about starting a co-op is remember your goal and why you’re doing it. A lot of times that gets missed in the logistics of it. Ultimately we want to invest in the hearts of our children. Our hearts need to be invested in, so having that community just really is something to remember why you’re doing it. We’re obviously there to enrich the mind, right? We want to learn, we want to be challenged, we want to grow, and then, keeping in mind that we are all learning together. We don’t ever stop learning, and for our children to see us as learners and us to see them grow in the way they think and interpret the world. It’s just a beautiful thing. So that would be my encouragement, is just to remember the why you’re doing it. Just because that really keeps our hearts motivated to invest and enrich and to learn together.