I had the shock this summer, at our annual co-op coffee date and planning meeting, of discovering we’re starting our fourth year of co-op. I am not a brand-new homeschool mom anymore. Those babies when we started? They’re old enough to join in now. And there are a lot. More. Kids.

We decided a year or so ago to start following the recommended schedule from Ambleside Online for nature studies. Ambleside is a major group that uses the Charlotte Mason method, which some of our families follow, and the rest of us don’t mind. It solves that eternal “What do we want to do THIS year?” conversation, and everybody does other subjects at home anyway. This year, we’re up to birds, mammals, and flowering plants.

So I planned ahead and did some research before I got to the planning meeting. We usually start a group Pinterest board and save useful ideas, so I spent a lovely two hours pinning all the best of unit studies on birds. I love seeing what gorgeous projects creative moms come up with. I found a lot of Montessori-inspired activities—apparently Montessori is big on birds? I don’t know. But I was very excited about birds. Pinterest now thinks I want lots of Montessori recommendations.

Then I got to the coffee meeting and discovered we are actually doing mammals first and leaving birds until spring. I do vaguely remember that conversation, now. Oh well.

We usually follow the same steps to turn a concept into a co-op class, and I thought I’d share them:

  1. Pick a topic. Done.
  2. Figure out how many weeks we have to cover the subject. This involves much wrangling of calendars and debate on vacations and whether we do or do not want to go into December. This year we compromised and said yes, but we’ll leave the last week for catch-up or partying (depending).
  3. Start breaking down the subject into big-picture pieces: what is important to know about mammals? I have an orderly soul sometimes, and I wanted to divide up the totality of families of mammals so we can cover them alllllllllllll and I would have a sense of accomplishment. Because, obviously, anything you don’t learn about mammals in second grade will be dark to you forever. However, we looked up just how many families of mammals there are on this green Earth, and that proved impractical. Also we want to go on four field trips. We briefly considered covering mammals by geographic region, but mostly…no. We picked eight informal groupings of mammals. My favorite was “Bears and not-really-bears.” Carolus Linnaeus would be proud—or have a heart attack—I’m not sure which.
  4. Assign a field trip or topic to each week. This is the moment of truth: when you discover whether you can count weeks and count lesson topics and get them to equal one another.
  5. Assign a mama per week. We usually schedule around travel, impending babies, and each mother’s emotional relationship with particular topics.
  6. Talk about what we want to accomplish every week, generally. This group likes books—taking into account short attention spans—and we do well with games, crafts, and science experiments, but we don’t like coloring. Coloring is boring. Also sketching stresses some of us out (a tragedy for Charlotte Mason students!). Informative videos are usually a success.
  7. Every mom is responsible for turning her week’s topic into a specific lesson plan. Usually she tracks down a handful of picture books from the library and online recommendations and comes up with a couple of activities to go with them. If we need particular supplies, she sends out an email that week asking people to bring stuff. We also usually eat a potluck lunch together.

I have done no planning for mammals yet, but if, for instance, I was scheduling the week on birds’ nests, I might check out A Nest is Noisy by Dianna Hutts Aston, Urban Roosts by Barbara Bash, and Mama Built a Little Nest by Jennifer Ward. We would read them and discuss types of nests and some of the things a nest needs to do: keep the eggs safe, provide shelter, whatever. I would turn the kids loose on crafting their own nests, following this mom’s idea, and attempt to have the older kids describe their nests’ features and what kind of bird and habitat they designed it for. Possibly, for the bird unit, we would want a semester-long project to connect local birds with their bird calls, so I would dial up a chickadee or cardinal or robin’s song online and we would all tweet and whistle at each other. At this point, the natives would be getting restless and we would dismiss them to play while we pulled lunch together.

Carolyn marks her calendar

Does anyone have a really killer resource on lesson planning? I always feel like this is a subject I could learn more on.