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A sense of community

Now, as our homeschooling community goes through what I’d call ‘growing pains’ and will morph into something new I feel like catching up a few thoughts of what made it as it is.

Weekly rhythm: Thursday meetings

When we started more than three years ago we picked up Thursday as a meeting day. First it was just a convenient workday to meet, but over time schedules of several families had to evolve around it. Family trips, sports and clubs of the kids were planned in a way that Thursdays would stay free to meet. In my case, since juggling agendas of three kids is difficult enough, I was simply not considering any local activity that involved Thursday.

Whole day appointments

It quickly became that in our part of the country meeting for a couple of hours doesn’t make much sense: in any bigger meeting there will be people who have to travel for an hour or more. So many of the meetings are 11 to 18 with the most being present there between 12 and 15. This gives enough flexibility for the families to fit the length and timing of their visit into their own schedules. On the other side it also makes more difficult to plan an activity with a beginning and an end, and plan visits to a museum or a similar place, since there always needs to be time and space for a lunch.

Locations and commitment to travel

Distances between the participating families also made it important to plan the locations of the meetings in such a way that travel time and costs were more or less evenly distributed.  For a long period of time the meetings were planned weekly between two ends of an axis between Zwolle and Enschede-Hengelo. Sharing rides (and travel costs), opportunities to stay for a dinner to avoid rush hours or even stay overs for families from further away became a norm in the group.

Meaningful activities

Time investment required to make meeting happen had an impact on the activities that we did together. Soon it became obvious that bringing kids to play while blocking the whole day in the schedule of the whole family is not enough given the investment. This is how the need for meaningful activities for the parents came into play. Then playing music together and theater improvisation became regular activities in the group next to more structured brainstorms about homeschooling than usual “exchange of experiences”. For me personally thinking about mixed-age (rather than kids-oriented) learning activities became the norm: this is how Wowlab workshops were designed from the beginning. As the kids grew older the need to do more education-related activities and group projects became more obvious: if we spend so much time together is makes a lot of sense to make sure that this time contributes to the “bottom line”, joining our efforts to provide good education for our kids.

Sharing food

The need to have lunch during the meetings and occasional dinners together also made a difference, since sharing food is one of the secret ingredients of building relations. I also found it funny to see how traditional Dutch “bring your sandwiches to eat by yourself” lunch eventually morphed into “share what you feel like sharing and try something of others” and “make something warm when the kitchen is available” (I guess as an influence of the preferences in two Russian-Dutch families in the group :). Not only it created a group norm, but also reduced the workload of a single family, making participation easier: taking ingredients saves time to prepare for the day, forgotten ingredients are often replaced by those of other people, kids can help preparing lunch and fiddly eaters have peer pressure of trying something new.

Shared norms, memories and traditions

Over time shared context emerged: ways of doing things, unwritten expectations, traditions. Small things, that bind the group together. For me there are certain things that stand out from those (next to the food ;): singing together, where every song has a meaning (“West Virginia”, anyone?), egg hunt for Easter, skating in Openluchtmuseum, picking blueberries and swimming in August. And – being prepared to drive and taking care of each other.

***

If I look back, I see clear differences between the early stage of creating the network and later period of maintaining/activating it. In the first couple of years there were a lot of explicit discussions about shared goals, norms and values, as well as a relation-forming activities ranged from shared dinners and stayovers to camping together as a group. Later, those relations created a solid base for doing things together that brought a lot of value for the participants without requiring so much investment into relations with each other as in the beginning. It also created something that attracted a lot of new members, who were not explicitly updated on the norms of the group and (by then) unspoken commitments. It changed the balance in the group and eventually resulted in the “growing pains” that we are trying to resolve now.

And I’d like to summarise my own “lessons learnt” from the process:

  • think about growth, attitude towards new members and ways of integrating them into existing group without the group falling apart
  • talk explicitly about group norms, as well as individual needs and expectations of the group members, not only in the beginning, when it’s natural, but also at the moments when membership or situation of the members change
  • beware of fragmented communication space, when there is no time and place for everyone to be heard by everyone else as it creates fragmented views of the group that are not shared by everyone
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