Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Alchemy of a Homeschool Program

or, Fantastic Friday Revamp (Again!)

Photo by Horia Vorlan
I've posted before about my monthly homeschool program Fantastic Friday and how we revamped it last year based on feedback from one of my very involved homeschool parents.

The revamp seemed like a dream come true - the program practically ran itself! With the kids presenting projects, all I really had to do was provide a room, make some announcements, and come up with materials (book lists and displays) to help them find resources for the next month's topic. It was so much less work for staff and I felt like the kids were getting much more out of it.

And then they stopped coming.

I mean, not all at once. I had pretty good attendance consistently throughout 2012-2013. We were okay at the first meeting this school year in September - lots of new families trying it out. But then every month, attendance dropped. I tried to rally everyone in December. Our topic was food and I advertised it as a potluck; even if you didn't have a project, please come and enjoy food! I even personally emailed families who had come in the past and invited them to hang out and share our snacks.

Attendance still went down. And in January I only had the same 3 dedicated families who had been coming almost every month. And one of those families informed me they were moving out of town. And with so few kids, the program was getting super short. The kids were nervous. They blitzed through their presentations and my "program" was only lasting 15 minutes.

I needed a change.

But I struggled with this because my loyal families had professed so much love for the program. At the end of last school year, they had specifically approached me and asked me to keep the same format. How could I make the program work for the library and still have a program that would work for these families?

So, in February I revamped a little bit. We were meeting on Valentine's Day, so instead of concentrating so much on the kids' presentations, I decided to start with a craft making Valentine's Day cards. I researched some new listservs to reach out to and I billed it as "Come make Valentine's Day cards!" and if anyone wanted to share a project or booktalk with the group, they were welcome to do it.

Friends, my attendance went from my expected 6 kids to, like 18 that day. And not only was attendance up, but having some icebreaker time doing the craft together at the beginning helped the kids relax and do better in their presentations. Instead of such a formal setting, it was more like sharing with a group of friends.

I did something similar in March: our theme was science and we started the day by making play-doh volcanoes and exploding them. (Side note: this is a simple, cheap project [get play-doh at the Dollar Store!], and the kids LOVE IT, even if they have done it before!) Again, attendance was good. The new format had attracted some new families.

I've dreamed up a poetry scavenger hunt for April and then in May we'll do our End-of-the-Homeschool-Year party.

Having an activity at the beginning of the program gives me something I can really advertise. It lifts the pressure on families to have a project every month. It attracts kids who might never want to present (and that is fine). It fleshes out our program and helps the kids get to know each other. It allows me to tell a new family who just stopped in the day before our program "hey, come do a craft with us and get to know some other homeschooling families" instead of "you need to have a project completed to share with the group, so... maybe next time". (Not that we were ever telling families that last thing. But I'm sure they felt like it sometimes! And then we've lost them!)

As I start planning for the fall months, I'm going to:
  • keep topics basic so that they're very open as far as the projects we're doing. I'm going to concentrate on subjects that homeschooling families are probably already going to cover - art, history, science - with a few more specific months thrown in - Black History Month, my favorite book.
  • look for simple activities or crafts that will work for ages 3-15 (older siblings are great with helping younger siblings) and allow for creativity. Creative activities/crafts let me stand back and see what the kids will come up with instead of giving explicit instructions = much easier for me.
  • continue to seek new outlets to advertise the program and encourage new families to come. I think with an activity to advertise, this will be easier than the previous iteration of our program.
  • probably forget about the book and project list that I had been doing. While book lists are certainly a good resource, our families don't seem to be using them. With much broader topics, book lists are probably only marginally helpful, anyway. Instead, I'll make sure to let everyone know that our ever-helpful librarians are happy to suggest books and help find resources (at any time, not just for this program). 

Will this format work for us forever? I don't know. We'll use it as long as it's working and then reevaluate again! Change is a good thing, and we need to be constantly evaluating our programs and tweaking them to make them better for families, better for the children, and better for staff. And when you hit on something that works better, it's such a great feeling!