Four months ago, history professor Karen Miller thought she’d be spending her sabbatical living and working in Manila as a Fulbright scholar. That, of course, was before the coronavirus became an international pandemic and upended her plans, forcing her to make several major decisions, including whether to leave the Philippines and return to her home in Brooklyn, New York.
Miller ultimately did return—on March 14th. Since then, she and a group of friends have created Homeschoolcoop2020.com, a free, online educational program for children and their caretakers. As of mid-August, the Coop has offered hundreds of diverse classes, some of them single sessions and others ongoing. To date, the range has included yoga, basic sewing, beginning Latin for high school students, intro to chess, human sexuality for middle schoolers, the history of the Panama Canal, drawing, French, and poetry—both writing and appreciating.
Miller recently spoke to Lilith’s Eleanor J. Bader about the Coop’s formation and exponential growth.
Eleanor J. Bader: Where did the idea for the Home School Coop originate?
Karen Miller: My eleven-year-old son and I arrived in the Philippines on January 9th and I immediately enrolled him in a school. He attended this school until the virus forced it to close on March 10th. I spent much of that first week with him at home, looking for homeschool activities. We eventually found something but it was run by a for-profit company. Nonetheless, it gave him a way to learn in an interactive online classroom and was a really great experience.
We returned to the US in mid-March and while this online program was initially a lifesaver for us, I realized that at $10 to $15 per one-hour class, the fees were going to rack up really fast, especially if he took four or five classes a day.
As I thought about our options, I realized that just about everyone I know is a professor, a teacher, a poet, or some kind of artist and I thought that it might be fun to develop something that is available online, accessible to all kids for free.
I started by talking to a few of my poet friends and they agreed to teach a poetry class. My partner then said she wanted to do a daily cat video show. We wanted to get this up right away and immediately from the start, there was a ton of enthusiasm and interest among my friends in creating a volunteer-run cooperative school.
Once we got going, the idea quickly moved from me reaching out to my personal networks, to people I’d never met contacting me through the site to both teach and register for classes.
EJB: How far has the word spread?
KM: Over the past few months we’ve seen the reach expand significantly. People have logged in for classes from all over the United States and from different parts of Canada. There’s been someone from Singapore enrolled. We now have a beautiful website which lists the classes being offered and we have a Facebook page and a Twitter feed. At this point, I’d say that we have a solid core of kids who are supplementing their own school’s online curriculum with our classes.
EJB: Which classes have been the most popular?
KM: We had a class for adults on how to cut your partner’s hair that 30 people signed up for. Another class on living in the South Pole was also really popular. Science classes of all kinds have been a hit, including two sections of epidemiology, one for kids ages six to eight, and another for kids ages nine through 12.
EJB: How have the classes evolved?
KM: The first week, everything except Cat Chat was a one-off. We’ve now realized that some classes work better if they’re taught over multiple sessions. I’d say right now that half our classes meet regularly—for example, a French class and a LEGO group meet every Monday and a cooking class meets every Tuesday afternoon–while others are single sessions.
EJB: How did you find teachers willing to donate their time?
KM: I initially recruited friends but there is a form on the website for people to fill out if they want to volunteer to teach something. Once a class is scheduled, it goes up on the course grid so students can sign up.
EJB: How about the logistics of running the Coop?
KM: There are seven or eight of us who are operating on the back end of the Coop and so far, the structure and functioning have been pretty smooth.
EJB: What’s been most gratifying about getting the Coop off the ground and seeing it grow?
KM: I find it incredibly moving that kids are so into it. I also love that the classes are giving great joy to the people who are teaching them. The Coop has been a really fun project. Our goal is to bring people together to laugh and learn, telling jokes and not only sharing stories about our pets, but sharing whatever knowledge we have. As we say on the website, “we are excited about building community in the face of social distancing.” I’m happy to report that it’s working.