Karen Loutzenhiser, vice-chair on the Tooele City Library Board, hosts a monthly book club. She teaches piano lessons in the afternoons, gardens during the summer months, and she homeschools her children, making learning enjoyable with ideas such as Harry Potter-style report cards, house points and feasts.
Oh, and one of her hobbies — writing lesson plans — recently blossomed into a fast-growing cottage industry.
It’s partly because she believes learning should be fun. Loutzenhiser incorporates projects, games and field trips into lessons as often as possible. It’s hard work, but she said it’s been worth it.
“It was really just falling in love with a lifestyle,” she said.
In the beginning, creating and blogging about lesson plans was just a way for Loutzenhiser to share fun homeschooling ideas with her sister, Michelle Copher of Idaho.
“We’re both homeschool moms,” Loutzenhiser said. “We were always sharing ideas.”
Five years later, those lesson plans are making their way into print. Several digital copies are already available on the website www.layers-of-learning.com, and more are on the way.
Loutzenhiser, who holds a degree in early childhood development with an emphasis on education, transitioned from teaching preschool to homeschooling her eldest son when he became ready for kindergarten.
“I feel the pressure,” she said. “In the beginning I worried that I was going to miss part of their education.”
Copher introduced Loutzenhiser to the idea of rotating through topics, covering the same subject matter every four years but in greater depth each time.
“I learned you don’t have to teach your children everything,” Loutzenhiser said. “You just have to teach them how to learn.”
She and Copher began serious idea-swapping at family reunions. Their mother talked them into sharing their ideas with other people.
“We created just a little blog. It wasn’t any big deal,” Loutzenhiser said. “Little by little, it grew.”
Their sharing led to the development of several unit studies. They focused heavily on history and geography.
“We asked ourselves what we would want them to learn,” Loutzenhiser said.
Writing these units takes about three years. First, the sisters research the topics they want to teach. Then they brainstorm ideas for projects, games and other hands-on learning activities.
During the second year, they use the unit studies in their home classrooms. Ideas that don’t work are weeded out, and new ideas are sometimes added. The following year, they take all the information they gathered the first two years and refine it, creating the unit studies they’ve been selling online.
Loutzenhiser does most of the writing and editing, while Copher created the cover art and the artwork on the website. Most of the inside images are photographs.
As the blog grew, Loutzenhiser branched out, gradually teaching herself basic computer programming so she could develop a full website with a customized look and feel. About a year ago, they launched the site www.layers-of-learning.com.
Since then, the number of viewers has doubled every month. They reached about 2,000 visits per day by the end of January. Teachers and non-homeschooling parents visit the site as frequently as homeschooling parents do.
“It’s been fun,” Loutzenhiser said. “It’s grown really quickly.”
Each two-week unit includes activities for elementary, middle school and high school students. They contain both reading sections and several ‘Explore’ sections, where the games and projects are introduced. The ‘Explore’ sections are color-coded based on age groups.
“The most rewarding part of Layers of Learning is getting to use it with my kids,” Loutzenhiser said, touting the field trips and fun projects.
Copher said her favorite things about Layers of Learning are that it’s a very complete program and organized in a way that keeps teachers and students on task.
“Add a math program and an English program and that’s all you need for all your kids all the way through graduation,” she said.
The units rotate by year, with 20 units in each year for four years. By the time a student using Layers of Learning graduates from high school, he or she will have gone through the unit three times, covering all of the activities for each age group.
This past fall the sisters were contacted by Rainbow Resources Center, Inc., a homeschool resources catalog, with a request to be able to include their printed materials in the catalog.
“We didn’t have any printed materials,” Loutzenhiser said.
They went to work formatting the units for publishing. Karen edited proofs of the unit studies books for years one and two in January. Rainbow Resources contracted with them to buy 50 copies of each of the 40 units they have on their website.
“This year we’re releasing our first two years of the four-year program in physical copies,” Copher said. “The digital copies have been for sale for a while on our site, but the move to physical copies is big. We expect to sell to many more people this year and we’re organizing the business end of things.”
The sisters already have other projects lined up, including a system for teaching language arts and some preschool materials. Loutzenhiser also hopes to take her children to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando when units for all four years are completed.
“We’ve dreamed of going there for a long time, so I would love to make that happen,” she said.
Meanwhile, she’s already planned for Saint Patrick’s Day with love-note shamrocks that the children can find throughout the day and a treasure hunt for chocolate gold coins.
“The clues will include things they’ve learned throughout the year, so it’s a quiz in disguise,” she said.
Both sisters see Layers of Learning as a rewarding experience all the way around.
“Working on a major project like Layers of Learning has helped me use my talents and creativity in new ways,” Copher said.
“I’m always thinking of the best ways to teach and play with my kids so I can share what works for us with other moms,” Loutzenhiser said. “It has definitely made me a better and more intentional mom.”