Lara Aston, founder and leader of the Book Hooks Schoolhouse in Houston, Texas, joins the Teachers’ Lounge podcast today to share an inspiring story and an aspirational approach to education. Lara’s background is in special education and preschool education. She’s a book lover, homeschool mom, and she also finds time to quilt from time to time. To listen to the full podcast, you can go to the Teachers’ Lounge here.

Michael Arnold: Lara, you were actually directed to Curriculum Trak through the Herzog Foundation, and we appreciate those connections. And your story is a story of how to make students feel like they belong, how to meet the needs of every student.

Tell us a little bit about the Book Hook Schoolhouse and how it got started. How would you describe it? Is it a micro-school, a one-room schoolhouse, a homeschool coop? What term best fits what you’re trying to do there at the Book Hook?

Lara Aston: I think the best way that I would describe it would be a micro-school, a hybrid micro-school. Because I’m in Texas, homeschoolers are considered to be private schools. So my students are considered to be homeschool students, but they come to me 2 days a week. They’re with me a full 2 days a week in which I teach all the different subjects. And then the 3 days that they’re at home, I’m directing what they’re doing. So the parents are implementing my plans, but they’re not really making their child’s school plans themselves, which kind of separates me a little bit from the homeschool world because the students are being directed with their learning by me, but the parents are still active in the process.

And I would say I’m also that one-room schoolhouse because we have one large classroom with multiple ages. My students range from 11 years old to 14.

Michael Arnold: You shared with me previously about how you kind of got pulled into this because there were some students that you knew that were looking for some additional support. Tell us a little bit about how this came about.

Lara Aston: I think in order to really understand how this came about, you have to back up in my own personal life about 16 months. I taught in public schools, had my own children, and then got pulled into the homeschool world. Several years into that, my husband and I adopted two girls.

They were 2 and 4 at the time, and they are biological siblings, but there’s an age gap between the 2 of them and our boys. And at that point, we were in the world of homeschooling, but then, of course, that also connected me to the adoption world. And because of my background in education, I’ve always done a lot of tutoring and I’ve taught classes to homeschoolers.

Our youngest child is now a senior in high school. And in the fall of 2022, as she walked into her junior year, my husband and I began discussing what life looks like. I was going to finish up 24 years of homeschooling and what did that look like? And though we have always talked about my dream of having my own school, that felt a little daunting at that time. We were kind of looking forward to empty nesting years. We have 3 children that are married. And so we started talking about me piecing together some of the curriculum that I had been teaching. That was our plan.

Two days later, after that conversation about just developing curriculum and (which is where Book Hook started), I found myself sitting in an ER with my husband who was in severe back pain. He had had a few things going on, but nothing significant. And we found out at that point that he had cancer everywhere all up and down his spine, and he never went home. Fifteen days later, he died from aggressive bone cancer.

I found myself suddenly sixteen months ago a widow after being married for 33 years, facing those empty nest years by myself. I kind of lived in a fog for a while. And then I started last spring picking back up my tutoring students, kind of grew that through the summer, and started the school year with several students that I was tutoring.

At that point, I had gotten the vision of, Hey, my life looks different. Let’s kind of think about the whole school thing. And God just opened up those doors. I had students that I was tutoring that were really needing more than just an hour or two a week with me, and their parents were looking for more. Book Hooks kind of just grew from there. It feels like God just kind of pushed me along and said, I have a new direction for you. And so that’s kind of where I landed.

Michael Arnold: What a grace-filled, heart-wrenching, hope-filled story. I really appreciate the grace that you bring to that story and how you recognize God’s hand in that nothing goes to waste. Even the name Book Hook came from your husband, right? Share that story.

Lara Aston: Yes. So we’re a family of books. We have a lot of books, and we had lots of conversations over the years about how many bookcases we could put in our house. He was sure we could clear out some of what we had, and I assured him that, no, there were none that I could part with.

All of my classes that I ever taught, all of the tutoring I ever did, were very centered around literature. I taught our own children through a literature based approach. If we were learning about Indians or we were learning about Africa or we were learning about the American Revolution, we were always reading books on those topics.

And so one day, while we were talking, when I was trying to come up with a name for my curriculum, I said, “What about Book Hooks?” And my husband designed my logo of the hook in a book–it’s a fish hook that’s stuck to a book. We came up with the slogan that books are the hooks on which we hang our thoughts and understanding. We really believe that a book can just take you anywhere, and you may not know about the mountains or Australia or ancient Egypt, but if you get caught up in a story or a book or a novel or even just pictures, it can bring your imagination and help you create those hooks that you can put your understanding with.

Michael Arnold: That’s great. The nine students that you have now in your one room micro homeschool is kind of a unique arrangement of students that you said didn’t really feel like they belonged elsewhere. Would you unpack that a little bit?

Unique Arrangement

Lara Aston: Five of the students come from traditional homeschool families, and four of them have come out of the public schools or private schools in our area. The five that have come from traditional homeschool families tend to be on the younger end of those families. Their parents have homeschooled forever and have had a whole group of their own children that they were teaching and they are finding that now that they have one or two students left, they’re having a hard time finding a way for those students to feel connected to other children because their own older siblings have moved on. Some of them are just homeschool families that have a student that maybe is struggling with a learning disability or being on the autism spectrum, and they just don’t quite know exactly how to teach those children. And then the ones that have come out of public school just were not having success. Their needs were not being met. They were either being bullied or the teachers weren’t meeting their needs.

Michael Arnold: You’ve shared that you feel like your approach, this hybrid approach, the one-room approach, helps you maximize belonging for those students even though they’re coming from such a variety of backgrounds and experiences. Share with us a little bit more about that.

Lara Aston: So it took me three months before I really felt like I hit my stride of being able to maximize the two days that they’re with me and the three days that they’re at home. I have an assistant that teaches with me, and she’s got great insight as well. She’s also a former homeschool mom. As we’ve talked, we’ve come to the conclusion that on the two days that they’re with me, we try to make those as interactive as possible. We do a lot of projects. We read aloud to the students different novels about what we’re learning about, and we make those two days as interactive as we possibly can.

And then I use Spark Your School software, which is similar to Google Classroom that’s used in the public schools, but it’s geared more for smaller settings. Through that, I can assign work on the three days that they’re at home, and some of the assignments that I make are for the whole class. But I can very much individualize the assignments. So I have students that are practicing phonics skills and reading, and I have another student that’s reading novels and writing essays. And so I’m able to individualize their assignments when they’re at home to their specific levels, but when they’re at the schoolhouse, I can create project-based learning and activities that allow for interaction so that it doesn’t matter how well they read or how well they’re writing or what level their math is, we’re still all able to do those projects together.

Michael Arnold: What are some of those projects?

Lara Aston: Our overarching theme for the year is Texas history. For science, we’re also studying energy and oil and all the different types of energy sources because Texas is such an energy driven state. So that’s kind of our overarching theme.

We had been talking about convection currents in science, and we had also been talking about the German immigrants that came to Texas. And so at Christmas, we also were talking about different Christmas traditions in Germany. I had the students look up how they would have celebrated Christmas, and how they celebrate now in Germany. And then all of the students built German Christmas pyramids. They’re the little things that have the spinning fans at the top that they spin from the candles. So we built those, and they lit candles. Then we talked about how it was the convection currents that we had been discussing in science that were making it spin.

So, depending on what level they’re at and where their interest is, I’m able to pull that into the project. I have one student who is super interested in fashion, and so she’s looking at what the explorer that she’s studying would have been wearing. And we’re talking about what that would have been like in the summer heat of Texas on a ship, what it would have been like to wear all those layers of clothes. We’re able to pull in the interest of the students and the abilities and the passions that they have and then as they work together, they learn all these new things. They’re excited about it. They’re talking to each other, and they’re looking at books that maybe they wouldn’t have looked at otherwise.

Michael Arnold: I’m just thinking of all of the terms that could be put into what you just described: project-based learning, differentiation, engagement versus transactional–some of those things that are just so powerful in education. But by breaking your students into small groups, you can meet them where they are and help them, and inspire them to explore.

Lara Aston: And then when they go home those other three days, they’re a little more motivated to read and come back with a map drawn that they might not have wanted to draw otherwise, but they are interested in drawing it because they have a whole group that’s sitting there waiting for them to come back and be able to put that on their project board. Next week the students are going to be presenting their three projects to their parents who are coming to visit.

Michael Arnold: I think sometimes when we hear one-room schoolhouse, we’re thinking, Anne of Green Gables or Little House on the Prairie. But that was really the strength of that instructional model, the smaller groups to leverage relationships. And what you’ve done is you’ve given it a new modern twist. I mean, I doubt Laura Ingalls Wilder put an engine together in her one-room school.

Lara Aston: Right. And I think that the other thing that we do here that gives our students some sense of belonging, some ownership in the building is just that they also all have jobs at the end of the day, wiping down tables, taking the trash to the dumpster, those kinds of things.

I have this cute little backyard area, which is just sand actually at the moment. We’ve been working on ways to enhance an outdoor learning space, and one of the things we just did is a retired gentleman from my church came and built picnic tables with my students. They rotated with their little groups of 3, and one group was with me working on their engines, and one group was with my assistant working on their history project, and one group was outside working on picnic tables. I could have easily just had Lowe’s deliver two put-together tables. But my students had so much fun being a part of that project. And now when they sit out there for lunch, they know, I’m sitting on the table that I helped build. And I think all those kinds of things build those connections. It builds connections with each other, with our schoolhouse, with the actual building, and with other people in the community like the gentleman from my church.

I think with that one room schoolhouse concept, there are just things that we can do that give them that sense of belonging, that sense of ownership.

Michael Arnold: Not to slam our current educational model at all, but it does sometimes tend to perpetuate this is the way to be successful. This is the model. What you’re demonstrating to your students is that there are lots of ways to be successful. So, you might struggle with this or that, but look at what you could do with your hands. Look what you could do with art. Look what you can do with exploring things that you’re interested in.

Lara Aston: And I think that’s the thing that I really try to focus on during the 2 days that they’re with me, really looking at those strengths and looking at how they’re struggling. I have one student that is struggling with his reading, but he can tell you more about cars than anybody else that I know. He’s 11 years old, but he loves cars. And so for him to be able to tell the other kids how that motor works and just intuitively know what’s the next thing we’re going to do, none of them realize that he’s struggling with reading. He’s just the hero of the day that knows about cars.

And so it’s not that the students aren’t aware that they each have things that they struggle with. It’s just that when they’re here, I really look for ways to help them shine and help them feel that success.It’s not that we don’t ever do some of those traditional subjects, but I think they just have a confidence that builds because they get to see those successes.

Michael Arnold: So, speaking of successes, you’ve been at this for about 4 or 5 months now. Pushed into it unexpectedly and you’re just rolling with it. What’s next? Have you thought about next steps? You’ve got 9 students about middle school age now. Where do you go next with this? Do you clone yourself? What happens?

Next Steps

Lara Aston: Yeah. I think one of the beauties of the 2 day a week model is the opportunity for a Christian education that’s affordable.

One of the things I was looking for was a way to support parents, to partner with parents, to work with them on providing an appropriate education for their student that was Christian-based and affordable. This year, I have these students two days a week, and then I have a separate day that I teach language arts and writing classes to homeschoolers. Next year, I’m not teaching those language arts classes. My plan is to take two days with this junior high group and then add a whole separate group of students on two other days of the week. The way that helps make it affordable is that I don’t have one group of 10 that’s having to support all the expenses that come with running a program like this. So now I have a group of 20 that I can divide it with, and that helps the affordability.

Those same parents who love what I’m doing here are also looking for high school. And so I think right now they’re looking forward to high school. I have five students that will be eighth graders next year, and those parents are already asking me what to do for high school. And there’s only one of me. I can’t take on kids all the way through high school by myself. So if I could find someone to partner with me that was interested in taking this vision and figuring out how it would fit into a high school program, I would love that.

Michael Arnold: You’ve got students. You’ve got space. You’re taking applications for people to help extend the vision. How do people contact you if they’re interested?

Lara Aston: Through

Michael Arnold: Reach out to Lara if you have some ideas or want to support her. And there’s other ways that they can support you as well. On your website, I think you’ve got an Amazon wishlist.

Lara Aston: I do have Amazon wish list, and I’m always interested in ideas of what other people are doing. So anybody that wants to send me an email and say, hey, I’m doing something similar, I’d love to hear it.

Michael Arnold: You found us through the Herzog Foundation, I believe, and they are geared up and ready to help schools get started. That’s their whole mission. And right now is the time where churches and other groups are exploring how to support students. Maybe it’s not a full-fledged school. Maybe it’s something more like the Book Hook Schoolhouse.

Talk to us a little bit about how this could be transferable maybe into a church setting?

How Do We Transfer This?

Lara Aston: So I’ve actually talked to my brother-in-law about this very topic. He is a pastor, and he has worked with different churches. He’s not pastoring an individual church, but he works with an organization that helps partner with programs that are trying to spread the gospel.

And one of the things that we’ve talked about is that churches that get ready to start schools, a lot of times, they can’t get out of the mode of, I need a second grade, I need a third grade, I need a fourth grade, I need all these different teachers, and when you start paying all those different teachers and you only have four or five students at each grade, it’s just overwhelming from an expense standpoint. I think one of the biggest travesties we’ve done in education is we’ve said, a 7-year-old has to learn this, and an 8-year-old has to learn this, and a 9-year-old has to learn this. As adults, we learn things at all different ages. A 25-year-old may know way more than I do about certain things, but then I know a lot more about something else. God created us all individually with different strengths, and there’s just a natural process of development. Sometimes, the 6 or 7-year-old isn’t quite ready to learn what the state or the government has deemed is what you’re supposed to learn at 6 or 7 years old.

I think this is what’s made homeschooling so successful. As homeschoolers, generally speaking, especially when children are younger, a lot of times families are combining for history and science and their Bible time, and their kids will do their own language arts and math work, but they’re combined for so much of the day that they’re doing the same topics. And I think if a church could grasp the idea that you could teach multiple ages at one time, it would make the process of starting a school a little less cumbersome because you wouldn’t have to have as many classrooms, as many teachers, as many tables, those kinds of things. I think that requires stepping out of the box of traditional education and thinking about how we could work with multiple ages at the same time.

Michael Arnold: What you described, that family oriented approach, that community oriented approach, that’s really intrinsic to our design as humans. We were designed to be in community. If our community is only people of this age group, it isn’t necessarily going to pull in all the strengths of a more diverse community that you found even in your own setting.

Lara Aston: Yes. Exactly. When I was a senior in college, I wrote a paper on why you should not homeschool your children. It was 1989, so homeschooling was kind of a new movement. I was very traditional in my approach to education. I had just gone through college. I knew all there was to do about teaching at that point even though I had never been in a classroom or had my own children, and I thought I knew it all. I just couldn’t see how homeschooling could possibly work.

My husband and I were very committed to Christian education. We came to the conclusion when our kids were very young that we wanted them to go into a Christian school setting. But right as we were about to have to pay out that first lump sum of tuition for kindergarten, my husband lost his job. And so all of a sudden, we’re faced with, okay, are we really going to spend 8000 dollars for our two boys to go to Christian school?

My husband is very practical, and he’s like, You have a master’s in education. Why are we going to pay someone else to teach our kids? And I just could not wrap my head around homeschooling, and he knew that. But he really thought it would be a good move. And so I started reading about it. God put lots of people in my life that were homeschooling. The thing that sold me was a statement that the only time we’re with the same people that are the same age as us and the same socioeconomic background as us is the 12 years we’re in school. That’s not life. It’s not the way our life is. And that was just an eye-opening moment for me that made me realize there’s so much that we can do with our kids if we just step out of this idea that they’re 6, and so they’re supposed to do this, and they’re 10, and they’re supposed to be able to do this.

My 4 children are as diverse as they could possibly be. And so I learned as I watched the speed at which they learned to read. The things that they’re doing now as they’re adults or moving into adulthood, they’re very different. And it’s been fun to be able to build on those strengths. One of my kids would do anything he could to be up at 7 in the morning so that he could check off all his schoolwork and go outside in the garage and build things. And my rule was you could go outside as soon as your schoolwork’s done. So he’d get up and he’d work through it all and off he went, and now he owns his own roofing company and helps people. And I think it’s because he had that freedom to be able to work through that.

Our kids are wired differently. God created them differently. And so let’s give them a chance to explore those things

Michael Arnold: Absolutely. And that’s a great closing thought. I want to invite people to come to the Book Hook Schoolhouse,, and find out more about your story, check out your Amazon wish list, and reach out if they’re interested in supporting your efforts, maybe even helping you there or asking your advice to duplicate that in their own context.

What would you tell an educator today as they’re facing their students as a word of encouragement or a word of advice?

A Word of Encouragement

Lara Aston: I think the thing I would want teachers to know is that God created them and made them as a teacher, gave them that gift to teach, and created these people in their charge all very differently. Think outside of the traditional curriculum and the traditional requirements. Think of ways to be creative with those requirements, and think of ways to connect with your students, and watch your students, observe them, see where their strengths are, and give them opportunities to shine even if they are not on a traditional path of schooling, like in their reading or in their math. If they’re great artists, give them a chance to shine in that. If they’re a great leader, give them a chance to shine with that. Look for those out-of-the-box ways to do that in your classroom.

Michael Arnold: Great advice. Thank you, Lara, for being here today. Thank you for all the work that you do.

Lara Aston, a passionate educator with 35 years of multi-age experience in public, private, online, and homeschool settings, always dreamed of opening her own school. After suddenly becoming a widow in 2022 and facing an empty nest alone, God graciously and faithfully walked her through the doors of opening The Book Hooks Schoolhouse in Houston, TX in the fall of 2023. She currently serves nine 6th to 8th grade students in a hybrid microschool environment, with plans to expand the grades offered for the 2024-2025 school year. The Book Hooks Schoolhouse strives to develop lifelong learners with a passion for Christ, exploration, and conversation. Mrs. Aston uses innovative teaching strategies and individualized assignments to help each student thrive and feel a sense of belonging to a vibrant learning community.