The Value of the Homeschool Conference

Mar 1, 2005

by Amelia Harper and Deborah Wuehler

If you are like most of us, you are probably just a tad discouraged about now. You are in the thick of homeschooling. Lessons are a little behind schedule, especially after the holidays. The curriculum you chose just isn’t working out the way you hoped. Somewhere down the line, the organizational charts have disappeared, and you suspect that the dog ate them. Your kids have started to ask questions that you can’t answer, and you may feel very, very alone. Boarding school is starting to look like an attractive option.

Cheer up! Homeschool conference season is just around the corner!

Homeschool conferences are a great place to learn what went wrong and to share the excitement of what went right during your homeschooling year. You can learn how to get better organized, find new answers to puzzling problems, grow encouraged and do what homeschooling moms love to do most—shop for new school materials!

Homeschooling conferences have grown tremendously as the market itself has grown. Almost every state now hosts at least one homeschool conference, some states hosting several. Vendors vie for slots at these conferences, eager to display their wares. Speakers get valuable exposure, while attendees benefit from the wisdom that they share.

According to Nancy St. Marie, conference vice-president for North Carolinians for Home Education (NCHE), the true success of a state conference is not measured in terms of its present size, but in terms of its growth. “The best conference is the one that meets the needs of the homeschoolers who attend,” she said. “The best measure of this is that the conference is still going and growing. In North Carolina, we feel we are reaching a large portion of the homeschoolers in our state, but we are always trying to do it better.”

By any measure, the NC annual conference is one of the largest and best organized in the nation. Last year, nearly 9000 people attended the huge event which is held in the largest convention center in the state. Other large conferences include the Florida (FPEA) state convention, which had nearly 10,000 attendees last year, the Pennsylvania (CHAP) convention, which had nearly 7500 attendees, and the California (CHEA) convention which had roughly 5500 in attendance at its largest convention in Ontario.

Whether large or small, homeschool conferences offer a wide variety of events to help and encourage those who have chosen the path of homeschooling. Conferences vary widely in scope and offerings. Often these factors depend on the size of the homeschooling population in the state, the structure of the state homeschool organization and the length of time a conference has been held in that state. Some larger conferences offer graduation programs, talent shows and special programs for school age children and teens. Some conferences are broad in scope and present a wide variety of ideas and approaches for attendees to explore, whereas others are focused on certain ideals or approaches.

Conference organizers estimate that between twenty and thirty percent of conference attendees are either new homeschoolers or those considering the possibility. Most of the rest are veteran homeschoolers who are looking for new ideas and desiring to increase their knowledge. A few attendees are business people, there to connect with publishers or vendors. The rest are those who simply want to know more about the homeschool community.

Some conference terms may be confusing to first time attendees. Following are activities that most conferences offer.

 

Keynote Addresses—Keynote addresses are typically speeches given by nationally-known homeschooling figures and deal with issues relevant to most homeschoolers. They are often the most inspiring and encouraging speeches given. Usually, these keynote addresses are scheduled so that they are the only event offered in that time period. Announcements pertaining to the conference and organization are also usually made during this time, so it is important to attend these sessions.

 

Workshops or Sessions—These sessions generally run an hour in length and deal with specific issues regarding homeschooling or family life. Usually, several of these run concurrently so you have to choose the ones that best suit your needs. Most conferences have programs that provide brief descriptions of the workshops as well as codes that indicate whether a workshop is more appropriate for moms of young children, moms of elementary or secondary level students, dads, teens, etc. If you want to attend more sessions than are physically possible, tapes are usually available for purchase.

 

Vendor (or Exhibitor) Workshops—Vendors generally pay for this time in order to explain their products more fully to prospective buyers and to answer questions concerning them. Often, you will meet the author of the curriculum and will be able to ask questions about how to adapt the program for your needs. These are low-sales-pressure events and are usually purely informative. Materials are not usually sold in the workshops.

 

Vendor Hall or Exhibit Hall—Curriculum and related homeschool products are sold in the exhibit hall or book fair. According to The Economist magazine, the homeschool market is now worth about 850 million dollars a year, so more and more vendors are turning their attention to the homeschool market. In addition, experienced homeschooling parents are beginning to develop curriculum products to fill gaps in the market. Small conferences may have only a few vendors, whereas large conferences may have 150 or more. Some conferences also offer a used curriculum area for parents to swap or sell their old books.

 

Perhaps you have heard of homeschool conferences for years, but have never attended one. Perhaps this whole idea is new to you. Or perhaps it has just been too difficult to attend. Most conferences request that small children not come, unless they are nursing infants. This is a necessary request since space is often at a premium. Also, since sessions are being taped, noise from younger children is a problem. So attending a conference may involve finding an accommodating friend or relative to keep the young ones. Therefore, you may be wondering if it is it really worth it. Here are some factors to consider as you make your decision.

 

The Wow Factor

“The first benefit is always the wow factor when someone arrives at the convention,” explained Cheryl Boglioli, state chairman of the Florida Parent Educator’s Convention (FPEA). “It is an awesome experience to realize that you are not alone in this endeavor and there are so many families of all walks of life with the same objectives.”

“Awesome” is also how Scott Adams describes his experience at the North Carolina conference last year. Scott has four small children, but the concept of homeschooling is fairly new to him—an idea that he at first greeted with skepticism. “I was surprised by the attendance. It was amazing seeing all those families there—and there were far more men there than I expected. It really changed my view of homeschooling. It is one thing to hear about the numbers of families that are doing it; it is another to actually see them gathered together!”

 

The Encouragement Factor

Fearful new homeschoolers as well as veterans near the end of their journey are both in desperate need of encouragement. A homeschool conference with powerful and motivating speakers provides enough encouragement for both.

Kim Roper, events director for the California Home Educator’s Association (CHEA), explained how conferences benefit both veterans and newcomers to the homeschool community: “Newcomers often reignite the passion for homeschooling in seasoned veterans. The veterans, in turn, often give timely wisdom and understanding to new home educators who may be discouraged.”

 

The Camaraderie Factor

None of us likes the feeling of being alone in our convictions. The homeschool conference provides an atmosphere of camaraderie produced by large numbers of families sharing the same strong convictions. We are revitalized when we realize that we are not on this journey alone.

In addition, homeschool conferences are a great place to gather with others and discuss the successes and the failures of the past year. Learning that someone else is having the same problem is almost as beneficial as actually finding a solution! Since some homeschool parents may have little support from family or community, this is especially important.

“It comes down to support,” explained Kim Roper. “The Scriptures tell us, in Hebrews 10:23–25, that we should not forsake the assembling of ourselves together, but that we should encourage one another. Obviously, Paul is talking about attending church in this passage, but I believe the principle also applies to home educators. We can be an independent lot and often forget that we can’t do this alone!”

 

The Convenience Factor

At a conference, the large number of homeschool vendors gives the opportunity to actually see many choices rather than merely reading catalogs. Vendor workshops add the opportunity to learn how to use the products.

“For vendors, the greatest part of attending conventions is meeting the people,” said Christi Patterson, events coordinator of Alpha Omega. “Having the time to hear peoples’ stories and helping them to find the perfect product for their students is a great benefit. The face-to-face interaction that we have at conventions is unparalleled. We have customers that specifically call and ask for reps that they met at conventions because of the bond they formed in that little time together.”

 

The Economic Factor

Though there are costs associated with attending a conference, there are pay-offs as well. You will have the ability to compare products and prices. You can ask others for recommendations and advice that may help you avoid costly mistakes. In addition, some vendors offer special discounts at conferences.

“We introduce many new items at conventions and super discounts are available,” explained Tina Tatum, the owner of Discount Homeschool Supplies. “It is also our best time to offer free shipping and discounts for local orders.”

However, some vendors have a different approach. “Sonlight Curriculum does not offer special pricing at conventions because we provide special pricing and benefits to all customers all year long,” explained Janice Hammersmith, Sonlight’s curriculum consultant coordinator. “Choosing the right homeschool curriculum for your family is a very big decision that takes time and research, and we do not want customers to feel pressured to buy at a convention because they receive a special deal,” Janice added.

 

The Spiritual Factor

Often our hearts are convicted but our minds are not totally convinced. Conferences can bring the confirmation that we are definitely on the right road and that we really did hear God’s voice.

“I think one of the most important reasons to attend a homeschool conference is similar to what the Bible teaches regarding salvation—that those with shallow roots will not flourish,” explains Melanie Young, whose husband serves as president of NCHE. “Over the years, the families that I have seen succeed at homeschooling are those with deep roots—a strong spiritual and philosophical basis for their homeschooling,” she added. “Conference is where you get that! Conference is like a spiritual retreat where you can get away from the everyday cares of homeschooling and focus on why you are doing this—and how you can do it better. The roots that you will grow in response to the speakers and fellowship will help you weather the storms of poor health, financial difficulties, struggling learners and unsupportive family.”

 

The Connection Factor

Conferences are a perfect environment for renewing old connections or making new ones. You are also given the opportunity to reconnect with vendors and ask the questions that have been burning in your mind all year. Staying connected can give you the strength and support needed to keep going. Conferences also give you the chance to evaluate organizations such as HLSDA and your state homeschool organizations to see if they will help your own family stay as connected as it should be. “I was skeptical at first about the need to join my state organization,” said conference attendee Lynn Adams. Adams, who is homeschooling for the first time this year, attended her first conference in 2003. “But when I saw all that my state organization did, all the services they offered in keeping me informed, I decided that I wanted to be a part of that.”

 

The Thinking Factor

Many homeschooling moms rarely get some time off to really think through what they would like to see happen in their homeschool. The conference weekend allows them the freedom and time they so desperately need to process through all of their plans and ideas. A conference offers parents a chance to gain a great deal of important information from a variety of homeschool sources.

Speakers are a big part of this equation. Homeschool conferences often gather the best and brightest stars of the homeschool community who share wonderful ideas, provoke thoughtful discussions and make themselves available for consultation. “Our speakers care about those who come to the convention,” said Muffy Amico, the convention coordinator for FPEA. “They give of their time, talent and resources to help encourage the attendees in this journey of homeschooling.”

 

The Fun Factor

Homeschool conferences can be a time of laughter and fun as we reconnect with friends and share experiences—some wonderful, some disastrous and some hilarious. Many conventions offer planned activities for the children or workshops for teens. Some also offer family nights where everyone is invited for an entertaining evening. Speakers and workshop leaders know first-hand the many tears and trials we go through as homeschoolers. Therefore, they are often down-to-earth and funny and can actually relate to what it takes to travel this road.

So by now, maybe you are thinking that you should attend the NCHE annual conference. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, and our homeschool conference could just be the source of inspiration and encouragement that you need. Despite the cost and travel involved, you will return home as a better-equipped parent. As homeschool mom Lynn Adams explained, “We all need encouragement, guidance and ideas. Homeschool conferences have all that.”

Dr. Samuel Blumenfeld, renowned author and homeschool conference speaker wrote an article entitled “The Boom in Homeschool Conventions,” in which he summed up their benefits this way: “I could write a book about these wonderful homeschool conventions, the families that attend them, and the fabulous entrepreneurs who offer their products to parents who truly care about their children’s well-being and happiness. If you want to see the beautiful benefits of educational freedom, go to a homeschool convention. You’ll love it!”

This article is adapted from one that originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse magazine (www.TheHomeschoolMagazine.com) and is used by permission. Amelia Harper, a NC support group leader, is the author of Literary Lessons from The Lord of the Rings (www.homescholarbooks.com). She is also the Media Editor for The Old Schoolhouse. Deborah Wuehler is the devotional editor for the magazine.

GREENHOUSE is NCHE's flagship publication. 

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