Tips from an Experienced Homeschool Mom on How to Prepare and be Purposeful at your next Conference
Twinkling lights, music, and a beautiful carousel horse… As a child, the thrill of riding a carousel was the best! One of the greatest family vacation memories I have was at Dollywood Theme Park in Pigeon Forge, TN. In the “County Fair” area stood the most magical horse carousel I had ever seen! This carousel had everything you wanted… colorful horses that went up and down, bright colors, twinkling lights, music, and real leather reigns. Standing with my brothers in line, we watched the carousel come to life. The excitement built as we scouted out which horse we wanted to ride. With so many options, choosing that perfect horse was a fun challenge to pass the time until it was our turn. When the time was right, we sprinted to find the perfect horse, jumped on, and held on tight as the ride began. What a magical memory!
Seven years ago that feeling came back for me. My husband and I decided to begin homeschooling our children, an adventure I was both very excited and nervous about. As I walked into my first homeschool convention, there in the middle of the convention hall was a beautiful carousel like the one I had experienced as a little girl. The ride began and all the excitement, anticipation, memories, and joy came flooding back.
The anticipation of the convention filled me with similar excitement (and a little anxiety, if I’m honest) as I thought about all of the things that I was going to learn, the curricula I was going to explore, and, like picking a horse, discerning the best path for each of my children. I wondered what solutions would align with our Christian faith, match their learning styles, meet their academic needs, and fit with our family’s schedule. I wanted to make sure I chose the best “horse” for each of my kids.
As you prepare for your next homeschool convention, be encouraged. These events are a wonderful, amazing, and beautiful “ride” in your parenting adventure.
If you are new to homeschool conventions, you should know that there are many choices to make when you attend. There are many workshops, many families in attendance, many kids running around, many curriculum options, many vendors to meet, and many free gifts to receive. With so many ways to invest your time, it is also easy to become overwhelmed and question if you are using this valuable resource wisely. Here are several questions that have helped me and my family plan for and navigate these engaging and helpful events.
Why do you want to go to a homeschool convention?
An important start to any significant investment of time and resources is to ask the “Five W’s and one H,” a Six Sigma strategy. Ask yourself, “Who, What, When, Why, Where, and How?” I don’t normally ask these questions in that order, but it makes for an easy way to remember the set of questions.
For me, I start with “Why?” It’s the easiest question, too! Why do I go to homeschool conventions? I’m a social person, so one priority for me has always been to gain fellowship with other homeschool parents, new or veteran. I need time with people and homeschool moms are very busy, so a homeschool convention is a great excuse to connect with one another and re-energize. I love to invite a friend or two to spend the day attending workshops, exploring vendor booths, and sharing meals together to talk about what we’ve learned. Leaving my kids with my husband by the resort’s pool also provides me with time to refocus my mind and refill my bucket while spending time with other moms. The “why” question is a gut check to make sure that you will benefit from the experience (and you will!). Here are some other “why” questions to help you discern your motivations.
- Are you going to listen and learn through attending workshops and listening to keynote speakers?
- Are you going for fellowship and community away to meet and see other homeschool families?
- Are you going to meet verteran homeschool families and make new friends for yourself and your family?
- Are you going to find a new curriculum?
- Are you going to be spending your time in the exhibitor hall digging into every curriculum and to see how it could fit your family?
- Have you been in a slump and need to re energize your homeschool plans?
- All of the above
What do you want to gain from your experience at a homeschool convention?
Answering the “what” requires a bit more thinking. As we progress through the school year, I keep notes on what didn’t go well, what questions I need answers to, what gaps appear in my plans, and where I simply need help. If I can’t get answers from my local homeschool moms, my next resource is to take my list to the convention, where I can seek answers from a variety of experts.
The key here is to keep a list of what it is that you hope to gain. Here are some questions that I’ve listed in the past, in case this helps you get your list started:
- My son isn’t staying engaged when I teach science. He prefers hands-on experiments instead of reading lessons in a book or watching a video. What tools are available to provide safe and engaging learning at home?
- Our kids are doing more and more online. How do we make sure that we are protecting them from online threats, but encouraging them to explore in a safe and responsible way?
- My daughter is a social butterfly and wants more time to talk with others. Are there any Christian learning clubs online that she can participate in when we aren’t able to meet with our local co-op? This might give her differentiated learning opportunities and provide a social outlet at the same time.
- Our homeschool room hasn’t been refreshed in six years. It’s looking a bit too youthful for my older kids, so I’m repainting and taking down some of the decor. Are there any neat Bible maps I could add to my walls that would fit into our Bible curriculum over the next year or two?
- This year’s math curriculum is too easy for my oldest son and is starting to push past my realm of understanding. Are there any online sources that can provide a Christ-centered math program that can challenge him?
- Our local music teacher is retiring after this year. My daughter has always wanted to learn how to play guitar, but we don’t know anyone we can trust to teach her. What other options are available?
- What options exist for middle school students? We can continue what we’ve been doing, but maybe there are better options out there.
In any profession, there are always additional training opportunities to learn more about your job or your career. Treat being a homeschool parent the same way. I attend homeschool conventions because that is a great way for me to continue my education on products that are available, strategies to use when scheduling, and tips on what to teach and why. It’s also a great way to educate yourself on discovering your child’s learning style. Conventions offer workshops on all of these topics that can help you get started in the homeschooling world to graduating or homeschooler. Conventions are a great place for homeschool parents and children to educate and energize!
Who provides the best homeschool events for my family?
When considering an event through the lens of your “why” and “what” answers, picking the event that will provide the most value becomes easier. Many state homeschooling organizations hold their own homeschool conventions. There are also organizations that host large conventions in various cities throughout the country, usually between March and June. When I consider events, I decide based upon who can attend with us (my friends) and my needs for the next year. We typically go to at least one convention a year, so if I’m getting into a tricky area where I need some counsel on state requirements, I plan to attend our state convention so that I can get a refresher on what requirements I need to be aware of, what laws may have changed, and what local/regional field trip opportunities others have used with their kids.
Usually, state events are sometimes smaller in scale, cost, and attendance, but they have a community feel since you’re all working within the same laws, geography, and climate. Plus, they are usually less expensive to attend because you can typically drive instead of fly, stay fewer days, or even drive back home each night. I enjoy attending our state events because the speakers and vendors are usually people who I can relate to and remain in contact with if I have questions later. One downside is that my family can sometimes run out of things to do before I’m done with my to-do list. I usually register my kids for several courses and workshops at state conventions, but those come with an additional cost. Over the years, my children have enjoyed robotics courses, Minecraft literature classes, and theater workshops.
National events are held by a few organizations such as Great Homeschool Conventions (GHC) and Teach Them Diligently (TTD). These events are usually very large and held at large resort destinations in cities like Orlando, Nashville, Atlanta, and Austin. These events are beneficial because they draw in much larger crowds, so there are typically more national speakers, larger vendors, and more workshops. I love going to these shows because I always see something I’ve never seen before and meet people who I would have never met at our state show. I feel like the national events provide me with more energy and excitement, but maybe less practical help when it comes to my state laws.
How do I plan for a homeschool convention (budgets, packing, and scheduling)?
Whenever you attend a Homeschool Convention it’s like Christmas morning and a shopping spree for us homeschool parents! You will find lots of curricula, tons of deals, and all kinds of things that you can easily spend a large chunk of change on. The key here is to set a budget, know what you are looking for and also know how much you plan to spend. Some companies will have promo deals just for during the convention or a code that is valid for a limited time. Others have set pricing, but shows are a great opportunity to see an in-person demonstration of how it works. Before you go research which vendors will be present at the convention. Write down particular products from that vendor that you want to make sure you check out. Making a list of questions for the vendor ahead of time will save you time and money. Do cost comparisons before your attending the convention and while you’re at the convention. Many vendors carry the same or similar products but at different prices. Make sure you shop around!
Don’t buy anything on your first day at the convention. If you are staying overnight, collect information from vendors, browse the products, and explore our options. When you have a chance, find a quiet place to process your thoughts and make your final shopping plan. Stick to your plan and to your budget. It is very easy to become distracted. Many of the products will look fun and exciting but if it’s not going to fit your child’s learning style, and or how you have chosen and what your homeschooling method, you will later regret your decision.
Packing for a road trip is always an adventure, so here are a few things I consider when packing for a homeschool convention. When choosing attire, you will want to be comfortable. The workshop rooms fill quickly, you may be sitting on the floor.
- Notebooks and Pens: Homeschool conventions can be a little overwhelming because there is so much information thrown at you in a short amount of time. Jotting down a few notes in each session helps me remember the highlights. I’m naturally a note-taker, so I also write down a lot of information, from curriculum suggestions to meet-up plans with friends.
- Extra Tote Bags or Pull Cart: My everyday purse is a small clutch, but that definitely won’t cut it when I go to my favorite homeschool convention. I need room for all of the flyers, coupons, samples from the vendor hall, and anything I buy! A wheeled carry-on can do in a pinch.
- Empty Pocket Folder: Stick an extra pocket folder in your tote bag before you leave home. This will help you corral all of the papers you accumulate during the convention. If you want to be really organized, bring two folders – one for advertisements and coupons and another for session hand-outs.
- Curriculum Wish List: Writing down my curriculum wish list helps me search for what I actually need. It also reduces buyer’s remorse so I always include this wish list in my homeschool convention packing list.
- Money for Curriculum Vendors: It is okay if you don’t know what you want to teach next year. Some homeschool conventions are in early spring – before you have had a chance to evaluate how the current year went! However, if you do know what you are interested in teaching and your preferred curriculum, budget plenty of money to spend at the convention.
- Food and the Drink of Your Choice: I will probably bring a fair amount of food. At a minimum, I will bring a lunch for each day and a snack. Bringing my lunch also means that I won’t waste precious break time standing in a long line ordering food. Each convention hall has its own rules, but generally, it is fine to carry water throughout the entire venue. If your conference is at a large resort, it’s very difficult to leave the campus to eat. If you’re on a tight budget, bringing your own food will save you a lot of money. On-campus restaurants are nice, but they can run $30 or more per plate.
- Comfortable Shoes: Convention centers are usually huge buildings, so there is a lot of walking involved. Walking to different conference rooms, roaming the vendor hall, and shifting through any used curriculum sales can add up to a fair number of steps. Save your legs by wearing your most comfortable pair of shoes.
- Sweater: Dressing in light layers makes it easier to deal with temperature changes in the convention hall. I always pack a sweater just in case it gets chilly. It never fails that one room is hot and the next one is a meat locker.
Homeschool conventions are busy places. There are usually multiple speakers in every session, fun social events, and limited hours for shopping. Of course, you want to see all, do all, and learn from all. Pace yourself. Review the vendor hall, decide which vendors you want to visit. When the workshop schedule is available, highlight which sessions you want to attend. It’s also important to plan time in your day when you can take a break and reflect on what you have just experienced. Here is a sample plan:
- 4:00 – 5:00 pm – Hotel Check-in and Registration (Kids to pool with dad)
- 5:00 – 6:00 pm – Speaker: Homeschooling your child during the wonky middle school years
- 6:00 – 7:00 pm – Vendor Hall
- 7:00 – 8:00 pm – Speaker: How to homeschool with a newborn
- 8:00 pm – Dinner
- 9:00 am – Mom’s breakfast
- 10:00 – 11:00 am – Workshop
- 11:30 – 1:00 pm – Lunch and Reflection time
- 1:00 – 2:00 pm – Speaker
- 2:00 – 4:00 pm – Vendor Hall (Visit Online Middle School booths)
- 4:00 pm – Speaker
- 5:00 – 6:00 pm – Meet with Mom friends to compare notes
- 6:00 – 6:45 pm – Quiet time in room
- 6:45 pm – Attend Parent Fellowship event (Dinner)
- 9:00 am – Drop kids off at Robotics Class
- 9:30 – 11:00 am – Vendor Hall – purchase curriculum
- 11:00 – 12:00 pm – Speaker
- 12:00 – 1:00 pm – Lunch
- 1:00 – 3:00 pm – Workshop
- 3:00 – 4:00 pm – Reflection time
- 4:00 – 5:00 pm – Speaker
- 5:00 – 7:00 pm – Dinner with Mom friends
- 7:00 pm – Last-minute Vendor Hall purchases
Where is the best homeschool convention for me and my family?
When my husband and I review the conventions that are announced, we see which ones pair up nicely with his work schedule and our homeschool calendar. If there is a national convention at a nice destination, we try to find one of those. Finding a conference in a resort in Orlando, Houston, or Phoenix is a nice break from the chills of early spring, just like a conference in Cincinnati, Nashville, Denver, or Chicago can be a nice break from the summer heat.
If you don’t have time or resources to travel far, a regional or state conference might be the best fit. If I go by myself, it’s often to one that is close so that I can make the most of my time away. If I’m traveling with a few other local moms, we can share our driving expenses, hotel room, and even divide-and-conquer our list of questions by sending one mom to a vendor with all of our questions for that company.
I’ve not attended a homeschool convention yet that hasn’t brought me significant benefit, so find a location that makes sense in your budget and can provide the right mix of help to you in your homeschool journey.
What questions should you ask vendors?
One of the biggest reasons to attend a homeschool convention is the exhibitor hall. There are always numerous vendors that will be set up ready to help you. Curricula spanning all styles, methods, and subjects such as a box curriculum or online will be available to demo. This is your opportunity to browse and chat with those who know the curriculum and use their tools to answer your questions and help you see if it is the best fit for your child. Here is a list of questions to consider when investigating a new direction for your child.
- What makes your product unique?
- What style of homeschooling does this product best fit?
- What subjects are included?
- Will I need to purchase any extras, supplements, or additional books?
- How much time will it take daily/weekly?
- What is the role of the parent in this program?
I hope that you’re as excited about attending a homeschool convention as I am! They are such a great tool for encouragement and exploration for both you and your children. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention what conventions I’ll be attending this year. I hope that if you’re able to come to one of these shows, that you’ll stop by and meet me! I’d love to know what you’ve learned and how your homeschooling journey is going. I’ll be in the vendor booth and speaking in a few workshops on behalf of my favorite online homeschool platform, Lenawee Christian Academy. I look forward to meeting you!
- Great Homeschool Conventions, Greenville, SC: March 18-20
- Teach Them Diligently, Rogers, AR: March 25-27
- Teach Them Diligently, Mobile, AL: May 6-8
- Michigan Christian Homeschool Network (MINCH), Lansing, MI: May 21-22
- Florida Parent Educators Association (FPEA), Orlando, FL: May 27-29
- Illinois Christian Home Educators (ICHE), Bourbonnais, IL: June 3-6
- Great Homeschool Conventions, Round Rock, TX: July 8-10
- Great Homeschool Conventions, Cincinnati, OH: August 12-14