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The Value of Homeschool Conventions

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 convention season is just around the corner!

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

According to Nancy St. Marie, Convention Vice President for North Carolina Home Educators (NCHE), the true success of a state convention 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 state convention 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 conventions include the Florida (FPEA) State Convention, which had nearly 10,000 attendees last year, the Pennsylvania (CHAP) Convention, which had nearly 7,500 attendees, and the California (CHEA) Convention which had roughly 5,500 in attendance at its largest convention in Ontario

Whether large or small, homeschool conventions offer a wide variety of events to help and encourage those who have chosen the path of homeschooling. Conventions 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 convention has been held in that state. Some larger conventions offer graduation programs, talent shows, and special programs for school age children and teens. Some conventions 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.

Convention organizers estimate that between 20 and 30 percent of convention 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 consist of the curious: those who simply want to know more about the homeschool community.

Some of the convention terms may be confusing to first time conventioneers. However, most conventions offer the following activities, often expressed in these terms.

KEYNOTE ADDRESSES - Keynote addresses are typically speeches given by a nationally-known homeschooling figure and deal with issues that are 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 convention are also usually made during this time, so it is important to attend these sessions, if possible.

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 and you have to choose the ones that suit your needs. Most convention programs provide a brief description of the workshop as well as codes that indicate whether the workshop is more appropriate for moms of young children, moms of elementary or secondary-level students, dads, teens, etc. This information will help you select the workshops best for you. If you want to attend more sessions than are physically possible, tapes are usually available for purchase.

VENDOR (OR EXHIBITOR) WORKSHOPS - These workshops are usually thirty minutes in length and are sort of 'infomercials' for vendor products. Vendors generally pay for this time in order to explain their products more fully to prospective buyers and to answer questions concerning them. These sessions are a great way to learn more about curriculum ideas that are new to you or to learn how to use the programs more effectively. Often, you will meet the author of the curriculum and can ask questions about how to adapt the program for your own special needs. These are low-sales-pressure events and are usually purely informative. If you decide to purchase the curriculum, you will usually buy it in the vendor hall.

VENDOR HALL or EXHIBIT HALL - Vendors of curriculum and related homeschool products gather here to display and sell their products. According to the The Economist magazine, the homeschool market is now worth about $850 million a year, so more and more vendors are turning their attention to the homeschool market, creating products adapted to suit their needs. In addition, experienced homeschooling parents are beginning to develop more curriculum products on their own as they discover what works best for them and begin to fill needed gaps in the market. Small conventions may have only a few vendors, whereas large conventions may have 150 or more. However, you are sure to see some new products wherever you go. Some conventions also offer a used curriculum area so that parents can swap or sell their old books.

Perhaps you have heard of homeschool conventions for years, but have never bothered to attend one. Perhaps this whole idea is new to you. Or perhaps it has just been too difficult to attend. It can be inconvenient for some families. Most conventions request that small children not come, unless they are nursing infants. This is not an act of callousness, but a necessary request where space is at a premium. Also, since sessions are being taped, the possibility of noise naturally generated by younger children is not welcome. So attending a convention may involve finding an accommodating friend or relative to keep the young ones.

Therefore, you may be wondering why you should go to all the time, trouble, and expense of attending a convention. What benefits can attendance give you? Is it really worth it? Before you make a decision, first look at the many great reasons you should attend a convention. Here are some factors you may want to consider before you decide to join the growing ranks of homeschool conventioneers.

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 first convention trip to the North Carolina Convention last year. Scott has four small children, but the concept of homeschooling is one that 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 convention with powerful and motivating speakers provides enough encouragement for both. New homeschoolers come away feeling like they can actually accomplish what they are setting out to do and veterans are given the precious fuel they need to continue on the journey.

Kim Roper, Events Director for the California Home Educator's Association (CHEA), explained how conventions 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

No one among us likes the feeling of being alone in our convictions. The homeschool convention provides an atmosphere of camaraderie by sharing with large numbers of families the strong conviction to provide for our own children's educational needs. It is revitalizing when we realize that we are not in this journey alone.

In addition, homeschool conventions 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 many homeschool parents 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

So many product catalogs come in the mail and you have so little time to read them! At a convention, large numbers of homeschool vendors are represented and the opportunity to actually see their wares is a great advantage over merely reading about them. Vendor workshops often add the ability to learn how to use the products effectively in your own homeschool.

"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 their 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 convention, 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 conventions.

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."

owever, some vendors have a different approach; it's an approach that they feel will also benefit customers economically in the end. "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. "We want homeschooling families to be able to take the necessary time to choose the best curriculum fit. If customers find the right curriculum the first time they purchase, they won't have to deal with the headaches of finding another curriculum in the future and returning the curriculum that didn't work."

The Spiritual Factor

Oftentimes our hearts are convicted of a certain road to travel with our families, but our minds are not totally convinced. Conventions can bring the confirmation needed that you are definitely on the right road and that you really did hear God's voice in your decisions. Most conventions offer devotional workshops that serve to remind you that God is the Source from which everything you have to offer your family flows.

I think one of the most important reasons to attend a homeschool conference is that the Bible teaches, regarding salvation, that those with shallow roots would not flourish," explains Melonie Young, whose husband serves as President of NCHE. "I think this is true of homeschooling as well."

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. "Convention is where you get that! Convention 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

Conventions are a perfect environment for renewing old connections or for connecting with groups or organizations that will help you on your journey. Memberships to national organizations as well as local organizations are made available. You are given the opportunity to reconnect with acquaintances or 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.

Conventions 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 convention attendee Lynn Adams. Adams, who is homeschooling for the first time this year, attended her first convention 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. Time spent at a convention allows them the freedom and time they so desperately need to process through all of their plans and ideas. A convention 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 conventions 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 conventions 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, giving the moms and dads time to shop or attend much-needed workshops or seminars themselves. 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 look up the homeschool convention in your state and check out the possibilities. There is a light at the end of the tunnel and the homeschool convention could just be the source of inspiration and encouragement that you need. Despite the cost and travel involved, you will likely return home as a better-equipped parent. As homeschool mom Lynn Adams explained, "We all need encouragement, guidance, and ideas. Homeschool conventions 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!"

Amelia Harper is a homeschooling mother of five and pastor's wife.  She is the author of Literary Lessons from the Lord of the Rings, a complete one-year literature curriculum for secondary level students.  She is also a freelance writer for newspapers and magazines.

Deborah Wuehler is the chief contributing writer for Chapel, and Devotional Door/e-newsletter creator.  She resides in Roseville, California with her husband Richard and their seven gifts from heaven.  She loves digging for buried treasure in the Word, reading, writing, homeschooling, and dark chocolate!

Copyright 2005.
Originally appeared in Winter 2005. Used with permission.
The Old Schoolhouse Magazine.


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