You can tell by the look in their eyes. It’s that “deer in the headlights” look coupled with the “my baby kept me up all night” look, with a touch of the “worried my kid will never learn” look for good measure. They come to our booth year after year, browsing our curriculum in a kind of haze. “First conference?” I ask some of them. They always answer, “How could you tell?” Truly, after eighteen years of going to homeschool conventions, I just know. In case that poor mom is you, let me share a few things I’ve learned over the years.
I have been attending home education conventions since 1991, first as a homeschool mom and then as a speaker and finally as an exhibitor. My husband and I have also helped organize and run our state homeschool conference in years past, so I have seen conventions from almost every possible angle. I’ll share with you my best tips and also some great ideas from “real moms” I interviewed for this article.
Amy Pak, the creator of wonderful timeline figures at Homeschool in the Woods talks about the need to refuel for her homeschooling journey. She says: “I go to conferences like a dry sponge, looking to absorb as much motivation as I can. With four children, there are always trials to go through in our homeschool, and I am interested to hear how others solved their problems and kept their eye on the prize.
“Like a run-down battery, I need recharging and refocusing, because inevitably by the end of the school year I can get a bit hazy about ‘why’ we did this in the first place. I can read Deuteronomy 6 until I’m blue in the face, but sometimes just an encouraging talk can clear the fog and remind me of my purpose once more. There is always something new to hear, and even something old that needs to be heard again.”
Amy continues, “Additionally, having my husband with me is especially comforting, as he is the ‘principal’ of our homeschool and wanted some say in what we were going to do or even be encouraged to take on teaching the children on a topic he loved!”
My good friend Donna Spann, homeschooling mom of six daughters (the eldest of whom is my daughter-in-law) and author of Grains of Truth has this to say about curriculum shopping: “Keep your eyes open. This is especially critical if you’re considering a major change (like from a traditional granddaddy of homeschooling curricula to something new and fabulous that helps children really get excited about learning). Hang around the booth and listen—you will undoubtedly hear folks who are using it talking about it. Ask them questions (you know how homeschoolers love to share ideas and experiences)—how many children do they have, how long have they been homeschooling, what is their favorite thing about it, what problems have they encountered and how did they deal with those, etc.”
Donna continues, “In addition to your main shopping list, make a second ‘wish list.’ Set aside a specific budget for the ‘impulse’—the ‘it’s too good to pass up and our homeschool/marriage/life would not be complete without it’ items. These items will be the last to be purchased and only with your wish-list budget or with money left over from your main curriculum budget.”
Here is a fun idea from Donna on how to make the convention the highlight of your year!
“For several years, three friends and I made the annual convention our ‘girls’ weekend away’ and brought our high school-aged daughters with us. We always booked two rooms—we were in one, the daughters in the other (they complained that we kept them up all night). We moms had so much fun planning which workshops to go to (you go to that one and I’ll hit this one, then we’ll meet at the cafeteria for lunch!), helping each other find items in the used curricula, and letting each other know if we found what the other was looking for (love those cell phones!). We also held each other accountable to get only those items we needed.”
Donna adds, “Our daughters enjoyed touring the exhibit hall and hanging out together. One year the girls brought a video camera and went around doing impromptu interviews with convention exhibitors and even Gregg Harris and his twin sons! They produced quite an entertaining DVD that we still enjoy today.”
Donna’s comment reminds me that some of my fondest memories are of the nights spent in the hotel after a long day at the convention, sharing laughter, tears, prayers, and encouragement with either my girlfriends or my family. We love convention weekends!
General Convention Tips
1. With your spouse, set a budget and agree to stick to it. Consider the following suggestions:
Prioritize your curriculum needs. By looking at prices online, you should be able to estimate a fairly accurate budget. Once at the conference, watch for great “conference-only” sales and bundle packages.
Budget for impulse purchases. You are probably going to make a few anyway, so having the money set aside up front will cut down on both guilt and overspending!
Budget for speaker CDs. These are motivational and will help you year in and year out.
Be on the lookout for birthday and Christmas gifts, which often can be found at great bargain prices.
2. Register in advance to obtain any early registration discounts.
3. Book your hotel in advance to get the best rate and to ensure that you are staying where you want to stay, not where you “have to” stay because all the good hotels were booked.
4. Do you go alone, with your husband, or with friends? Consider this question carefully. Some strongly prefer one way or the other, but only you know which way will work best for you. I can’t imagine going alone, but I know women who relish that time “off” and don’t want to be bound by others’ agendas.
5. If possible, leave the little ones at home.
6. Wear a comfortable backpack—not all conventions allow rolling carts, and even if they do, it can get mighty crowded in the vendor hall.
7. Determine your priorities: information, encouragement, or shopping.
8. Obtain a map of the facility and plan your day. (Find the restrooms and pick “off times” to use them!)
9. Ahead of time, decide:
Which workshops you want to hear.
Which booths you need to visit.
What questions you need to ask.
10. For tips about specific conventions, talk with homeschool veterans who previously have attended your particular convention.
11. Beware of the food court’s high prices and low quality. If allowed, bring snacks and a water bottle, or plan a tailgate picnic.
12. Bring a set of address labels to use when signing up for catalogs.
13. Plan for fatigue. Try to sit down occasionally during the day—workshops are great for this—and bring along whatever might help you if you become especially achy or tired. I always bring supplies such as these:
My favorite tea bags or coffee for the hotel room
My own pillow
My dear friend Regina, who does deep-muscle massage!
1. Reminder: Wear a comfortable backpack.
2. The vendors are there to serve you! Even if you’re “just looking,” they usually know their products better than anyone and are thrilled to explain them to you. If you have a question, ask! If they don’t know, they may be able to find out for you.
3. Tell them what you’re looking for. If they don’t have it, they’ll say so, and they might even be able to tell you who does have it—saving you loads of time.
4. If you talk to a vendor at length about a product, don’t turn around and buy it from another vendor to save a dollar or two; remember, “a worker is worthy of his wages.”
5. Please don’t ask vendors to “hold” purchased products for you. It’s too easy to forget to come back at the end of the day, and vendors truly shouldn’t be responsible for your belongings. Many conventions offer a great book-check service. Use it!
1. Did I mention that you should wear a comfortable backpack?
2. Agree on a budget with your spouse and stick to it.
3. Think and pray about purchases.
4. Keep track of purchases in a notebook.
5. Lots of places have materials, CDs, games, family DVDs, etc., that can make great presents later in the year.
6. If you’re unsure about a purchase, take a catalog, circle the item, and consider it. It’s better to pay for shipping than to buy a product you don’t really need.
7. If you look through used books, know what you’re looking for ahead of time. Beware of old editions if you need matching workbooks or teacher guides.
1. There are basically two types of workshops: teaching and motivating. Both are extremely valuable and worthy of your time.
2. Remember: Speaker workshops are normally taped, but typically, vendor workshops are not. Decide which workshops to attend and which ones to buy tapes of.
3. If a workshop says it will be hands-on, visually oriented, or mimed, the CD won’t be as good as being there.
4. If you are interested in a product, find out if a vendor workshop will be offered. Attending a workshop is often more productive than trying to get fifty questions answered at the vendor’s booth.
5. If you sit through the first ten or fifteen minutes of a talk and discover it isn’t for you, quietly make your way out. Better to spend a couple of minutes feeling slightly uncomfortable as you leave than to waste another forty-five minutes of your valuable time. (We speakers will just assume you had a phone call.)
6. Speakers generally love answering questions after the workshop is over—follow the speaker to his or her booth. Speakers tend to be approachable and knowledgeable.
Dear friends, I encourage you to go to a convention near you. The time to recharge, the motivational talks, the vendor hall bargains, and the opportunity to learn new teaching skills—there’s something there for everyone. If you are prepared and willing to learn, a convention is like going to a Master Class in homeschooling. Go, discover, renew, and rejoice that we live in a time and place where we have such fabulous opportunities!
Copyright 2008, The Old Schoolhouse®. Used with permission. All rights reserved by the Author. Originally appeared in the Winter 2008/2009 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the trade publication for homeschool moms.
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