We stood with mouths agape in the lobby of the convention center. My husband put his hand to his chest as he exhaled a huge sigh of relief and shock. Then he burst out laughing. "Wow! Other homeschooling families do exist–and they're all here under one roof!"
We were giddy at being surrounded by so many like-minded families at our first state homeschool convention. As it turns out, we weren't odd or crazy, and we weren't alone! I was tempted to stand on a table right there in the lobby, throw my arms in a victory "V," and shout those exact words.
Refraining from giving everyone in the place a giant bear hug, I took in the marvel before us and quickly realized I had not come prepared. Many of the other women in attendance carried snacks, water bottles, empty book bags for purchases–they were so organized. Ugh. How could I not think to bring a book bag? I thought, as I scrounged for a pen so I could take notes on the back of a flyer. The only bag I had was the plastic convention "goodie" bag.
It's been thirteen years since that disorganized but inspiring trip, and during that time I've compiled some tips for enjoying a productive convention experience. I hope you find them helpful.
Make a Notebook
Two to six weeks before the conference, gather a Bible, pen, paper, a three-hole punch, and start filling a notebook. There is some fun legwork to be done before the event to maximize your convention visit. A notebook is essential for storing key information before, during, and after the conference. Avery has a nifty notebook with a front cover that folds all the way back (Avery 360°), making it less bulky when taking notes in workshop or while standing in a vendor booth.
Remember, God has a Unique Plan for Your Homeschool
Over the years, I have formulated an array of daily schedules for our homeschool—all designed to beautifully fit someone else's family. Most of the schedules were an attempt to mimic what a friend was doing or something I'd read online. It was stressful to get three days into a schedule and discover that, yet again, we just couldn't adhere to it. The schedule said that at 11:00 a.m. we were to be doing math, but there we were in the car en route to a learning opportunity. In my mind, another plan had failed.
But the plan isn't ours, is it? It's God's plan. Proverbs 3:5–6 says, “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge Him and He shall direct thy paths." Enjoy the plan God has for your homeschool. Perhaps it's a structured schedule, or maybe it becomes more loosely defined as your family becomes involved in certain outside activities. God wants us to enjoy His plan, and it's exciting to watch His masterpiece being revealed to us in His timing.
There is no one perfect way to homeschool, and there is no such thing as a perfect schedule. Not one of the convention speakers has traversed the perfect homeschool journey. All have experienced trials and triumphs, and they are there to share tools to help you along your way. Pray for your heart to be opened to God's unique plan for your family.
Identify Your Student's Needs
Ask a friend to swap babysitting time or ask your spouse to watch the children for a few hours while you find a quiet space to reflect on the past school year.
Spend this quiet time doing the following:
- Honestly look at what worked and what didn't. It is okay to admit a particular resource wasn't a good fit and it's time for a change.
- Ensure you understand each child's learning style. In her book, The Ultimate Guide to Homeschooling, Debra Bell devotes an entire chapter to learning styles.
- Write down the goals you have for each child for the coming year. The more you evaluate and plan prior to the conference, the more likely you will be to purchase materials that are a good fit.
- Consider adding a special-interest course in the coming year—perhaps art, history, or computer programming. This becomes especially important during the high school years as your child develops specific interests.
Window Shop Before the Conference
With goals set for the coming year, it's time to match up needs with curriculum. Visit the convention website for a list of exhibiting vendors. Browse their online catalogs or obtain printed versions if time permits. The full Apologia catalog is available online.
Here is some other information to check while visiting publisher websites:
- FAQ pages or brochures available in PDF format
- Sample lessons, book excerpts, and video samples
- Course outlines
As you browse each site, write down your questions about curriculum in your notebook. Armed with this pre-conference research, you'll enjoy a more focused shopping experience.
Consult with Others
Search for online reviews of a specific product. I especially enjoy blog posts where the reviewer has shared how she has used the product, often with photos. Ask friends about their experience with a product. If you're active on social networks, consult online friends.
But remember, what worked for a friend's family may not be a perfect fit for your child's learning style. That is why it's important to attend a conference, browse the available materials with notes in hand, and ask your questions of the publisher representatives. Review the depth of each book's content and feel the quality of the materials.
Thoroughly examining the materials will help you make informed curriculum decisions tailored your child's learning style. After all, isn't this one of the key benefits of homeschooling?
Research the Speakers Before the Convention
Review the list of scheduled speakers and visit their websites or blogs. Read what they've written and listen to any available audio clips. Write down questions you have for them and place the list in your notebook. If there's a scheduling conflict and you can't make a desired presentation, look into purchasing recorded sessions so you don't miss a minute of information and encouragement.
The Matter of Finances
Discuss a budget with your spouse and place it in your notebook. Write down the resources you've been researching along with their list prices. Here are some other financially related items to consider:
- If feasible, allocate some dollars toward a few unexpected or “splurge" items. These might include a fun science kit, a new game, or special art supplies. These are good boredom busters to pull out throughout the school year.
- Remember the workshop recordings. Think of these as your continuing education—if your budget allows.
- If your children are attending the conference and a children's program is available, factor in the cost of this activity.
- If travel expenses are prohibitive and you'll be traveling without your spouse and family, look into “carpooling" to the conference and sharing a room with another mom.
- Keep track of your expenditures at the convention. An envelope tucked into a pocket inside the notebook will keep all your receipts handy.
Mostly importantly, do not worry over the finances. God knows what we need before we ask. Sometimes that can be difficult to remember when you're standing on the convention hall floor, just inches from the perfect resource, and you realize you have to delay the purchase.
Instead, meditate on Matthew 6:25–28: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life."
God will lead you to the right purchases in His time. And when He does, you'll have done your research and will be a careful steward of the money He has provided.
Before tossing those bags into the car and heading to the convention, double-check your notebook to make sure it contains these items:
- Bible verses to keep close to your heart as you make time and financial decisions in the busy atmosphere of the convention
- Your budget
- Notes about the past year and each child's learning style
- List of learning goals for each child for the coming year
- Printed information about curriculums of interest and questions for vendors
- Any printed catalogs
- Speaker information
- Conference schedule and your workshop preferences
- Map of the convention hall
- An envelope for receipts
Other items to keep handy:
- Methods of payment (cash, checkbook, credit card)
- Identification (driver's license)
- Conference registration papers
- Parking information
- Planning notebook
- Pens and blank paper
- Tote bags (check with your convention regarding their rolling bag policy)
- Comfortable shoes
- Cell phone and charger
Regardless of the number of years you've been homeschooling, refresh yourself at a conference this year. Spend time before the event praying, evaluating, and planning. Remember, the perfect homeschooler can be found staring back at you in the mirror. You are already following God's perfect plan for your family.
And if you feel so inclined while in the convention hall, lift your arms in a victory "V" and celebrate another adventurous year as a homeschooling family!