April 18, 2018

How to Plan A Free Homeschooling Conference

Last year, my family and I were traveling to Delaware to celebrate Easter with family. During the drive, I turned to my husband and blurted out, "I want to plan a homeschooling conference!"

And that was all it took to get started. My husband patiently helped me brainstorm ideas and before we reached the DE state line, I had a tentative plan to bring to my local homeschooling group. The following week, I shared my idea for a 6-hour day of learning at our group's bi-monthly meeting.

That is how in May 2017, I organized my first free homeschooling mini-conference.

Actually, I like to call it a free, grassroots homeschooling conference because unlike most homeschooling conferences or retreats, this event is about (and only about) learning, inspiring, and encouraging each other as we build a community of local homeschooling families.

Now, I've just wrapped up my organizations second free, grassroots mini-conference and I want to share just how easy it is to create a special day of learning for your local community.

You only need to do 5 things:

1. Find a free location for the event.

My husband is a college professor so the logical place for us to host our free, non-profit, community event was at the university where he works. We asked the Admissions department if they would be willing to register for the rooms on our behalf to "host" us so we could use them without paying a fee and they said yes!

Not everyone has close ties to a university like I do, but other likely options for a free location are church halls or even library community rooms. In my experience, libraries are willing to let you use their spaces as long as events are free and open to the public. They may even be willing to publicize it for you.

2. Choose a date. 

If you want to plan a homeschooling conference to equip and encourage homeschool parents as they prepare for the next year, I recommend setting a date in April, May, or June. Where I live, the only big state convention occurs in early June, so April and early May work better in case some people want to attend a big conference as well as our tiny, local one. 

If possible, pick a date at least 2 months ahead of when you will start planning. It takes several weeks to contact speakers and publicize the event details. Plus, spring is a busy time so parents are more likely to attend if they put it on their calendar far in advance.

3. Create a schedule for the day.

My vision for this conference was that attendees would walk away feeling more confident about their ability to homeschool. So I created a schedule of sessions and discussions that would draw on the know-how and wisdom of homeschoolers with different levels of experience, different styles, and different family sizes. 

I also planned sessions that would be useful for the greatest number of people.

For example, at the 2017 conference, I called one session Nitty Gritty Homeschool Help and asked several parents to share very briefly on a topic like:
  • How to homeschool with little children around
  • Strategies for large-family homeschooling
  • Using morning time in a homeschool
  • How to build a free curriculum from resources on the web

I also scheduled a discussion time for us to break into two groups (one for elementary/middle and one for jr high/high school) with an experienced homeschooler as the moderator to discuss topics like how to schedule a homeschool day and how to count high school credits. 

Because our organization collects dues of $6 per family per year and we rarely use the funds, we were able to provide a simple lunch catered by the university dining services. Other options, might include finding a local sponsor to provide lunch or just asking attendees to pack in a lunch.

During lunch, we welcomed a speaker from the university admissions department (who sponsored our event at the university that year) to speak on homeschooling and the college admissions process.

Finally, after lunch, we had a roundtable discussion where every person was able to share one thing that they were excited about in their homeschool that year. This was a very popular session and everyone loved sharing their favorite curriculum, websites, podcasts, magazines, and more!

This year, we created a similar schedule but swapped out the discussion for a panel talking about assessing student learning in a variety of ways for planning purposes as well as a means to document learning for evaluators. In our state (PA), we need to create a portfolio or record to show to an evaluator for them to write a letter to the school district, so this is an area of interest for almost all of us.

We also asked a different university department, one that administers music classes for the public, to host us and to provide a speaker. Once again, they agreed and the director of the program volunteered her time on a Saturday to give us an excellent presentation on Music Education and Appreciation for Homeschoolers. 

4. Line up speakers.

When planning an event for busy homeschooling parents, you never know who is going to be able to attend due to sporting events, birthday parties, illness, or lack of babysitters. 

This is why I like to keep sessions somewhat open-ended and ask for speakers after I have a schedule that I can publicize. I always ask for volunteers who want to share on a topic of their choice. Then I reach out to other people who I know have a specific interest or angle from which to speak. 

Some people who I approach can't make it or don't want to speak. But I just keep looking until I find someone who is ready, willing, and able.  And if I don't find someone, I can either step in myself or run with the speakers who already agreed.

I really believe that we all have something to share and add to the discussion. So you don't need to over think the topics that others would be interested to hear about. Tips for reading aloud, field trip ideas, or explanations of different homeschooling philosophies would all make great topics. As would tips for homeschooling during difficult times or homeschooling in families where some children attend hybrid or cyber school programs

5. Spread the word.

My local homeschooling group uses a private Meetup group to organize and collect dues. All members can post community events and organize field trips for our group. Of course, I advertise here first.

But I also want our event to grow our local community so I share the conference schedule and details to a local parents email list, my own personal contacts, and homeschooling Facebook groups within a 2-hour radius.

When publicizing an event like this, it is important to provide details and directions to the location, as well as to consider requiring registration. Personally, I need to know how many people will attend to order lunch and plan a good room setup, so I use Google Forms to collect basic information from attendees. 

I also talk up the conference to my fellow homeschoolers in the weeks leading up to the event. I ask people if they can make it, I email homeschooling-interested friends, and even try to network in real life with homeschoolers in surrounding areas. People are more willing to attend an event if they have met even one person who is going to be there.

I also make sure to let everyone know all the ways they can contribute. Besides our open roundtable discussion in which everyone can share, all attendees are welcome to participate in a curriculum sale and swap. This year, we also had door prize raffles of book sets and Thinking Tree Funschooling Journals (donated by the company!). 

Everything else:

Well, there are a few more things that need to be done like send reminders, order food, answer questions, decide how to set up the room, copy handouts, and assemble basic supplies like table signs, name tags, and tape. But you don't have to do it all alone. This is a fun event and there are always people willing to step in and take responsibility for different pieces of the work.

This year, a member of our group offered her graphic design skills for our signage. She designed an image to use for online publicity as well as designed our informational flyer/schedule. Her efforts made everything look professional and saved me the agony of designing something usable but not attractive.

But what if this won't work for my situation?

I believe anyone can plan a day of learning with other homeschoolers. But it might look a bit different for you.

Our conference takes place in central Pennsylvania about 1 hour from smaller cities like Harrisburg and Williamsport, so it definitely doesn't take an urban setting to make this happen. On the other hand, I could imagine that if you were in a more remote area, it might be impossible to bring together a large group of 30-50 parents as we have.

Or, you might not be a part of a well-connected homeschooling group right now. In that case, you may want to build a tighter network first, through events like park days, moms nights out, and field trips, organized through Facebook, local libraries, or a Meetup group.

You may be surprised at how many homeschoolers come out of the woodwork once someone is willing to step in and start doing the work of organizing.

But even if you only know a handful of homeschooling families, you can still plan a day or half-day of learning with and inspiring each other. Gather a few friends and agree to meet at someone's house or the library or a coffee shop where you are free to linger a while. Each person can talk about a particular topic--either one they are already an "expert" at or one that they want to research for your meeting. 

Then have a couple of questions for discussion. I'm sure my homeschooling friends and I could talk for hours on our favorite books, how we schedule our days, or how we deal with screens, complaints, life skills and on and on!!!

Have you had any success planning a day like this? If you've never tried it, what's stopping you?

April 10, 2018

Best Tips for Scoring Big at Used Book Sales

I homeschool on the cheap. So I love to equip my homeschool with free or really cheap books many of which I get at used book sales. Since book sale season is quickly approaching, I thought I'd share my expert tips on how to get the best value for your homeschooling dollars at these sales.

This post contains affiliate links. Read my full disclosure to learn more.

Learn the sale rules and pricing.

Did you know that some sales are cash only? Others do not allow strollers or carts on the first day. Some have special pricing where the books get cheaper every day of the sale. Spend a few minutes learning about the sale (big or small) that you will be attending so you can plan whether you want to come early for the best selection or come late for the huge bags of cheap leftover books.

Make a wish list of the types of books you want and take it with you.

I keep a running list of the authors, titles, and subjects of books that I hope to find. For example, I might list Shakespeare retellings, books by David Macaulay, songbooks, nature books, living history books about the 1800s, Greek myths, fairy tales, Opal Wheeler biographies, or even specific novels, missing volumes in a book series, or picture books that I'm likely to find at a sale.

Be realistic! Usually, the books for sale are many years old, so you are likely to find mass published classics, but unlikely to find recent bestsellers.

Also, prioritize your list. Your time, budget, and space to store books is limited. Plus, other buyers are going to be snatching up books left and right. Spend a moment thinking about what books are going to be most important for you to find and look for them first. Mass-market paperback novels will likely have several copies available. Go for the hardcover books you need for your lesson plans first!

Make a plan for shopping with children.

If book sales are a key part of your homeschooling shopping plan, then think carefully about how you are going to shop with your children.

When I attend my favorite huge warehouse book sale, I only bring a baby if I can wear them in a carrier because it is very crowded and I know that I will want to spend 2 hours there.

At a smaller sale, I will bring my children with me, but I operate very differently. I plan to stay for only 30-60 minutes but I am prepared to leave as soon as necessary if they become overwhelmed by the people or chaos. My kids love books and never get to buy ones except at sales or thrift stores, so they are very motivated to sit and look at a book near me with the promise that they can take it home.

Bring your own bags or crates.

Serious book sale shoppers always bring their own rolling carts! That is if the sale rules allow them. I got my first rolling cart for Christmas this year, mainly to use at the farmers market, but I can't wait to use it at a book sale next week for the first time. Books are heavy!

Before getting this cart, I always shopped with sturdy canvas bags and a big 31 rectangular tote. Often cardboard boxes are available at the sales as well. But think carefully about how you are going to carry your stuff and usher your children to the car.

If you accidentally buy more than you can carry to your car, the book sale people will let you make more than one trip. I've seen it many times!

Open every book (especially the old ones) before you buy them.

Sometimes, you find a title that makes your heart skip a beat. It is exactly what you've been hoping for. This is how I feel when I find a new Howard Pyle book to add to my collection . . . or something by the D'Aulaires or Aliki or some rare nature lore book I've only read about.

The thrill of book hunting is what keeps me coming back for more! But I have wasted my precious homeschooling dollars over books that were in very poor condition, usually because I got too excited to think clearly.

So, open every book and quickly rifle through the pages, checking that the binding is intact and all pages seem to be there. If the book looks old, give it a sniff. Some books are too smelly or moldy to keep around.

If there is more than one copy, choose the one in the best condition. Personally, I would prefer an old hardcover ex-library edition with an intact binding even if it has library stamps and some discoloration over a mass market paperback, but you may feel differently. In my experience, small paperbacks, like those published by Scholastic, do not last through many readings. If you intend to use the book for multiple children, choose hardcover or trade paperback.

Only buy books that you need, want, and can afford.

It is easy to lose your head in the excitement of the sale. Honestly, I expect that I may buy a few books (for about $1 each) that I will decide not to include in our permanent library, either because I missed physical condition issues or because the book wasn't what I had originally thought in the heat of the moment.

It helps me to have a financial budget as well as a physical budget in mind. For example, I will only spend $30. Or I will not get more books than I can fit in this bag.

I also keep certain "rules" for myself in mind. I will not buy a mass market paperback UNLESS I have immediate plans to read it to my children or it is a special selection for a particular child's Christmas stocking. I do not buy books that I know our local library owns UNLESS I plan to use them as part of our school plans.  I will not spend more than $2 for a book UNLESS I plan to use it as part of our school plans or morning time.

I won't pay more than $10 unless it is something truly special. Once, I found Bright April and Copper Toed Boots in excellent condition in the collector's corner of my favorite sale and I'm so glad I spent a little bit extra! But unless it is Marguerite De Angeli, or some other favorite author and as well as a rare find in very good condition, I'm not going to blow my budget for the day!

If you have a smartphone, you can check for the online price of potential splurges. For better and worse, I don't use a smartphone, so I have to just go with my instincts. But I think it is more fun that way!

Enjoy your finds and learn from any "mistakes."

As soon as I get home, I take everything out to sort and put away. Some books are held back for gifts and others are set aside for lessons and morning time. The rest we enjoy right away!

If you discover that you accidentally bought a book you already own or one that is falling apart, learn from your mistake and either recycle it or pass it one to another family who would benefit.

Sometimes, you can even find some other special use for a book that is too old for reading. This Christmas, I used the pages of The Blue Fairy Book that fell apart while I read it to make beautiful, unique "fairy tale" note cards as gifts for my mom and sister. And I developed my rule to stop buying old mass market paperbacks!

You may also want to check out my post on Charlotte Mason Homeschooling with Free Books (or at least really cheap ones) that shows how used book sales fit into my overall homeschool planning!

Do you love used book sales too? Are there any tips that help you make the most of a sale?

April 2, 2018

What We're Reading: April Edition

Despite the several inches of snow we had this morning in Pennsylvania, spring is in the air and I've tried to celebrate with our poetry and read aloud selections this month. I am fondly looking forward to a month or so from now when we'll be able to move lunchtime read alouds and eventually, morning time, out to the picnic table on the front porch.

For now, we'll have to content ourselves with poems about daffodils and stories about fireflies, rabbits, and kittens.

This post contains affiliate links. Read my full disclosure to learn more.


This month we continued our study of William Wordsworth. We read the following every day for one week at morning time:

Lines Written in Early Spring by William Wordsworth
The World is Too Much With Us by William Wordsworth
The Rainbow by William Wordsworth

If you want to see more poems that we enjoy, check out Poetry to Read Aloud.

Morning Time

We finished the following books at morning time this month:
Treasures in the Sea by Robert M. McClung
The Rabbit Problem by Emily Gravett
Teklas's Easter by Lillian Budd
Outside Your Window: A First Book of Nature (Spring section) by Nicola Davies
The Tremendous Tree Book by Barbara Brenner
On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder

We've also been reading at morning time, and will continue to read slowly for some time:

The Aesop for Children
The Story of King Arthur and His Knights by Howard Pyle (Free Google Books illustrated edition)
Among the Night People by Clara Dillingham Pierson (Free Google Books illustrated edition)
The Red Fairy Book by Andrew Lang
Franz Schubert and His Merry Friends by Opal Wheeler

To see even more books we've enjoyed at morning time, check the Morning Time page.

Lunch-time Read Alouds

The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic by Jennifer Trafton (finished)
Tales of Pirates & Buccaneers by Howard Pyle
The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare

Night Book

My husband has been reading to the kids:
The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge 

Free Reading

The 2nd grader read the next volume in the Incorrigible Children of Ashton place after the boys finished the first volume as a night book. Now he is waiting for the library to buy the next volumes in the series because we asked about them :-)

It has also been a big month for rereading. He has reread most of the Horrible Histories and been on a kick of re-reading all the Beast Academy graphic novel textbooks. I only let him read the parts that we have covered as part of his math lessons, so after finishing volume 4A this month, he really wanted to review, I guess.

The Hidden Gallery (The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place #2) by Maryrose Wood
Beast Academy Volumes 3A, 3B, 3C, 3D, 4A
Horrible Histories by Terry Deary

With the younger children

Besides rereading Highlights and High Five magazines over and over, we've been reading:

James Herriot's Treasury for Children by James Herriot
The Mysterious Tadpole by Steven Kellogg
It's Not the Stork by Robie H. Harris, Michael E. Emberley
Anno's Journey by Mitsumasa Anno
Jumanji by Chris van Allsburg
Zathura by Chris van Allsburg
Curious George Goes to the Hospital by H.A. Rey & Margret Rey
Curious George Flies a Kite by H.A. Rey & Margret Rey

I've been reading

This month I only finished one book because I've been busy with the Brothers Karamazov. I'm really enjoying it, but it is hefty one so I need to focus to finish it before the library wants it back for good.

I've also been spending my free time finishing up all my planning for our next homeschooling year and planning a free, local homeschooling conference for mid-April.

Fortunately, the one book I finished was a good one.:

Know and Tell: The Art of Narration by Karen Glass

I'm also slowly re-reading Home Education by Charlotte Mason with an in-person reading group and still working on The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky.

These are most of the books we've been reading outside of our formal lessons. You can see the ones we use during school time at 2nd Grade Plans 2017-2018.

What have you been reading lately?