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!).
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!!!