Because we need alternatives

If you’ve ever been to a home education convention, be sure to read this article (by Sherry Stacy) from Home Education Magazine.

Have you ever gone to a homeschool convention and wished that you could have picked the workshops that were offered? A simple way to have that decision-making power is to organize your own homeschool convention. Did I say simple? Well, if you have a computer, are a fairly determined person (what homeschool mom isn’t?), and know the Five Secrets to Convention Organization, anyone can do it.

I won’t reproduce more of the piece since I’d rather drive traffic to the magazine’s website (I’ve always been a fan). But I admire the way this piece breaks down what seems like an inaccessible, impossibly complicated process into manageable steps.

I’m not telling all of you overworked homeschooling parents that you should shoehorn yet another responsibility into your frazzled schedule. But if you’re a veteran, with your kids out (or almost out) the door…or if you’re a grandparent…think about it.

In my opion, far too many home school conferences are centered around religious training. Mind you, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with having a conference that centers around biblical parenting, or family dynamics. The problem is that there are so few conferences that offer multiple sessions on teaching. On math, science, history, grammar. On transcript-keeping, essay-writing, critical reading. On academics.

I just went through the workshops offered by invited speakers at one major state conference. Here’s how they broke down, in terms of topics:

Exhortation (“Don’t give up! Homeschooling is good!”): 6 workshops
Theology: 8 workshops
Parenting: 15 workshops
Philosophy of education: 15 workshops
Peripheral issues (cooking, running a home business, starting a home school support group, teaching kids to be organized): 22 workshops

And as for actual academics:
FOUR workshops on humanities subjects (all offered by the same speaker)
TWO workshops on maths and sciences.

Every other workshop focused on academics was a vendor workshop–that is, a space sold to a particular curriculum writer or publisher to hawk their wares.

We need alternatives, folks.

If you’ve been to a state conference, you probably think of a conference as held in a big hotel or conference center, with dozens of sessions over two or three days, an enormous vendor hall, and hundreds of attendees. But that’s shouldn’t be our only model. I speak at six or seven or eight conferences a year (I’m always trying to limit myself), and often my favorite conference of the year turns out to be a one-day, smaller meeting that’s tightly focused on one or two subjects.

Home education would be energized if we had the option of attending multiple small, one-day conferences covering specific topics: teaching math in the high school years, writing for non-experts, how to read the great books, doing science at home in grades 7-12. And yes, speakers will come. Sherry Stacy writes,

I enjoy finding great speakers for the convention the most! I only pay $25 a workshop, but I have found that almost all homeschool speakers are willing to come and prepare a workshop for this amount. If a speaker has a product or curriculum they wish to sell at the convention, I will give them a free booth rental in exchange for a speaker’s fee.

Hey, even with limiting my conference appearances, I do one or two every year for expenses only because I think the organizers are likeminded, or because I’ve never been to that city before, or because they’ve invited me to speak about a specific topic that I don’t usually get to lecture on. You’ve just got to ask.

Having said that, don’t everyone email us simultaneously. There are plenty of experienced, thoughtful home educators out there who have valuable information to share. The big conferences tend to book the same “big ticket” speakers over and over and over again, but smaller conferences shouldn’t try to follow that same pattern.

A good starting place might be for some dedicated home school veteran to start a list of qualified speakers who would be willing to talk about ACADEMICS. Any takers?

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26 Responses to Because we need alternatives

  1. Mrs.G. says:

    Hear! Hear!

  2. dawn says:

    My church’s homeschool group is great about this. We have a meeting one night a month for moms. Four to five meetings a year we invite one of the older moms or a church member who has a certain specialization to speak about an academic topic, literature, math, science, etc. Some of them go into “how do you teach this?” but a lot of them are topical (last year a literature teacher taught on “The Death of Ivan Ilych.”) It is such a blessing to have those who’ve gone before help us work through philosophy & academics.

  3. Annie says:

    What a great idea!

  4. Great advice–thanks!

  5. Amen, what this religious homeschooler needs is a couple hours of deep comparison of the various algebra options that are out there. Scope and sequence, delivery method, philosophies, match up with learning and teaching styles, etc.

    I appreciate a bit of encouragement. After living overseas for three years in a country where homeschooling was only possible for diplomats and non-local military families, I was brought to tears watching musical parodies of homeschooling.

    But my time is limited and I want a homeschooling conference to be about homeschooling and related educational topics.

    Plus I’m still a little bitter that I offered to hold a workshop about the application process for service academies and was told that workshop time was pretty much reserved for vendors. Hmm. Love hearing from the vendors in a sit down environment (it’s convinced me not to use a few products), but they do come with a specific viewpoint.

    • Heather says:

      “Amen, what this religious homeschooler needs is a couple hours of deep comparison of the various algebra options that are out there. Scope and sequence, delivery method, philosophies, match up with learning and teaching styles, etc.”


      I’d also appreciate the above for Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Latin, and high school writing (specifically, technical and research writing), too.

      Ideally, it wouldn’t be from a vendor. In my experience, I’ve experienced a mixed bag with vendors at homeschool conferences. Some are fantastic and are able to speak at length on a topic without hyping their curricula while disparaging competing curricula. Many are not.

      There are a few women on TWTM board that I’d love to hear for a few hours on a topic! The ones off of the top of my head that come to mind have homeschooled through high school and are also college professors or work in a similar environment.

  6. David Prewitt says:

    In addition to Susan’s suggestions, I believe there are opportunities in alternative delivery methods – podcast, webcast, web meeting, YouTube, etc. (Please note, I’m saying these items would be additions, not substitutes.) How about “Lab Sciences Alternatives Smackdown 2010″ as a series of podcasts? OK, the title needs some work. Using Dawn’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych” example … what if the session had been recorded so that homeschoolers in other parts of the country could have experienced it? As another example, I see that Susan’s scheduled to speak at the Midwest Homeschool Convention in Cincinnati next April 8-10. Since I’m a CPA, that’s lousy … for me! I’d love to experience those sessions after the 15th. Podcasts, YouTube videos, or DVDs would make that possible.

  7. Cris in CA says:

    oooooohhh! Yes, David! Like the TED website of past conferences, but for homeschool topics. I’d watch/subscribe! Get those cameras rollin’!

  8. Leigh says:

    Amen and amen.

    This is why I drove hours and hours to the N. Virginia conference last year. I don’t need help managing my preschoolers or passing along our faith. This engineer needs help to help these children become literate!!

    Community colleges may be a great resource to find speakers for high school subjects. My mom is a math department chair, and she’d love to speak to homeschooling parents about teaching algebra! In fact, she’s often commented that she’d love to be a resource but doesn’t know how to “break in” to the culture.

    Now if you’ll pardon a short gush…
    My 7 year old son has been listening to the SOTW CDs in his free time for a solid year. He is one of your biggest fans and knows more history than I thought possible for a 2nd grader. As for me, I have less than 60 pages left in Don Quixote, and I’m exceedingly proud of myself. Pilgrim’s Progress is waiting on my shelf.

  9. msjones says:

    This is interesting timing…I’ve just been asked to present at a small homeschool conference, and am trying to decide on the topic. I wondered if my idea — Strategies for Developing Readers– had already been presented too often. Maybe not.

  10. dangermom says:

    “In addition to Susan’s suggestions, I believe there are opportunities in alternative delivery methods – podcast, webcast, web meeting, YouTube, etc. (Please note, I’m saying these items would be additions, not substitutes.)”

    That is brilliant! Yes, someone should definitely do that. A lot of people should!

    I would love to go to conferences that focus on academics. I have little interest in going to a conference just for parenting advice or other folks’ theology. I haven’t gone to many conferences at all.

    • Sandra says:

      Me either. We live in an area that has difficulty bringing in any big conferences. I live here ten years, and we have had one. It was too poorly attended to justify them coming again.

  11. Alice says:

    Another amen here. I came to every session you and your Mom gave at the NOVA convention. And although they were great and I was excited to hear from both of you, it was also partially because they were virtually no other academic offerings. It would have been nice to have a choice (although I would have still probably followed you guys around then too. ) :)

  12. As the workshop coordinator of a homeschool convention in California’s central valley, I couldn’t agree more. I am always on the lookout for speakers on academic subjects–and am now encouraged to put more effort into this. It is a hard balance to have vendors speak on topics they are experts in and yet not have them push their own products; of course they feel their curriculum, etc. does the best job of teaching the subject they are presenting in their workshop. I would love to hear from anyone who is capable of offering us academic workshops! (Thank you to Susan and Jessie for speaking for us a few years ago–we hope to have you back!)

  13. Emily says:

    “As another example, I see that Susan’s scheduled to speak at the Midwest Homeschool Convention in Cincinnati next April 8-10.”

    I’m wondering if this is the one Susan’s talking about (she probably won’t say!). This is the one my husband and I are going to–our first hs conference.

  14. Sandra says:

    I have one in college, one just finishing his sixth college application, (he has been accepted to four of them so far :) ) and two in junior high. Whether online high school, AP at local public school, college classes, co-ops, private school extension or just DVDs, we have our kids learning from others from about fifth grade on. I teach what I enjoy and let someone else do the rest. I learned about grading, transcripts, transcript narratives, guidance counselor recommendations and the college admissions process on forums and lists online. I love the online support and information available to us. I can’t imagine doing this without the Internet and all of the excellent academic choices outside the home.

    I wonder who would be interested in how to teach this or that type of mini-conferences? Would it not be those who teach the subject as their specialty subject, both at home and to the broader homeschool community in their area? I can’t actually picture moms I know taking them in. But I do think more academic sessions in the larger conferences is a grand thought.


  15. Janie says:

    I agree. As a former home educator (4 kids through high school graduation, 20 years) and now as a middle school teacher in a private school, I’ve seen both sides of the convention fence. Both the glitzy 4-5 star hotel convention center and moderately conservative venues lean toward cheerleader or religious seminars rather than the nitty-gritty aspects of teaching.We all need a cheerleader session once in a while, but the push-comes-to-shove when you need direction about actual teaching.

    In my recent years of classroom teaching, our most productive times have been when we have learned how to teach particulars more effectively and learning the best methods of test review, etc. Rather than seminars covering why-when-where, teachers (whether home or classroom) *need* the what and how seminars.

    I agree with the previous poster who said that many conference seminars favor vendor-led seminars. I’ve also offered and been turned down.

  16. Stephanie says:

    Another resounding agreement with this post. I have been so discouraged by the offerings of my state’s conference that I haven’t bothered to attend. I would be so grateful for a local conference that focused on academic subjects. I am contemplating a trip to Cincinnati this year!

  17. LV says:

    Very interesting idea – as a first-year homeschooler (7- and 5-year olds) I look to the future and am discouraged about the dearth of academic speakers/events/etc. out there. Even in our academically-focused co-op, I find that the tendency (from parents and the national organization) is to focus on and push doctrine in a grammar-style manner to dialectic and rhetoric aged kids…leaving them few tools to understand and defend their beliefs when out ‘in the world.’

    But I digress…besides community colleges, where else would one look for the type of speakers we are talking about? Any suggestions out there?

    • Sandra says:

      How about the pool of experienced homeschooling parents in a given region? They could be found in local co-ops or support groups.

      We should begin to have more of these folks around now that there are a generation or two who have completed homeschooling.

      Tap into local Christian schools. Their teachers might be available for seminars or even as support in an ongoing way. Also retired teachers for their subjects.

      Admissions counselors from area colleges can teach about the college application process too.

      In fact this last matter, college admissions, is to me as valuable as instruction on direct teaching of subjects. There should be homeschool conventions for colleges to come and meet our kids, and a team of admissions experts available to teach about the process.


  18. Beth says:

    Another Perspective

    Yes, there is a need for alternatives to conferences focused primarily on faith and parenting. Susan is right in saying that veteran home educators could make these types of conferences happen (and this would be a good thing). Susan is even more spot on to point out that we need to pay attention to teaching. Of course we do, and not only at conferences. After all, this is what we (should) get up and do each day with our children.

    I think that in this generation, the emphasis among home educators will (hopefully) shift from curriculum/philosophy to the nuts-and-bolts of excellent teaching—the deeply satisfying knowledge and skill of how to possess and pass on knowledge and skill. It’s about time that the spotlight does shine on teaching, because too much credit for learning is given to mere curriculum and materials. There’s not enough discussion of what it means for us as parent-teachers to truly know our course of instruction and to teach (tutor) our children well in academics at home. Are we, as a community, past the point of believing that learning comes in a box? Can a “teacher” who doesn’t know the subject at all truly be a teacher of it?

    I’ve heard and read a lot of what I consider to be flippant, cavalier answers to this issue, such as, “Oh, I can learn (insert subject) right along with them,” or “I don’t need to know it, I just need to resource it properly,” or “We love and live and learn along the way…. We don’t need to master subjects, we’re just living life and loving to learn….” Some of these answers are valid, in a way and to a point, but they also miss the point—that, as we are parents, so are we teachers, if we take on the responsibility of teaching our children at home.

    Parenting is hard work, but conventions for home educators should not focus on parenting. Teaching is hard work, too, and we need the most help there. I, personally, don’t want someone telling me how to parent my children. Doing just fine there, thank you very much! What I do want is to learn the content of the subjects I will be teaching a few years down the road, how to teach those subjects, how to evaluate my students’ grasp of them, and how to record their learning in such a way that someone else can see where my students are academically.

    Most professions require and provide continuing education. My husband works in a medical profession, and he is always learning and improving his skills. I am a home educator – a teacher – who is also always learning and improving my skills. Our three daughters think it is perfectly normal for their father to be studying neurons and spinal cord anatomy and evoked potential responses… and for their mother to be studying history and Latin and how to teach elementary math. 
    Susan’s discussion rightly points out the lack of opportunities for home educators to participate in workshops that develop their knowledge and skills as teachers. While my husband can go to any number of seminars for his profession, I am hard-pressed to find a workshop to help me in my role. Yes, we do need alternatives.

    However, let’s not overlook the alternatives we already do have at our disposal, nor lament the fact that one solution—a line-up of academically-focused conferences—may not be immediately available to us. We are responsible for making ourselves into better teachers, with or without the perfect conference.

    Probably all of us have access to a library; we can read, and learn to read better. We can read Great Books and make our own timelines. We can read excellent books on teaching. We can listen to music and study music theory (Alfred’s Essentials of Music Theory). We can study how to teach math (Elementary Mathematics for Teachers, Parker & Baldridge; Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics, Ma). We might be able to join a book discussion group, or form our own group and work through The Well-Educated Mind. We might work our way through a lecture course from The Teaching Company, or another similar video course. We might be able to enroll in a college, correspondence, or online course. We might study teaching methods in other countries, to compare and contrast how education is done in another context (The Teaching Gap, Stigler)—and to see how much of a difference good teaching makes!

    I’m not saying that we have to do it all, or know everything before we begin. That would be an impossible demand. What I am saying is that for too long, in my opinion, the homeschool mantra has been “line up the right set of resources and plug the kids in.” Never mind the need for a teacher. Susan is right to say that we need workshops devoted to teaching—because, ultimately, we need to be committed to becoming excellent teachers.

  19. Theresa says:

    I am only in the beginning years of homeschooling and have not yet attended a conference, but this is what I, personally, would like to see:

    1. A speaker on the forecast of future high demand jobs and required skill sets. It is obvious from this recession that our children will need to have multiple skill sets and experiences from various career fields to fall back on rather than relying on that one college degree to carry them through life.

    2. Speakers from both community colleges and public universities on the probable normal college life in the future. Our local community college (I am a faculty member) has discussed how the enormous growth rate of the college, limited funding sources to the college, the need for students to work at least part time and economic constraints of the student and family has lead to phenomenal growth in distance education. An administrator and I even agreed our 1st graders, upon completing high school, will probably go in their room, turn on their laptop and complete their coursework. Students will probably only go to campus to attend labs, meetings, presentations, or group study. As parents we want our children to have the same college experience we did, but that may not be realistic considering economics and our children’s comfort with technology we are still trying to learn.

    3. Teachers of all levels of art, music and theatre. Since these programs are usually electives and under the constant threat of being cut due to budget difficulties, these teachers may happily want to network with homeschooling parents. The thought of teaching these subjects scares me the most because it requires creativity which for me was crushed by many, many years of math and science training. I also would need a workshop on how to set up a basic art kit with plenty of supplies to make most art projects or crafts for holidays. Again, please see statement about my creativity level being zero.

    If I meet anyone willing to do the above workshops, I will happily forward the contact information to interested persons.

  20. Jenny Wells says:

    As I prepare for my eighth-year of homeschooling and my first year with a high-schooler, I agree with this need and have felt its lack acutely, choosing to not attend my local conferences for the last several years. I would add, however, that as much as I need academic training…we need to consider our METHODS of communication/teacher-training. Oh, to have a workshop format over a lecture, for example! I also long for lecturers (as Susan was at the last conference I attended several years ago in Sacramento) that are knowledgeable AND able to communicate effectively as speakers…inspiring and personable. Teaching CONTENT is critical…but teachers/mentors also need to be able to deliver their message well…and if I was part of planning/implementing a different alternative, I would spend energy on the how as much as the what…not at the price of content, but to enhance it and inspire learners who can in-turn inspire their learners. Just wanted to add an artist’s perspective. :)

  21. Chanda says:

    The best conference I ever attended was the online one that you spoke at hosted by Real speakers, real content, convenient and free. It was amazing!

  22. Renee says:

    I just went and looked at our homeschool convention for 2009 to see what kind of workshops were offered last year (we did not live here then.) It seems that while most of the workshops are academically oriented (yeah!) they are all given by vendors. I wonder if the vendors give generic talks or if they are product specific – it is hard to tell from the titles.

    I have been homeschooling for 7 years now and I don’t feel I need homeschooling support per se. I’d rather focus my attention on effective teaching rather than curriculum specific discussion.

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