(Matt and Amy will be attending their first homeschool conference as vendors in late May. As “seasoned” homeschoolers, Amy felt this would be a good opportunity for her to share some tips that helped them to make the most out of their conference experiences as attendees.)
You’ve decided you want to attend a homeschool conference and you’ve already registered. If you are attending one that isn’t nearby, you’ve already figured out housing arrangements (hotel, rental, staying with friends/relatives). That’s all you have to do, right? Technically, yes, but if you want to get the most out of the weekend, you probably should do a little planning. You are investing time and money in this conference, so if you are anything like me, you are going to want to get as much out of it as possible. Taking some time to look ahead can help make the weekend go a little more smoothly and might keep you from overlooking something you didn’t want to miss.
The first thing I like to do is check the schedule for the conference. In addition to making sure I’ve got the correct dates on my calendar, I look at opening and closing times. Registration lines can get really long – and even if you’ve pre-registered, you’ll probably still need to check in, so if you are counting on browsing the vendor hall before the first keynote session, you’ll probably want to get in line earlier than the conference registration officially opens. Check out all session times as well as the hours for the vendor hall. The hours for the vendor hall may vary by day, and while it might be open later the earlier days of the conference, the last day they might close earlier. There also may be other evening events that you want to attend that coincide with those “later” vendor hall hours, and you’ll want to know that so you can plan accordingly.
I’m a ‘paper’ person, so I print out all of the schedules and put them in a folder or a binder when I attend a conference. I want all of my information in one place, and I don’t want to be at the mercy of cell phone reception or a wi-fi signal – both of which can be an issue in some convention spaces. If you are more of a digital person than a paper person, I would highly suggest having PDFs of the schedules on your phone and/or tablet. You might even be able to download the conference booklet prior to the conference. Often these booklets have maps of the convention space as well as all of the schedules and descriptions for the various sessions. If the convention you are attending posts speaker handouts for the sessions, I would also suggest that you download those, as well. Even if it’s a session you don’t think you’ll attend, some of those handouts will have resources listed that you might want to reference. Occasionally, I’ve changed my mind on which session I’m going to attend based on those handouts.
Now to decide what your ‘personal’ schedule will look like. If you are attending with your spouse and/or your older children, everyone should look at the schedules and workshop descriptions and decide what interests them the most. How do you decide? I like to start with marking every session that sounds interesting or sounds like something that I might need to hear. That may mean that at first, I’m going to have marks by 5 different workshops that are given at the same time. After you’ve each had a chance to go through all of the sessions at least once, sit down with your spouse and older children and talk about what sessions everyone wants to go to. One of your children might have been watching YouTube videos by one of the conference speakers and really enjoys hearing him or her. Or maybe that session you are really considering right after lunch on Friday is a speaker your spouse heard last year and spoke in a monotone the entire time…so maybe that’s not a good one for you to attend at that time. If your conference records the sessions, you might decide that it might be better to purchase breakout session A so you can attend breakout session B in person. While making out a tentative schedule is wonderful, be flexible with it! You might find that one of the speakers is very engaging and you want to hear all of his or her sessions. On the flip side, you might realize that a speaker you thought you wanted to hear all of their sessions just isn’t that interesting to you. Something to remember: There will be some sessions and some speakers that just are NOT for YOU! If a particular session or a particular speaker doesn’t resonate with you, that’s fine! Just like there are so many different approaches to teaching history, and they don’t all ‘fit,’ neither will all of the sessions and speakers. If you get into a session and need to quietly leave because it’s not a good fit, that’s fine – just do it quietly 🤫
Now that you an idea of the sessions that you want to attend, you need to think about making the most of the time you’ll spend in the vendor hall. I like to start with a spreadsheet shopping list. Start by listing the curricula you know you are going to use, and then add any known supplemental books and supplies for each curriculum you’ve listed. Next, add in any materials that you are interested in checking out while you are at the conference. Now it’s time to do ‘price checks’ on those materials. Have a column for each of the online retailers that you might purchase from and heck the websites for each of the items on your ‘shopping list’ and note the prices on the spreadsheet. (I would typically have 3 or 4 sites I would use when checking for curricula.). Now when you are browsing the vendor hall, you’ll know if the prices you are seeing are ‘bargains’ or not. Don’t forget to check on your science materials as well as art supplies! It’s not uncommon to have vendors at the conference with “kits” that include the supplies you need for a specific science curriculum. Having a list of what supplies come in various kits you priced online will help you know if you are making an apples to apples comparison. Side note – Amazon prices might fluctuate, so if it looks like they are running a really good sale on a particular book, do something to note that you might want to check that price again the week of the conference.
It’s time to look at the conference schedule again! Check the schedule to see when you want to visit the vendor hall. You’ll probably want to visit it multiple times so that you don’t get overwhelmed, and while one of those visits might be late in the conference, don’t make the mistake of thinking you’ll knock out all of your shopping during the last hour or two that the vendor hall is open. If you do that, don’t be surprised if the vendor with the best deal is already sold out of that grammar book you want to use and the science supply booth doesn’t have any more test tubes.
Some homeschool conferences have “special” events or offer “extra” services that you might also want to include on your schedule. At some conferences, these “extras” take an additional ticket. They might be offering a special concert or a dinner or luncheon that you will need to purchase tickets for either during or after registering for the conference. Other conferences will have special activities and events that are already included in your registration. They might have a talent show or a choral concert given by homeschool students one evening. There might also be special activities for children or teens with a different schedule. I’ve attended conferences where there were evening events for the teens ranging from a dance to game nights. If you are attending a larger state or regional conference, check to see if they are having ‘region specific’ gatherings. There might also be special gatherings for homeschoolers that fit into certain categories: single parents; working parents; grandparents; homeschooling children with special needs, etc. Some conferences even have a mentoring table that you may or may not have to reserve a time slot. If any of these things are of interest, build them into your schedule for the weekend.
Now for the most important thing to put on your schedule – REST! It’s going to be a busy weekend, and you might already feel overwhelmed just thinking about it. Look at your schedule and decide on a time each day of the conference when you can decompress. You’ll have a lot of information to digest and a lot of items you saw in the vendor hall that you want to think about, but you need to take some time to relax and refresh before you have to do it again. Maybe you need to take some time at lunch to gather your thoughts before going to the afternoon sessions – do it. Our family would typically go out to eat dinner somewhere and chat about whatever we learned or saw that day, and maybe talked about changing which sessions we were going to attend the next day, and then when we got home or back to the hotel, we were able to get to sleep because we built in that time to decompress.
If possible, build in some time to rest BEFORE the conference. I know it’s not always possible to lighten your schedule on the days leading up to the conference, but if you can, it’ll help. If nothing else, try to make the night before and the morning of the first day a little more ‘low key’ than normal. Your conference experience can go more smoothly if you take some time ahead of time and do some planning and get a little rest.