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Planning a home education conference? Some essential tips...

by Beverley Paine

Before you even begin to get into the planning stages of a conference, make sure you work out exactly WHY you want one in the first place.

Know your purpose and build your conference and the experience for your attendees around this. Be clear about your intention and what you want to achieve. It may help to narrow your objectives to one, or a couple rather than aim to cover as much as possible, appeal to everyone's possible needs. A successful focused conference will be remembered in a positive light.

It is important to identify and meet the needs of your audience when planning a conference. The National Home Education Conferences in 2007 aimed to raise the profile of home education across Australia in the non-homeschooling community. I believe this goal was achieved and that, in this respect, the conferences were successful. However, I doubt that many of the homeschoolers who attended were all that concerned with this goal. Most were looking for information, answers or resources.

It pays to be clear about your goals and outcomes and do ONE thing well, rather than trying to be all things to all people.

The National Home Education Conferences, in my opinion, grew too ambitious, trying to meet too many needs. This resulted in the conflict between the conference organisers, particularly regarding budgeting matters. As a series of conferences held in capital cities and major regional areas over a period of 3 months it required considerable liaison and cooperation of dozens of volunteers and groups. The level of committment required to meet the tasks and workload involved in this ambitious project was intense and led to volunteer fatigue - it is not surprising that nothing on this scale has been achieved since.

It is essential all volunteers understand the objectives and nature of work required to stage the conference.

Be very clear about the purpose and scope before you get too far into the planning process. Make sure everyone who comes on board supports your goals and works towards them, doesn't create new goals, muddy the waters, or tries to change course half way through. This is simply business common sense. But it's amazing how often it's not applied.

If this is your first venture into organising a home education conference, start small and simple.

Had the effort expended on the National Home Education Conferences in 2007 been focused on producing a single conference held in one capital city it may have been the first of what could've become an annual event. The expertise gleaned would have been invaluable to grow subsequent conferences and train volunteers, and may have been held in different locations each year, thus ensuring home educators across Australia get the chance to participate at some stage.

It takes a lot of work to host a conference. From my experience, I believe the following organisation and management considerations to be the minimum:

There would be a central collective of at least four people, preferably more, who head up small groups of volunteers responsible for managing distinct organisational aspects of the conference. Although in some cases one person can easily carry out tasks it is best to have at least two - not only in case someone falls ill or is unable to follow through, but also for training purposes for future events. The groups of volunteers report and liaise with the central collective who collate the information and manage the schedule of tasks, ensuring that nothing is missed. This team needs to be supportive of each others' actions.

It is vital that the workload is spread and not centralised.

In order to attract and hold volunteers there would need to be a clear outline of ALL the work involved, separated into small and easily achievable tasks that can be delegated and accepted with confidence by individual volunteers.

This outline, and conference plan, needs to be determined and finalised before any venues are booked or publicity about the conference (other than a call for volunteers) is distributed. This would also include a budget that has allowance for unexpected expenses (I suggest 10% - 20% surplus over estimated costs should be sufficient).

For large or significant events start planning 6-12 months before the event.

Start planning at least six months before booking speakers, workshop presenters and home education suppliers, although all can be approached to check interest and costs.

I personally would avoid engaging overseas speakers, mainly because we have a wealth of expertise and talent in Australia to meet that need. If an overseas identity is going to be in Australia at a particular time and offers their services, by all means, capitalise on that, but paying for airfares incurs a considerable cost that will need to be passed onto the attendees, which could reduce the potential overall number of people participating.

A large positive at any conference or seminar I have attended is the ability to connect with other homeschoolers . There needs to be adequate time for home educators to mingle and a much greater effort put into anything that can help them build homeschooling community and local networks. See suggestions below. Make sure the schedule allows for this.

The ability to build connections is what participants positively remember most about a conference.

Major home educating personalities are NOT the drawcard many organisers think they will be. Although participants will admit that they find the talks either challenged or confirmed their homeschooling beliefs and practices, and recognise the value of speakers, it isn't what draws them to the conference in the first place.

I believe it is the scope and range of smaller workshops that attracts people . These answer participants' specific questions and present an opportunity for them to share their stories, an important aspect of building a sense of belonging in our home educating community and confidence in their home educating practice.

Home educators are also keen to extend and expand their knowledge and skills as homeschooling parents. In my experience parents want 'nuts and bolts' information; how to solve familiar problems like providing social opportunities; how to negotiate the ‘registration' aspect; how to feel confident that their children were progressing and doing well. The real basics that come up time and again on home educating groups and forums.

Consider holding a home education expo instead of a conference.

Vendors are a major attractant to conferences. In fact, many participants would be happy to attend an expo where the suppliers are able to share how to use their materials and programs in a workshop style environment. Throw in a questions from the floor answered by an experienced panel of home educators and an introduction session and you have an event that is on target to meet the needs of new and existing home educating families.

The advantage of holding an expo is that the cost to participants can be kept low as suppliers pay for the privilege of selling and promoting their products and services: the event becomes a vehicle for advertising for them. Don't make the cost to be there too high: keep it modest and affordable and attractive for vendors.

Speakers : need to add to the sum of knowledge in the homeschooling community. They need to be responsive to undercurrents in homeschooling land. Home educators that regularly volunteer their time to answer questions in online groups, or are particularly active in their region, or who are very familiar with a particular aspect of home education or an approach, make great speakers. Ask for recommendations from home educating parents in online groups.

It is good to get someone to speak about the legal aspects of home education. This is a relevant theme in the home educating community. It always comes up in panel discussions.

Child care provision at the event is essential. Unsupervised children is not acceptable. Parents may say they will supervise their children but in reality this is hard to achieve. The other alternative is to make the event a child-free zone (with the exception of babies). At a few of the events I've attended there was damage to furniture and property at the venue. Children moving around, being children, can be disruptive to both presenters and attendees during sessions. Extra suitable volunteers may need to be found to organise sessions for the children. Charge extra to cover costs of materials consumed during these sessions and obtain definite numbers (using a booking service) to help plan.

Some events cater for the event - this can be an extra fundraiser to help pay for the venue, keeping attendees fees down. However check with the venue beforehand regarding food. Also consider the needs of workshop presenters and vendors if you have an expo or trade fair. Walking around with cuppas works for the participants but not for the vendors. Catering can be fraught with issues too - people expect food that meets their needs, including dietary exclusions. A cheaper and simpler option is to ask people to bring their own food and to have a designated space for eating away from the workshop and trade fair zones.

A well attended registration desk is a must. Try to aim to have at least two volunteers active at the desk at peak periods. One volunteer can remain throughout the conference as a 'go to' person for information. To stop the problem of people getting in for free , which does happen, no one should be able to get past the registration desk without wearing a big, bold name badge. The desk needs to have someone there all day, just in case people arrive late, etc. Volunteers who are happy to front up to people not wearing badges and ask why not is essential. This is not being rude - it's being professional.

It has been suggested to me that access to a Trade Fair event be free . It's probably worth thinking about, although I personally think it is part of the whole package and a major attraction. Some homeschoolers think it's cheeky to pay to go shopping, but my guess is they probably go to events like the Caravan and Camping Show, or wander around the trade stalls at the Royal Show – having paid an entry fee! It's common place to pay entrance to trade fairs without workshops or speakers and we shouldn't pander to the miserly among us. Plus, as one vendor pointed out, attending a trade fair can save many dollars on postage.

Tea and coffee should be gold coin donation. No need for biscuits. Again, where possible try to have the workshop and trade fair zones food and drink free zones (water bottles the exception).

It helps to have a folder of prepared laminated A3 signs that can be quickly taped or blutacked to walls or doors offering directions, etc.

If you are organising a large event with a few workshop presenters or speakers considering hosting a small get together before or after the conference or trade fair. This is a great way to get to know each other. Canvas interest and pre-sell dinner tickets to a restaurant meal for the organisers, volunteers, speakers, workshop presenters and vendors for an after-conference relaxing dinner and debrief. This is a valuable opportunity to get feedback.

Of course, always have feedback forms printed up and hand them out as people come in the door.

During the final presentation that concludes the day, remember to thank the presenters, vendors, participants and volunteers. It is a nice gesture to have a small gift or gift basker or voucher to present to key volunteers, as well as main speakers to think them for their time. This builds goodwill.

Workshop suggestions.

If you present a list of interesting topics to people you'd like to speak or offer workshops it might be easier to entice them... Also check with local organisations/associations for likely candidates for offering workshops. Is there anyone who regularly writes for local/regional newsletters/magazines, or who is a constant replier to questions on online forums? You can invite these people to offer workshops. This is a list of ideas I've collected over the years based on my experience and feedback:

  • Resources - what are they, where to get them, how do you know what are the best resources to use
  • Networking - making the most of building homeschooling community; how to run a group, orgnaise a newsletter, organise excursions, camps, etc
  • Homeschooling and Politics - where are we and where can we go from here? Getting politically active and how to support a political grass roots movement... benefits and disadvantages... the funding question - should homeschoolers be funded as in NZ
  • Legal Issues - The Bottom Line - what do we HAVE to comply with in every state - can we have a lawyer run this one please!!!
  • FAQ workshop - this is the place to ask your questions. Limit of five minutes per question - answered by a panel (up to three people perhaps).
  • Ideas for Teaching Science at Home, Ideas for Teaching Maths at Home, Ideas for Teaching Music at Home - that is - subject specific workshops
  • Debunking Assumptions about Education - how learning REALLY happens, in or out of schools!
  • Learning Styles
  • Brain Gym and other accelerated learning techniques
  • How to Use Your Local Library
  • Kids Who Care - developing a service rich tradition in a 'me' centred society
  • Using the Internet as a Homeschooling Resource - should I homeschooling online, dealing with internet and forum addiction, etc
  • Teaching several age groups at once - homeschooling large families
  • Conquering the Homeschool Curriculum Confusion - an Overview of Approaches and Methodologies
  • Embedding Life Skills in your homeschool curriculum - equipping your child for the real world
  • Help, I'm a Failure! How evaluation and recording can enhance learning experiences, not judge them. The value of evaluation. Recording and evaluation made easy and effective.
  • Homeschooling and distance education providers. Is correspondence school learning at home? Learning from each other...
  • Single parent homeschooling - still possible with workplace and social security changes?
  • Blended families and homeschooling - when one partner rejects homeschooling - personal experiences, advice, tips, etc.
  • Homeschooling the Grandkids....
  • Teen Workshop for Teens - any topics teens can think of... run by teens for teens.
  • Focus on ADHD
  • Focus on Autism Spectrum
  • What is Giftedness - Homeschooling Gifted Children
  • The Travelling Homeschool - how to homeschool on the road
  • When Homeschooling Ends - getting back to school, or when the kids grow up - learning to live without homeschooling in your life!
  • Dealing with Doubts and Concerns - answering other people's questions and objections to homeschooling, w hat do I say to my mother-in-law? Can my child get into college? What about the truant officer coming to my door? This workshop will deal with these and other issues you may have. Bring your questions.  
  • HELP! Homeschooling through a family crisis
  • Using Lapbooks - what are they and how do they enhance homeschooling
  • Unit Studies - an Eclectic Approach to homeschooling
  • Volunteering in your community - how to get involved with your children.

Networking Help Suggestions

  • A pin up board with A6 slips of paper titled ‘wanted to make contact with other homeschoolers'
  • A sheet that people can add their name and details and contact information (could be mobile phone number so that other conference goers can immediately find someone who lives in the same district, etc – doesn't need to give identifying information)
  • free copies of the local or state newsletter to every conference participant
  • a sheet of coming homeschooling events and activities given to every participant

I have participated as audience, keynote speaker and workshop presenter at several conferences and seminars beginning in 1990. These include attending five of the National Home Education Conferences in 2007, conference in various cities - Adelaide (3), Brisbane (2), Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast, Airlie Beach, Sydney (1), Perth (2) as well as organising two Homeschooling Expos (1999, 2000). In addition I have run workshops/seminars on homeschooling, natural learning, including a short TAFE course.

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Beverley Paine with her children, and their home educated children, relaxing at home.

Together with the support of my family, my aim is to help parents educate their children in stress-free, nurturing environments. In addition to building and maintaing this website, I continue to create and manage local and national home educating networks, help to organise conferences and camps, as well as write for, edit and produce newsletters, resource directories and magazines. I am an active supporter of national, state, regional and local home education groups.

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