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Should Christians Attend Secular Homeschool Conferences?

by Beverly S. Krueger

I've heard non-Christians refuse to attend a Christian homeschool conference because too much of the material would be Christian oriented and they wouldn't get their money's worth. I've heard Christians express the idea that attendance at a secular homeschool conference would bring a potential taint into their Christian homes. Both these viewpoints come from the same fundamental belief that that which is other is inherently bad and therefore can have absolutely no value to me.

I cannot address this from a non-Christian's perspective, so I'll leave that for someone else to do. I can speak from a Christian perspective.

As a Christian I believe it when the Bible says, "for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust." Matthew 5:45 This section of scripture is specifically directed at teaching us to love our enemies. Some might say that loving our enemies has nothing to do with absorbing their educational philosophies. Perhaps, but attendance at a secular homeschool conference isn't really about absorbing in toto the educational philosophies presented. Part of the annotation for Matthew 5:45 in James Burton Coffman Commentaries reads, "Christ here enunciated a new and thrilling principle to take the place of the old proverb that 'One rotten apple will spoil a barrel of good apples!' That is, 'One good apple can heal a barrel of rotten apples!'"

Man's wisdom says don't intermingle the good with the bad. The bad will spoil the good. But God's wisdom says, while you were yet one of those rotten apples, I died for you. If He can transform your life from bad to good, He can keep the rot from creeping back into your life. It's a faith walk. Christ commanded us to go into all the world. I believe in life style evangelism. I'll never have a non-Christian friend ask me about the Lord, if I never have non-Christian friends.

Non-Christians reading this are probably thoroughly incensed by now that I would compare them to rotten apples. The point to remember here is that we're all apples. The rottenness comes from sin in our lives, Christian or non-Christian. Whether that manifests itself in stealing and murdering (crimes we legislate against) or in envy and bitterness (crimes of the heart that destroy our relationships), we all have rottenness in our lives. Christ died to save us from that rottenness. To be born again means to have your spirit reborn fresh clean and new. A fresh start but with a difference, God promises to help us keep the rottenness out and to clean us up when ever we turn from sin.

God loves everyone, and He sends blessings to all people. There is nothing stopping Him from using a non-Christian to teach a Christian something important about himself. Truth is truth, whether it comes from a Christian's lips or a non-Christian's lips. In the Old Testament we read how God often chose other, non-believing nations to deliver a message of rebuke to the people of Israel when they were straying from His laws. Is an apple any more sweet if the person telling you it is sweet is a Christian? Is a method for helping your child discover the joys of math any less exciting because a non-Christian has told you about it?

Let's get back to the main point - the benefits of attending a secular conference for Christian homeschoolers. I attended the HomeSchool Association of California conference last year. This was my first secular conference, and really my first opportunity to attend a secular conference. I learned a great deal, not half of which were the possibilities to create a family oriented conference that allowed the whole family to attend. Christian homeschoolers talk about being family oriented, but frankly most of their conferences specifically request that you not bring children other than nursing babies and older teens. Let me tell you more of the positive things I learned and experienced at this conference.

One of the keynote speakers for the conference was Jane Healy. Healy has written Your Child's Growing Mind: A Guide to Learning and Brain Development from Birth to Adolescence; Endangered Minds: Why Children Don't Think and What We Can Do About It, and Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children's Minds--and What We Can Do About It. She spoke on what it means for our children to be living in an age where computers and other electronic gadgets dominate their lives. In her session on Your Growing Child's Mind, she shared strategies for helping our children learn from her own research in brain development. Great stuff that is not typical of a Christian homeschool conference. Christian conferences tend to focus on Christian parenting.

This particular conference is definitely presented from an unschooling perspective. It was rather nice to be in a setting where unschoolers didn't feel the need to defend their choices --unschoolers with their hair down, so to speak. Having been on the receiving end of over the top unschooling propaganda (I chose those words specifically because that's what it was), it was fascinating to see an unschooling conference dominated by regular people. Yes, there were those attending who looked like ancient hippies, but most of the people attending and presenting workshops looked like every day, regular people. The running joke for the conference was that the unschooling parents of many of the homeschool teen graduates at the conference had all felt the need to purchase sets of math wrap-ups. Math wrap-ups are supposed to be a fun way to learn your math facts. The fact that the graduates all felt that math wrap-ups were one of the more useless items they'd met along their homeschooling path was a complete surprise to the parents. One parent responded by exclaiming that she thought her son had loved those. Why hadn't he said he didn't like them? He'd played with the math wrap-ups to please his Mom. It's funny how those other people, that we don't quite understand or can't quite grasp what motivates them, can turn out to be regular people. Despite the mantra about letting kids learn when they want to learn, unschoolers actually go out and by math wrap-ups to provide their children a fun way to learn their math facts because they have a niggling worry that they might never get interested in math facts. Niggling worries are a shared homeschool experience no matter what method you choose. A revelation that turns some of that otherness to sameness.

One of the new things I learned at this conference was all about 'living in community'. I had never heard of 'living in community' until I had a chat with a woman whose family's goal was to 'live in community'. Living in community means to purchase a home in a 'community' which has shared community spaces. That can include a kitchen and dining space, wood shops, craft shops, commons, and gardens. The point is to share your lives with your neighbors. That can mean shared child care to shared meals. I have heard of communes, and my initial reaction to the concept of 'living in community' might have been that they were glorified communes. But the woman telling me about this didn't look like she was planning the life of free love and drugs that I associate with 60's era communes. She was in fact a sweet Christian woman who wanted to live amongst those who would help her attain a lifestyle of simplicity and sharing. In some ways it is very much like living on a military installation. I didn't know I'd already tried 'living in community'.

I attended excellent workshops that dealt with straight academics. The kind of workshops that make eclectic homeschoolers sing. The writing workshop given by Richard Prystowsky was excellent. I imagine his workshop on writing for the teens was also top notch. His wasn't a discussion of which curriculum to buy, but how to go about helping your child learn to write well. All die hard Saxon math lovers should be required to attend at least one of Pam Sorooshian's math workshops. She will change your whole way of looking at what is important in math and how to go about ensuring your children are math literate. Math literacy is not something she finds a whole lot of in the college economics classes she teaches.

The best nugget of gold I picked up came during a panel workshop in which I participated. One of my fellow panelist's, Carol Narigon, (incidentally a reviewer here at EHO) said something in her opening statement that really resonated with me. She said the most important thing for a homeschooling parent to do was to be present with their child. When they ask you a question, really listen to it and respond fully. Don't let the distractions that are so typical of daily life interfere with your capacity to give your child your undivided attention when they need it. Perhaps that resonates with me because I'm prone to nodding my head and saying, "Uh huh," as my child relates some exciting story or reads me the poem they've just written. My kids need me. Good stuff.

Before I close, I should give a few caveats. This is something that I think all conference sponsors need to consider. Tell your speakers that your conference attracts a diverse population and to please take that into consideration when they speak. I don't mind speakers sharing their opinions. I do mind when they crack jokes at the expense of conservatives and expect the crowd to be universally amused as if all present are of one mind. We weren't all of one mind at the HSC conference, and I could have done without the one sided jabs by one of the keynote speakers. This holds equally true for Christian conferences where speakers need to be warned not to speak disparagingly of non-Christians or one brand of Christianity as opposed to another or to disparage liberals. We shouldn't be in the business of offending anyone. I attended a non-homeschool conference workshop on evangelizing children and had to listen to a woman explain her doubts that anyone of my beliefs would be interested in reaching children for Christ. Ignorance is often ugly. The workshop leader knew me and my denominational affiliation. He chose not to correct her. It's that whole otherness thing once again. Somehow it's okay to disparage that which we consider other especially if we have a sense of group safety to encourage us.

The HSC conference included conference workshops for children and teens. Two teen workshops covered teen sexuality, one for ages 13-15, the other for 16 and older. Part of the description for both workshops: "Join other teens for this discussion on sexual pleasure, safety and finding your way through the confusion and excitement of sexuality." That's not quite the courting or abstinence based teaching promoted at most Christian homeschooling conferences. These, along with two classes on Tai Chi for teens, were the only classes that seemed questionable to me. However, since most classes are taught by non-Christians, it is possible that ideas contrary to your own teachings may be presented to your children. How much this concerns you will depend on what you feel is appropriate for your children. My own teens would unabashedly promote abstinence. (I should note that some of the homeschool graduates who participated in the sexuality workshop did tell teens in the audience that they didn't need to be messing around with sex at their age.) Generally the kids had several activities to choose from, so it would be easy to skip a workshop. I don't personally believe in insulating children from opposing ideas, but if you have a particularly impressionable child you may want to consider whether bringing him would be best put off until he is older.

The curriculum fair was a lot smaller than you would expect for the number of people in attendance. I attribute that to the fact that the HSC conference is considered an unschooling conference. You could buy some standard curriculum, but most of the resource providers sold non-textbook type items. Of course, I enjoyed this immensely, but those wishing to pick up next year's Bob Jones or ABeka would be disappointed. Even though it was smaller than I had hoped, there were lots of things I had never seen or heard about available. I'm the woman who has said she never met a math manipulative she didn't want to buy, so I had great fun.

On the whole, attending the HSC conference was a good experience. I learned things, got convicted of things, met interesting new people, and got to look at new resources. I encourage all Christians to give the closest secular homeschool conference a try. They may be surprised to find that the other side of homeschooling isn't quite so other as they thought.

To learn more about the 2003 13th Annual Home = Education Conference sponsored by the HomeSchool Association of California, August 15-17 at the Radisson Hotel in Sacramento, California, please visit the HSC Conference website.

Copyright ©  2003 Eclectic Homeschool Association

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