Fellowship On Online Support Systems.
By Ann Zeise
Many homeschool parents and kids, isolated from other homeschool families or not, enjoy the fellowship on online support found through chats, message boards and email lists. Though the prevailing wisdom says to be careful about meeting folks offline that you meet online, often trust is built through months of exchanged help and confidences, and you want to meet each other. Through the over-10 years I’ve been online, I have often arranged “online bashes” or parties large and meetings small so that friends from an online forum can have the chance to meet each other in a safe situation.
On August 18-20, 2000, I attended the Home=Education Conference in Sacramento. I’ve arranged to have a room. (#300, I believe… the one with the big table in it, just to the right off the courtyard.) Here’s some photos of the Online Buddies Lunch in 1999. People who participate in the A to Z community were there, as well as those from AOL, HSC, Homefires and the NHEN and a couple of the usenet forums. We had a great time.
Here are some tips for arranging such gatherings for homeschool buddies in your region.
First, drum up the necessary enthusiasm for at least some of the members to meet. If there is no desire, forget about it for now. But if even a handful want to meet, figure out when and where would be a good time and place in general. For homeschoolers, it makes sense to meet during a big conference or convention that many would like to attend anyway. I held my first “bash” for homeschoolers about 4-5 years ago. About 6 people showed up. Last year we packed an even bigger room and still had to send someone out for more chairs. 45-50 people came and went during the hour and a half session. Year 1 people were asking me what a modem was. Last year they all had websites. I love to tease Barbara David who said to me that “Homeschoolers aren’t interested in online. There’s no market for a conference session about online.”
Arrange with the conference coordinator for a room large enough to hold your group, and for publicity in the conference program and pre-publicity. May I suggest you coordinate with several online homeschooling communities and hold a general “Online Buddies” bash, and not just one for your community, unless it is very large. I do insist that it be just for homeschool communities, and not every possible online forum out there. You can have “breakouts” for people in the same groups, or arrange for them sit at the same tables.
Remind everyone time and time again that the meeting will be taking place, when and where. Remind them to bring photographs of their families, their home, and the room where they compute. Second thought, forget the messy room where *I* compute! It’s up to you whether or not to allow people to bring things to sell. I’d rather that it be kept low-key, and uncommercial.
Make name tags and distribute them at the beginning of the conference. This will allow friends to find friends even before your party. I’ve created a name tag template for you. It will undoubtably need to be modified for your printer, page layout program, fonts, and the information you want to have on it about your event. If you use tear-apart name tag stationary, it will also need to be modified to fit the brand you choose. Please feel free to change it. Add color if you have a color printer. This will print on one page if you modify you page settings to 80%.
Bring a poster to the conference and place it near registration for the conference (not the hotel). Make sure you have permission to do this, so no one will take it down. Make it bright and bold and alluring. Attach a bag with the name tags to it, so people can grab them or get an extra. Also have a sign-in sheet attached with categories for name, “handle” and which hotel room they are in so friends can find friends. Bring your own thumb tacks, scotch and masking tape, and do not depend on others to have these things for you. Check back to your posters often to make sure no one has “borrowed” your thumb tacks to post another announcement on top of yours! (Helps to have unusual tacks.)
Arrange with the coordinator to have the “bash” announced several times during the conference, at appropriate times when people are about to leave for new sessions. Have 3 x 5 cards ready to give to them, so all they’ll need to do is read from the card. “We wish to remind you that there will be a casual meeting for those who participate in homeschool chats, message boards, and email lists at [time] in room number [whatever].”
I hold the Online Buddies Sacramento bash during the lunch hour and encourage people to bring their homemade or hotel bought meal to the gathering. I suppose you could cater a lunch, but this keeps the costs down, and you don’t have to worry about special dietary needs. I have the theory that those who eat together, bond together. Seems to work.
Have a little “mixer” planned to help get people talking. You’ll be surprised how often the most loquacious person in your forum, is often the shyest person in a live group. Often those who love to flame it out online, when they meet in person, talk a bit, find they have a common ground, making online life a lot smoother after the party. Start with a round of introductions. Have people tell what their online “handle” or “alias” or “screen name” is, their real name (if they like) and what forums they participate actively in. If they are an author, have a product or a website, I usually encourage them to briefly tell what they are. Someone will be tempted to go off on a tangent, so say right at first that no one gets more than 15 seconds. Everyone will get the chance to move around and meet people with similar interests after introductions. Hold your watch up like you are really timing everyone.
Have a sign-in sheet, and have people write down their real names, online names, websites and email addresses. You’ll want to email them afterwards and thank them for coming. Have them put a check next to their listing if they’d like to be informed from time to time about what’s happening within your common online communities, and to be invited to any yet unplanned online bashes for online homeschoolers. Get permission to put the list up on your website, if you have one. Anyone NOT wanting to have their email on a website or distributed to the whole group later should have the option to be excluded. Often people make new friends from other communities, and rather than spend a great deal of time trying to exchange email addresses, posting the sign-in list somewhere online lets everyone find anyone they want.
Do send out an email afterwards and thank everyone for coming. Ask for feedback and try to incorporate the suggestions in the next bash you throw.