Amy Sparkman was a teacher in private school for 12 years and has been successfully homeschooling her sons for the past 18 years, along with tutoring, teaching writing to other home school groups, and directing camps when the boys were younger. She talks about why she chose homeschooling, how her sons' lives were enriched, how the Bible helps, as well as answers the question about socialization.
How did you decide to home school?
I was led by a strong conviction that my kids are individuals and that I wanted them to thrive as individuals, growing at their own pace, learning what they needed, and following their interests in their own way.
Right from the get-go, my eldest son focused for long periods of time on whatever he was doing. He was a great observer and a thinker long before he could speak. When he turned two, I started to look around at the schooling options, and what I found was discouraging because of the standard pattern of moving children from one activity to another every 20-30 minutes and the sensory overload. I couldn't bring myself to force my son to change his wonderful qualities in order to conform to a typical classroom. It seemed like I would be forcing a round peg into a square hole. I just couldn't do it!
So in addition to doing our own thing, we joined a weekly library read-aloud group, took a Mom-and-child Kindermusik class, and had an informal playgroup that met at different playgrounds or parks. I had been a private school teacher for a dozen years, and I felt comfortable guiding him to learn new concepts and skills. I loved the fact that he was able to guide me in terms of how he learned best. Then a girlfriend who was serving on her local school board decided to join me. And we never looked back. Both of those boys are now seniors in college, graduating in May.
What have you learned about teaching or learning that has made your experience so successful?
The children are able to be themselves and to learn in their own unique way. I see myself as a student, too. I had to stop judging each day by the way I had gone to school – stop measuring how much we accomplished or worrying over how many different activities we did each day or each week. The more I was able to drop false expectations and limitations, the more freeing the experience was and the more the kids were delightfully individual.
The reality of homeschooling is that you are NOT trying to duplicate school in your home. You're carving your own educational path. I've been doing this now for 18 years and I still learn something new every day – mostly about how to get out of my own way so that I can free up my son (the youngest, who is 16) to learn in the way that's just right for him, which is quite different from either of his two older brothers – one who is a senior at Tufts and the other who is at Boston University. Each child found a niche along the way that guided him in his higher learning.
It's been an evolving sense of what's right for each child. How I work that out is a day-by-day prayerful experience. I want to do what's best for my children. There's no way I would ever feel confident taking ownership for their education. It has to be God-directed, or it will be constantly limited. I don't want to be the only source of their learning, so when I'm thinking about how to fill this need or teach this body of information, I'm constantly opening up my thought to different options, such as finding a science center to help teach the sciences or creating a musical theatre group. The needs change according to age and interest.
I have found it's important to set goals, continually evaluate whether or not its right to continue to home school, turn everyday life into learning experience, build a community, network for opportunties, be creative and open in teaching knowledge and styles, and maintain records for higher educational purposes.
Often, I prayed to let go of my own agenda! There were days when we seemed to accomplish too little that would measure up to "school" in the traditional sense. But when I stopped comparing our days to my recollection of my own schooling and my years of teaching; when I kept at the forefront of my thought the fact that homeschooling (to me) is about creating your own educational path through a growing love for learning that best suits the individual – that's when our days together felt wonderful. The boys and I found our own rhythm and flow to each day, and no two were the same. The biggest challenge, time and again, was my fear or concern that something wasn't "measuring up" to some vague standard out there in the real world.
What niches did they find?
My older son has developed a business making remote control sailboats and has become a pilot. My middle son loved photography, but he's set his camera aside for right now and has taken up crew, rowing for BU. Both are majoring in English. My youngest son loved adventuring outdoors, so he went to an experienced-based school for a year where he mountain-biked, kayaked, skied, went to Patagonia to climb, and had an awesome experience. All three of my kids have built surfboards. All play musical instruments. All are life-long learners, growing at their own rate.
How have you used the Bible?
The Bible features largely in how we approach challenges, which was as important to me as any academics. I wanted them to realize that we're not just going to Sunday school on Sunday. Their relationship with God is a life-time commitment. We read the Bible every day and turn to Bible stories to help look at things in a different way, attack challenges, work together, or maintain peace and order.
My pet bible story is the one of Jesus, the Pharisees and scribes, and the adulterous woman. If there's a dispute among them, I remind the kids of the story. Then I ask them, "What are you going to do with adulterous woman? Are you going to stone her? Are you perfectly innocent here?" They would gulp, and we'd talk about the teasing or whatever was going on, talking about how we want to treat each other.
It's the basics from the Bible that come to life the most with kids. It's not some esoteric idea. I find myself working with the Commandments, the Beatitudes, and the Golden Rule. A lot of times, we sing grace, including Pslam 139 – Whither shall I go from thy spirit (check). We love the 23rd Psalm. As the kids have grown, all of their needs have been met. These have been real standbys in our experience as we discuss our purpose, why we home school, and how we can see and take advantage of the opportunity and adventure that's always there.
A common question for homeschoolers is, "Are they getting enough social interaction?" How would you answer that?
The social side of school sometimes feels appealing – to have so many friends. But instead of having 30 or 100 classmates they know, homeschoolers have a handful of friends who are their own age and others who are contemporary but are not same age. These friends become invaluable.
If it weren't for this one mentor, my eldest son wouldn't be flying. This friend of ours took my sons for a week and taught them how to fly. If it weren't for another mentor, my middle son wouldn't have gone to the SALT Institute in Maine. He received tremendous support from an elderly man and learned what would have taken him three years on school to learn. The study of life and history my son gained from this man's experience was very rich, so rich that we could count it as sociology credit. You look at whole social side of child's development in a very different way. You can't ignore the richness of their experience.
The boys have gone through moments where they have wanted to go through school, usually in correlation to sports activities. But I'd say the majority of kids tell them, "Are you kidding me? You don't want any part of our side of the fence."
From my perspective as a seasoned parent, I know my boys aren't missing anything. I have helped them come to realize that the things they think they're missing are more superficial things (not to be ignored, but not to dwell on either), such as backwards day, prom, senior week. And we've always found a way to participate in sports. My two oldest found a community rowing club, and my youngest was passionate about soccer until he moved into mountain biking and climbing in high school.
I have never regretted home school for any of them. The ability to be who they are is a priceless gift, one I know they will grow to cherish more and more. They're very strong in their own identities because they haven't been up against all the peer pressure that others face in regular schools.
And with two boys in college and one almost there, how do you feel?
I had all three boys home for Christmas. It was a very cherished time since my eldest will be moving on to do his own thing. It was a culmination to the home schooling experience. They were all here, happy together. The quality conversations, the learning, growing, kicking back, i-phones – all the richness in their lives that I beheld is what I had been looking for when I decided to home school. They want to travel and work together at some point. They have a global sense of the world. My two older boys are very well adjusted at college. If I could do it again I'd do it the same way.