Breanna Walsh is my darling cousin. We were born just 6 months apart, grew up together, and shared a love of Barbies, baseball caps, and pretend-play (we invented our own club, in which we were “orphans” and had to live in an “abandoned” boat– aka her parents’ pontoon.)
We have lived on opposite coasts– she on the West, I on the East– for nearly a decade now, and when she came to town for a visit a few weeks ago, we finally had a chance to catch up.
She told me about her blended homeschooling program and how she fell in love with Permaculture, and I was so impressed with her simple and easy-going approach to life and raising her big family, as well as her personal balance, wisdom, and joyfully warm spirit, that I asked her to share her story here, with our community of women.
This is my first written interview for Project:Women (done via email) and I’m thrilled to share a little bit of this wonderful, brilliant woman’s life with you all!
Tell us a little about yourself and how you feel about being a mom
Hi, I’m Breanna Walsh. My husband and I have lived on the beautiful Central Coast of California for almost ten years. I’m a stay-at-home-mom for our five wonderful kids, one more on the way, and I homeschool four of them. I absolutely thrive on learning new things and seeing new places, and I love sharing that with my kids!
My kids are absolutely the light of my life, and seeing where we are now, it’s surprising but motherhood was not love at first sight for me. I struggled with being a mom. I felt depressed and isolated by being at home, and guilty because I wasn’t the perfect mom I thought I should be. I went back to work, and that helped me get a little bit of normal back. Later, when we decided to have baby #3, I was ready to try being a SAHM again, but I knew I couldn’t repeat my past experience. This was my life, I was not going to feel trapped. I made the decision to embrace life with my kids in my own way; take them out to do things, and take this chance to really enjoy being with them.
It’s still been really hard at times, sometimes I still struggle with the stress and weight of it all. I have to refocus on the joy and not let myself fall back into the pattern of feeling trapped. I think it’s important to embrace the good and the bad, realize that coming through all the challenges has made me a stronger mom and woman. It has given me empathy for others, and perspective when dealing with the troubles that come up now. I love my life and I wouldn’t change a thing, past or present!
What made you decide to homeschool?
Our kids were in Florida public school in the beginning. It was a great school, but I was still concerned about the focus on testing, homework, and political agendas. I also noticed how my oldest was having trouble relating to her little brothers and sister. After spending five days at school and evenings on homework, she didn’t have any energy or interest in connecting with us. I was ready to accept all this as normal, and my second child started Kindergarten, but then a job change suddenly moved us back to California. I didn’t know much about the local schools and it was a really hard decision, but we settled on a hybrid charter school. It had a two-day school, three-day homeschool schedule.
Homeschooling was challenging, but the actual work we were doing was not that much different than the homework we were already used to. I was really busy trying to get everything moved in, so I appreciated the flexibility of homeschooling. It was also nice to get all our schooling done in the mornings while my kids were fresh, instead of at dinner time when we were all tired and cranky. I started to notice changes in my kids, too. They started to play together, talk, fight, and just care about each other. This was most obvious when we had baby #5. My older kids had been rather indifferent to their baby siblings before, but they were with her so much they grew to adore her. This was their baby!
It’s very important to us that our kids have a strong education, and sometimes I worry that I can’t keep up with it all, particularly during hard pregnancies. We still consider other options, we take it year by year assessing the family’s needs. So far, this has been the best schooling option for us, and a huge part of that is seeing my kids well rounded with time for study, fun, and family.
How have you approached homeschooling, and do you think there is a “better” way to homeschool? Also, please tell us a bit about your blended homeschool and “out-of-home” study.
I think every family has to make the best decisions for their child. Some families thrive on a tight schedule with set curriculum, and others choose interest-lead study where the child decides what subject and projects to do each day. We’re somewhere in between.
Our charter school is set up as an Independent Study program. The school teaches Science, History, Music, and Art on the two days that the children are on campus. The homeschool teacher is responsible for Math and Language Arts ( phonics, grammar, writing, spelling, etc.). The school supports the homeschooling side by reinforcing Math and LA in class, offering some extra curricular activities and clubs, and providing teaching support. The school teachers are paid extra and expected to make the lessons hands on, including experiments and activities into their school days. I love that my kids think going to school is fun!
At home I keep things on a flexible routine. Consistent enough that the kids know what to expect, but not so much that we can’t pick up and go to the beach if the mood strikes. We usually have all our studies done by 1pm, but on occasion someone will drag their feet all morning (sometimes me), and we will still be doing homeschool at bedtime. I use a lot of books from the school, which I get to “purchase” with curriculum dollars from the schools curriculum catalog. As well as some books that I have purchased on the side, such as Hooked on Phonics and religious curriculum. My kids have a set amount to accomplish each week and we divide that over the homeschooling days. I give them freedom to work within those limits, depending on their age. My fifth grader is very independent, so she decides which subjects and how much to do each day. My third and first graders need more guidance so they don’t try to put off everything until Friday!
What do you think are the biggest challenges in homeschooling?
I think choosing curriculum (or even not choosing it and having to make your own) is really challenging! It is difficult to know what fits your child’s learning style and your teaching style. This has gotten easier for me with experience, but planning the school year and curriculum still takes up the latter part of my summer break, and sometimes we have to make changes mid-year when something just isn’t working.
Another challenge is consistency. It is really easy to fall behind, and even the best school have to be careful that kids don’t have holes in their education. When I went to college I was tripped up by several of these holes, and that’s something I really try to watch with my kids. Our charter school requires learning logs and work samples to be turned in monthly, so this helps keep me on track. Most of the time we are right on schedule, but sometimes, like while I had morning sickness, we skipped lessons here and there. It’s not a big deal, and part of the beauty of homeschooling is the flexibility, but it’s really easy for these skip days to add up if your not checking your progress regularly.
How do you think the general view of homeschooling has changed?
I was homeschooled from 4th grade through high school, and I think the social opinion has changed drastically. Some circles still see it very negatively; I think they are mostly concerned about children being isolated or uneducated – and this is a real concern. However, the majority of homeschool parents are truly invested in their children’s education and their kids have proved to be curious and attentive students with bright futures. The common attitude has shifted toward viewing homeschooling with curiosity, acceptance, and even admiration. We have many local businesses that offer special classes during the day for homeschoolers in sports, dance, and music. The colleges have options for free classes and dual enrollment. The possibilities for partnering with the community are huge, and because of homeschooling’s good reputation it’s often as easy as getting a group of kids together and asking for a class or field trip.
How did you first learn about Permaculture, and what made you fall in love with it?
Oh, I could talk on this for hours! I have been drawn toward living more naturally for many years, I remember studying herbs as a kid and just being fascinated! After my kids were born I started to look at our health more seriously. I was having health issues that I wanted to heal, and I wanted to manage my fertility naturally. I really wanted to make sure my kids were healthy, and I knew that it would be so much easier for them if they were eating whole foods from the very start, not trying to get used to them later. We had been feeding our oldest kids regular american food -mac’n’cheese, chicken nuggets, white bread, so we slowly made changes to our foods and lifestyle. There are still a lot days when I serve dinner and everyone groans, but I knew I was on the right track when my son excitedly asked for brussels sprouts at the Farmers market, and exclaimed that they were “his favorite!”
My fascination with health and food lead me to a deep conviction that I should know how to grow something. We had a running joke in the house that the only thing I could keep alive was children. I was banned from touching the house plants, because I had killed so many. I felt like this was a life skill, and even if I didn’t keep a garden I wanted to know I could. I learned mostly through videos since I didn’t have a lot of time for reading (I love youtube!). I would put on gardening shows while I made dinner. I learned about all different methods of gardening, but I was really drawn toward holistic practices that were self-renewing. I watched and read more and more on Permaculture (short for permanent culture), and I loved that it was focused on working with nature not fighting it. It just made so much sense to me, and my practical side really loved the idea of designing so that nature does most of the work!
You took a six-month-long Permaculture course and became certified. Was it difficult to balance your family life and homeschooling with this personal education? How did you make it work?
When I found a local group offering a Permaculture Design Course I was really interested. The course is designed to teach the basics of designing systems to mimic or work with nature –everything from city planning to planning dinner. This was fascinating to me! But, life was busy, I was nervous about committing to anything new. The course ran from May through October; and I knew I would have a little extra time while I wasn’t homeschooling. We didn’t have plans for the summer, and I wasn’t pregnant or nursing. I realized life wasn’t going to get quieter than this, I should just go for it. It did take a little juggling, but my husband was very supportive once he realized it was important to me. When I was taking the course the kids would see me doing homework or going to classes. I think it was good for them to see that even grown-ups go to school, and learning is part of a rich, full life. I finished the course and received an internationally-recognized Permaculture Design Certificate.
Are you teaching your children permaculture as part of their schooling? How do you integrate this with your family life?
Everything I learn makes me a better mom, and teacher; I share my interests with them whenever I can. I don’t have a set time or lessons scheduled out. Kids ask a lot of questions and see everything, so I am teaching them all day, and with everything we do. I love to take them to our local farm to pick up our veggie box, and they are always welcome in the garden. More than once it really sucked to see my two-year-old had picked off all the unripe tiny green tomatoes (not even our chickens could eat them), but I just have to take a deep breath and remind myself that being a mom is about teaching. We don’t have to survive off this garden (thank goodness). Just like everything else, the kids slowly learn what to do. I have so many fun stories from sharing my interests with them. Like earlier this year when we discovered a bee swarm in the front garden, or when I took them to Monterey for the weekend to see the aquarium and explore, and when my littlest one made me laugh because I caught her nibbling the half-ripe strawberries off the plant -I guess I had only said not to pick them.
While being a mother to 5 beautiful children (and one more on the way!), and also homeschooling, do you feel that you can still make time for “just you”? What is your approach or philosophy towards this?
When I first became a mom, I thought it was selfish to take time away from them. It took me a while to realize that I was a better mom/wife when I took time for myself too. My husband took time for himself regularly, to meet up with friends or workout. He didn’t feel guilty, and he trusted me to take care of everything. I needed to do the same. Sometimes life wasn’t perfect, and just going to the store alone before rushing back to nurse the baby was the best I could do, but it’s still something.
These days I go out every week or so, sometimes I meet a friend, sometimes I grab coffee and read a magazine, or go shopping. Whatever I need to do to recharge. I also take time to work out. I love kick boxing, and have been able to continue it during this pregnancy with some modifications (no more jump front-kicks for a while!). My husband and I also like to go out together when we can, and we do date-nights at home several times a week after the kids go to bed. Sometimes it’s a full dinner at 9pm. Other times it’s simple, like ice cream and netflix, but it’s so important for us to take time to reconnect away from the kids.
Can you give any advice and/or resources to mothers who are considering homeschooling? And also for those interested in Permaculture!
I would highly recommend reaching out to a local homeschool group, or for the new moms, a local mom’s group. Connecting with other women is so important! Be wary of groups that are focused on complaining, or gossip. Look for women who are uplifting and supportive. You might have to look around a bit to find a group that is the right fit for you, but it’s absolutely worth it. They will also be able to point you to the best resources in your area.
Permaculture was started in Australia. The method is really growing popular here as more Americans become interested in holistic living, but not all areas have a group. If you don’t have one in your area your best bet is online. There are countless free teaching resources online, as well as forums where you can connect and ask questions. Some of my favorites are: http://permaculturenews.org/ , http://www.permies.com/ , and of course, https://www.youtube.com/
All photos courtesy of Breanna Walsh for Project:Women