Have you ever recoiled in horror at the thought of the amount of work it would take to use unit studies? Do you imagine overly crafty, resourceful women merrily dancing their way through the library and craft store in an effort to collect bountiful resources for an in-depth look at topics you’d never even considered learning about before?
Yesterday I wrote about what our family learned from our experiences using the school-at-home approach in our homeschool. Today I’ll be discussing the pros and cons of unit studies- something still very much alive and well in our homeschool days.
The unit study, or thematic unit, approach is a homeschooling method that tends to address education in a more cohesive manner than school-at-home. Rather than separating learning into subjects which quite often have nothing to do with one another, unit studies focus on one topic which will cover almost all required subject areas and can literally be absolutely anything the parent or child desires. Some unit studies focus on a character trait. Others will be chosen because of a child’s interest in that particular area. Still others can arise from a piece of well-loved literature. No matter the topic, the main idea of a unit study is to learn holistically. It can be much easier to retain knowledge when it is meticulously explored and not just touched upon as most textbooks will do.
Since this method is so different from the traditional school approach and may seem confusing to some, here is an example of one of our recent days of home learning with an Easter unit study from the Konos Character Curriculum. (I will list each activity under a subject area to illustrate how each subject can be covered while still encompassing one area of study, but it is important to note that I do not plan our days around school subjects. Just as we adults do not break our lives down into “subjects,” it is not necessary to do that with children either.):
– Language Arts– copywork (Hot Cross Buns nursery rhyme), rehearsed and performed Easter puppet show they wrote for their younger siblings, listened to the final chapter of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
– Math– prepared and baked hot cross buns (fractions, measuring)
– Social Studies– learned about the origin of the hot cross buns rhyme in England
– Science– prepared and baked hot cross buns (effects of yeast)
– Art/Creative Expression– drew and colored a picture of a baker selling hot cross buns, performed original puppet show they wrote (earlier in the week they also made the puppets and the puppet theater)
Notice that a few of the activities are classified under multiple subject areas. Isn’t that a more realistic picture of how real life actually is? Sometimes life cannot be separated into single subject areas. Thus, learning shouldn’t be expected to happen this way either.
– Unit studies are flexible and can be used with children of multiple ages. All it takes is a bit of tweaking in order to make assignments an appropriate fit for where a child is at developmentally. For example, when studying vultures, my 11-yr.-old researched and wrote a report, my 10-yr.-old researched and wrote a paragraph, and my 8-yr.-old researched and wrote a fact sheet. It can be a very simple thing to change things up a bit depending on what your child is capable of, but it can make such a huge difference in the sanity of your homeschool.
– This method is a great way to include your child’s interests in their learning. Not sure how to go about doing that? The library is a great place to start. Check out several books on a particular interest your child has. Read through them together, find some good videos or movies dealing with the subject, and incorporate some artwork into your day. Chances are, this will stimulate your child to ask questions like: Where did this happen? How far is it from us? Can we drive there? How long ago was it? Were you born? Was Grandma? Can this still happen now? Questions like this are an awesome springboard to head back to the library and find resources to answer these specific queries, which will likely lead to even more. This is the beauty of the unit study.
– It is much easier for most children to retain learning when it is all-encompassing. If you instruct a student to read Shakespeare, learn about photosynthesis, and memorize important dates in the French Revolution, generally speaking, most students will find this to be an arduous and- dare I say it- boring task. But…if you read through The Little House on the Prairie with your kids and ask them where maple syrup comes from and how pioneers obtained it and what other events were going on during this time period, you’re more likely to get an interested and inspired learner. This is what unit studies are all about.
– This method does take a bit more preparation than your typical school-in-a-box curriculum. It requires some visits to the library and some knowlege of what additional materials (art, craft, science experiments, etc.) will be needed when, but just remember that the activities you choose are entirely up to you. If you don’t mind the preparation and are a crafty person, then go all out. If you hate crafts and prefer to keep things simple, then keep that it mind and choose activities accordingly. If your children see you are comfortable with what you are doing, they will be comfortable, and they will learn that much easier.
– It can be very tempting to over-do a subject area. If you’re anything like I am, sometimes you may go a little overboard in your preparation, especially if you will be covering an interest of your own. I’ve been known to plan enough activities for a 12- hour school day and will have to trim them down- a lot- in order to make them more realistic. Keep in mind that simple really is better.
– It can be hard to let go of a subject area that has lost your child’s interest but has kept you enthralled. Remember that this is your child’s education. If they lose interest in something, it’s probably time to change gears. You can always study it on your own in your free time. (If you’re lucky enough to have any!)
Have you used this method? Do you have any additional pros or cons? Feel free to leave a comment! Next week I’ll give an honest review of the unschooling approach. Hope to see you there!
Well…the time has come. Our last week of school before an 8-week summer break. (Sort of.) Technically, it’s not my last week because my teens actually have two weeks of school to go, but since I spend the most time on my younger kids’ activities, and they are finished, it seems like my last week, too.
I don’t really know how I feel about this. I know the title of this post gives the impression of excitement, but eight weeks is a loooong time. I know that many homeschooling parents are usually jumping for joy by this point, but I honestly look forward to doing school with my kids everyday. I really do.
One thing that will help with this at least a little bit is that I will still be doing about 5-10 minutes of math everyday with my non-teenagers because their new workbooks for next year are a little harder than they’re used to, so we’ve got some ground to cover. They did some complaining about it at first, but after I explained my reasoning, they were okay with it, and, honestly, how much is ten minutes out of an entire day?
Believe it or not, this week, I had one child at the dentist again- this time for a filling. Thankfully, we are now done until November, unless you count a July appointment at the orthodontist. Sigh.
This week has been a little more exciting than the last few, with various appointments and attending our very first homeschool group. 🙂 Seven years of homeschooling, and this is the first time I’ve ever gotten together with other homeschooling moms. Ever.
It was so exciting to actually talk about something I’m so passionate about with other people who feel the same way. The only time I get to “talk shop” any other time is here on this blog, so you can probably blame the abundance of posts in your emails or newsfeed on the fact that you’ve been my “online homeschool group” all this time. So thank you for reading and interacting with me. It means more than you know. 😀
We spent some more time on Madeline and used the illustrations to learn about symmetry. We also used our Shopkins as stand-ins for the “twelve little girls in two straight lines” and explored all of the different groupings of twelve. Whenever I involve my kids’ Shopkins, I know they’ll be paying attention! We also discussed personal hygiene and eating right, and how they can prevent illnesses like colds and the flu.
Other than Madeline, the biggest hit with my littles this week was a picture book called Except if…. For such a short, simple book, it had my kids cracking up almost the entire time I was reading it. Anything that can get my wiggly worms to sit still for story time is worth a mention on my blog!
The Big Kids
This week we finished up both Harry Potter and our research/reference unit. The kids alphabetized, typed up, and assembled their dictionaries, and we practiced using dictionary headings some more.
A friend who used to be a teacher at a Christian school and is now a homeschool evaluator stopped by at our house on Wednesday with two boxes filled with art supplies from her teaching days. My kids were absolutely thrilled and have spent the past two days crafting up all sorts of fun stuff. Now if only I knew where to put all this stuff…
This week has been more of the same for the older kids. Dillon has still been spending a lot of time at the creek, and Arianna and Devin have still been spending the better part of their days in their room reading and watching Netflix.
Devin spent the day with Brendan, our oldest, again- this time browsing comic book stores. I love that they have so much in common and still spend so much time together.
Although my post reads “ten” homeschoolers, I do have eleven kids, but since Brendan is not homeschooling, I didn’t include him in the title. I would like to mention, though, that he had his college exams this week and scored a 96% on his sociology exam, so, yay for Brendan! 🙂
Arianna had the ‘privilege’ of attending the homeschool group with me to help watch the children who were there. I gave her the day off of school for helping. Wasn’t that nice of me?? (For those of you who are new to my blog, you can read a detailed description of our daily routine right here.)
Well, that’s about it. I’m anxious to see what next week brings without the structure of our normal school routine. We shall see…
What have you been up to this week? Is your school year almost through?
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In an attempt to make your life immensely easier, today I’m sharing with you some wisdom I’ve gained throughout my years of utilizing unit studies that I wish someone had shared with me. Through much trial and error, tweaking of curriculum, and, yes, burnout, I’ve reached a place in my life where I can honestly say that, yes, unit studies do, indeed, make life much more simple. This did not come easily, and only you can know what will work for your family and what will not. With that being said, here are the most practical tips I can offer you with regards to successfully implementing thematic units into your homeschool routine.
1. Unit studies are cross-curricular. Use that to your advantage. One of the biggest mistakes I made when I first began to use unit studies was to use them on top of everything else we were doing. Instead of using this method to cover our science, social studies, art, etc., we would complete a full day of “school” and then add on a unit study for “fun.” Admittedly, at first it was a novel idea, and we enjoyed the activities because they were so different from the constant seatwork we were used to; however, very quickly it became too much and the “fun” wore off and was replaced by burnout, which led to sending my children back to public school for two years. When I decided to homeschool again, I was determined to use unit studies but in a much more relaxed manner. After much reading and research, I realized that unit studies sufficiently cover every required (and quite a few extra) subjects, with exception to phonics, grammar, and math- and even that is not written in stone. Some families are able to incorporate enough phonics, grammar, and math into their lessons to satisfy those requirements, as well.
2. If you choose to supplement, keep it simple. I am absolutely convinced that there is no need to supplement any area beyond math and some language arts. While these subjects are included in many unit study activities, most families feel more comfortable giving these subjects a little boost. My children have a “table time” most mornings where they will complete a math lesson and either a spelling lesson or work on memorizing passages from great literature. (We are currently using How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare, which is phenomenal.) However, depending on what we will be covering on any given day in our unit study, we do not complete these lessons every single day. If I know that we will be doing a lot of writing or copywork or even some grammar lessons in our unit that day, we will only do math at table time. If I have a math lesson incorporated into what we will be pursuing, we skip the morning math lesson. My children are especially excited on those rare days that both of these subjects are covered in our activities and they get to completely skip their table time lessons. If your child will be sufficiently covering these subjects in your unit study lessons, there is no need to be redundant. Mix it up a bit. It will be refreshing for both you and your kids!
3. Don’t go overboard! Less is more. I can get a bit overexcited when creating our weekly lesson plans. If you ever happen to catch a glimpse of my lesson plan books, you will see that they are filled with eraser marks and entire weeks scratched out. I don’t know about you, but when it comes to choosing activities for my children, I’m like a kid in a candy store. I want to do it all. Everything looks so good, and I don’t want my kids (or me) to miss out on anything. So…I begin penciling in enough activities to keep us busy for twelve hours a day…until I look at it again a few hours later and realize that it’s never going to work. You know your kids best, so this is a great time to use that asset. Only you know how much your children will be able to comfortably handle in one day. At this point, besides our unit study read-aloud, I only schedule two related activities per day. That’s it. I know some people may be gasping at this statement, but I say it without guilt. I know my kids. You know yours. If your kids want to do four activities a day, go for it. If your child gets overwhelmed by any more than one per day, that’s great, too. One of the best things about homeschooling is the freedom to tailor our children’s education to fit their individual needs.
4. Don’t try to do every single listed activity. This ties in with #3. I promise you, if you try to complete every single suggestion, the unit study will get old fast. When choosing your activities, consider not only the activities your kids will enjoy, but also what you are comfortable with, as well. No one wants a cranky homeschool mom! While your kids may love to paint, if the thought of the mess stresses you out, skip it. There will be other opportunities for your kids in the future. (Perhaps you could even hold off on it until the summer and then move the activity outside and do it just for fun.) Stick to those suggestions that will work for all of you.
5. Don’t try to read every single book listed. As with the activities, the books are merely suggestions to get you started. You may decide not to use any books on the list and use alternatives you dig up yourself. That is perfectly fine. As the saying goes, use your curriculum…don’t let it use you.
6. If your children get bored with the topic, plan a new unit. Your son may love snakes. He may jump at the chance to memorize their names, study their habitats, create snakes out of clay, and calculate the size difference between an Egyptian cobra and a timber rattlesnake. If, however, his eyes start to glaze over after covering this unit for several weeks, it may be time to move on. Don’t destroy your child’s love of a particular subject by insisting that it be completed through to the very end. There are so many amazing things that God has created for us to learn about. This is the perfect chance to explore what else is out there!
7. Establish a general daily routine instead of an ironclad time schedule. I’m a clock-watcher. I always need to know what time it is, and I LOVE to create schedules and lists. (I guarantee that my kids will back me up on that.) One thing I’ve learned is the utter necessity of flexibility. Make general goals for starting and finishing times for your homeschool day, but accept the fact that things may not always go as planned and be okay with that. It’s not the end of the world if you finish at 2:00 instead of 12:30. Since I am officially homeschooling nine kids this year, I try to get my elementary age children done by lunchtime in order to keep the rest of the day open for the secondary age kids who do most of their work independently but do require my help sometimes. There are usually a couple times a week that I do end up working with my younger children after lunch, but it’s not a big deal because our routine allows for these circumstances.
8. It is not necessary to cover every subject every day. Just as life is not broken down into subjects, it is not necessary to break school down in this way, either. While I do include subjects covered per activity in the units I’ve written, I merely do this for record-keeping purposes. When planning our lessons, I do not pay attention to what subjects we will be covering but how each activity pertains to what we are reading each day. Sometimes you may cover history for weeks on end with only a few science lessons thrown in here and there. That is perfectly okay. If you think about it, kids are great at pursuing the sciences on their own through digging in the dirt, trying to build aerodynamic paper airplanes, and watching animal documentaries. Sometimes the tables are turned, and you may spend weeks doing science-related activities, while only covering history or social studies here and there. It balances itself out. And just as with science, kids don’t seem to have a problem touching on this area on their own through running errands with you, discussing current news topics, and running to the map to see where Fiji is. This can be true with any subject. Language arts can be covered through writing stories and emails and playing Mad Libs. Math is easily covered through playing games, handling money, and baking cookies. Don’t ever fret about going light on a subject here and there. Those topics still exist in the world around you, and they will happen naturally through simply living life.
9. Have fun! If at some point you find yourself dreading doing school, shake things up a bit and have a movie day, a park day, or take your kids for a walk. Remember that it is not a wasted day because life is learning and family relationships must always come first!
I hope this list may be a blessing to you. Just as each family is different, the same can be said about each homeschool. These tips are meant to be a guide, but it is up to you to decide how best to serve your children’s needs. Have fun and cherish every moment of your homeschooling journey. It will come to an end all too soon.