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Designing Homeschool Unit Studies

Even if you use textbook curriculum for most of your homeschool studies, breaking out of the print mold and jumping headlong into a unit study is nice every now and then. For one thing, it makes your students think a little more about how the different parts of life actually fit together. For another, it gives you a break from the middle-of-the-year doldrums.

If you find that your children are deeply interested in one or two subjects but for the most part enjoy textbooks, then those subjects are the ones to pursue with unit studies when you decide to take a breather. Sometimes while you work through a year's studies, you see a hole in subject matter that you think should be filled. Find a unit study on that topic, and take a week or two to teach it. Do your kids find black holes fascinating, and does the science text cover them in a paragraph or two? Looks like a unit on astronomy may be in order.

With a little time and creativity, you can create your own unit studies. Assembling your own curriculum around one topic sounds like a big deal — if it didn't sound so hard, an educational company such as Teacher Created Materials, probably wouldn't publish and sell as many great unit studies as they do. Designing your own unit studies presents two drawbacks:

  • It takes time. For a busy parent who needs to get dinner on the table, teach several children, and still make the other wheels of life turn on a daily basis, this could be enough of a reason to take an extended trip to the nearest education store with your credit card in your pocket.
  • It may require access to a couple of grade-level subject books. This includes science, language arts, or math, so you know which skills are typically covered at a particular grade level.If you have a good library — or better yet, a nearby college library with an educational books department — this could be a great excuse for the Unit Study Developer (that would be you) to spend a long Saturday and a pocketful of change at the college library with a stack of books. This leaves parental unit number two in charge of the kids for the day while you browse . . . ummm . . . work to your heart's content.

The good part? You can teach anything you want. If you want to teach bug genetics as a unit study, then grab some books from the library and go for it. Creating your own unit study on economics almost takes less time than tracking down a study that someone else already created.

Subject-ing yourself to this?

When you make your own unit study from scratch, your unit study needs to cover all the subjects you'd normally teach, unless you plan to skip the math, for example, and work through a math text along with the unit study (also a fine decision in the unit study universe). To be complete, each unit study needs to include the first two subjects from the following list and as many of the others as you can fit in logically:

  • Math: Create math problems at your child's level. If you're working on second-grade addition, for example, and your unit study is baseball, then you can add bats and balls, write a story problem that talks about number of pitches thrown until the team reached the final out, and so on. For the same unit, math for an older child may talk about speed of the bat, distance the ball travels, or the number of hot dogs that individual team fans eat.
  • Language Arts: Reading, comprehension, grammar, writing skills — the whole kit and caboodle — can be included in language arts. Although you don't need to include all this in every unit study that you write, most units do ask students to write a little bit about the topic. Perhaps your child wants to create a story about the topic at hand. Or read a book or two about the topic and talk about it.
  • Science: Sometimes a unit study shines in science. Other times you may need to work a little. If you just designed that unit on bug genetics, you're off the hook for science. The entire unit study qualifies as science. On the other hand, a unit on ancient Egypt may take some time to look at the creations of the Egyptian engineers, mummification, ancient medicine, or the tools that the Egyptians used to get the job done.
  • Social Studies or Geography: Much like science, social studies may be your main topic, or you may need to work some information into the topic at hand. Some questions you may keep in mind as you work: Where was your topic first seen or invented? What culture surrounded the time or event? Where did this take place? What are the residents associated with your topic used to?
  • Art: Draw. Build. Act. Design. Create. These all fall into the art category. Design a Roman mosaic. Sketch an insect's genetic makeup. Build a temple from clay or LEGOs. Create a tapestry to illustrate the unit that you're studying (felt shapes work for quick tapestries when needlepoint takes way too long). Paint the flowers that you're learning about.
  • Music: Sometimes music fits into a unit study nicely. Listening to folk music while you explore the civil unrest of the 1960s may be a natural fit. On the other hand, you may need to work a little harder to fit music into that bug genetics unit study.
  • History: Adding history to a unit study may be as simple as researching when an event began or an item was invented. On the other hand, history could be as complicated as talking about the events and times that affected an item's inventor. It's your unit study and your call.
  • Physical Education: You may need to be a bit creative with this one, but if P.E. fits into your unit, then use it! Run footraces like the ancient Greeks, or gather a group of homeschool students to finish that baseball unit with a rousing game.

Digging for topics

If you need ideas for unit studies, follow your children around for a couple days and watch what they do. If one spends all his time engrossed in books, think about a literature-based unit study, such as How Books Are Made. If another child hits the door to unearth rocks from the back yard, you may have an archeology or rocks and minerals lover. Both topics would make great unit studies.

Some topics are evergreen. You can present them more than once as your little group grows older. Perhaps your student is interested in

  • Animals, horses, or mammals
  • Baseball, basketball, fencing, or sports in general
  • Cooking or catering (which may include business and economics information)
  • Kites, flight, transportation, or weather
  • Medieval history, ancient Egypt, or any historical culture
  • Starting a business

As your children mention an interest, write it down somewhere. If you keep a running list of interests as the younger set talks about them, soon you'll have more topics than you could use in a three-year time span! Even if your child only shows a deep interest in one or two topics, explore those. You may find that you create several unit studies based off the first one as new and secondary and tertiary fascinations develop.

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