As part of our Homeschooling Styles Guest Post series, I would like to welcome author and speaker, Valerie Bendt to Weird, Unsocialized Homeschoolers. Valerie is the author of several books including Unit Studies Made Easy and Reading Made Easy. Please join me in welcoming Valerie as she tells us a bit more about unit studies.
What are unit studies?
I think it might be best to start by explaining what unit studies are not. Unit studies are not textbook studies. Textbook studies entail the study of as many as eight separate subjects, having little or no correlation to each other. For example, you may study Literature, focusing on British poets, while your Geography Studies center on the Middle East.
At the same time your History Studies may be concentrated on the Civil War era. You may be studying biology in Science and geometry in Mathematics, while learning about the accomplishments of the Greek mathematicians. Your Music Studies may take you to the baroque period, while your Art Studies are focused on the paintings of American Indians, and last but not least, your Bible Studies are centered on Noah and the Flood. You can put all of this into a pot and serve a very unappetizing helping of mush.
Each of these studies has merit, but is it best to study them all at the same time? Is this the best way to learn? Is it not far better to be able to relate one subject to another and see how they work together?
For example, a few years ago, our family studied sign language. This was a topic that I was very interested in, so I decided that the best way to learn about it was to study it with my children. When conducting a unit study, I generally try to find at least one biography to read aloud about a person that relates to our topic of study. It is as we study real people in real space and time that history comes alive for us. History is not a series of dates and wars to be memorized, but rather the interacting of individual with individual.
How unit studies weave learning together.
Biographies allow us to become intimately acquainted with an individual and walk in his path. While studying sign language, I chose a biography of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet entitled, Gallaudet, Friend of the Deaf, to read aloud to my children. Gallaudet was the founder of deaf education in America. History came into play as the Gallaudet College in Washington, D.C. was used as an army hospital during the strife-torn Civil War years.
Next we read The Story of My Life, by Helen Keller. Helen’s father was a captain during the Civil War, so we were able to draw a parallel to Gallaudet’s biography. Both biographies gave us a historical perspective of sign language. We used a sign language instruction video and book and learned hundreds of signs, thus developing communication skills and manual dexterity. As we read the autobiography of Helen Keller, we were introduced to Alexander Graham Bell.
Helen Keller and Dr. Bell were intimately acquainted, and Dr. Bell was responsible for Helen beginning her education. We did not dive into an in-depth study of Dr. Bell and his accomplishments at this time, such as the invention of the telephone, but rather we focused on his work with sound, hearing, and the ear. This added a scientific dimension to our study.
We also studied the anatomy of the hand, the instrument of communication of the deaf. The children drew their hands as they formed the letters of their names as designated in the manual sign alphabet, thus stimulating artistic abilities and appreciation for the complexities of the anatomy of the human hand.
The children copied and took from dictation select passages from the biographies we read. Our spelling, vocabulary, punctuation, grammar lessons, and reading comprehension exercises centered on these passages, thus enhancing our language arts studies.
We wrote and talked about what it would be like to be a deaf person in a noisy world, therefore adding social studies to our curriculum. My older girls made books with a sign language theme, thereby encouraging creative writing and art.
We researched Bible verses pertaining to hearing and the ear. We noted the importance of each part of the human body and how it parallels the relationship of the members of the body of Christ. Bible stories were read and then pantomimed. These activities enhanced our bible studies.
We went to the park and I pretended to be a deaf person. My children had to communicate with me without speaking for an hour. This was very frustrating for them as I sat in the swing, not paying them any attention. Soon they forgot the rules of our game and called to me from the top of the slide. After getting no response from me, the children learned that they had to come and tap me on the shoulder or stand in front of me in order to be noticed. We discussed this afterward, thus strengthening observation and thinking skills.
We visited Helen Keller’s home in Tuscumbia, Alabama and saw the outdoor play about her life entitled, The Miracle Worker, therefore adding a dramatic element to our study. Geography studies were strengthened as the children followed the road map from state to state as we journeyed to her home.
As you can see, we touched on many subject areas during this unit study on sign language. Our attention was geared to our primary study of sign language; however, skills in other subject areas were strengthened along the way. Basic skills can be taught and enhanced in a meaningful way through unit studies. Children see the necessity for learning skills as they need them to study a topic.
It is obvious that this is a natural way to learn — focusing on one topic at a time. Our energies are not consumed by dividing our efforts in five or six subject areas that have no correlation. Multiply this confusion times two, three, four, or more children working at different levels on different subjects, in different textbooks, and calamity results! With unit studies, the entire family can study a topic together. Naturally, the older children will pick up more than the younger children, and their studies will be more in depth.
Hopefully this illustration will explain what a unit study encompasses. It is simply a study that focuses on one topic at a time. As this topic is explored, a variety of subject areas are explored. A unit study is what each person makes it. It can be a brief topical study or a life-long quest. It can be tailored to meet the needs of individual families.