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Make Your Own History Units!

By Pam Maxey
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #43, 2001.

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Pam Maxey


I live in Lee's Summit, Missouri where every fall our fair city recognizes its favorite son with a festival bearing his name - The Cole Younger Days. We also have a park and road named after him. For all of his notoriety, most locals probably have no idea who Cole Younger really was. This year, my boys and I created our own history unit to discover more about our local "hero." You too may have someone famous from your area. Why not find out more about them with your own history unit study? If you're like me, it may help you dispel popular myths with less than heroic facts!

Many types of unit studies are available on the homeschool market today. You can find studies for everything from authors to personality traits. There are many times, however, when it can be useful to create your very own unit study. Here's how to create a history unit.

How Long?

Begin by deciding how long each unit study will last and how many you will create. For those fond of units, the summer provides room for anything from dozens of teeny units, to three month-long units, to one big whomping unit. You could also plan for four weeklong units a year, to be divided out by quarter. Maybe you would rather take one day a month for a special one-day unit study. Begin simple and get more in-depth as you go.

Pick a Topic

After you decide on the time frame, pick your topic. A history unit can center on a historical event, such as the Civil War or the Great Depression. These units would be difficult to cover in a one-day time period. You will most likely need a few days to a month or more to cover these topics with any depth. Another option that will take more than a day to cover is an era in history, such as the Middle Ages, Biblical times, or the Industrial Revolution. If your time is more limited or you don't want to begin with such large topics, begin with a historical figure like I did.

Plan Ahead

Now that you have picked your topic and set your time requirements, you need to plan ahead for your project. Don't decide to do a unit study tomorrow or even next week without proper planning. Let your child share in the planning to ensure that the activity will be both educational and interesting. As you become more familiar with creating units for your child, you will begin to see interesting things at thrift stores, discount stores, or garage sales that you can purchase for units. Always be on the lookout for interesting items to use in future studies!

Do Your Research

Your first step in research should be an encyclopedia - print or computer versions will do. Most encyclopedias will have a section at the end of the article telling where to find related subjects and other articles. Use these resources first.

Visit your public library with your topic and beginning research. Ask your librarian for help with related books and videos that may be available.

Use Internet sources for websites related to your subject. Many libraries have the capability to search for their materials on-line. This saves time for you. There is also an Internet Public Library with many valuable research tools.

You can also use catalogs of various homeschool products for book ideas. Catalogs from KONOS, Greenleaf Press, EDC (Usborne books), and Sonlight all have books listed by subject and a short synopsis of each book.

Make It Real

Look for many mediums: print, video, cooking, music, art projects, and even field trips. The avenues you will want to explore will include the art of the day, music during that time period, science and technology of the time including transportation, the location of the event or where the person lived, the customs of the people, the clothing or fashion of the time, food during that time period, the government of the people, the philosophies of the day, the religion practiced by the people, and how this person or event affected history. Use the information to explore and create ideas to make the person or event real for your child.

Many Ages, One Unit

You can also plan for different age and maturity levels within your unit. If you study the Civil War, a younger child may read different books and understand the war on a more surface level. An older child will read different books and will be able to understand the many issues involved with the war. Both children could easily participate in listening to a variety of music from the time, cooking food that the soldiers ate, and making costumes from both sides of the war. A younger child may make a drum for the drummer boy and an older child could make a representation of a famous battle scene. Both are studying the war with combined and separate activities and goals.

Show the Connections

Be sure to relate how this person or event helped shape history and where the events took place. Many times children do not see the connection between past events and the present day. Many do not relate Bible accounts with historical accounts read in other books. They also become confused about where things happened. If possible use a globe to locate where you live and where your event took place. Time lines are also helpful in establishing when events occurred. Exploring history through people and events will make the past come alive for your child!

In our case, my sons' eyes were opened when they learned that our local "hero" was really an outlaw. Unfortunately, Hollywood and local myths don't make for good historians. We learned the true Cole Younger story. His legend started as a guerrilla fighter in the Civil War and he later became an outlaw. He helped form and rode with the James gang with whom he robbed banks, trains, and exposition centers. We discovered that after having been shot eleven times during his escapades, he wound up in prison with a bullet lodged in his right eye.

In a few weeks we are heading to Minnesota for a fishing trip. Thanks to our unit study, we're planning to stop and visit Northfield, Minnesota. It was there, once upon a time, the locals didn't appreciate our "heroes" from Missouri attempting to rob their bank! That's where our study, like their gang, meets its end.


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