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What Are Unit Studies All About?

By Jessica Hulcy
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #12, 1996.

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Jessica Hulcy


F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, "The test of first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the brain at the same time and still retain the ability to function." Home schooling moms not only qualify for "first rate intelligence," but they could probably run IBM on the backstroke. In the morning, moms juggle a myriad of subjects and age levels as math, reading, and language arts are taught. However, in the afternoon, unit studies allow moms to stop juggling as the entire family gets together on the same page, on the same topic.

Units Integrate Subjects for Retention and Understanding

My mouth begins to salivate at the smell of chocolate, the sight of gorgeous wallpaper, and the thought of a tightly- woven unit. Studying a unit on attentiveness means studying a people whose very lives depended on being attentive: American Indians. Using a United States map, children draw in the varying regions where the differing groups of Indians lived. This forces the children to actually practice the main topic of the unit, attentiveness, as they are attentive to the distinctives of the different Indian groups. Children build a fire without matches, cook and eat pemmican balls, read "Hiawatha" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and The Trail of Tears by John Ross, construct a travois for their dog to pull, learn sign language, dance Indian dances, sand paint, throw a clay pot, carve a totem pole, research Geronimo and Chief Joseph, and finally, write a paper comparing how the Plains Indians depended entirely on the buffalo while the Northwest Indians depended entirely on the cedar tree for their existence. Geography, poetry, literature, art, dance, cooking, construction, research, and writing are all used to study one topic.

By using all subjects to point back to a topic, the topic is reinforced over and over. By using all senses to experience a topic, the topic is reinforced again and again. Repetition builds retention. It also creates the big picture memory file for topics, thus giving students fuller understanding of the topic they studied.

Units Challenge Students at Their Own Level

A great Bible teacher, Henrietta Mears, once said, "God put the wiggle in children. Don't you dare try to take it out." As mother of four boys, that statement was a great relief to me. I could use the wiggle for my boys to learn instead of tying them to the chair. We could all sit round the kitchen table and talk about the seasons while we are studying a unit on orderliness.

However, talk is cheap. Much more memorable is to ask one child to dress for winter, another to dress for summer, and others to dress for fall and spring. The winter dresser wears snow suit, muffler, cap and mittens, ice skates and holds a cup of hot chocolate, while the summer dresser dons bathing suit, flip flops, sun glasses, beach towel and ball, and holds a glass of iced lemonade. Getting children up and out of their chairs capitalizes on,, rather than fights against the springs in young children's bottoms.
Most parents see the clear benefits of doing activities. They realize no one learns computer skills without using the computer. However, parents are concerned that each child be challenged to his level. A single activity serves as the starting point, the vehicle for challenging each child to his personal level. The activity is like a bus ride, with each child getting off at a different stop.

In an attentiveness unit, ears and eyes, Helen Keller and Louis Braille, sound and music, and many more subjects are studied. A great activity is to dissect a cow's eyeball. The younger child simply dissects the eyeball and names the parts. The middle child dissects, names the parts, draws the parts and takes apart a discarded camera with his older brother. The oldest does everything the younger children did, but goes one step further by writing a paper comparing how the eye and the camera work. The starting point for each child is a single activity, yet each child is challenged to his own level, getting off the bus at his own stop.

Units allow families to study the same topics, doing many activities together, but each child is challenged at his own level.

Discovery Learning Creates Thinkers

Discovery learning is more than activities. It is activities plus kids thinking and kids testing what they think.

When classifying rocks in the orderliness unit, traditional teachers hold up a piece of feldspar, ask the child to repeat the name, then test to see if the child remembered. Much better is to give the child a canvas bag, hammer, chisel and goggles, and then turn him loose to collect, test, and identify his own rocks.

Discovery allows children to figure things out for themselves, practicing the process of thinking. Teaching children the way God designed them, full of motion, while urging them to think and test what they think yields wiggly thinkers.

Units Build Relationships and Families

Having birthed four wiggly thinkers, I teach units in self-defense. It is necessary for me to teach all that I can to as many as I can at the same tine to keep from being institutionalized.

Besides preserving my sanity, units allow our whole family to learn together. Textbook-based education separates us, even when more innovative resources such as videos and computer software are used. Picture three children using traditional curricula. While one child is watching a biology video in the living room, another is writing a "weather" paper in the kitchen, and still another is reading about rocks in his room. Talk about a fragmented family - different rooms and different subjects!

Bible, science, history, literature, art, and music can be rolled together in multi-level units allowing families to actually come back to the same room and study the same topic. Units allow older children to read to younger children, to set up activities for younger children, and to teach younger children. This is great parental training for the older child and builds togetherness in the family.

There is a real temptation in the homeschooling movement to adopt classroom teaching methods using only workbook and textbook, tell-and-regurgitate teaching methods. Certainly, parents can point to stacks of filled-in workbook pages, but the real question is, "Did the child understand what he wrote, does he know in his mind what he studied, and can he apply it to real life?"

Units offer retention of material covered, challenge to individual potential and room to think for oneself. Not only can a mother stay sane, but she can also enjoy her afternoons with her family all on the same subject, all in the same room.


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