It might be best to start by explaining what unit studies are not. Unit studies are not textbook studies. Textbook studies entail as many as eight separate subjects, having little or no correlation. 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 concentrate on the Civil War era. You may study biology in science and geometry in mathematics, while learning about the accomplishments of Greek mathematicians. Music studies may take you to the baroque period, while art studies focus on the paintings of American Indians, and last but not least, Bible study centers on Noah and the Flood.
You can put all this into a pot and serve a very unappetizing 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 relate one subject to another and see how they work together?
For example, years ago our family studied sign language. I was very interested in this topic, deciding 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 who relates to our study topic. As we study real people in real space and time, 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. Biographies allow us to become intimately acquainted with an individual and walk in his path.
While studying sign language, I chose Gallaudet, Friend of the Deaf to read aloud to my children. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet was the founder of deaf education in America. History came into play as Gallaudet College in Washington, D.C., was used as a Union 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 Confederate captain during the Civil War, so we were able to draw a parallel to Gallaudet’s biography.
Both biographies gave a historical perspective of sign language. We used a sign-language instruction video and book and learned hundreds of signs, developing communication skills and manual dexterity. As we read the Helen Keller autobiography, we were introduced to Alexander Graham Bell. Helen Keller and Dr. Bell were intimately acquainted, Dr. Bell being responsible for Helen beginning her education. We did not study Dr. Bell and his accomplishments in depth, rather focusing on his work with sound, hearing and the ear. This added a scientific dimension to our study.
We also studied the anatomy of the human hand, the instrument of deaf communication. 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 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 language arts. We wrote and talked about what it would be like to be deaf in a noisy world, therefore adding social studies to our curriculum. My older girls made books with a sign-language theme, 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 Bible studies.
Also, we went to the park and I pretended to be deaf. My children had to communicate with me for an hour without speaking. This was very frustrating for them as I sat in the swing, not paying them any attention. Soon they forgot the rules and called to me from the top of the slide. After getting no response, the children learned 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, Ala., and saw the outdoor play about her life, The Miracle Worker, therefore adding drama 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 meaningfully through unit studies. Children see the necessity for learning skills as they need them to study a topic.
It is obvious that focusing on one topic at a time is a natural way to learn. 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 explains what a unit study encompasses. It is simply a study that focuses on one topic at a time. While exploring this topic, 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 lifelong quest, and can be tailored to meet the needs of individual families.
Written by: Valerie Bendt, 2010 Convention Speaker
Valerie and her husband, Bruce, have over 25 years of homeschooling experience with their six children. She has written several books. For more information, visit www.valeriebendt.com.