Join an expert on unit studies as she breaks down the how-to of finding a spine and incorporating the extras

Unit studies are a wonderful way to teach your children without becoming overwhelmed in the process. When we can learn about a science or history topic, complete research on that topic, include wonderful literature (reading skills), writing assignments, drama, speaking, etc.—in other words pull in all sorts of academic areas in one shebang—then we’re getting so much of what the boxed curriculum choices have to offer, but in a more compact, doable way: in a way that is drastically more interesting and fun as compared to most boxed curriculum choices.

Will I leave things out over my children’s education? Certainly! (As will all curriculum choices.) There’s way too much knowledge to be gained in this fast-paced world of ours. I’m doing my best to give them solid instruction in the basics—readin’, writin’ and ‘rithmetic—AND preparing them with the skills they need to be able to find information they need to know, while at the same time hopefully giving them a lifetime love for learning that will spur them to keep on gaining knowledge their whole lives.

Clarifying what a unit study means to me

  • What is a unit study? A period of time we spend learning about a certain topic. It could be a small topic like electricity or a large topic like ancient history.
  • How long does each unit study last? This greatly depends on the topic. If it’s a small topic, a couple of weeks might be enough. If it’s a large topic, an entire semester might be dedicated to it. I rarely limit our time. After planning, I estimate how long I think it might take, but if it needs to be longer or shorter once we get started, that’s no big deal.
  • How do I break the yearly topic into specified units? I follow a four-year cycle for science and history. This year’s science has been physical science. Within physical science, I knew I needed to cover the topics of energy, heat, electricity, magnets, light, color, sound and machines. Based on resource books I already had on my shelves, it was easy for me to break those topics into five doable units—Energy (including heat), Electricity, Magnets, Light/Color/Sound, and Simple Machines. I try to break the topics into chunks that make sense to go together.

Clarifying “the spine” book of the unit

The spine is the main resource book or piece of literature I use during a unit. It’s the book that encompasses the most unit topics in a clear (usually hands-on) way. Spines can range from prepared units to lapbooking units to texts to library books. What’s most important to me is the overall coverage of topics. Are most of the topics I’m hoping to cover included in this book in a clear (and hopefully fun) way? In some cases, the spine will have most everything I need—explanations for my children and activities that help them understand the topics better. Most of the time, though, a spine will either be the explanations without the activities OR the activities without the explanations. This is where I try to find other things to fill in. (Also, most spine books won’t include a test or end-of-the-unit project ideas. I usually come up with both of these things myself.)

  1. Where do you find your spines? I LOVE the library. My library has lots of activity guides to go along with history and science themes. Otherwise, prepared lapbook units are a great start, or prepared themes from parent/teacher stores. Golly, there are so many wonderful prepared-unit studies out there, all you really need to do is type your topic in a search engine and see what comes up. (“______ unit study”) Don’t forget that wonderful resource for nature/science-related unit studies called Shining Dawn Books!
  2. How much of that book do I typically use and how much do I typically pull in from other sources? It just depends. I’m sorry I can’t be more precise, but it’s truly impossible. With a really good lapbook unit, for example, I may not need to add anything besides a test and final project ideas. With a book that leaves holes, I’ll have to find info and activities to fill the holes. With a book that gives great explanations, but no activities, I’ll have to find or dream up the activities.
  3. How do I know what to leave out of the spine and what to add to it? In the beginning of my planning stages, I’ll take just a few minutes to find out what topics should be covered during a unit. For example, when planning a unit on physical science, I’ll go to an Internet search engine and type in something like “physical science topics.” After browsing a couple of websites, I’ll have a pretty good idea of what I need to cover for physical science. We’re getting ready to jump into a 1900–present unit study. So, I took a few minutes before planning to see what major topics I needed to include in the unit. A simple search for “important events of 1900′s” led me to several lists and timelines that helped me know what to include in the unit. If I find a spine that includes everything except Civil Rights, for instance, I’ll need to be sure to include that in the unit. If the spine covers way too much on Civil Rights, I’ll have to cut some of it back a bit.

How to include narration, lapbooks, notebooking, copywork, etc.

The spine of my unit pretty well determines the style of the unit. If the spine happens to be a lapbook, then most activities will take the route of lapbooking. If a spine is hands-on, most of the activities will be projects and/or experiments. I purposely plan my units so there is variety throughout the year. It would make me (and my children) unhappy and bored if everything we did revolved around the same type of learning style.

Things like narration, copywork, notebooking, other writing projects, etc. are included within units as they “fit.” In other words, I don’t worry about doing copywork every single day. When I come across a great Bible verse, for instance, that goes with the unit theme, I’ll assign it for copywork one day. When we complete an experiment, I’ll often ask the kids to keep notes in the form of a notebooking page. As they read their assigned reading books, I’ll ask them to narrate once or twice. Writing assignments are easy to fit into final project choices.

In my experience, it all comes out in the wash. My children don’t need to complete narration every day, for example, in order to know how to narrate. Now, if I see their narration skills are lacking, I’ll offer more opportunity—but in the scheme of real life, I simply don’t have time to do everything every day (or every week for that matter!) Sometimes, I might even miss copywork altogether during a unit (gasp!). When I miss something in one unit, I just try to add it into the next unit more purposely.

I hope these unit-study "frequently asked questions" have simplified the idea and encouraged you to delve headfirst into a future topic. You never know what you will learn with hands-on immersion.

Cindy West is an eclectically Charlotte Mason mom of three who loves learning alongside her children. You can find her blogging at Our Journey Westward and find her nature-study curriculum at Shining Dawn Books.

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