How I create a unit study -- using our Australia unit study as an example
I have been asked how I go about creating my own unit studies, so here we go. This could get long and if you have no felt need for knowing this, you may want to click on over to the next blog for today. I realize there is only a small segment of the population who needs, or even wants, to know this stuff.
I know that there are many, many (Ack! I can't help myself! This has become H.'s pet phrase and she uses it all the time... I find it creeping into my speech as well.) unit studies out there that you can either purchase or look at for free. And sometimes that's great if you are short of time or energy or find the perfect one. The trouble is, I rarely find the perfect study already planned out and I end up planning it out all over again anyway. Plus, I'm cheap and hate to pay for something that I could do on my own. I try to use the library as much as possible and only buy books if I absolutely can't find something elsewhere that I really need.
So, what do I do? First, I have to come up with a topic. It can be anything. Really, anything. As long as someone in the house is interested in it. (I'm a little odd and for fun sometimes think of a topic and mentally plan how I would go about creating a study out of it.) It can be a period of history, a single topic, a field of study, or even based on a piece of literature (my favorite type). What have we done in the past to give you some examples? Nearly every period of history, Lewis and Clark, lighthouses, the seashore, American Indians, the Santa Fe Trail, the solar system, volcanoes, and the Mississippi River to name a few. Some examples of studies based on literature include The Swiss Family Robinson, Around the World in 80 Days, Captain's Courageous, Johnny Tremain, Kon Tiki, and The Wheel on the School. If a child expresses interest in something I file it away for future use. Or if I come across something I think would be interesting I save the idea. Or sometimes we just start reading a book and become so engrossed in it that we turn it into a full-blown unit study.
Once I have my topic, I start brainstorming ideas. Sometimes this is easy, if I happen to know a lot about a topic, sometimes I have to do some research first to give me a start. This is what happened when I planned our Australia study. I knew Australia is a continent and it's basic history and that it was home to some really unusual animals, but, truly, that was about it. I decided we would learn about it because I wanted to correct this oversight. I needed books. One plus of writing a blog with a fairly wide readership, including readers in Australia (Hello!), is that I could ask for book recommendations. I discovered that there is probably a really good reason why I felt as though I knew nothing and that's because we just don't hear about Australia much up here. Anyway, my Australian readers were very helpful in heading me in the right direction. The one thing I couldn’t find was a long, meaty chapter book, but I was pretty happy with what we ended up with. Here is the list:
· Are We There Yet? By Alison Lester
o A family takes a car trip around Australia
· Storm Boy by Colin Thiele
o A boy and his father live on the Coorong and care for a stranded pelican
· Ranger’s Territory: The Story of Frank Woerle told to Colin Thiele
o Memoir of a man who was a ranger in the wilds of northern Australia
· Top to Bottom Down Under by Ted and Betsy Lewin
o Animals native to Australia and their habitats
· Possum Magic by Mem Fox
o Tells about the different food common to various areas of Australia
· Lizzie Nonsense: A Story of Pioneer Days by Jan Ornerod
o A sweet story of a pioneer family
· Ready to Dream by Donna Jo Napoli and Elena Furrow
o Set in Alice Springs and has examples of Aboriginal art
And for fun:
· Diary of a Wombat and Diary of a Baby Wombat by Jackie French
· Wombat Goes Walkabout by Michael Marpurgo
· My Grandma Lived in Gooligulch by Graeme Base
Now it’s time to go through the books and figure out how they will all fit together. I chose Are We There Yet? as our main book because it is the story (in picture book format) of a family who takes three months and drives around Australia by car and describes the things they saw on the trip. It was an excellent way to make our way around Australia. I decided we would read just a page or two of this book at a time and then do other activities and readings that matched each place we ‘stopped’. Each study I plan and set up a little differently, but in general, I have chosen one or two books to serve as our tour guide and then add to them as we go along. A mainstay for us has been the Chicago Review Press books of _____________ for Kids. I highly recommend them.
Once I have my books and in general figured out how I am going to make it make sense, it’s time for the fun part. By learning this way, you can cover almost every area of learning… literature, science, geography, history, art, music, etc. OK, I’ll admit I have trouble fitting math in, but you know how I feelabout that already. Now is the time when I try to come up with as many hands-on activities as I can. We’ll usually do map work, add to our perpetual timelines, do some art projects, some science experiments, listen to music if possible, and do some cooking. I’ll also try to work in some creative writing activities. It’s the whole package.
The last piece that needs to be figured out is how to document it all. We’ve done different things. We’ve made lapbooks (my children’s favorite), used blank books to keep track of things, done a big final project which can incorporate all we’ve learned, posters, dioramas, etc. It can be anything, but I find it helpful to have a way for my children to keep track and show what they’ve learned.
With all that background, I’ll now just write out how we actually did our Australia unit study using the books I listed. We used blank books to record what we learned, taping any maps in that we made.
I began by reading (out loud) some general books on Australia of the ubiquitous mid-grade, non-fiction type which populate libraries. (J. and I have written on ourselves, so I feel quite comfortable in being a little denigrating towards them.) While uninspiring, they did serve the purpose of giving everyone a general sense of what we were going to learn about. I also printed out a blank map of Australia and we labeled it marking the territories and surrounding oceans to begin with.
Then we began the Are We There Yet? book. The first stop was Adelaide and the Coorong and so we labeled these on the map and read Storm Boy which is about a boy and his pet pelican. (Warning, my children really liked it, but the ending is a bit sad.) From this point on, if we came across a word or term we didn’t know, we added it to our vocabulary page in our blank books. Also, we made a section for animals and if we came across an animal in our reading we added it and wrote a little about it. (I did have quite a few non-fiction Australian animal books on hand to facilitate this.) The other book we read in conjunction with these was Top to Bottom Down Under. But since we were travelling ‘bottom to top’, we read the book backwards.
And so we travelled around Australia in this manner. We traced our route on our map as well as labeling cities and landmarks. We wrote about animals and drew pictures of them. And filled in with our other books as it made sense. When we got up to the top we read the book about Frank Woerle and his experiences being a ranger in northern Australia. (Please, since my sensibilities probably differ from yours, preread any books I suggest to be sure they are a good fit for your family. I am pretty comfortable reading a very wide range of things to my children because I am able to discuss it with them at the time. Do what you feel is right for your family.)
Our activities included:
· Learned about the bush poets, specifically Banjo Patterson. We particularly enjoyed "Mulga Bill’s Bicycle" and I had everyone draw illustrations to go along with it.
· Listened to various renditions of Waltzing Mathilda (lyrics by Banjo Patterson)
· Looked at Aboriginal dot painting and then trying our hand at making our own
· Listened to didgeridoo music
· Watched a DVD documentary on the Great Barrier Reef
· Prepared and ate various typical Australian dishes
· Marked the different ecosystems of Australia on our maps
· Added important Australian dates to our timeline books
We all do this together, though I often have my high schoolers do the same topic, but have them read different books. This way we can all discuss what we are learning at dinner and no one feels left out. Well, maybe J. does, but we fill him in on what we’ve learned. For B., I had him read Bill Bryson’s book, In a Sunburned Country, which I also read. (My disclaimer stands here as well. Mr. Bryson can be a bit blue at times, but I find him both informative and entertaining and anyone who can make me laugh out loud until I cry is OK in my book.) If we had been doing this during the fall or winter when things are a bit more serious I would have also had him read The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia’s Founding by Robert Hughes and had him watch “Rabbit Proof Fence”. I just wasn’t up for that level of seriousness in the middle of summer.
Here’s the short version of how to do this unit-study-thing:
1. Pick a topic
2. Find books. I like a really meaty story if I can find it.
3. Sort out how it fits together. It can either be done chronologically to match a story or geographically to match a plan of travel. Just a way to sort the information in a way that makes sense.
4. Plan activities. Think of all the different areas of learning and see what you can fit in. Don’t forget creative writing or memory work. (We’ve memorized a lot of poems as we’ve learned this way.) The more hands-on the better!
5. Record what you’ve done in some way. It doesn’t always have to be just written out on a piece of paper. You could even make a family movie of what you’ve done together.
6. Have fun and be excited. The world is a wonderful place and it is a thrilling job to show God’s wonderful creation to our children.