First you must know that I don't buy curriculum, workbooks or textbooks like you probably expect all homeschoolers to. I'm not putting down anyone who does buy such things, if it works for you great. I prefer more freedom and more hands on. I'm not saying we don't have any books, curriculum or workbooks in our school room. We do have some that I've bought used, but I don't use them like they were written to be used. I like to make up my own way. LOL
By "unit" I mean Unit Study. I could describe a unit study for you, but since Amanda Bennett has already typed out what I would say I'll just copy and paste her words.
What is a unit study?
It is defined as an in-depth study of a topic (space, trees, cars, etc.) that takes into account many areas of the topic, such as geography, science, history, art, etc. It is a complete immersion into the topic so that the student will see things as a "whole" instead of bits and pieces learned throughout their education.
This concept of learning closely resembles the way that we learn and approach problems as an adult in today's world. Given a specific project as an engineer, I am expected to do the research to thoroughly define and understand all facets of the problem, as well as coming up with some solutions based on my newly-gained knowledge. The unit study approach works on the same principle, exposing students to an area for them to study in depth, examining the history, development, political impact, etc..
When I am using unit studies, I plan them so that while the child is learning the basic material, he/she is also reinforcing other academic skills. Reading skills are emphasized with the various books studied. Writing skills are developed through writing assignments, copying and dictation and journal writing. Thinking skills mature through hands-on activities and problem analysis.
Unit studies can be more interesting and captivating than standard textbook/workbook curriculum. They encourage the use of imagination, creativity and analytical thinking. Another advantage is that they can be worked on together by the whole family, teaching all of the children the same unit simultaneously while varying the assignments based on the child's capabilities. This saves the parent time and money, instead of having to buy, assign, teach and check separate workbooks and text materials for each child.
While unit studies are a terrific and effective way to learn, they do not replace a systematic and progressive program for math, phonics and grammar. It is my opinion that these areas have to be covered separately, using other curriculum, to give the child a solid foundation in these areas. They can be reinforced and applied through the unit study to allow the child to increase proficiency.
How do I use unit studies?
In preparing a unit study, I perform extensive research on the new topic, developing an outline that contains the most important points to learn, as well as questions to ask. This outline serves as the basis for my "Lesson Plan". I take the finished outline and divide it into portions to be covered during each of the weeks that we plan to spend on the study (typically 4 weeks).
Through the unit preparation, I will identify a list of important reference resources that will be used for the specific information and details. I will also identify a list of reading references that we can read for enjoyment about the topic -- typically fiction, sometimes classics. A good example would be the novel Swiss Family Robinson by Johann Wyss when studying Oceans. These lists will be my teaching materials for the duration of the unit study, drawn on for use during the appropriate sections of the study outline.
After getting the outline complete and the resources defined, I am ready to begin the unit study with the children. We typically work on the unit study for 4 weeks, and then move to a new unit study. I have found that my children tend to tire of a subject after much more than 4 weeks, so I try to keep the material interesting over shorter time periods to maintain their enthusiasm for learning!
Why use unit studies?
Students learn more detailed information from a unit study approach:
The subject is seen as a whole instead of bits of history, geography or science scattered throughout their education.
The understanding of the topic can then be easily applied to other areas and topics.
Students tend to retain more of the information than with traditional curriculum:
They learn all dimensions of the topic, not just important names or dates.
Students develop a profound understanding and keep it for a lifetime -- SUCCESS!!
All ages of students can be taught simultaneously:
Older students will have more difficult assignments and be expected to learn at higher levels.
Younger students will pick up what they are ready to learn and their assignments can be adjusted accordingly.
I firmly believe the topic of the unit is not important, it's what you learn from finding the information. A unit study can be on baseball, Disney World, insects, cars, Barbie, birds, football, hunting... or anything else you can think of. I have always let my children pick the topics.
When Dakota was younger I would let him pick a topic and together we would gather up library books, videos and search for information on the internet. As we read library books we would make booklets about what we read. We would print information from the internet and make more booklets. We also would go to our shelves and look in the table of contents or index of books to see if we could find any information to add to our unit. We would study a topic until we felt like we learned all we could or we were just sick of the topic. As Dakota got older I would let him get on the computer and look up library books and gather them himself. Each year I would make him more responsible for the unit, until the year came that he was doing units all on his own without any input from me.
I believe this method has made Dakota the researcher he is today. If any topic comes up that he wants to learn about I know he knows how to research it and find the information he needs.
I have let Elijah pick out topics that he wants to learn about this year. I took this list and searched online for printouts. I've checked the library online to see what books and videos are available. Now I've got to pay my fines. I check through my books for information and reproducible pages. Also Elijah will make his own notebook pages. I don't have a set time each unit will last, most likely we'll move on when Elijah loses interest. (Dakota once did a study on cells for 6 weeks and made a very nice lapbook.)
There are also a lot of places online you can order premade unit studies from. Amanda Bennett is one of them, Hands of a Child, easyfunschool, homeschoolshare, KONOS, currclick (there's a link on the side bar of my blog) and many more places. You can google unit studies and come up with many places to purchase a unit already put together for you and you can find free units too. I will say I think half the fun is coming up with the unit yourself and following your child's lead. A premade unit tells you what to learn instead of letting the child explore and discovering what they want to learn. Saying that, but I have used some premade stuff and I will again in the future.
We also use Five In A Row and do unit studies based on the books we read from there.
This post got long, didn't it? I hope I have explained unit studies and how we use them. I'm always open to more questions though.