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Homeschooling with Unit Studies

A Question and Answer Session with Amanda Bennett

November 2001: The following question and answer session was conducted on HomeschoolChristian.com's message boards. Amanda Bennett is the author of many unit study books and is a frequent speaker at homeschooling conventions. For more information, see her website. To see all of Mrs. Bennett's unit studies, visit Christian Book Distributors' Amanda Bennett specialty shop.

Briva: Do kids who switch from regular studies to unit studies usually consider them as fun? Do your studies progress like other curriculums? Is there a 1st, 2nd 3rd grade progression? What would a kindergarten usually enjoy? Or should I stick with her interests?

Amanda Bennett: I agree, many children retain the hands-on learning experiences better than just strictly textbook studies. When I reflect back on childhood memories of school, I find that my learning memories are usually based on different activities, experiments, field trips, etc. -- less on what we memorized from texts. Unit studies allow the student to involve many more senses and thought processes, in my opinion.

The children will long remember the volcano that we blew up on the dining room table, the rocketry experiments, beginning quilting adventures, meeting and talking to NASA astronauts, and much more. They remember so much more about the unit studies that we've done than any textbook efforts.

My new series of unit studies has an all new format -- with daily lessons that are divided into elementary lessons and middle/upper level lessons. This makes it flexible for use with multiple grade levels. For example, at a conference last night, a mom came up and described how much they were enjoying the Christmas unit study with their six-year-old, only working on a few questions for each day. Next year, she plans on adding more items from the elementary daily lessons for Christmas, adding more with each passing year and grade.

Jamie: Because I live in a state where I have to fulfill certain requirements by certain grade levels, is it possible/cost effective to go completely with units or is it better to continue as I have and use them as supplements - using a more "formal" curriculum to cover necessary subjects? In addition to adding math, does one also have to add a more formal grammar, spelling, and vocabulary - especially in the middle and high school years?

Amanda Bennett: First of all, it is possible to go completely with unit studies, and it is also just as acceptable to use a mix of texts and unit studies. It all depends on your educational approach and goals, and that varies from family to family and child to child. For example, I have found that some families are more comfortable sticking with a rigid textbook curriculum, and add a unit study or two throughout the year for special areas of interest, on topics like baseball or soccer or horses, for example. Then there are others that are comfortable using a unit study approach throughout the year, and adding in a math program and perhaps a grammar/writing program, depending on the student's age.

There are no set "rules" for this area, and you have to find what works for your family. You mentioned that your state has specific educational requirements for certain grade levels. Many people take these requirements and include them in unit studies throughout the year. In engineering college, we used to call this approach the "give me the answer you want, and I'll come up with the problem that fits the outcome desired" approach. (smile) If you know what their expectations are, you can meet them with a textbook approach, a unit study approach, or a combination of the two.

When working on a unit study, I typically try to include areas of study that fit in naturally with the topic. For example, when we worked on Thanksgiving, we covered plenty of history (European and American) and geography, but not as much science as a study on electricity. When studying oceans, we studied geography, marine biology, and explorers. If you will look at the scope and sequence of World Book or any of the curriculum publishers, you will see that many of the topics of study are repeated from year to year, and that several unit studies in a year could cover just as much material.

But I need to repeat that each family needs to determine what works best with their situation and students. Unit studies can be a powerful tool for learning and instilling a thirst for knowledge in children of all ages, in my opinion.

Barbara C.: My dear daughter is 15 (9th grade) and we have been homeschooling since 5th grade. I've often thought about doing a Unit Study. Is it too late to do one?

Amanda Bennett: You can work on a unit study at any time, and what a great learning experience for everyone involved!

If you would like to try a unit study, consider working on one over the holidays. You two can work on one about Christmas, or quilting, or dress design and sewing, and on and on. Many of us are ready to switch gears and work on a different type of study topic this time of year, and a holiday unit study can provide both learning and fun for everyone.

When you think about it, we all use a basic sort of unit study approach to most of life's questions or challenges, whether it involves financing a home, a health issue, purchasing a new car, and so much more! We learn all that we can about the topic or question, collecting ideas and recommendations, talking to others, etc. It is this approach that helps us make intelligent decisions, in my opinion. Using unit studies helps our children learn this concept at an early age, igniting their inquisitiveness and imagination. And THAT'S what I consider success!

I hope that this has helped with your question. If you are considering trying a unit study now, ask your daughter to come up with three things that she would like to know more about -- offer suggestions that align with her interests -- sewing, astronomy and telescopes, the fashion industry, etc. The sky is truly the limit here!

Wendy: I would like to work with both my children together. Ages 12 and 7, can I do this? Give me a few ideas. The both LOVE science.

Amanda Bennett: Absolutely! We started using unit studies when our youngest was a new baby, and the older two (boy and girl) were 6 and 10. We had a great time, and the rest is history! We started off by studying Oceans, as we only lived 4 blocks from the ocean. Then we studied Space, since we were only 30 minutes south of Cape Canaveral. Some of the topics were Baseball/Softball, Electricity, the Olympics, Pioneers, and many more. They both enjoy science, and we have never lacked for interesting topics.

Wendy: I have never seen one so I really do not even know what comes in a unit study. Is there something ready-made that I can buy?

Amanda Bennett: Unit studies come in all different kinds of formats -- some include daily lessons and resources, while others are basically lists of books and study guidelines. My new studies come complete -- with daily lessons, online resources, and more.

These days, there are many definitions of unit studies, and it can be very confusing at times. A unit study, by definition, is where you take a single topic (let's use Christmas as an example), and focus all learning on this topic. When studying Christmas, you could study history (Biblical history, history of the Roman Empire), geography (the Middle East and the Holy Land), art (paintings of the Nativity through the years), and much more. By focusing on just one topic, the children will make so many strong mental connections between the information bits and pieces, and develop a strong knowledge base to build upon. They aren't just memorizing the bold words in a textbook for a weekly quiz, and the information is quickly forgotten after the quiz.

Unit studies do need to be supplemented with a separate math program, and possibly a writing/grammar program as the children get older. Using unit studies allows the family to follow the interests of the child, which takes something that they are already fascinated with and turns it into an adventure into many other areas of learning. We've gone from topics like trains to computers to space to Galileo to early scientists and on and on.

Cathe: I've started a high school 4-year unit study program (Listen My Son) with my 15 yo. I'm afraid this is too shallow an approach to take at this grade level. I like the program, and it should help my son gradually assume the responsibility for planning and organizing his education. How can I "beef it up" without keeping him at home for another eight years??

Amanda Bennett: While I am not familiar with the program that you are using, I can say that you have quite a bit going on now! Is science included in Listen My Son, or is it mainly history? I like the Apologia sciences, and their high school courses are excellent.

You are right -- three weeks for WWII seems too brief, in my opinion. Textbooks tend to treat history in similar abbreviated format, and it can be very frustrating for those with inquisitive minds. Is there any way to shorten some of the less-important topics so that more time can be spent on topics that you feel are more important? There must be some way to achieve a balance -- so much can be learned in high school over four years. I read about a study once, where the author proved that everything a person needs to know could be taught to them in a single year from the age of 17 to 18!

I would suggest adding some great reading material on topics that you think aren't given enough time in the program. Also, keep in mind that while these four years might touch lightly on many things, college and adult life are also times for much more in-depth learning. I know that I've learned more as an adult than I ever learned in high school -- most of the learning has come from homeschooling our children!

While applying for college, the only time our oldest was ever questioned about specific science course material or texts was during a scholarship interview on campus. She was accepted at several colleges and offered scholarships without anyone ever questioning course content. Homeschoolers are definitely being pursued these days by top level colleges, and rightly so!

Apologia science is very thorough and gives complete treatment to each topic of their texts, in my opinion. The new CD-ROM that accompanies the texts adds a new dimension to the experience, too.

Crystal: How many hours a day would your recommend using a unit study with children that are 8 and 10? Also, is Bible covered in the unit studies that you have designed?

Amanda Bennett: First, realize that there aren't many "average" days in most homeschool households! Typically, I recommend that the time spent on unit studies can be anywhere from 2 to 4 hours in a day, and then there are other times where the investigation continues on for hours of more reading, drawing, and on and on. Unit studies provide a great tool to motivate children and help develop their curiosity and interest -- and once the mind is ignited, the fire tends to keep burning. They ask more questions, read more, and develop more self-motivation.

In my new unit study series, there is a daily quote or scripture passage that relates to the day's focus for the students to copy and/or memorize. Some of the topics are completely based on the Bible, like Christmas and Easter, while others use biblical references to reinforce parts of the lesson -- like Sailing Ships or Lighthouses.

Many thanks to Amanda Bennett for sharing her thoughts with us here at HomeschoolChristian.com!

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