Putting the Fun Back into Education

A "serious" look at unit studies and their place in an academic home school.

By Suzanne Reid

    One of the funniest magnets I can remember from the annals of wisdom stuck to the face of my refrigerator door was the work of Mary Englebreit. It was an illustration of a ditsy, scattered-looking, young woman looking me straight in the eye with an air of authority and her finger pointing skyward. The caption below her read, "Let's put the fun back into dysfunction!"
    The whole idea is so ridiculous that it's funny. Sometimes I think we look at unit studies that way. Kind of ridiculous. I mean, who would dare to venture into the unknown of unit studies when we can follow the formula prescribed for us by the public school? Now, who's being ridiculous?
    I wish I had seen this absurdity earlier in my homeschool career. Now that I have successfully graduated one, and I am feeling more adventuresome, my ninth grader is participating in a unit study co-op for the first time. I am amazed at the in-depth learning and joy of independent research that she is experiencing-also for the first time. We have entered into the world of the unit study.
    Different from conventional schooling, a unit study looks at the subject as a whole, instead of individual parts, according to Kym Wright, a proponent of the unit studyi. The learning takes place around a central theme or subject and incorporates a majority of school subjects. An example would be a study of Ancient Mesopotamia. While studying the culture, the student would study history, geography, architecture, math, art, language and so on.
    Studying in this comprehensive fashion offers several advantages. A unit study is flexible. The parent can structure the study and set boundaries of time and subject depth to meet her family's needs. It is adaptable in that a parent can teach the same subject at multi-levels. For larger families, this is a wonderful way for children of varying grade levels to spend more time together learning the same subject. It can be inexpensive, depending on how much the parent wants to direct. A full range of unit study types exist, from free resources on the internet involving more work for mom, to completely organized, more expensive products requiring little or no advance preparation.
    The integrated approach of the unit study reinforces learning. Combining the learning of math, science, history and literature at the same time allows children to see the interrelatedness of subjects. Research skills are called upon, which leads to higher thinking and better understanding.
    Many unit studies incorporate hands-on projects, to highlight learning with memorable and fun activities. This definitely puts the fun back into learning and builds familial relationships. Both parents and students enjoy the break from the dry textbooks.
    Lastly, the beauty of the unit study is that it teaches to every learning style. All of us learn differently, and the successful unit study meets each individual at his point of interest, a topic I'll develop later.
    Some disadvantages do exist with this educational style, however, according to Jessica Hulcy, developer of the KONOS unit studyii. A unit study can lose the focus of study by researching rabbit trails rather than the subject matter. Secondly, a unit study can force fit unrelated subjects in an effort to integrate every subject into the unit. Some subjects simply don't relate to a particular unit study. She warns that unit studies do not follow conventional theory, which suggests a specific amount of time spent daily on every subject. Type A moms who worry about covering every detail can become frustrated in a unit study approach. Lastly, as with all curricula, the unit study can be so focused on the subject alone that it misses the main point of directing the child to a Christian worldview.
    Additionally, parents must remember that unit studies are not a core but an enrichment curriculum. Parents still need to teach core subjects such as phonetic reading, language arts, math, and science. These subjects, mastered through sequential learning, are the core.
    One of the best and least expensive places to begin your research of unit studies is the internet. A variety of websites exist. HSLDA.org has some great articles and interviews with experts in the field of unit studies. Once you go to the site run a search for unit studies.
    Mary Pride's Complete Guide to Getting Started in Homeschooling (ISBN 0-7369-0918-4) is a valuable resource. In her guide, Mary clearly explains the many different types of unit studies and gives a great list of available unit study curricula in her quick resource guide at the back of the book.
    Kym Wright just recently authored a new book, Booster Shot: Energize Your Homeschool with Unit Studies. In the book, Kym breaks the task down into three steps: the fundamentals of unit studies which include the definition, philosophy and methodology; creating a plan to accomplish the unit study; and energizing the unit study with practical "how to's" to keep doing it. Her appendix includes reproducible blank forms.
    According to Kymiii all unit studies fall into one of three basic categories-subject, character quality, and literature. A subject unit study focuses on a specific subject or theme, such as a country, a period of history, a science topic, or even a sport. A character study focuses on a character trait or personal quality such as honesty, self-control, or humility. Lastly, the literature unit study is based on a great piece of literature. An example from our homeschool was our study of the book, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. While reading that book we studied literary themes, the Civil Rights Movement, the history of slavery in America, racism, the Ku Klux Klan, sharecroppers, and life in the American south during the 1930s.
    At the end of this article I have provided a short list of curricula that represent some of the best in each category. Many more excellent providers exist. My apologies to any who didn't make the short list.
    At this point I am going to feature two outstanding curriculum providers to illustrate two types of unit studies. Although both produce more than discussed here, I have selected each for their excellence in the category I have placed them. The KONOS Character Curriculum is an example of a character unit. Tapestry of Grace is the example I have selected to represent a subject study.

    KONOS Curriculum
    In 1984 Carole Thaxton and Jessica Hulcy, two homeschool moms, accepted the challenge to develop a biblically-based character unit studies curriculum for their "wiggly" young boys. Dissatisfied with the secular rote method practiced in the public schools, these women developed KONOS Curriculum to be a hands-on, discovery approach-teaching several subjects to several grades around the topic of biblical character.
    The distinctive of the KONOS curriculum are the "5 D's"- Do, Discover, Dramatize, Dialogue, and Drill. "Do to capture attention" represents the hands-on aspect of learning by experiencing. "Discover to foster thinking" comprises activities that involve the mental exercises of discovery, imagination, comparison, and evaluation. "Dramatize to visualize" is the process in which a child acts out what he has just read to reinforce learning. "Dialogue to internalize" is where the parent can impart head and heart biblical knowledge. "Drill to crystallize" is the grand finale wrap-up of each unit where data is compared and contrasted. Integrated into the various activities of the curriculum, the "5 D's" methodology reinforces a thorough understanding and learning.
    The beauty of the KONOS "5D's" philosophy is that it teaches to every learning style. The visual learner will connect with the literature list of classics and the projects where they can learn by seeing. The kinesthetic learner will be in his element with the dramatization, the field trips, and the hands-on approach. The auditory learner will thrive on the family reading, dialoguing, and dramatization. Mom uses one curriculum to meet the needs of several students in different grades with different learning styles.
    Michael Farris, chairman of HSLDA, has called KONOS the "granddaddy of unit study" because it is one of the first and most enduring unit study programs for home educators. The founders began with KONOS Character Curriculum. This is a three-volume program, with each volume covering two to three years of curriculum, essentially covering K-8th grade in all subjects but math and language arts. The program was an immediate success, and KONOS moms begged for more.
    Over the years, KONOS has expanded to meet the needs and "wishes" of its consumers. The second generation of the original KONOS Character Curriculum is the New Classical KONOS Curriculum. These are smaller versions of the original set, and each book thoroughly covers one character trait in 18 weeks. The lesson plans are daily versus weekly in the original. This new generation is for moms who want the writers to give every detail down to the script with which to teach their children. Additionally, KONOS sells "KONOS In-A-Box," which includes absolutely everything needed to teach the curriculum—down to the paintbrushes.
    A creative twist on the character unit is the new KONOS Culture Curriculum Series. In this series, the authors develop the unit study around a country or continent that reflects a certain character trait. For example, the subtitle for the 18-week curriculum entitled Russia is "The Land of Endurance." This series is sold like the other, offering a version that includes everything needed for the study-"KONOS In-A-Bag."
    In addition to providing top-of-the-line character studies, KONOS has a heart for homeschoolers. The original curriculum has grown into an online co-op with Jessica Hulcy as the "ultimate hand-holding" mentor, available at HomeSchoolMentor.com. The Hulcys provide counseling, guiding, and just plain old help for moms and dads through the KONOS website at www.konos.com and their yahoo group at http:/groups.yahoo.com/group/KONOS-JessicaHulcy/. They get personal with those who purchase their products. Don't be surprised if Wade (Mr. Hulcy) tells dad he needs to come home early from work to discipline junior.
    Ever growing and expanding, the "granddaddy of unit study" continues to provide the homeschool community with creative curriculum and supportive tools to keep families homeschooling.

    Tapestry of Grace
    The story of Tapestry of Grace begins with a homeschool mom, Marcia Somerville, telling her husband, Scott, an HSLDA lawyer at the time, that she is done with home schooling. Having received an excellent education herself at Kent School and Dartmouth College, Marcia knew what an excellent education looked like, and her own homeschool was not the picture she had envisioned for her children. However, through prayer and encouragement, God led Marcia to redefine her priorities, change her methods, and persevere in well doing. The result after some 20 years in development is this comprehensive, dynamic curriculum-Tapestry of Grace.
    A winner of several homeschooling awards, Tapestry of Grace is a multi-level, integrated, four-year, classics-based Christian curriculum for the whole family. Based on the unit study approach with history as its core subject, Tapestry weaves a myriad of topics and subjects. With each lesson, students learn history, church history, literature, geography, fine arts, government, philosophy, and writing and composition. The program does not cover phonics, science, math, grammar, spelling or foreign language.
    Structured after the classical Christian model, Tapestry covers all of world history in four school years. Year one is "The Story of Redemption," covering creation to the fall of Rome. Year two is "Between Ancient & Modern," covering Byzantium to the US Constitution. Year three is "The Nineteenth Century," covering from the turn of the century to 1899, and year four is "The Twentieth Century," covering the dawn of the 20th century to present. As with the classical model, Tapestry has been developed to cycle through every four years.
    The program is filled to the brim with purpose and structure. Each year is separated into four binders representing units, each covering nine weeks of work. Each week includes 45 to 60 pages of color-coded sections comprising the weekly objectives, reading and writing assignments, student activities, teacher notes and answers to questions, and occasional bonus articles or materials. The program delivers all of the course instruction at the four different levels of traditional classical educational development-lower and upper grammar, dialectic and rhetoric.
    Although Tapestry has the depth of a college prep curriculum, it provides several resources, which make it user-friendly. Pop Quiz cards and audio disks keep Dad in the loop and quickly prepare him to ask relevant questions of his students. The Loom CD provides literally hundreds of files for mom and students to access anything from writing charts and "how-to's" to organization and encouragement. Beautiful reproducible maps with and without site locations are available for each year in pdf form on the Map Aids CD. The Writing Aids workbook and CD is the most comprehensive writing guide I have seen. It teaches the student how to write over 40 genres of writing, everything from analytical essays and descriptive essays to fables and speech writing, and it provides dozens of graphic organizers and supplements to prepare for such writing assignments. These are just a few of the more exceptional resources; others can be viewed online.
    At the Tapestry of Grace website viewers can learn about the family of related companies. Also online is information about the publisher LampstandPress, The Bookshelf, which is the online catalog, and Together the online community. The Together website is a sophisticated forum for connecting with others who use Tapestry. The site includes blogs from Marcia, popular and recent forum threads, co-op information, mail groups and chat rooms. The website is highly interactive and constantly growing and improving.
    The fantastic growth of Tapestry and its widespread reception from the homeschool community is impressive. And, the story is far from over for Tapestry of Grace. What was simply a curriculum a few years ago has grown into a community of families studying God's History together in Tapestry co-ops and online chat rooms. The company's pursuit of excellence has set a standard in the homeschool industry.

Unit Study Curricula

Subject-Based Unit Studies

Tapestry of Grace
Lampstand Press |
PO Box 5798 Rockville, MD 20855

Featured in this article.

The Weaver Curriculum® Alpha Omega Publications
804 N. 2nd Avenue East
Rock Rapids, Iowa 51246

The Weaver Curriculum is a bible-centered homeschool curriculum. For grades PreK-12th, it uses the same daily Bible theme as a foundation and then follows with individual lesson assignments geared to each student's grade level.

Literature Based Unit Studies

Beautiful Feet Books
1306 Mill St.
San Luis Obispo, CA 93401

Since 1984, Beautiful Feet Books has been supplying quality literature to the home education and private school markets. Beautiful Feet Books publishes noted authors and provides study guides that incorporate the best works of children's literature into a comprehensive curriculum.

Character Based Unit Studies

P.O. Box 250
Anna, TX 75409

Featured in this article.

Advanced Training Institute International
Box One
Oak Brook, IL 60522-3001

Using the unit study approach, The Advanced Training Institute International has developed The Wisdom Booklet curriculum that focuses on Biblical concepts and themes to which all academic disciplines relate.

Suzanne Reid is a former board member of ICHE and long-time home school mom. She and her husband home educated their two children from inception through high school graduation. Now that her children have completed college and are married, Suzanne is enjoying dating her husband and being a homeschool grandma. She has also returned to her graphic design business and is building websites for small business owners.

i "Defining Unit Studies." An interview with Mike Smith of HSLDA is available online at http://www.hslda.org/docs/hshb/77/hshb7711.asp

ii "How to Avoid Mindless Unit Studies," By Jessica Hulcy; Printed in Practical Homeschooling #1, 1993; available online at http://www.home-school.com/Articles/MindlessUnSt.html)

iii "Making Units Yours: The Three Basic Types of Unit Studies." An interview with Mike Smith of HSLDA is available online at http://www.hslda.org/docs/hshb/77/hshb7713.asp

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