By Gina Reich Guzman. Reprinted with permission.
From what I have read Ms. Mason was adamantly opposed to the traditional method of teaching unit studies. Therefore you will NOT find any mention of traditional unit study methods or resources here. Instead, I am going to share how my family’s unit studies have slowly morphed into a method that I do believe Ms. Mason would find acceptable. The two keys to my method of unit studies is that they are informal and that I absolutely do not provide all the connections and relationships for my children. Instead, I use the unit studies format to create an environment where the children can more easily make these connections and relationships for themselves. Most of my family’s unit studies fall under history, science and literature (see author study page also). It really is quite different from how most homeschoolers and teachers approach unit studies.
Steps to Creating an Informal Unit Study
1. Determine the topic. It may come from your curriculum or from your children’s interests.
2. Go through your house collecting EVERYTHING you have on the subject, no matter how miniscule. I look through our books, videos, games, toys, clothes, photos, etc. for any item that may be put to good use.
3. Make a wish list of items to get from the library, borrow from a friend or buy. Gather as many of these as is realistic for your budget. Unlike with traditional unit studies you can get by with less “stuff” with this method. Really, your main job is just to procure the items so that they are readily accessible to the children.
4. Sometime during the planning and gathering stage, I like to make a chart showing what items we will use and what school subject they are most related to. Remember to include the materials you already use regularly! (See how I used SOTW for our history unit studies.) For example, I would list Bill Nye’s video on planets under “Video” and “science”. The key here is to find items that hit as many of the 5 senses as possible and to see what academic subjects those items fall under. Unlike traditional unit studies, do NOT feel compelled to cover every single academic subject in each unit study. THAT sort of spoon feeding is exactly what turned Ms. Mason off of unit studies.
5. Next, set-up the items so that they are readily available to both you and the children. You will need them during lesson times and the children will probably use them most during masterly inactivity and handicrafting times. I just have a shelf and a basket where we keep our “current topics” books, resources, toys, and materials.
6. If your children are not use to the availability of materials make sure to explain the new system to them or the items will sit on the shelf collecting dust!!!
7. Continue with your lessons as adapted/rewritten by yourself or in your curriculum. After a few dips into informal unit studies (we use them only for topics the kids want to explore in-depth, not everything!) you will begin to see your children making their own connections more readily without you having to say a word. For young learners make sure to include plenty of educational play items. When they were younger my girls made paper dolls or simple costumes for every time period we covered in ancient history. Instead of narrations I often just watched their free play to see how they were re-enacting all those great stories we had read. ZooToobs has some great toys for the ancients and animal habitats and once you get tired of picking the toys up they are great for making shoebox dioramas! With today’s technology, many children use their toys to create great videos based on what they are learning. Somewhere we have a great video the kids made featuring Greek gods and monsters that they improvised using Imaginext toys and Bionicles.
8. Sometimes it is fun to do a wrap-up activity to signal the end of the unit study. My kids have done a mini Greek play, the aforementioned video, a Mesopotamian dinner, a diorama of the Serengeti and so on as unit study wrap-ups.
Thoughts on Informal Unit Studies
In many ways, these are mini-unit studies rather than the full-blown unit studies we are used to. With a CM Education, the unit studies should enhance, or adapt, your regular lessons and not necessarily replace them. As an example, instead of breaking up Ancient Egypt and Ancient China into chronological segments that way Story of the World did we studied them as mini-unit studies using our regular history materials with videos, games and roleplaying added in. The children strongly disliked the disjointed approach of SOTW so I used unit studies as a format for them to see how everything within that civilization related to each other. We also did some informal comparisons of Ancient Egypt to modern Egypt and the same with Ancient vs. modern China. This provided a way of livening up our history lessons and making it seem more alive for the kids without me spoonfeeding information to them.
As long as you are not spoon feeding information to your children and you are not making connections and relationships for them there is no way to do an informal unit study incorrectly! Truly, it is so simple that my girls sometimes create their own unit studies with what they can find around the house.
Recommended Resources for Informal Unit Studies
I have not come across one single unit study program that I would recommend for use with Charlotte Mason! ALL of them spoonfeed information and make the connections for the child which is the direct opposite of what Ms. Mason advocated. Instead, I have found it useful to just adapt the materials I am already using, such as the Ancient Egypt example where we simply combined all of the Ancient Egypt chapters in SOTW, rather than doing those chapters in the order written. For the elementary years, I have used some teacher resources for supplementing my own materials. I am particularly fond of the Literature and Thematic Unit resource books from Teacher Created Materials. We have NEVER used those books cover to cover. Instead, the kids and I go through them together determining which activities they actually WANT to do. I’ve noticed they focus on the drawing and hands-on activities, skipping much of the writing assignments. I do use the background information and test questions in my verbal discussions with the kids. The formal test questions are often easily adapted into more narrative-friendly questions. In general, my middle schooler and high schooler do not enjoy unit studies a much as they did when they were younger so we are slowly easing out of this method of learning.