HS 172: Are You a Unit Study Homeschooler? with Heather Woodie


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As part of our Ultimate Guide to Homeschool Methods, series from the archives I spoke to Heather Woodie of Blog She Wrote.

Heather homeschooled her children using the unit study method for over ten years. Sometimes she used purchased unit studies, while at other times she (or her children!) wrote their own studies. She mentors other homeschool moms with her participation in the Five in a Row forums and through her blog, where she is a helpful voice with resources and techniques for homeschooling high school.

I think you are going to enjoy Heather’s interview all about her experience with the unit study method, so relax and have a listen.

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Unit Study Podcast Transcript

Pam: Hi everyone. I’m Pam Barnhill from pambarnhill.com and welcome to The Ultimate Guide to Homeschooling Methods. Today, I am joined by Heather Woodie, who blogs at blogshewrote.org. Heather started using the unit study method when she pulled her oldest son out of public school. Now a high school junior, he and his siblings still learn each day through unit studies. I’m really excited because Heather has some great information to share with us today about unit studies and exactly what her homeschool day looks like. So let’s get on with the interview. Hi Heather, and thanks so much for joining me today. How are you doing?

Heather: I’m doing well, thank you. Thanks for having me.

Pam: Well, I’m so glad you’re here. Well, would you start, go ahead and tell me a little bit about your kids and their ages for me.

Heather: Sure. I have four children, the oldest of whom is 16, he’s a junior. I have a ninth grader who is 14 going on 15 in June. I have a seventh grader who’s 12 gonna be 13 in June and I have a nine year old who is a fourth grader. And he’ll be 10 in June.

Pam: You have a lot of June birthdays.

Heather: Yeah, they’re all within the first 10 days.

Pam: Oh my goodness. I thought we were bad. We have three within six days of each other in March, but you have definitely got us beat. Well have you always been a unit study style homeschooler? Tell me a little bit about your journey.

Heather: We have always used unit studies from the beginning, I should say that our oldest was in public school for kindergarten and half of first grade and when we pulled him out, the very first thing we did was a little scholastic booklet called Teaching with Magic Tree House Books. And our goal for him that semester was just to restore his love of learning. It had been kicked out of him in pretty short order by going to public school. And the only thing we had that we wanted him to be able to do is just learn to like learning again. So we worked with lots of Magic Tree House Books. We had the time of our lives just reading the books together and that increased his reading fluency and working on just the activities that went with those stories.

Pam: So looking for that love of learning is what led you to unit studies in the first place?

Heather: Yes.

Pam: Well what made you stick with unit studies? Was there something about how it went with your family that made you decide, “This is the thing for me, I’m going to stick with it?” Or was it more of just a gradual thing that you turned around one day and realized, “Hey, we’re a unit study family?”

Heather: Well we did try and do something a little bit different. I used another literature program for a little while at the beginning of second grade with him and it was pretty fast and furious. There was a lot of literature with it but it seemed at loose ends to me because we read so many things and we had so many threads running at once that it just wasn’t clicking and coming together. And that’s when we moved to a literature based unit study program called Five in a Row.

Pam: Right. Okay. So for you guys, have you ever written your own unit studies or do you mostly use ones that were pre done already?

Heather: I write them all the time.

Pam: Oh, okay.

Heather: And sometimes my kids end up writing them because if they find something that they really want, then I encourage them to explore that and they can bring in lots of different disciplines to do it. Some people might consider that more project based or delight directed. But I think a lot of it is unit study too because you can anchor your unit study on a lot of different things. It doesn’t have to be a book, it could be a topic or it could be an activity or it could be a person. There are a lot of different things to anchor a study on.

Pam: So when you do a unit study, all of your subjects are integrated into that unit study. Is that right?

Heather: Yeah, that’s what we are hoping to do when we do that.

Pam: And what about math?

Heather: Math is tricky, right? But we usually work in the applied math with a unit study. So it might not be what our regular curriculum is, but we do take the time to explore the math that would make the most sense for that unit study. We’re going to look for the authentic experience, not something that’s contrived, but something that makes sense for what we’re learning.

Pam: So would you say that there might be some unit studies where there’s just not very much math at all?

Heather: Sure.

Pam: Okay. Now you mentioned your math curriculum. Do you follow with separate math curriculum in addition to your unit studies?

Heather: We do. We started out with a very traditional sort of spiral program and we have sort of morphed into a program called Math on the Level, which works really wonderfully with unit studies because that program is all about math maturation and being able to handle concepts. Not everything has to be right in a row. It can be, you know, you can learn geometry if you don’t know all of your addition facts, for example. So it just gives you a little bit more flexibility. And since then we’ve actually moved to story math. So we’ve done all kinds of math.

Pam: Okay. And that’s working well for you guys?

Heather: Yes.

Pam: Alright. And I guess the great thing about having teenagers is you know it’s working well for you guys as opposed to if your oldest is nine and you’re still sitting here going, “I just don’t know if it’s going to work or not.”

Heather: Yes. And I can tell you that our oldest is 16 he started Algebra in seventh grade and he is finished trigonometry. He’s a junior and he’s ready to start calculus.

Pam: Awesome. So what you’ve done through the years has definitely worked.

Heather: Yes.

Pam: Well tell me a little bit what a typical day might look like in a unit study home. What are some things that you might use, some resources or curriculum that you might use and then what kind of things might happen on any given day?

Heather: So it kind of depends on the ages of your kids and what their skill level is. Because even a unit study family is going to spend some time on gaining basic skills like reading and math and writing. But usually you can do that within your studies and still, you know reading instruction will probably take place with a reading program of your choice. In our case we liked Reading Made Easy and we spend a lot of time with that instruction and then we pull in the related books from our study and we would continue that instruction with trade books on the topic of choice. And the same thing with math. Math can be done as a family. We’ve done a lot of family math together. Everybody at a topic that is similar but at different levels. So if you’re talking about money, maybe the first graders identifying coins, but the fourth grader is dividing decimals and so you can sort of launch together and end up in different places and that we’ve done that together. The core of the unit study would be done together, but you might require different things for your order students compared to your younger students and you can spend that time together and touch base together. And then farm out from there to do the work that you’re going to get done for the day.

Pam: Can we talk about that for a minute? Because that’s a concept that I think some people who come from a public school background and, well, and I know you were a teacher for a few years as was I, but I think that’s a tough transition for people to make is how can I take all four of my kids and, you know, there’s a six or seven year difference in their ages, and how can we all study together? So can you give me an example of how you might be studying a topic and you can pick one, but I’m just going to throw out say the Civil War and require something different, you know, what kind of different things would you require from different kids? Just an example.

HS 171: Are you an Unit Study Homeschooler with Heather WoodiePin

Heather: Well, if we’re just talking about something like writing, I might require my first or second grader to do copy work related to the Civil War. I might have my fourth graders start to form some paragraphs and write a short report. My middle schooler would have to write something a little longer and would be required to have sources and then my high schooler would maybe have to do like a full on research paper on a topic and would have to provide MLA formatting and resources and things like that.

Pam: Okay. That’s a great example of how you would all be studying the same thing but requiring different topics. How would you read about that topic as a family with such a wide range of kids?

Heather: I would choose a read aloud that is appropriate for all of the ages and then require additional reading from my high school and middle schooler, something on their own that they would be reading. But we would kind of come together and have discussions and a read aloud time that would be for all the kids. And right now the Civil War has been in the news for the last few years because it’s the 150th year. So there’s a lot of current events and things that are going on that you can talk about too if you were doing it right now.

Pam: So you wouldn’t just be using books, you would pull in computer websites, documentaries, videos, and even things that are in the news.

Heather: Yeah. And with a sesquicentennial year, you have a lot of places you didn’t know will be commemorating. Last year I took my kids to see an original copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, which was on display here in our town. And just this past weekend we could have seen the Gettysburg Address in Lincoln’s hand, the Emancipation Proclamation, and a copy of the Thirteenth Amendment.

Pam: Oh Wow.

Heather: So there’s all kinds of things going on and there’s always something to seek out. And so I always encourage people to check with local universities and land grant universities, especially have an outreach charter so that you can take your kids on field trips that everybody can go on.

Pam: Right. Okay. And I just want you to know, I just pulled the Civil War out of my hat. And Heather’s already got 12 resources lined up.

Heather: Yeah, It’s an easy one for me to think of this particular year.

Pam: I didn’t even know that was going on, that’s great. Now I have to go look it up. Okay. Well you were telling me about a typical day, so you’re going to teach basic skills separately to each child on their level and then you’re going to have the family come together and you’re going to do some things that the family can do as a group, some reading aloud, discussion, things of that nature. But then everyone’s gonna have their own assignments on their level to do with the topic related to the unit study and you’re also going to then turn around and integrate those skills that you were teaching in the morning, those basic skills, back into the unit study. So, copy work related to the unit study, reading related to the unit study, as well. Okay. Well, about how long would this take?

Heather: I would say you could block out a section of your day. If you’re morning people, you can do it in the morning. If you are not, you can do it in the afternoon. I think it depends on how old your kids are, what sort of basic skills you’re working on with your kids and when they are the prime for their basic skills. So my youngest, he is a project kid, he just, he loves to do his own thing and so I get done what has to be done with him early because then he’s gone exploring for the day. And so I think it really depends on the personality of your kids and how they work best as to when you tackle skills with them. If your younger kids nap in the afternoon, then it’s a great time to do unit studies in the morning and individual work with your older kids in the afternoon while your younger kids are quiet or napping or whatever. That’s how I would sort of orchestrate our day.

Pam: Right. Okay. So the next thing I’m going to ask you, I’m sitting here and I’m listening to this and this is appealing to me as a homeschool mom, but I don’t like glue and glitter and cutting and all of those pieces of paper all over my floor. Can I still do unit studies?

Heather: Sure you can do unit studies ’cause it really depends on what your kids like, too. And early on my kids loved to cut and paste and my oldest was in public school. That was sort of like his regimen, right? That was a skill that he had to have and liked to be there. But as my kids have gotten older, they’ve gotten out of that lesson. My youngest really doesn’t like it at all. So we actually keep a regular three ring binder for him and he has sections for his subjects that go with the unit study. But he’s not making lapbooks and big notebook things. So we do a lot of note pages I like to teach my kids how to design their own note pages rather than having a lot of printables simply because it’s important to learn how to organize your own information. So that is a skill that we practice in our homeschool. And, I think you just have to, kind of, get over what it is that you may see other people doing. I think that’s important, especially now. When we first started homeschooling Pinterest wasn’t around so we couldn’t gaze at what other people do and worry about what we’re doing as much as you can now and at the end of the day you just got to know, ‘Hey, we put the time in, my kids made this great thing or they wrote that thing’ and it’s not a big deal because we know that they’re learning.

Pam: Right. Well, note pages, you mentioned note pages. So is that simply just a page of taking notes, learning note taking techniques, those kinds of things?

Heather: Actually, maybe not so much techniques, but I might say, let’s say we were supposed to look for metaphors in the story that we’re reading and instead of finding a nice notebook page that’s all laid out for me, I probably will take a piece of paper, a piece of loose leaf paper, ’cause I am the queen of notebooking paper, and I will write ‘My Own Metaphor’s’ at the top or something like that. It will be it written in whatever was on the table in front of me. And then I will set it in front of the child who’s going to work and say, “Hey, we just talked about metaphors. Can you write me one?” And they might draw a picture that goes with it. Or the same thing with a simile if we’re talking about similes from a story. I might give them the first one, like, blank as a blank, or whatever and all they have to do is fill it in. And so I think the reason I mention it is because a lot of times we get hung up on what things need to look like and not as much the doing what needs to be done. So, I grab notebook paper all the time and I just write a few questions on it maybe of what my kids need to explore or find out and then they write it down. It’s not very pretty, but it gets the job done and then my kids, we can focus on other things that have more value.

Pam: That’s awesome. I wanted to kind of like highlight that because I think that’s a great technique to use with any kind of homeschooling. I love that, how you’re focusing on what needs to be learned and not necessarily on what the page looks like.

Heather: Right, and my corollary to that is my ducks in a row theory, which is that in order to do something, if it’s a science experiment that goes with your unit study, you don’t have to have everything all ready to go and looking sparkling. Most of the science that we do happens because my kids ask a question and we say, “Hey, let’s go figure it out.” And then we just grab what we have and we figure it out and I didn’t have all the materials ready and it wasn’t all set up and I don’t have the perfect printable for it. We just do it. And so many times I think homeschoolers get hung up on being absolutely prepared and then waiting for the perfect moment. And that perfect moment may never come and then you didn’t do that thing that you had planned or wanted to do.

Pam: Right. And I love kind of the spirit of inquiry that you guys are fostering there. It’s, “Hey, here’s a question, let’s go figure out what the answer is.”

Heather: It gives our kids a great base knowledge of many things, which is what unit studies are great at because you’re going to add another layer of knowledge the next time. Because the way a unit study works is you’re studying various things about one topic or one anchor item and they’re going to overlap with other things. And so I never worry that I have to exhaust, you know? I don’t have to pull out everything I possibly can on snow, ’cause there’s going to be winter next year. That’s the other thing I would caution about with unit studies is not trying to exhaust every last resource you can possibly find because you’re going to be able to revisit again.

Pam: About how long do you spend on any given unit study? And I’m sure it varies, but could you give me a ballpark?

Heather: Anywhere from one to four weeks? It depends on the topic and how much the kids are wanting to know more. It could be a book that we study for a week. It could be a longer book that we study for four. It could be, we once did a little study on Follow the Drinking Gourd that turned into this many, many weeks long study of the Underground Railroad and we went on lots of field trips with that one.

Pam: So if you have a dud you just kind of let it die quietly.

Heather: Yeah, absolutely. And I have no, necessarily any qualms about cutting out of a study that I thought was going to be awesome, that just is not going well.

Pam: Okay. Well what about gaps? Are you worried about gaps?

Heather: I’m not worried about gaps because even traditionally educated students will have gaps and so I try not to worry about those. Also, we’re in New York state so we have a lot of testing and accountability that comes with that. And so I do have check points for my kids to see, you know, are they kind of falling in where they need to fall in and absolutely they are. All of my kids have grown up on a unit study curriculum as their foundation and they’re all thriving. So I don’t worry about the gaps because they know how to find things out. And like I said before, if you have one topic and you learn a little bit about it at this time, the next time you come across it you already have some prior knowledge on the topic and then you can add more detail to what you know. And the older they get, the more in depth they go and the more you require of them and the more you can add to their knowledge bank.

Pam: Right. Well how do you plan out which unit studies are coming up? Do you try to strike a balance between, I’m going to do so many science studies this year and so many history studies or so many literature studies. Do you have some kind of scope and sequence that you’ve kind of laid out and you follow? How do you do that as the teacher, the homeschool mom teacher, and plan what direction you’re going in, in the future?

Heather: Well, if you use a unit study curriculum then some of that is done for you. So if we use a literature based unit study and we’ve used a lot of them, Five in a Row, we’ve also used ones that are based just on a series of books. Like, I have a unit study that actually was written by a local homeschooler called Lion Prep Academy and it was written for all of the Narnia books. And so with those you certainly have a scope and sequence set out before you, what you would decide then is, am I going to do this the way it’s written all the way out or will I pick and choose what I’m going to do? And so, I am not, I will admit, a person who wants to spend a whole year only doing Narnia, so I would probably pick a book. And so, early on when all of my kids were younger, we did, I looked at the beginning and I kind of set an itinerary for the year, not necessarily with time frames, but these are the units that we’re going to do and we’ll hopefully get to as many as we can.

Pam: And you don’t do that quite so much now that they’re older.

Heather: Now I have two in high school and one in middle school and one in elementary school. And so the high schoolers, some of their work looks more traditional and some of it is still unit study in nature. It’s just not all of it. And a lot of it they’re doing on their own. So my daughter does, she’s going through US History chronologically, like the second half of US History, so like Civil War and Reconstruction forward. And she does her own thing with fashion and sewing. So, she’s a designer. She studies the fashion of every time period once she gets there. So we try to mix it up and she produces a garment and then writes about what she found out about what they wore then and she tells why she made choices of design based on what she learned in her history. And so it’s a kind of a combination of going more traditional with a textbook and throwing in our own study to go with it.

Pam: Oh Wow. That’s interesting. If you’re a kid who likes sewing and costuming and things like that, that seems like that would be a fabulous way to learn.

Heather: Right. And my older son, my oldest who’s a junior, is doing that same history program with her and his thing is writing. And so he writes more about different time periods in history and does sort of some op-ed type pieces to go with his studies. So we try to do the straight and narrow but add their own flair in at the same time.

Pam: Just to keep it interesting.

Heather: Yeah, and that kind of comes out of the unit study format is, how can we keep being creative and do that in high school while still creating a transcript that looks more conventional.

Pam: Right. Well why do you think that unit studies are the best way for children to learn?

Heather: I think because it’s a very natural thing to make connections between the things you see in the world. You know, science is not always separate from math and English, and history are not always separate. You know, when you were in traditional school, you went from classroom to classroom to classroom, especially as you got to middle school, and every time you sat down it was a different place with different requirements and they never crossed paths. And that’s not really how the real world. The real world, there are things that cross paths and so it’s fun to see how things integrate and not to have to keep them separate. It saves time. It saves money because you’re not buying separate for everybody and it also helps you to make connections and foster relationships between your kids because they’re not all doing their separate thing.

Pam: Right. They’re all working together as a family.

Heather: Yeah, and they’re working individually too. They’re doing both, but it definitely gives you a connection point for all of your kids, which I think is the cool part of homeschooling is to be able to do that.

Pam: Right. Well, if I were interested in getting started with unit studies, what are some of your favorite books and resources about how to get started?

Heather: I love the book, it’s one of my very favorite homeschooling books, and it’s called Unit Studies Made Easy and it’s by Valerie Bent and in it she kind of just, she gives you examples of unit studies that she’s done with her children. She gives you ways to do grading with unit studies and how to teach grammar through unit studies and it just breaks the process down into very simple terms. She also has a lot of wisdom in there about not chasing the newest and greatest thing or having a million homeschooling books on your shelves because we can always think that something is going to be greener on the other side and we can stay kind of grounded. And so I like to visit that from time to time and remember that myself. But one thing I love about unit studies is you can have a lot of general supplies that get used in a lot of ways. So a good dictionary, a good thesaurus, art supplies.

Pam: Library card.

Heather: Yeah, a library card or a Kindle is a good enough resource. Sometimes I’m at odds with my library because you know, either of availability of books or fines or whatever. Sometimes it’s easier when you know it’s a free Kindle book or I need a short story just to download it in 30 seconds later the child’s reading and I didn’t drive anywhere.

Pam: Yeah, I thought I was the only one who had library fines. Oh, I think I have enough for everybody.

Heather: Well for the longest time we didn’t get charged for children’s books and so we moved and now I have to be a big girl and play by the big city rules.

Pam: It’s tough. That’s what makes that Kindle and Amazon two day Prime shipping so great.

Heather: Yes, it is very tough. And, you know, and probably less than your library fine.

Pam: Yes. With the ones I paid this past weekend, I definitely could have bought a book, so goodness. Well Heather, this was wonderful, wonderful information and the Valerie Bent book, I will link up to that in the show notes for this particular conversation. I did link to it in the original homeschooling methods post and there are some copies available used, sadly, I think it’s out of print right now.

Heather: Oh, how sad.

Pam: But it is available on Kindle for what I think I remember being a very good price. So you can pick that one up on Kindle and read it on your computer, your phone, your iPad or your Kindle if you have one of those.

Heather: Right. Totally worth the time.

Pam: Definitely. Well, thank you so much for joining me and sharing all this great information with me. I really appreciate it.

Heather: You’re very welcome. Thanks for having me.

Pam: Alright, I just want to thank Heather again for joining us today. I learned so much from her information and was very inspired about how she uses unit studies to homeschool her family. If you have a question for either myself or for Heather, you can head on over to edsnapshots.com/methods where you can click on the unit studies tab, leave either of us a question or explore the other methods of homeschooling that are featured there. Thanks so much for joining us today and we’ll look forward to seeing you next time.

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  • Natalie says:

    I thought I heard a reference to story math. Is that a particular program?

  • […] The Homeschool Solutions Show with Pam Barnhill (this episode is about unit studies) […]

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