Creating a Personalized Unit Study for Middle and High School Students
One of the amazing things about homeschooling is that you can create an educational experience that is custom made to fit your child. Unit studies are a great way to cover educational goals in a way that makes learning more exciting for your child and hopefully for you too! When my son was an elementary age student, it was easy to find unit studies that covered his interest of the week and some of our education goals. A unit on dinosaurs might combine reading, art, and science in a way that made the week fly by. I noticed as we moved into middle school age that age appropriate unit studies were hard to find. If we did find some, they felt rather forced. Counting and adding dinosaurs for math doesn’t seem like a stretch when you’re nine, but at thirteen that’s just not going to fly anymore. Although I was able to find a lot of good quality curricula that made learning enjoyable, I wanted to find more themed units that helped show that every topic is multidisciplinary. I wanted to show that although every topic in every subject isn’t always exciting as a standalone, it is part of a continuum of knowledge and to fully embrace any topic, we need at least a working knowledge of all of the standard school subjects. But to get there in middle school I was going to have to roll up my sleeves and create our own unit studies both large and small to pull all the book work together myself.
Just because middle and high school level unit studies are hard to find doesn’t mean they are hard to create! A little brainstorming with your children can help you create a memorable learning adventure. To start any unit study, I start with a topic. The broader the topic is, the easier it will be to expand it to different disciplines. Once you have a general topic start looking at your topic through the lens of your regular education topics. In Maryland, we must cover eight basic subjects each year: English, math, social studies, science, art, music, health and physical education. Last year we decided to work on a unit study about pirates. It was clear that pirates would go under social studies but how could we also incorporate all of our other subjects even if just briefly, but in a way that wasn’t insulting to the intellect of a middle school aged student? It turned out it was fairly easy!
Pirates fit into social studies in two ways; first, pirating has a long and complex history so we started with some basic history of pirating and what it means, and second, we had to do quite a bit of geography to locate where pirates have operated over the centuries. We found several great documentaries to supplement our online study and we spend plenty of time looking at maps to identify the countries that were mentioned in the documentaries. Government came up several times as we discussed letters of marque, trade, and the contracts between pirates that outlined their code. Science and math were focused on calculating the distances that pirate ships had to travel, converting different measurements, and learning about the wind and ocean currents that affect travel in boats which rely on the wind to power them. For English, we learned the definitions of new words and some notetaking. My son created a large papier-mâché pirate ship to cover art. We incorporated music by learning about what we today consider pirate songs, which were in fact 19th century whaling songs. In addition to learning a few whaling songs, we also learned about instruments that would have been used during the height of piracy. To include a bit about health, we discussed the unbalanced meals that pirates and other sailors would have endured and the diseases they were prone to, like scurvy. Although I thought I had a brilliant idea to cover PE, my son was not game for climbing a tree to pretend he was scaling a mast.
Starting with a general topic and a list of educational subjects which you would like to incorporate, it is possible to create a fun and age appropriate unit study of your own! It also gives your students a chance to participate in how to cover all the subjects with a unit study. If your daughter is less interested in some aspects of piracy, she may be convinced to study more about the fashion of the pirates; how clothing was made, where the cloth was produced, the sewing techniques of the time, and perhaps creating a pirate costume of her own (which would cover both art and measurement and possibly some geometry!) More than anything just creating a unit study of their own will encourage a love of learning and a chance to exercise problem solving and researching.
Although you are less likely to find a premade unit study that is fit for a middle or high school student, that doesn’t mean a unit study isn’t a useful and fun way to accomplish homeschooling goals! Middle school students will love having more input into their studies and will get a chance to see that every subject is important. Many high school students create a capstone project which is meant to incorporate all subjects and demonstrate the depth of their learning. A few smaller unit studies can help high school students build up the skills to prepare them for creating their capstone project. Unit studies are a great way to take advantage of the freedom homeschooling offers!