Archive for the ‘Unit Studies’ Category

Using Comic Cards for Narration

Posted on:


My boys were not enthusiastic writers. We would read piles of books together, which they thoroughly enjoyed as long as the books were interesting.  And they were happy to talk about the reading, as long as I didn’t call it “narration” (because that sounded too contrived or schoolish), but when it came to “Let’s write a paragraph about what happened during the War of 1812,” there was absolutely zero interest in this.

Being a fairly laid-back sort of homeschooling mom, I didn’t want to force them to write, but I was a bit anxious. It seemed like they ought to occasionally write something. I also felt that keeping some sort of history timeline would be helpful, because we would sometimes jump from Ancient Greece to Early American History to Medieval Europe, and they needed some way to put it all in perspective. I finally had the idea to try something that my oldest son was already doing – drawing comics.

He could spend 45 minutes with one sheet of blank paper, drawing epic space battles with laser blasts and little text bubbles for the characters to hurl insults at one another. So, I suggested that he illustrate scenes from our reading on a small 3 X 5 card, and then we would collect the cards to lay down on a timeline. He thought this was a fine idea, and my younger son was happy to do whatever his big brother was doing.


It worked pretty well. After reading, the boys would choose something to illustrate and I would write a short description of the event because they believed that even this would be too much writing. Fortunately, it wasn’t long before they started writing their own descriptions on the front or back of the card. We also included the date of the event on the back of the card.

Each boy had his own index card box to store the cards, and once a month or so, we would lay all the cards down on a timeline on the floor. I had purchased a roll of adding machine paper and used about 20 feet to mark out time periods. When we taped the paper to the floor, the boys used the dates on the back of their cards to lay them out in the proper order. It was tricky because some areas would have LOTS of cards (Early American time period), while some areas would have none. This did make an impression though, because we all realized, “Hey –  I have no idea what happened during these 600 years!” It was humbling.


Eventually, as the boys got older, they did learn to write well (perhaps a subject for another post), but drawing timeline comics on the index cards provided easy nonthreatening preparation for note-taking in those early years. For one thing, the small size of the card seemed more manageable. They weren’t faced with a full sheet of blank notebook paper to fill. Plus, using dialogue bubbles meant that they could write without worrying about complete sentences or exact punctuation. They also enjoyed seeing what the other brother created for each event. It was always a secret until they finished and traded cards.

I’ll mention another idea for cards here – if your kids like to collect and play with cards such as “Pokemon” or “Magic the Gathering,” they might enjoy making similar cards for history, science or literary characters. My only advice would be to give them plenty of artistic license. It wouldn’t be any fun if they couldn’t use their imaginations to embellish the truth a bit!

Do you have any other ideas for using index cards in your homeschool?

What the World’s Best Basketball Coach Can Teach You About How to Homeschool

Posted on:

John WoodenThe late John Wooden was a highly esteemed coach who built up the UCLA Bruins into a powerhouse team with 10 National Championships. The Sporting News named him “The Greatest Coach of All Time” in 2009, and he wrote several books about his principles of coaching, success and leadership. There is a lot we could learn from him, but the wisdom I’d like to borrow from him today is about the way he taught athletes during practice.

He used what is known as the whole-part-whole framework: first introduce the big concept, then break it down into smaller parts, then put the parts back together after they are mastered. Wooden carefully planned all of his practices, using 3X5 cards to keep his drills and teaching points in order. He was adamant about the fundamentals of ball handling, and took the time to teach his players exactly how to do each move, routinely demonstrating first the right way, then the wrong way, then the right way again. His feedback to the players was short, concise, and packed with useful information related to the task at hand.

He also kept his practices moving along, keeping the players focused and alert, with the first half devoted to new material and the second half devoted to repetition of previously learned skills. He believed that his players must be able to perform the fundamentals so well that they don’t need to think about them. Then, during games, their attention could be focused on the dynamics of the court.

John Wooden’s methods worked spectacularly well in basketball, and I think they could work equally well in any teaching environment. But the thing to remember is that he didn’t teach his skill drills in isolation. He taught them within the context of something the players cared about – basketball.

A lot of the skills that students are expected to learn in school, such as reading, writing and multiplication, are indeed fundamental and require lots of practice. However, teaching them in isolation, with one workbook for every subject is hardly ideal. Teachers are then forced to find some external motivation such as bribes, praise, or punishment  to keep the kids’ attention.

The better way is to teach basic skills within the context of something your kids already care about or have an interest in learning. This is really pretty easy when kids are little. Have you ever used the “Five in a Row” curriculum series developed by Jane Claire Lambert? They are an excellent example of using something a child cares about, in this case a wonderful storybook, as a starting point to teach various skills or concepts. My family LOVED using these books, and I was sad when we outgrew them.

Another thing we used were certain Scholastic math skills books because my kids thought they were fun. They loved outlandish word problems, riddles, and games. Educational software games were a hit too.

It gets harder to do this as kids get older because you probably won’t find prepared lesson plans full of advanced skill-builders in the topics that your kids most want to learn about. In this case, you might have to come up with your own 3X5 cards with ideas for practicing the fundamentals – this is the virtue of “Unit Studies.” You might be able to find pre-packaged unit studies that suit your student, but be wary. I’ve seen a lot of dull stuff out there, clearly written by people who don’t have a passion for the topic.

Better yet is to work with your student to craft your own unit study. Take whatever they are passionate about, say fashion, and brainstorm ways your child could practice some of the fundamentals of reading, writing and arithmetic. Along the way, there will undoubtedly be a smattering of history, geography, sociology, critical thinking about media and pop culture, and who knows what else.

John Wooden was able to keep the same stack of 3X5 cards and use them over and over again because he always had students who were interested in the same thing: becoming better basketball players. You will not be able to do that because your kids will all be motivated by something different. But you can use the same framework of whole-part-whole.

Can you think of ways to teach skills within the context of something your child is already interested in learning?

Reluctant Report Writing

Posted on:

I was never the sort of homeschooler who assigned reports, and it wasn’t the sort of thing my kids spontaneously decided to do on their own. But sometimes, they would be invited to do some research about something and present it to others at a science fair, world culture fair or other homeschool group activity. This was usually a lot of fun, and the kids were happy to put in the work if it meant that somebody else might see it.

The tricky thing is trying to show kids what is meant by a report or a science fair project. What does one look like? The intent of a report is to convey information about a topic, based on research from a variety of sources (properly cited of course), and presented in an engaging manner, but the format really depends on the intended audience.

In our own school days, we were taught the old fashioned report format, with the title page, introduction, multiple paragraphs, conclusion, and maybe a few illustrations or diagrams. There is nothing terribly wrong with this format, and it does prepare young writers for bigger, more complex writing assignments in the world of academia or business. But it’s very hard for beginning writers to do this well, and it certainly isn’t fun.

There are so many skills involved with writing these reports: picking a suitable topic; picking suitable research sources; how to research; how to take notes; how to cite sources; how to organize the information; deciding what is important; how to write in complete sentences; how to write a paragraph; how to format the paper; deciding what to say; spelling and grammar. It’s hard to do all of this, even as an adult.

I suggest postponing the old-fashioned report format until your kids are more comfortable with writing in general, and instead concentrate on other ways to assemble and present information. Writing regularly is still important, but there are ways to build fluency without making your kids hate it (more on that in a future post).

Here’s just a few ideas for alternative report formats:

  • Write and illustrate a book for small children (perhaps younger siblings?) about the subject.
  • Create a short video documentary, using basic video editing software to add captions and effects.
  • Create a “National Public Radio” style report using a recording device, or presented live.
  • Create a mixed-media poster with copies of photos from the web or magazines, drawings, diagrams, text boxes, etc.
  • Try “lapbooking” or “notebooking,” or any other form of inventive book making. Check out this Pinterest board to see what I’m talking about.
  • Use graphic organizers to present information. Here’s a great site I found with fish-bone diagrams, Venn diagrams, timelines, and other fun ways to arrange the details of any topic.
  • Create a fake Facebook page on this site. This would be especially useful for history or biography based reports. Your kids can also see examples of what other students have created.
  • Write a satirical song, news report, or poem (some kids are highly motivated by sarcasm).

With any of these formats, it’s important to show kids an example first. If they don’t know what a lapbook or a poster looks like, they may be hesitant to try it. No worries though, because you can find all kinds of examples, including images from homeschooling families, with a simple Internet search. Also, any of these projects will take time, and probably some of your help to figure out how to get started, and how to use the computer/printer/etc.  Be careful not to take over though, and remember that the process is just as valuable as the final product.

It is not a small thing to learn how to organize thoughts and ideas; and presenting ideas in a visual format is really the way of the future. The computer has made it so easy to create graphic reports and presentations that now there are endless creative possibilities for sharing knowledge. Don’t be afraid to try something different!

Keeping Kids on Track

Posted on:

I know this sounds like a really strange topic from someone who claims that self-education is the best way to go. “Keeping kids on track” sounds like something a school board would care about, but bear with me, because I’m talking about a completely different approach.

In my last post about getting kids to try hard, I talked about the importance of ownership. Anyone, including kids, will work harder for something that they feel committed to, something that they created or envisioned. It also helps to have a personal stake in the outcome. Good leaders know this. They try to give their people as much creative control and autonomy as possible, because it makes the work more satisfying. The same is true for household work or homeschool work. But kids are still kids, and they don’t have much experience with time management or breaking a large job into manageable bits. So, there are ways for you to help give a little structure to support their vision, without taking over or becoming the typical “boss.”

For kids under the ages of 7-8, I really do not believe there is any reason to impose a formal curriculum. I explain all the research and reasons for this in my book, but the main reason is that children are natural learners, and given a warm, nurturing authentic atmosphere, they will learn a great deal of important stuff all by themselves. Most of the “early learning” topics taught to young children in their first 3 years of school (preschool, kindergarten, 1st), could be taught in about 3 months to a child who is old enough. I believe the real reason children are being pushed into early academics is because of parental anxiety and/or competitiveness, thus the term, “Head start,” which seems to imply some kind of race. Having children fill out worksheets matching the big triangle to the little triangle or the mama duck to the duckling are unnecessary. Elaborate phonics programs are unnecessary. Those things give the illusion of learning, because they represent “school,” something that an outside authority has prescribed and can easily measure.

There are so many more important things kids should be doing at this age, usually those that involve their whole bodies: building, climbing, running, playing, throwing, investigating, rolling, swimming, painting, pouring, hiding, seeking, singing, dancing, stomping, cleaning, laughing, visiting, and helping. When they are tired, that’s a good time to snuggle up on the couch and read aloud. Answer their questions as best you can, listen to them, play games, and take lots of pictures. That’s it. The only “keeping on track” you may want to do for this age is journaling, scrapbooking, and perhaps keep a list of books read, places visited, etc. *Note* If your young kids want to learn how to read or anything else, that’s perfectly fine, but there is no need to push it. If you live in a state that requires some kind of proof of your children’s learning, I believe that you can make up a satisfactory portfolio with just your lists of books, field trips and perhaps a list of skills learned; but do check with your local homeschool group for more advice.

Kids aged 8-12 are much more capable of settling down a bit and thinking abstractly, but they still prefer lots of hands-on learning. If they have not been burned out by school yet, they should still have a healthy sense of curiosity, so let their curiosity guide your curriculum. Make a list of stuff they are interested in. Take them to curriculum fairs, used book sales, or the library and let them pick what appeals to them. For hands-on activities, it’s nice to have an assortment of books available that your kids can flip through and put sticky notes on the things they want to do. This is really my favorite age for homeschooling because it is so diverse and creative.

Unit studies work well for this age, because you can concentrate on the subjects that really interest your kids. Talk to your kids. Let them know that this is their time to explore and that there are no absolute rules. If there is something you really want them to learn, just explain your thoughts to them. Together, come up with a learning plan. Pull out a blank grid calendar with all the months of the year on two pages (6 months on one 8.5X11 paper). Show them where you are now on the calendar and mark down upcoming events and vacations. Let them help you pencil in when to do each unit. The length of the unit will depend on the depth you plan to study each topic; it could be one day or one month or more. I’ve written more about planning a unit study here. Unit studies, whether you buy them pre-made, or design them yourself (my favorite) are nice because you can include math, reading, writing, art, geography, music, social studies, science and life skills all in one nice holistic package. Plus, unit studies can be done with multiple ages at once, so it takes advantage of the group learning dynamic. They do take a bit more time to put together, but I enjoyed it because of the creative challenge. If the thought of preparing a unit study makes you cringe though, there are plenty of free and low-priced resources online.

Another option is a literature based curriculum, similar to Charlotte Mason or the program offered by Sonlight. The idea is to focus more on quality literature and use that as inspiration for writing, social studies (map work), and other supporting projects. Math is generally supplemented with a dedicated curriculum. Science topics are also taught through literature or “living books,” as Charlotte Mason called great books. There is the danger here of imposing so much curriculum that your kids might start to rebel. I still believe it is important to give your kids a lot of control over their own learning. If they don’t like the books you have picked out, pick something they might like better. If they hate the math curriculum, look for options. Include them in the decision-making. You may have to do the initial research, to find out what is available and offer suggestions, but let them have input. Then, when you have chosen your resources, take the time to break down each resource into manageable chunks and assign to the days or weeks you have available. It doesn’t have to be fancy – a simple list on notebook paper will work – or you may want to use computer software (like mine) or downloadable planning forms. Your kids will think this is boring and have no interest in helping you. That’s OK. In fact, you may find this boring too. It really helps though to have the year laid out before you. Be careful not to overschedule. Remember that it’s far more important for kids to explore their own interests, for however long it takes, than it is to cover everything. There are no rules, especially for this age. The only reason to make these plans now is to help give you a direction to follow, even when you can’t remember what you did yesterday. It’s OK to skip stuff, or move things around. If your kids start to dislike the idea of “homeschool”, you may want to reconsider what you are doing. If they begin to think that education is something done to them, instead of something they pursue for their own reasons, then they have lost ownership of the process. And it is tough to get that back once it is lost.

Another approach you may consider is a Montessori style environment, where a wide variety of self-correcting learning materials are prepared ahead of time and available within reach of the children. The children are then free to choose whatever interests them and work until they are satisfied. However, the amount of preparation and work space you would need for something like this is intensive, so I would only recommend this is as cooperative effort among a group of like-minded families.  You could also decide to use Montessori type materials for just some of the subjects you hope your child will take an interest in, such as math and science. There are a lot of wonderful hands-on materials for math and science that can be made or purchased. Again, these will take some effort, but if you have a spouse or other family member willing to help you, these items can be a lot more fun than typical textbooks. One resource to check out is TOPS for science. The difference here in using hands-on materials vs. a unit study or literature approach is that instead of planning lessons, you are preparing materials. There is no schedule for when your child will use the materials, you just show them how to use something when they are ready. Perhaps you could have a check-off sheet to show when they have mastered a certain skill. In this situation, there is no need to “keep” the kids on track, only to keep notes of what they worked on each day.

If you have a child who is particularly left-brained and wants to have a more formal curriculum, that’s fine. You can research the possibilities and let him or her choose the most appealing. This alternative is probably the easiest for most parents, because it involves the least amount of preparation. All you will need to do is check their work and make sure they stay on schedule. But in my experience, there’s not many kids who love this approach, at least not for very long. You may have to resort to external motivation to keep them going, which will only yield short term results.

This post is already longer than I intended, so I will wait for the next one to talk about keeping preteens and teens on track. As always, I welcome your comments and suggestions. How do you keep your kids on track?

Homeschool Plans for 12th Grade

Posted on:

The only child I’m homeschooling at the moment is my second son Aengus. He is in 12th grade this year and getting together his college applications so we have a lot to do.

Here’s what we have planned so far:

He’s taking Spanish II and Physics for dual credit this semester at our local community college (not sure yet what he will be taking next semester)

AP Calculus at home – probably using Thinkwell’s online course but we’re still reviewing

English/Language Arts at home  – Aengus will select a list of “living books” to read, plus “Reading Like a Writer” by Francine Prose; and he’ll go through assignments from Julie Bogart’s “Help for High School” Brave Writer program.

Computer Science at home – this takes up the most time because Aengus has been feverishly programming a new homeschooling recordkeeping/planning application for Mac (for more info see: He has been programming with Windows languages for years but only started learning Mac about a year ago.

We still need to work out something for social studies/history so he’ll have enough appropriate credits for college applications. Aengus isn’t really interested in another general American or World History course. He’s more interested in specific subjects that may or may not relate to one another, so we’ll have to be creative. Here’s what we are thinking:

  • Fall Semester: Understanding events in the Middle East (this would take several lifetimes to learn, so we can only cover a tiny bit):  “Innocents Abroad” by Mark Twain, “Islam – A Short History” by Karen Armstrong, “The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East” by Sandy Tolan; and maybe “The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power” by Daniel Yergan.
  • Spring Semester: History mixed with science: “The Human Web: A Bird’s Eye view of World History” by Robert McNeill and William McNeill and “A Short History of Nearly Everything” by Bill Bryson

On the side, Aengus and his brother are learning how to do online video tutorials. They want to make a series of how to build/reproduce ancient architecture in the Minecraft game. This will involve a certain amount of research into the landscape and architecture of ancient Greece, Babylon, Egypt and other places. With any luck, they’ll become rich and famous YouTube stars!

Aengus also takes regular drumming lessons and is looking for a band to play with (in all his free time!).

If anyone has suggestions for our history/social studies books – I’d love to hear them!