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I’m not the type of person who sits down and plans a unit study all in one go. Oh no, my brain is not that organized. I have ideas that spew all over the place at random intervals and eventually those ideas begin to conform into a cohesive plan. OK, so it’s not that dramatic, and I force myself to have SOME semblance of order (in the form of a google doc planning sheet), but it’s difficult to explain how I plan because it’s very much a creative process for me.
Oh, but that planning sheet. That planning sheet is important, and even though my process is quite messy, this little table keeps me on track and ensures, that, by the time a unit study rolls around, I’m ready to go and have all my basis covered.
While I might not always do these steps in the order listed, these are the steps I take to plan our homeschool unit studies.
Step 1 – Choose a Topic
I choose my topics from three basic sources.
Curriculum Textbooks – For me the main textbook I use to guide our unit study choices is our history book. You can use ANY history textbook (or any subject for that matter) as a spring-board for your unit studies. Currently we are using the America’s Story series from MasterBooks. I will group chapters together that make sense, and use that as the starting place for our unit study. For example, in America’s Story 2, chapter 17 is about Thomas Edison, and chapter 18 is about Alexander Graham Bell – perfect for a unit study about Inventors and Inventions!
Listening to My Kids – Sometimes I straight up ask them, “Is there anything you’re itching to have a unit study on?” Other times I’ll pay attention to topics or themes I see them loving, and I turn them into unit studies. We recently completed a unit on Emergency workers with a focus on firefighters and police officers. Pretty soon, we have a unit study coming up about the European Middle Ages. Both of these ideas came straight from my kids. I try to make sure to include at least one interest-led unit study geared to each child in any given year.
Really Good Books – I read a LOT of books. It just-so-happens that my favorite genre is juvenile fiction. Every once in a while I come across a good book that I just cannot WAIT to share with the family. My mind is bursting with fun activities and explorations that connect with the story. Suddenly a unit study is born! An example of this is an upcoming literature unit study we’ll do based on the book Braver: A Wombat’s Tale by Suzzane Selfors and Walker Ranson. This book is SOO good, and I can’t wait to read it with my kids! We’ll get to explore ecosystems, Australia (specifically Tasmania), the importance of stories and storytelling, and so much more!
Step 2 – Find a Good Read Aloud
,I’m really picky when it comes to finding a good read aloud. I know that these books will become a big part of our family culture, and will be books my children remember as they grow up. Not only do I want a book I think everyone will love, but I like for them to have good literary as well as moral quality.
I also try to keep in mind all of the unit studies over the course of a year so I can keep our read alouds diverse. I try to include different genres like biography, fantasy, historical fiction, modern fiction, etc. I also try to make sure the main characters are diverse so we can learn from different points of view.
Step 3 – Choose a Non-Fiction Spine
Non-Fiction spines can really come from anywhere. More often than not, we use our science and history textbooks, however, we don’t feel limited to them. DK or Usborne Encyclopedias make great spines and so do other non-fiction informational books related to a theme. The key is finding something that’s interesting to your kids, but that also ties the information together in a way that lays a solid foundation for understanding.
Step 3.5 – Make a Schedule
We operate best on a four-day school week. As such, I try to create unit studies that are 12-24 days long (4-6 weeks). If the unit study is driven by my non-fiction content and there is a certain amount of information I need to cover, I will start by scheduling that out. For example, in our Thomas Edison and Inventions unit, I want to cover two chapters from our history text book and two chapters from our science text book. When I break all the lessons down, that comes out to about 18 days. Now, I can look at my read aloud and break it down in to about 18 days of reading (give or take a few).
If I’m doing a literature unit study, I’ll start by breaking down the read aloud into chunks that feel right for the book, then I will make sure to have non-fiction content for each of those days. An example here would be the Braver unit study I’m planning. This book comfortably breaks down into about 22 days of reading. I knew I wanted to use content from the Properties and Ecosystems in God’s Design for Chemistry and Ecology from Masterbooks. The whole book contains 35 lessons. I don’t need that many, so I picked the ones that were most relevant to my read aloud, and feel ZERO guilt for leaving the rest.
FREE PRINTABLE PLANNING TEMPLATE
To make this template fully editable, upload it to your google drive, and then open it there. You will be able to add or delete rows or columns and add your own information in the boxes.
Step 4 – Find Books for Book Basket
Book Basket is an idea I was introduced to when we did Exploring Countries and Cultures from My Father’s World. They suggest supplying a basket (or box, or bag) of books related to the topic you’re learning about in homeschool. Give your children time every day to explore these books. This can help them discover rabbit trails or dig in more deeply to their specific interests. You can have your kids spend this time independently, but I like to give the option of having me read their choices to them. It’s usually one more way to connect as a family.
One of the biggest things that can get in the way of having a book basket is access to good books, and that’s valid for sure.
We haven’t always had access to a good library, but we do now. When I’m planning a unit study, I make a list on my library’s website and add all the books I find that I think the kids might enjoy. When we’re ready to start the unit study, I start putting those books on hold and pick them up as part of our weekly run into town.
Sometimes there are “must have” books my library doesn’t have and I’ll purchase those, but I try to use my library as much as possible. Over the years I’ve learned a few tricks that help me not break the bank.
Some of my favorite money saving places to buy books
Better World Books – I love what this company stands for. You can buy used or new books from small bookstores and support getting books in the hands of those who need them. What more could you ask for?
Thrift Books – They offer a massive selection of used books. Earn free shipping with purchases of $10 or more as well as points you can use on future purchases.
Book Outlet – I often get the BEST deals by shopping at Book Outlet. They offer discount pricing on new books in great condition. They often have sales on top of their already low prices, and you can earn rewards to redeem on coupons for future purchases. This link gives you a $10 coupon to use on your first order of $25 or more.(I’ll get a $10 coupon too!) Shipping is always free for orders over $35.
Amazon – Use smile.amazon.com and a percentage of every purchase you make will be donated to the local or national organization you chose.
Step 5 – Find Morning Basket Materials
Morning basket time doesn’t have to include a basket at all, will look different for every family, and can be skipped altogether if it’s not for you.
Our family begins morning basket time at the breakfast table. Our basket usually includes some sort of trivia game, a logic game, our devotional paired with a picture book, our current read aloud, and our non-fiction spine reading for the day. We don’t always finish this in one go, we just get as far as my littlest’s attention span will hold out.
As much as possible I try to theme the items in our morning basket with our unit study. When I can’t make it match, however, I don’t sweat it. We’ll just have an opportunity to learn about something a little different.
Step 6 – Videos and Unit Projects
I like to put together a YouTube playlist, as well as a list of documentaries that go along with our unit studies. Every once-in-a-while, we’ll watch these as part of our homeschool day (if there’s something I REALLY want them to see), but usually they’re simply made available for the kids to watch during their screen time. Often they’re excited to watch what’s on them but sometimes they aren’t, and that’s OK too.
I also try to come up with a unit project. Sometimes it’s one cohesive project that lasts over the course of the entire unit study. A great example of this would be the Inventor’s Notebook I got from Teachers Pay Teachers.
Sometimes, I piece together smaller projects and activities. Either the projects themselves or pictures of us doing the activities will go into a notebook, scrapbook, or presentation folder at the end of the unit study.
The purpose of the project isn’t to provide busy work, but to give us an opportunity for hands-on-learning and to give the kids something to look back on when they’re done. They love looking at their Civil War History Pockets from Evan-Moor from last year. They also make great portfolios if your state requires those.
Step 7 – Writing, Copywork, Grammar, and Vocabulary
One day, my kids will have a lot more autonomy over what they do for writing and copywork, but right now, they still need and prefer more guidance and direction.
They absolutely LOVE Grammar Galaxy and revolt loudly any time I suggest dropping it. So I start planning this section of our unit study by looking at what we’re learning in our Grammar Galaxy lesson. If possible, I’ll find a copywork passage from our read aloud where we can see those grammar concepts in action. If we’re doing a concept (like movie plot elements) that isn’t easy to find, I’ll chose a copywork passage with some rich literary elements to explore instead.
Sometimes our grammar concept lends itself to a weekly writing activity that ties in seamlessly to our unit study. That makes things easy. It’s also easy when our unit project involves a fair amount of writing (I don’t add extra writing on to that). When neither of those happens, I’ll usually pick a writing prompt that works well with grammar or I’ll give the kids a week off.
For vocabulary, I pick a few words from our read-aloud or our non-fiction spine, and the kids pick what they want to explore. You can find out more about how we do vocabulary here.
At this stage, I’ll also look to see if Brave Writer has a Dart or Arrow guide to go along with the book we’re reading as our read-aloud. If so, I skip this planning step altogether and just follow the Brave Writer guide. I model much of what I do off of these guides, and because I’m still learning, what I get from one when available, is so much richer than what I can make myself. I recently shared a closer look inside the Brave Writer materials.
Step 7.5 – Math
Math is an interesting topic when it comes to unit studies. Most families leave math out of their units and use a completely separate stand-alone curriculum. That’s changing for us.
After accepting the fact that traditional math programs aren’t the best for one of my kids, I finally purchased the non-traditional program I’ve been eyeing since before I started homeschooling. Math On the Level breaks down all the skills your child will need to learn through pre-algebra and gives you the freedom to teach those skills in whatever order makes sense for your child. There is an emphasis on personalized review as well as hands-on and real life math application. This is perfect for unit studies!
I can plan math based on the skills my children are ready to learn and incorporate them into our unit studies, or I can pick obvious skills or resources that match a unit study and teach those math skills. Some examples of this are using the Sir Cumference books to teach math in our European Middle Ages unit study or making recipes to learn more about fractions.
Step 8 – Extras and Final Touches
As I take a final look at a unit study I shore up any extras or final touches. If there are any events, people, or things I’ll want the kids to add to their timeline notebooks, I’ll print out pictures and make copies of those. I also print out any other worksheets or resources we might need, and I make a list of any supplies we need for projects or science experiments.
And that is how I plan a unit study. Like I said before, I don’t sit down and do all of this at once, it just doesn’t work for my personality. I work on it in bits and pieces over time, but you certainly could knock it out all in one go.
I’d love to hear more about how you plan your unit studies. What are your “must-haves” for every unit study? If you’re new to unit studies, what makes you excited to dive in and try one?