Unit Studies on the Internet

Unitophobia–fear of unit studies…. I have suffered from this malady for most of my nine years of home schooling. Discovering the real root of the illness (fear of spending countless hours at the library searching for materials) did nothing to relieve the problem. My first attempt at unit studies was something of a compromise–I used packaged unit studies and just searched for the books on the reading list. Today, I am proud to say that my seventh grader and I are working our way through a monumental study, and I look forward to each new section with anticipation and excitement. Am I cured? Well … let us just say I am in treatment. (Hello, my name is Mary.… I am afraid of unit studies.…) My preferred method of therapy–the Internet!

I am going to outline the work I did in preparation for this particular unit study. I hope it will help other unitophobes to see that the Internet is a wonderful research tool that can help you develop the backbone of a delightful–and less intimidating–unit study on absolutely any subject.

My son and I decided to study Old World history this year, using the British royalty as a guideline. In other words, while studying the House of Tudor, we will cover Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I. When we study King Henry VIII, we will first look at the king himself. This will involve reading about his many doomed wives, of course, as well as any political events directly associated with his reign. From this point, we will begin to look beyond the palace to activities and people in other parts of the world. We will focus on the British Isles but will cover major events and discoveries all over the world. We will consider literature and works of art from the period of his reign (1510-1547). When we feel we have looked around enough, we will move naturally on to the reign of Edward VI and spend some time looking at his brief six-year reign.

I am sure you can now see why I have always found unit studies to be so daunting! I can already see myself spending an entire day at the library, running back and forth from the computer to the shelves, piling books on a table, then poring over them and either hauling the lot of them home to pick pieces of information from each, or spending my son’s college fund at the copy machine. It is easier to just buy a workbook! However, I have truly found the greatest justification for shelling out money to our Internet service provider–I can do unit studies from my own living room!

For this particular study in Old World history, I start by searching for the term British royalty. Right off the bat, I find the official Web site of the British Royal Family! Wow! It is full of useful information. There are family trees that I am able to print out for each of the houses. There are brief biographical sketches of all the kings and queens since early Anglo-Saxon days. Reading the biographical sketches gives me some good ideas about other subjects to explore, so I begin to map out our entire study.

Back to the Internet! This time I enter the term timelines for my search. I am rewarded with the discovery of a delightful Web site that gives me a very detailed timeline covering every period of history. I list events and people of interest next to the appropriate ruler. I block my list off according to the houses or dynasties–House of Normandy, House of Tudor, House of Stuart, etc. This breaks my study down into comfortable blocks of research and study. During our study of the House of Tudor (1485-1603), for instance, we will cover the following: Christopher Columbus; Vasco de Gama; Sir Thomas More; Nostradamus; Treaty of Edinburgh; Francis Drake; Mary, Queen of Scots; Sir Walter Raleigh; and Johannes Kepler. To prepare for that portion of our study, I search for each of those names individually and add notes to my developing timeline so I know to cover each one in turn.

Having established the foundation of what we are going to study, I now move on to the hardest part of the unit study–amassing material. The Internet helps me here also. Not only do I find the names of numerous resources to use in our study, but I can actually access some of them!

For instance, our study begins with Anglo-Saxon times. I find a modern translation of Beowulf that is wonderful. I print out a copy for my son and one for myself and put them in binders. There is my text! Here is a wonderful advantage to using the Internet–I am able to correspond via e-mail with the translator, who just happens to live in Central Texas! He gives me some pronunciation tips for those Old English/Danish/Viking names. A Web site on British literature offers listings by author, subject, or time period; and a section of the TV Guide Web site boasts a database of 35,000 movies. Looking back at our House of Tudor framework, I can now fill in the following books/movies: Sir Thomas More (A Man for All Seasons), Lady Jane Grey (Lady Jane Grey), Sir Walter Raleigh (Ivanhoe).

Of course, anyone who has spent any time at all on the Internet knows how easy it is to get lost on bunny trails, but some amount of wandering is encouraged. I discover a copy of a letter written to Henry VIII by Anne Boleyn the day before her execution. I also find an amazing Web site devoted to the Battle of Hastings in 1066. It has numerous photos of the site today, making us feel like we actually went on a field trip! When I find something special, I always bookmark it so I can find it again, either for more research or to share it with my son during school time.

At this point you are probably asking why it is better to spend hours on the Internet rather than hours at the library. Hours are hours, right? Well … not necessarily–I mean, my local branch of the public library is not open after 9 p.m., when my children are in bed and I can have uninterrupted time for research. I cannot browse my local library while my children are eating lunch or during their afternoon naptime unless I have a babysitter.

Do not think I am offering the Internet as a total substitute for the library–I know the library is a home schooler’s best friend! The Internet is a perfect companion to the library. Now the time I actually spend in the library is much more efficient. I have a list of reading material in hand and know just where to go to find it. Did I mention that I have already accessed my library’s Web site and have noted which books are available, along with their call numbers? During odd hours in the evening and on weekends, I can completely plot out a unit study and compile a list of study materials. On one or two short trips to the library I am able to acquire those items I cannot print out directly from the Internet. Guess what! That is it! Unit study accomplished! (Now all we have to do is struggle through our math lesson so we can get on to the good stuff!)

In summary: your search engine is all you need to write your own unit study. The description here is of a particular time in history, but this method can be adapted to any subject. If you decide to do a unit study on baseball, for instance, just search for “baseball.” To start you off, you will find the following Web sites: Baseball Almanac, the Official Encyclopedia of Major League Baseball, and Baseball in the 19th Century. Let the search begin!

One word of caution about copyrights: be sure to determine whether the material you are reading online may be printed out and used for your personal study. For the most part this is not a problem, as long as you are not distributing it outside your own home.