Juggling Multiple Ages

By Anne Gebhart

I caught up with a home school friend at Target a few months ago—a single mom with four daughters, two of whom have graduated. This friend has always stressed to her girls the importance of family and has made being together a priority, which has yielded them many wonderful, and sometimes unusual, experiences—from living on a small island in the Caribbean, to learning to ride a unicycle. As we talked in the parking lot, she told me about their next adventure: auditioning for a traveling circus. If they are all accepted, they will take their home school with them on the circus train—an unusual one-room schoolhouse, to be sure!

To the uninitiated, homeschooling multiple children might seem like a circus act, with the parent as ringmaster. Rather, it is a learnable skill—kind of like juggling. Juggling looks pretty flashy if you observe it from across the room. But once you know the trick, you realize that juggling is not as hard as it looks and that anyone can learn how to do it.

So, what is the trick to juggling multiple ages? How do you keep all the balls in the air at once: math, science, history, language arts, and everything else you want your kids to learn before they graduate?

What I have found to be the most efficient way to teach various subjects to multiple ages is a unit study approach. I have learned this the hard way, as I did not know what a unit study was when my husband and I made the decision to homeschool sixteen years ago. In fact, the curriculum we first used became the source of many unhappy school days—and I was only homeschooling one child at the time. She cried. I cried. I finally called my husband in tears and told him that this homeschooling thing was not working.

I shared my frustration with a church friend who homeschooled her two boys. She loaned me a large, yellow book and told me to give it a try. I did not understand how another book could help me . . . after all; my curriculum at home was comprised of lots of different books. I took it home and tried it out. It literally changed the way I think of school and learning. It was an answer to prayer.

How do unit studies work? Unit studies integrate several subjects into a central theme. Think of a birthday party. The invitations, plates, cups, napkins, decorations, and games all relate to the theme of the party. Likewise, unit studies take several subjects and weave them into the topic you’re studying. Unit studies can also be used to teach multiple ages. This became a valuable benefit as our family grew and I discovered how easy it was to teach the same topic to all the children at once, each at their own level of understanding.

Not every subject can be taught with a unit study approach. Subjects like math and reading are best taught separately to allow a child to gain mastery in one concept before moving on. Most other subjects, however, (history, science, physical education, health, etc.) do not need to be taught in a certain order because the concepts do not build upon each other. These subjects can easily be integrated into a unit study in which the whole family can participate, learn together, and enjoy.

How does integrating subjects work? Let me give you a peek into a typical school day at our house:

8:15 a.m.   We go to the park. On cold mornings, we wait until it warms up. Sometimes we run, walk, bike, or play a game.

9:30 a.m.   Everyone works on math (Math-U-See). The kindergartener gets her Primer book and manipulatives, and we review yesterday’s lesson. The fourth grader starts a new chapter in Delta. We watch the DVD lesson together and work on practice problems to make sure he understands. The eighth and ninth graders work on geometry (since they are close in age, I keep them in the same level of math to make it easier to teach).

9:50 a.m.   The kindergartener practices handwriting (Italics).

10:00 a.m. The kindergartener and I sit on the couch with my reading basket, containing the Play-N-Talk phonics book and games. We review all twenty-eight word families learned from the beginning of the year. She nails them! We set an ice cream date on the calendar to celebrate.

10:15 a.m. The kindergartener has completed her morning work. She chooses an activity from the fun box. I check on the baby, who is playing nearby, and pull out a magnetic board and a box of large magnetic ABC blocks for him.

10:30 a.m. I check the eighth- and ninth-graders’ geometry. The fourth- and eighth- graders write their spelling words. The ninth grader works on KONOS History of the World vocabulary. I give the baby a magnetic fishing puzzle.

10:45 a.m. The fourth-grader and eighth-grader write Nahum 1:5 (this week’s memory verse) for handwriting practice. I give the baby building blocks.

11:00 a.m. The fourth grader reads his Streams in the Desert children’s devotional with me, and then we work on language arts. He is learning how to use an encyclopedia to find information for a paper he is to write on earthquakes.

11:15 a.m. The kindergartener plays with the baby. The eighth grader reads her mother/daughter devotional with me, and then we work on language arts. She is to research the Great San Francisco Earthquake and write a paper by Friday.

12:00 p.m. Lunch

1:30 p.m.   While the baby naps, the other children play or read quietly. I work with the ninth grader on biology (Apologia).

2:30 p.m.   The ninth grader works independently on History of the World, while I teach the eighth, fourth, and kindergartener from our KONOS unit study curriculum.

This week we are learning about earthquakes under the character trait of inquisitiveness. We write and recite the memory verse, Nahum 1:5. I ask the kindergartener to perform an earthquake dance while my eighth- and fourth-grader play an earth-shattering theme on the piano. I read aloud a library book about earthquakes. The eighth grader locates the San Andreas Fault on a map, and I give each child two graham crackers to rub together to demonstrate tectonic plate movement. I ask, “Do you have any faults, or weaknesses in your character?” We take turns sharing. I hand the fourth-grader a roasting pan and ask him to put some dirt in the bottom; the kindergartener gets blocks and play people. Together, they make mini-city in the pan of dirt. I ask the kindergartener to create an earthquake by shaking the pan as the fourth grader races to the piano. We compare the results of our quake with pictures of actual earthquake damage (from the Internet). We discuss building techniques used in earthquake-prone areas and take turns reading earthquake safety measures (American Red Cross website). We end the day by making earthquake cake to eat after dinner.

While no home school is perfect, and we certainly have days that are trying, I can honestly say that unit studies have helped me to become a better teacher, while fostering a curiosity and a love of learning in our family, as well as family unity.

I can only imagine what our home school would look like if we had not discovered unit studies. It might have resembled a three-ring circus, with each child in his own room studying separately: health in ring one; American history in ring two; geology in ring three. I would find it extremely difficult to juggle all of those separate, unrelated subjects between all my children. The idea of relegating my children to separate rooms, to me, goes against the whole concept of home schooling. Instead of a curriculum that forces me into an age-segregated public school model, I feel it is far better to have a curriculum that allows us to experience the joy of learning as a family, while making it easy for Dad to participate since he knows what we are all studying.

A common critique of unit studies is that they require a lot of preparation, but I look at it this way: Any prep work that I do is for all of my children at once, so I consider it a good and efficient use of my time. There are many techniques that families can implement to help juggle multiple children, but in our house unit studies have been a primary factor in making our home school successful.

Are unit studies for you? Do you struggle with teaching all the subjects to your children? Does the thought of all your kids learning together excite you? You might just find, as I have, that unit studies are an excellent way to juggle all the different ages and subjects while keeping your family together. Even if your family never gets to homeschool on a circus train like my friend, unit studies will help you create a one-room schoolhouse experience that is meaningful and unique to your family.