‘Unit Study’ Opens World of Learning by Kate Tsubata
The Washington Times
Sunday, December 14, 2008
Reprinted with permission

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Maryland home-schoolers Wendy and Eric Pavlat have been educating their six children since the birth of their first, some 11 years ago, but officially for seven years.  Eric is a high school teacher, Wendy a medical researcher with Johns Hopkins who decided to put family ahead of career.  Their own love of learning prompted their decision to home-school, and it is evident in every page of the blog they publish.


Wendy, the main schooling parent, makes liberal use of everything from the backyard to the Internet to co-ops to museums.  Generally, the family uses a “unit study” approach, following the children’s requests and interests.  The units may be as short as a day or as long as several months.


Take, for instance, the giant squid.  When her son requested a “Squid Day,” Wendy happily complied, and they immersed themselves in the world of squid; eating squid hot dogs, playing with squid puppets and answering questions about squid.  As they delved deeper into the subject, they decided to create a scale model of the 60-foot leviathan out of a long roll of paper, and hit upon the only possible surface on which to display it: the ceiling.  The  giant squid’s portrait stretched from the front door through all the rooms of the house.  To get a sense of the scale, they then created outlines of themselves swimming on the ceiling with the squid.


Or the time they studied Plutarch’s Lives.  Hands up, how many of you have studied Plutarch’s Lives?  Yeah, me neither.  But these elementary-age kids not only study these stories, they create plays based on them.  And throw a Plutarch’s Lives party to celebrate a doctoral candidate friend’s birthday – dressed as their favorite Plutarch characters with the party banner written in Greek.


Impressive?  How about taking one-hundredth of an acre of their backyard to plant, raise, harvest and thresh wheat, from which they ground flour to make their own bread?  For studies of the Middle Ages, the family “lived” as serfs, nobles and knights.  The serfs harvested half the field for the noble, and then had to give another third or even two-thirds of their own half of the harvest to the noble for a tariff.  There’s a lesson that spans math, social studies and science in an unforgettable way.


Behind the fun and free-style exploration is one core principle, Wendy explains.  “We want our kids to become who God has created them to be,” she says.  “That means we have to be very individualized.”


As a result, they may study all the different trucks there are – a passion of their 3-year-old boy – or play “store” because their 6-year-old daughter needs to learn math that way, or learn all about the robots their 11-year-old son designs and builds.


The family draws a lot of inspiration from their strong Catholic faith, so the pre-Christmas Advent season is time for study of the Old and New Testaments, doing good deeds as a preparation for Jesus’ birth.  The family prepares packages filled with food, hand-warmers, mittens, hats and scarves to have ready in they see someone panhandling, and they stop and give it to them personally.


They learn about the original St. Nicholas, not the popularized Santa Claus, a figure that our culture connects with receiving presents.  When one of them does a good deed, they mark it by placing a strand of straw in the manger of the crèche, in readiness for the Christ child’s arrival.


Wendy feels it helps the kids to see the parents learn new things as well.  She took up violin a few years ago, and is happily developing her own musical talent, letting her children see that learning never stops.


Reading aloud to the family is a special talent of Dad Eric, who makes books “an intense imaginative experience for everyone.”  Wendy says.  His professional teaching vocation helps inform a lot of the educational choices they make.


Home-schoolers will enjoy reading and seeing photos of some of the Pavlat family’s educational projects at www.zoomtimes.blogspot.com.  (Check out the gingerbread village under attack by Godzilla).  All are free to join the blog and comment on their learning adventures.

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