Another school year is about to begin. I can’t wait! For the first time, all three of my children will be homeschooling together. Like many of you, I’m contemplating how to best address my kids’ individual learning styles and interests without breaking the bank buying curriculum. I also know that the lessons and projects we enjoy most tend to be those that we work on together as a family. Both of these factors point to unit studies as an option worth considering.
Unit studies are a series of activities organized around one theme. Homeschoolers can design their own unit studies or save time by choosing from the enormous range of options that can be purchased.
For those buying unit studies, the Layers of Learning program may be just what you are looking for. Authors Michelle Copher and Karen Loutzenhiser have created a series of unit studies focusing on history, geography, science, and the arts. Their program is designed for students from kindergarten through 12th grade.
Year One begins in Mesopotamia and ends with a look at the Roman Empire. Year Two continues from the Medieval Period (400 AD) to the Renaissance. Throughout Year Three, students focus on the Age of Exploration and the Colonial period. Year Four, still in development, will focus specifically on the past 200 years. According to the website, it will be completed this year.
Here’s how it works. Regardless of age, students begin with Year 1 Unit 1. Each unit takes approximately two weeks to complete and contains a wide range of activities and suggested book titles. Students simple pursue the topics, projects, and readings that are of greatest interest. It takes four years to cycle through these materials once. Upon completing the cycle, students return to Year 1 Unit 1 moving on to some of the more challenging materials included in the unit. In other words, students who begin Layers of Learning as first graders would go on to cycle through the full program 2 more times.
For this review, I looked at the year two-unit one Layers of Learning guide, which focuses on Byzantines, Turkey, Climate and Seasons, and Byzantine Art. Jam packed with maps, art, and other eye catching visuals, the unit’s pages are not overly text heavy. Throughout the program, additional information is provided in a series of sidebars with headings like “Fabulous Facts” and “Additional Layer.” The “Teacher Tips” provided in the margins are relevant and helpful. “Writing Workshop" boxes contain writing prompts that will appeal to a wide range of age.
A booklist with recommended readings connected to the unit’s theme is also included. These book suggestions are grouped for readers in grades 1-4, 5-8, and 9-12.
Layers of Learning has something for everyone. Each unit includes hands-on activities, creative writing projects, science experiments, and art projects that can be adapted to suit a variety of ages and learning styles.
In the unit that I reviewed, in order to better organize and assimilate information, students are encouraged to reference a Byzantine timeline. Thoughtful points for discussion are provided and include questions such as “Do you think there should be a state church or state religion? What are the pros and cons of religion mingled with government?” There is an opportunity to play a traditional Byzantine board game, make Byzantine clothing, and to work on Venn diagrams while exploring the similarities and differences between the Romans and Byzantines.
The geography section of this unit features hands-on map work, a look at Turkish sports, and the opportunity to prepare a Turkish feast, as well as sections on the Turkish flag.
Opportunities to make a sundial, keep a weather log, and examine the greenhouse effect are just a sampling of the concepts explored in the science section of this unit. Many of the projects are hands-on and will especially appeal to younger learners.
A study of Byzantine era art is the perfect launch for a study of mosaics, gold leafing, and embroidery. The authors provide innovative project ideas to cultivate appreciation and understanding of these traditional arts.
Layers of Learning is a fun and flexible program that can simplify the process of teaching multiple ages. It would work equally well with one child. Families may find working through each of the four-year cycles works best for their situation. However, single units, which can be purchased separately, could also be used as a standalone unit or to supplement another curriculum.
Visit Layers of Learning’s website to purchase PDF downloads of all available units. These downloads can be ordered separately for $4.99 or in bundles for $78.80. Hardcopy versions are also available from selected retailers listed on the website.
With the new school year comes inevitable change. Whether you are introducing your new kindergartener to the wonderful world of homeschooling, watching your homeschool grow smaller as older children leave the nest, or find yourself somewhere in between, best wishes for the year ahead. I hope you find curriculum that sparks wonder and curiosity, makes your workload lighter, and most of all brings joy.
Editor's Note: Rebecca's review focuses on the medieval year, which includes secular science, but we've discovered that some of the Layers of Learning curricula include problematic "neutral science." Because of this, we do not recommend using Layers of Learning for your science curriculum. —Amy
REBECCA PICKENS is home/school/life’s Curriculum Junkie in the magazine and online. She writes for several publications and also blogs at www.steampoweredclassroom.com.