Who doesn’t love a party? Many of us eagerly await the fall holidays of Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas. We tend to love the trappings of each festival from making decorations, costumes and goodies to eat, shopping for various ornaments and decking our homes with excitement. Some of us begin to celebrate months in advance.
Why not use the same excitement to enrich your homeschooling program? What better way to integrate different subjects into an exciting unit than by celebrating the rich cultures which fill our planet? By following the calendar and putting together unit studies you and your family can literally celebrate the world as you get a rich and diverse education together as a family.
Thinking back over my own public-school education, the lessons that I remembered the most were the ones where I was learning about another country. From learning Japanese numbers and trying green tea in the second grade to meeting foreign children when living in a college town; from learning folk dancing in third and fourth grades to my report on Venezuela in sixth grade, my education has often included international studies of some sort. Far from the dry facts and figures about how populous a country was, or who the leaders were (all things which can change quickly), I was learning about how real people live.
It seems widely-known these days that foreign language exposure is excellent for mental development, but most of us do not know foreign languages well enough to feel comfortable teaching them. Yet, approaching unit studies from an international exposure perspective is a good excuse to get out of our comfort zone and learn with our children. After all, this is one of the beauties of home schooling. You don’t need to become fluent to gain an appreciation of another language, or even another dialect of our native tongue. If the language uses a different writing system, there’s another way to stretch the mind of an older or gifted student.
Aside from language, many other subjects are covered in a celebration-oriented unit study – even the sky is not a limit here.
Geography: Beyond the basic country outline and the location of the capital, older students may benefit from learning about the states/regions/provinces of the target country. For some countries, the boundaries have been fluid during recent generations.
History: Beyond politics, learn about how people lived and coped with changes of possession of the country or region, with good and bad leaders, or climate and environmental issues. What is the history behind the holiday you have chosen to celebrate? Famous natives of the country can also cover any other subject and give you a better appreciation for who (or what) came from that region.
Literature: Learning the myths and legends of your chosen country can give a very rich literature and writing unit. Maybe your older students can try some of the unique styles of poetry in the country, modernize an ancient myth or write their own legend.
Music: Anywhere in Europe tends to have annual song contests which can give a good idea of what is happening with modern, popular music in that country. Our family ended up being ardent fans of several of these competitors! Folk music can give understanding of the type of challenges a country faced at points of its history. There are often unique instruments featured which can lead to interesting studies all by themselves.
Performing Arts: Whether dance, theater or national forms of entertainment, learning about the performing arts can teach you a lot about what is acceptable in a society as well as their cultural values and assumptions.
Modern entertainment: I could give you recommendations in this category all day long. Such a great education in what real people are (sort of) like, cultural values and issues, funny things that are different and might surprise you. You may even learn about things which influenced our own culture. I love movies with subtitles so you can hear what the language sounds like. I have found many foreign favorites when studying various countries and cultures with my children.
Humor: Don’t forget the value of humor in learning about another country. Do they prefer cheesy comedy or more in the line of sarcasm or slapstick? Look at the humorous memes from that country.
A number of years ago, I did a personal study of Finland, and in looking at the memes, I found myself understanding the people (and therefore some movies I’d watched), and even more, my own background coming from a community which is heavily Scandinavian. I hadn’t appreciated how Finnish it was until I studied Finland.
Art: Whereas folk art might focus on myths, legends, and religion, and will probably use traditional techniques, modern art can give you a good understanding of where the culture is now. Especially in what types of art challenge the cultural norms.
Architecture: Closely related to other art forms, architecture can be a fascinating study. Looking at housing styles tells you a lot about what materials are/were available as well as how a culture expresses their individuality. As an example, the roofing in Burgundy, France tends to be beautiful and artistic; whereas housing styles in Brittany versus SW England are both very similar and very different.
Castles, cathedrals and other great works are works of art and feats of engineering at the same time. You do not have to be religious to appreciate a beautiful cathedral – and from gargoyles to sheela-na-gigs, you and your older students may find some amusement in finding some of the very unchristian décor on the exterior of some of these places.
Biology: Far beyond rain forests, your students can learn about the ecosystems and biomes of different countries. Older students might even compare the different regions. The more artistic student might find it fun and challenging to create a Pokemon-style card game – using both real and mythical creatures of the focus country or region.
Agriculture: What kinds of foods do they produce – either for themselves or to export. Be ready for ethics to come into play for older students as they discover places where the farmers cannot afford to eat their own produce due to the foreign demand – and the look up the meaning of the nursery rhyme “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep!” Which types of livestock are indigenous to their region? Which crops? How did they handle, prepare, or preserve the crops?
“What better way to integrate different subjects into an exciting unit than by celebrating the rich cultures which fill our planet?”
— Lori Svensen
Home Economics: Learn about the cooking and sewing styles of the region. Older students could do an extended culinary tour of the country. Learn about the national costume, and maybe even design and create one (especially if it’s a country where your own heritage is strong.) With the help of the internet, cultural foods and fabrics are only a few clicks away.
Math and Economics: Easy lessons can be created by studying population growth or ethnic percentages. Gross domestic product or per capita income are numbers which may be fun mathematically, then challenging ethically as you examine the difference between the other country and your own. Currency exchange rates are another way of practicing math.
Find grocery stores in your given country or region (the internet is such a blessing in this way!) and see if you can look at the real prices of groceries. Use Google Translate as necessary to understand the products you are seeing – though it isn’t always enough. Get an idea of what the cost of living difference truly is, because it’s not always as easy as looking at per capita incomes. How much more or less would your family need to be making in order to live a similar lifestyle in the other country? Would the children be required to be employed to make ends meet?
Virtual travel. Be sure to include a “trip” to your target area. Most of us are not in the position to get in a plane frequently, but thanks to the internet, there are so many places where you can tour virtually courtesy of the online mapping tools and other websites.
Don’t just look at the Louvre from the outside, see the website and study the art. Don’t just look at the Eiffel Tower, “walk” a few blocks away and see where Parisians live, work, and do their shopping. Take a “road trip” out to the countryside and pretend you’re visiting some historic landmark on the coast. See what you see and encourage questions! Don’t forget to look for Facebook groups for your teenagers. What better way of understanding a culture than to have pen-pals?
Too many people these days have little or no awareness of foreign countries and culture. Thankfully, you don’t need thousands of dollars in order to fix this. Have some fun. Celebrate the world! Teach your children to embrace the diversity and learn to love all nations.
The world truly is your oyster.
Lori Svensen is trying to stay a stay-at-home mom while returning to home schooling.
Her current business ventures include photography, astrology and writing. She can be found on Facebook as Viking Ventures, Viking Visual and A’mara Books. Her long-term goals include returning to the land to raise rare-breed livestock and become as self-sufficient as possible to avoid having to get a real “career.” Lori is also an amateur radio operator, a lapsed Mensan and a member of the Appalachian Shawnee Tribe.