Stopping by at Christian Cottage
Talking Unit Studies with Teri Spray
Unit studies! Most of us love ’em, especially when they are well presented and mom-friendly!
Teri Spray has authored The Christian Cottage Unit Studies, a four-volume set of very user-friendly materials. She also offers individual school services to families. We are blessed to have Teri stop by to chat with us this month.
TOS: Teri, tell us about your family.
TERI:Mike and I met the week he graduated from the Air Force Academy. We were married shortly after and have grown more in love each day for nearly 29 years. We struggled having children, but by God’s grace we were able to have a boy and a girl only 18 months apart. Our children are now 24 and 23. Our daughter is married with two children of her own, ages 3 and 8 months. We adore being grandparents. We get to see the children often, as Meredith works with us here at Christian Cottage and naturally brings them to work with her. Our son has his own condominium in Denver and will tell you he is a film actor who works at a bank.
TOS: You are a licensed teacher! How did you become interested in homeschooling?
TERI:I always knew I wanted to teach. It was in my blood! I was a child with learning problems, and I always wanted to help others with learning problems as well. Because of our nomadic military lifestyle and a very tight job market, I worked in private special education schools in both Hawaii and Denver. I also designed and implemented unit studies in a special gifted and talented program for three years in California. Eventually I began to perceive children as unique individuals and not as “class members.”
We began our Christian Cottage School in 1988 when we lived near Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. There were no Christian schools in our community, so I chose to start my own Christian school in my home. Homeschool law was difficult then, but private schools had much more freedom. My neighbor was already teaching preschool in her home, so I figured I could do the same. I saw myself as a homeschooler because I was teaching my children in my home with a few others besides. I created a program which gave each child a personalized basic skills program. We set it up to provide maximum skill development through a concise, consecutive sequence with minimum drill and basically selfinstructional. This opened up the remainder of the day for family-style learning through unit study activities.
Area homeschoolers began to see what we were doing. They noticed that we seemed to be having more fun and getting more done. Soon they asked us to help them as well, and Christian Cottage Home School Services was born. We also felt God wanted a Christian state homeschool organization to be formed here in Colorado, so we were instrumental in developing that as well.
TOS: Tell us about the school services offered by Christian Cottage.
TERI:For the past 16 years, our mission has been to serve, support, and empower parents as they exercise their God-given right to control and direct their children’s education. Our purpose is to help parents to feel successful in their homeschooling experience. Often parents choose to enroll with us under our umbrella school program. Here in Colorado they are legally enrolled in a private school and are no longer under homeschool law regulations. Other parents simply want us to evaluate their child and help them to select appropriate curriculum materials. We are currently working with families from Florida to California, but most of our families are here in Colorado.
Because we view each child as a unique individual, we begin by testing each child one-on-one with a nationally standardized achievement battery. The entire process takes less than two hours. Now we can understand the child’s learning levels in 13 areas. The tester has also had the opportunity to watch the child process information, listen to guesses, and see how the child holds a pencil. As you can see, we learn a lot during these two hours. The parent also completes detailed information for us about their family as well as the child. Our next step is to meet with the parents via phone or face-to-face for a curriculum design. We painstakingly develop an education program item by item with the parent’s input. We will also purchase the materials for the family from over 110 different suppliers. For enrolling families, we include suggestions for daily curriculum assignments as well.
TOS: Why are unit studies such a good choice for homeschoolers?
TERI:We feel that unit studies cause families to continue homeschooling. We saw homeschooling children buried by stacks of textbooks and piles of workbooks. They weren’t having any fun and felt isolated and bored by the entire process. I feel unit studies can bring fun and excitement to learning right in the home! When I taught at schools, I was hauling boxes of stuff into the school from my home so I could bake foreign foods, build models, or plant seeds. All of those learning activities can be completed much more easily right in the home setting.
Besides, children don’t remember the textbooks they use, but they do remember the projects they complete. This fact is proven over and over in our testing centers. Unit studies are wonderful for homeschooling families because they return the wonder to learning as information is discovered together; they build memories which last a lifetime; and they develop problem solving skills and a lifelong love of learning.
TOS: What was your vision in producing your four-volume set of unit studies?
TERI:We wanted to create a program that was “easy for you and fun to do.”I have always enjoyed teaching with hands-on activities, so these volumes are filled with them. I also enjoyed teaching my entire Cottage School class together at unit study time, so these units are written so that all levels are on the same page. This keeps things simple. We hope families will visit their unit study twice: once when the children are young and again in their junior/ senior high years. Yes, there were many other things we could have done with the 30,000 hours of work over ten years it took to develop these volumes, but we wanted to see more parents and children enjoy learning together.
TOS: Are the units mom-friendly?
TERI:We certainly hope so. We wanted to offer our parents a program that could be taught by simply opening the book like a cookbook. In the past, some parents resisted unit studies because they couldn’t set up the lesson plans, so we designed the unit in a lesson-by-lesson [format]. Sometimes people are afraid of learning gaps, so we designed a four-volume format, which includes every era of history and every nation in the world. We also integrate life, physical, and earth science activities into each volume. Naturally, literature and creative writing are a part of every study with art, music, and crafts throughout.
Other parents were concerned that the children might not retain the information, so we included Main Point questions, vocabulary, and a glossary for testing and review as well. Other parents did not have time to read and research for information, so we researched three encyclopedias and three textbooks, condensed the facts, and included the necessary information in the introduction section of each lesson. Other parents did not have libraries nearby, so we made resource kits available for the literature resources. We also left literature suggestions optional so the unit can be completed successfully with little if any outside resources.
TOS: Do you consult with many special needs families?
TERI:We like to say that special needs are our specialty! Approximately 75% of the children we work with have some sort of specific learning need. We work with almost all special needs, including developmental delays. Most of the students we help have a specific learning challenge, such as dyslexia, auditory processing problems, etc.
TOS: How are you able to help them?
TERI:Everyone tells me my greatest gift is encouragement. I know that it is a gift from God given to me to help others. After the testing, we design prescriptive curriculum programs with the parents, and we tailor the program to be suited exactly to what the child needs. Our goal is for the parent to return to us next year and say, “We had a great year!”This is our priority, not whether or not the family followed a particular prescription or curriculum program. We are available throughout the year for counsel and support. We keep a binder handy for each family so anyone can see in a moment exactly which materials the child is using when a parent calls.
TOS: What advice do you have for parents in homeschooling special needs kids?
TERI:My best advice is to tell you, “You can do it!”But you don’t have to go it alone. It’s okay to get help in the process. You don’t have to be lone ranger simply because you chose to remove or keep your child from the school system. However, it is very important for you as the parents to have the final say and authority over all matters pertaining to your child. God has placed parents as the authority over children, not the government. You as a parent understand the needs of your child better than anyone. No one else on this earth loves and understands your child more than you. God gave you this child for a reason, and He will not leave you or forsake you in the teaching, training, and parenting of your child.
TOS: Do you have other products available?
TERI:We have a cute little box of sight words, which includes 202 common words. Each word has a multisensory lesson written on the back of the card. These have been a wonderful bridge for children who are still sounding each sound slowly but want to learn to read paragraphs. They also provide a wonderful spelling curriculum for all of those short but troublesome words for most first- and second-graders. If volumes of unit studies intimidate anyone, we can sell a single two- or four-week unit separately. We also offer a sample kit, which gives an overview of each of the four volumes plus one entire unit for study.
TOS: Are you working on any new projects?
TERI:I am collecting years of newsletter articles and teachings from our Christian Cottage Handbook and creating a new book about teaching ALL God’s children. This new book will be a practical collection of stories, suggestions, and ideas to help anyone teach children who have learning challenges or attitude problems.
TOS: How may our readers contact you?
TOS: Thanks for taking time to visit with us, Teri. We certainly have enjoyed this visit to your “Cottage”!