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Literature Unit Resources: Cheaper by the Dozen

I had heard of the movie, Cheaper by the Dozen, and seen the recent version with Steve Martin. We laughed like crazy. I had heard that there was an older movie, but had never seen it. But somehow – no idea how – I had no idea that it was actually a book until my son was assigned to read it for a co op class.

And oh, my word, is it good. It’s so good, in fact, that we ended up putting a halt to some of our lesson plans and designing a unit around this book just for fun. There is so much good stuff to dig into!

Literature Unit Resources for Cheaper by the Dozen

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Cheaper by the Dozen

Cheaper by the Dozen (Perennial Classics) is a collection of true anecdotes about the Gilbreth family, written by two of the oldest children. The Gilbreths lived in Montclair, New Jersey, in the early part of the 20th century. Frank Gilbreth, the father of this copious clan, was one of the very first efficiency experts (he called it “motion study”) and his wife, Lillian, was his perfect partner.

Together, they really did have twelve children (hence the title of the book). Being the efficiency expert that he was, Father ran his house in some very eccentric ways. However, he was also a natural and amazing teacher and never missed an opportunity to pass skills and discovery on to his children. (Although homeschooling was not legal in most of America at this time, Frank Gilbreth was a homeschool dad by nature!)

Many of the adventures chronicled in the book revolve around how Dad taught his children everything from Morse code to small boat sailing, French and German to touch-typing. Other stories are hilarious accounts of situations the family found themselves in and examples of Father’s mischievous sense of humor. All in all, this is a fantastic read-aloud.

Life of a Homeschool Mom

Note: This book is a product of its time; it was written in 1949 about adventures in the 1910s and 1920s. There are a few topics included which are seen differently today, but this can provide a great basis for discussion. There are also a few phrases scattered throughout that you might want to creatively edit, especially if you’re reading this with younger children. Because the book is written in vignettes, however, you can easily skip small sections if choose without losing the flow of the book.

Questions to Discuss

*Dad insisted on finding the most efficient way to do everything in life, from buttoning his shirt to planning a trip. However, he valued his family more than anything and always made time to spend with them. At the end of the book, we find out why Mr. Gilbreth found saving time to be so important; what do you want to save time for?

*Dad came up with some pretty amazing ways to teach his children a variety of skills. Some of these methods were pretty methodical, and some of them were really creative. Pick a skill that you think you could teach someone. How would you do it?

*During this time, things were changing kind of rapidly. The Edwardian era was ending and the Jazz Age was beginning. Mother and Dad had different opinions about some of the new fads and fashions than the kids did. Do you think the kids made wise decisions about these things, or should they have made different choices?

*Mother and Dad involved all of the children in making decisions, planning projects, handing out chores, buying supplies, and more. Why do you think they did this? What did the children learn from the Family Council system?

History Activities

*Learn about one or more of the following presidents, as they were in office during the era this book describes.

  • Woodrow Wilson
  • Warren G. Harding
  • Herbert Hoover

Life of a Homeschool Mom

*Cheaper by the Dozen talks about a lot of different fashions and such that were popular after World War I and during the Jazz Age. Learn about some of these and make a journal or scrapbook with what you find.

  • Cootie garage
  • Bobbed hair
  • Dusters
  • Swimming costumes
  • And there are more. Can you find them?

*The family owned a Pierce Arrow that they called “Foolish Carriage.” At this time, cars were more common, but they were still pretty new. Find a picture and some information about the Pierce Arrow…and then imagine a family of 14 riding down the road in one!

*Many forms of entertainment are mentioned in Cheaper by the Dozen. Find out about one of them and write a paragraph or design a project to show what you learned. Some examples include:

  • Moving pictures
  • Vaudeville
  • Jazz music

Science Activities

*Dad taught the children astronomy by painting constellations all over the walls of their summer cottage. Look up several common constellations and paint or draw each on a piece of construction paper or cardstock. Using a The Night Sky 40°-50° (Large) Star Finder or other star chart, find these constellations in the sky. Do this for a few night to track their movement.

*Photography was one of Dad’s favorite hobbies, but photography in the 1920s was very different than what we know today. Find out how early photography worked, and then learn about the development of cameras over the past century. How did we get from how Dad took pictures to being able to take them on our phones today?

Literature Unit Resources for Cheaper by the Dozen

*Sailing with his children was another of Dad’s favorite pastimes. How do sailors navigate without landmarks? How do they work the sails to use the power of the wind? Choose a topic about sailing that you would like to learn more about and decide on a way to learn it. Get creative, just like Dad!

Math Activities

Dad believed in teaching his children the value of money. He did this in a few different ways. Try them out for yourself to see how you would have fared in the Gilbreth family!

*As part of the Family Council, the children submitted sealed bids to be awarded jobs. This meant that they each decided what price they were willing to take for doing the job, wrote it down, and sealed it in an envelope. The lowest priced bid was awarded the job, but that child was also responsible for doing the job. This is similar to how contractors often work today. Talk with your parents about some jobs they need done and decide what you would bid. Consider the time and amount of work it will take you – not just the amount of money you want to earn. How would you bid these jobs competitively?

*One of the committees on the Family Council was responsible for finding the best prices for food and other things the family needed. With 12 children and two parents, this was important! For a week, help your mom and dad with tracking down the best prices on things your family needs. You can check grocery store ads, newspaper flyers, and (if your parents are ok with it) internet sites. Make a list of how much money your family can save by getting these things on sale. Is it worth it?

Bible Activities

*Although Dad is definitely the parent that stands out, Mother was the one that often kept things running smoothly. In many ways, she was similar to the woman described in Proverbs 31. Read this passage and make as many connections as you can between the two. How are they similar? How are they different?

Literature Unit Resources - Cheaper by the Dozen

*Dad felt it was very important to save time wherever he could, and he had a good reason for doing so. Ecclesiastes 3 talks about how a time is designated for everything, and 3:11 says that “God has made everything beautiful in its time.” What do you think this means? Should this impact how you choose to spend your time?

Additional Resources

Five Little Peppers: The Omnibus Edition: Including Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, Five Little Peppers Midway, Five Little Peppers Abroad, … Friends, and Five Little Peppers Grown Upthis is the series of stories that Mother read to the children while she was recovering from having a baby. All of the stories are in this volume!

Cheaper by the Dozen DVD – the Cheaper By the Dozen original film, done in 1950, starts Clifton Webb and Myrna Loy. Contrast the classic film with the Cheaper by the Dozen 2003 version, starring Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt. What similarities and differences can you find? Do you think the newer film stayed true to the “essence” of the story?

Belles on Their Toes – This is the sequel to Cheaper by the Dozen, also written by Frank and Ernestine. It is every bit as hilarious – and touching – as the first book. You can also see  the movie !

Spic-and-Span – This children’s book was written about Lillian Gilbreth and some of the things she did later in life. She carried on their motion study work did many other fascinating things.

Pinterest – Check out my Cheaper by the Dozen Pinterest board for even more ideas. I’ll update it on a regular basis, so be sure to follow it!

Have fun with this unit! I know we did. And be on the lookout each Saturday for a new one!

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