By Becca Fernandez, Lower Elementary Teacher
Ask any Montessori elementary child what they did on the first day of school and you are likely to hear, “We blew up the volcano!” Indeed, a bit of baking soda, some red paint, and a splash of vinegar is the highlight of the first of the five “Great Stories” that serve as the foundation of the elementary curriculum. The purpose of the stories is to set the scene for all aspects of learning during the elementary years. Each lesson we offer and each area of study the children decide to investigate can be related back to one or more of the Great Stories, helping the children to find context and meaning for their discoveries.
The first story begins with a bang, The Big Bang. It traces the formation of our universe, right down to the shaping of our own planet Earth. Sprinkled throughout the story are a series of simple science experiments the children may repeat that illustrate some fundamental laws of the universe. A handful of confetti mimics the attraction of particles. Molasses, oil, and water separate into layers according to their varying densities. The stunning volcanic eruption accompanies the section of the story describing plate tectonics and the early cooling of the Earth. In the end, the children are reminded that all of the particles in the universe follow a specific set of laws.
The second story picks up where the first one stopped. The Earth was composed of water, rocks, and air. It looked nothing like our planet today. What could have happened to change it into the world we know? Some tiny particle became sensitive in a new way. It had a new set of laws to follow: to eat, to grow, and to reproduce. This was life. As life grew and changed, it became far more complex, evolving into creatures from the extinct trilobites and wooly mammoths, to our own pets; cats, dogs, and guinea pigs. Plant life ranges from algae to the mighty oak trees.
A special type of life emerges in the third Great Story: the human being. Humans have three special gifts that allow us to do things no other form of life can. We have our hands that allow us to work, our minds that allow us to generate new ideas, and our hearts that allow us to hold love and compassion for others. It is these very gifts that are allowing our elementary students to create a fundraiser to help the victims of Hurricane Harvey. Their own minds created the idea, their hands will do the work involved with baking items to be sold, and their hearts led them to care to make a difference in the lives of people (and animals, they really want to help the animals stranded by the storm) they will never even meet.
The final stories describe two unique inventions of human beings: language and mathematics. No matter their culture, humans have always created a way to communicate with one another and have developed ways of using mathematics to better their lives. Elementary children delight in comparing different languages and alphabets. They are captivated by hearing about all of the cultures that contributed to the simple system of numbers we use each day to decide how many crackers one may enjoy for snack. Or how the ancient Babylonians developed their system of numbers by watching the shifts in the stars at night.
Each of the stories allows us to paint a big picture. Lessons and explorations led by the children focus in on some small detail linked to a story. The spelling of a word reaches back to its early use by an ancient civilization of humans. Right-angled triangles remind us of the ancient Egyptians who used geometry to measure their fields following the yearly flood of the Nile. Chemical reactions have been occurring since the dawn of time in every part of the universe. Once the detail has been studied, we link it back to the whole.
The elementary child’s thirst for knowledge is voracious. Dr. Montessori recognized this and challenged us as teachers to tap into this drive by offering as great a diversity of learning opportunities as possible. What better way to inspire their imaginations than by using the entire universe as the backdrop to learning? As Dr. Montessori herself said, “Since it has been seen to be necessary to give so much to the child, let us give him a vision of the whole universe. The universe is an imposing reality, and an answer to all questions.” (To Educate the Human Potential, p. 5)