One of the most magical pieces of Montessori education is the Great Lessons. These five stories: The Coming of the Universe, The Coming of Life, The Coming of Humans, The History of Writing, and the History of Numbers, originally presented by Mario Montessori at the Washington Montessori Institute in 1979, form the basis of the Montessori Elementary Curriculum and everything throughout the curriculum seems to draw back to the stories in a cyclical fashion. It’s a beautiful display of interconnectedness, of cosmic education.
For me, choosing to take Ronnie out of Montessori school for 4th grade has been paradoxical. For one, I’m an advocate for traditional Montessori education, which requires teachers and guides to be certified through a MACTE-accredited program. Second, I value the expertise and perspective of our local Montessori school so much that I can be a little fanatical about it. Ronnie tested well above grade level last year, but he has challenges when it comes to working diligently and he needs more individual attention than the average student (all related to his ADHD and ODD). Knowing the workload of a 4th grader at our school and knowing Ronnie’s challenges, I felt like this was our best move for now–and I hope that he’ll be ready to go back into school by the 7th grade.
I wasn’t ready to give up on what Ronnie would learn if he continued with Montessori, so everything we’re doing in our homeschool is Montessori-inspired even if I couldn’t finish a Bachelors, Masters, and Montessori Certification program before we could begin. Since I can’t claim to know what I’m doing here, I’m relying heavily on albums and resources that are available outside of certification programs.
Just be forewarned that the way we are handling the Great Lessons isn’t the traditional Montessori way. In a classroom, things are done differently to cater to small groups of students–and they’re guided by trained teachers who’ve spent a significant amount of time learning the ins and outs of the presentations, while I’m taking shortcuts. I will try and point out the differences where I can.
So, if I intend to continue Ronnie’s education through a Montessori lens, that means we have to start with the Great Lessons, because in Montessori, every year begins with the Great Lessons. Authentic Montessori elementary classrooms will complete the 5 Great Lesson sequence within two months of each new school year, but the children will spend the entire year working with the related materials and extension work.
Since first grade, Ronnie has heard the stories at least three times and has been completing extension work for these lessons with advancing complexity throughout first, second, and third grade. His entire elementary foundation is based around these five themes, so it makes sense that that’s what we’ll continue.
The Coming of the Universe
In some classrooms, this lesson is given in one fell swoop as a mythopoetic story with scientific demonstrations interweaved into the story (the teacher demonstrates the experiments, not the children). In others, it’s broken up into two to three days because it’s such a massive undertaking. But I appreciate Michael Dorer’s perspective when he suggests that the demonstrations, called History Experiments, be given prior to telling the story. I took this idea and ran with it. After all, I’m only dealing with one child instead of 26. And I wanted his hands to get into it.
Our first task in approaching The First Great Lesson was to explore all twenty History Experiments. Originally, I had planned to use the experiments from the Montessori R&D album, but then I had the absolute honor of attending a three-day Storytelling workshop with Michael Dorer, where he shared his experiment list with us. This list is far more thorough and advanced, including more challenging experiments for each of the twenty traditional statements about universal laws. A little birdie tells me it might be available in some upcoming resources, but for now, you can reach out to Michael through the Montessori Leadership Group.
Note: There’s a condensed version of the Storytelling workshop available on youtube!
We divided the experiments into four chunks of five experiments, and it took us four weeks to accomplish, mostly because I struggled to pull together all of the materials at once. Now that we’ve done it once and have all of the materials, I could see going through it much quicker next year (yes, we’ll do it every year through sixth grade!). I used five trays that I prepared each week with the required materials, safety equipment, and a statement card (that I created using Michael Dorer’s experiment list).
Ronnie completed these experiments on his own, with me nearby giving “You may…” statements. For example, we adored Experiment #7: Particles That Love Each Other and Particles That Do Not Love Each Other. Ronnie pulled the prepared tray to his work surface and waited for instructions. I’d say:
“You may pour some water into one beaker.”
“You may pour some sugar into the same beaker and stir the mixture with the stirring rod.”
“You may pour some water into the second beaker. Add the chalk powder and stir it energetically with the rod.”
“What do you observe immediately? What do you observe a little later?”
And then I would invite him to read the statement card.
Laws of the Universe: Illustrating Observations
After each experiment, Ronnie wrote the connected statement into a booklet and illustrated his observation about the experiment. I tried to encourage him to use color, but he said, “No, thanks. I like black and white.”
Culminating into a Great Story and Setting the Stage for Everything Else
To complete our First Great Lesson, we read through Born With A Bang by Jennifer Morgan and Michael Dorer’s version of the story from The Deep Well of Time. I find these to be the most inspiring, from my perspective. I especially love how Jennifer Morgan’s retelling invokes a sense of universal kenosis at the very start, without explicitly saying so. It even reminds me of tsim tsum from ancient Kabbalistic traditions.
You could also easily use the versions from the Montessori R&D History Albums or any of the free versions available from around the web.
In Montessori tradition, it’s important that the teacher memorizes each of the five stories and presents them to a group of children in as dramatic a way as possible. They do this to inspire a sense of awe and wonder in the child, but also to form a spiritual connection between the teacher and the child at the start of the year, right off the bat.
While I would have preferred to memorize and dramatize the story, it wasn’t practical for me to do so on our first run through it. And since Ronnie and I already have a spiritual connection as mother and son, there’s less of a need to make that first impact like teachers need to. Since these lessons are cyclical and return at the start of every elementary year, there’s always next year to try to memorize it again and get more authentic as we go. I’m trying to keep in mind that a trained Montessori teacher would have years of practice under the belt, while I most certainly do not!
Now that the story is told, we’ve set the stage for everything that will come next: Geography Impressionistic Charts & Experiments, Timeline of Life, Timeline of Humans, Chemistry, Biology, and everything else under the Cultural theme of our studies.
Encouraging Research with the Upper Elementary Homeschooler
While we didn’t have a formal research project with this Great Lesson, I did encourage Ronnie to explore bighistoryproject.com to learn more about the science involved in the Coming of the Universe. The videos absolutely hooked him. Through BHP, he also discovered the Crash Course YouTube Channel, which he loves to explore when he gets the opportunity. Both of these resources were built for high schoolers, so don’t expect your elementary child to be able to complete the academic work available with a BHP account. There’s no reason why they can’t understand the videos, though. In fact, their imaginative minds are primed for grasping concepts as big as the universe right now, so we can encourage them to explore as much as they want to!
Reflecting on the Value of the First Great Lesson
The First Great Lesson is by far the most involved and intense of all the Great Lessons. It really is meant to set the stage for this cosmic worldview we’re aiming for, mixed with science and academic value.
If you think of Earth as our only place to be, as your life as the only thing that matters, as humans as the only species you want to care about, that doesn’t work as a stable solution going forward. But when you look at it from above culturally, scientifically, philosophically, then you realize that we have a connectivity to one another, to life on Earth, to the atoms across the universe. It is literally true — not only figuratively true — that the atoms in us came from the same place as the atoms that made the stars… It’s not just figuratively true. It is literally true that we are stardust. And this connectivity–that’s almost spiritual!” —Neil deGrasse Tyson
As we’re now moving on in the sequence of The Great Lessons, I can’t possibly think of a better way to have started our homeschooling journey. While these first two months have been quite an adjustment period, with moments of frustration and confusion, this First Great lesson was not only a way to set the stage for everything that’s coming next; it was also an anchor point, pulling us both back to our purpose in homeschooling altogether. It was a reminder of the connectivity we seek to unveil in the universe while strengthening the connectivity in our own parent-child relationship—even when the day isn’t going exactly as planned and we’re further behind than we expected (which has definitely happened a few times!).
As a parent first, and educator second, I find that the value in the Great Stories isn’t just academic. It’s more than just the how of everything. It’s about the spiritual why, too, without ever explicitly saying so. We know that sometimes words fail and things must be experienced to be understood; thankfully, the setup and structure of this story allow us to experience the universe while still having our feet firmly planted on Earth’s ground.1