Monday, June 14, 2010

Book Review: Children of the Universe

The second book K. lent to me is one she says she tries to incorporate into her teaching as much as possible, Children of the Universe: Cosmic Education in the Montessori Elementary Classroom by Michael and D'Neil Duffy.

Some time ago, probably within a month or two of discovering Montessori education, I came across the most amazing and wonderful lesson that Montessori herself taught, The Great Lesson. Even before reading much into it, I could tell that it was one of the things that truly made Montessori education different and far more special than traditional education.

The Great Lesson begins by sitting down with the students in a darkened room. The teacher begins to tell a story, just like the storytellers of times long gone by. She starts off softly, "In the beginning, there was nothing. And then," (she presents a black balloon secretly filled with silver glitter) "there was a burst of energy," (she pops the balloon and the glitter fills the air) "and particles were set into motion."

This lesson, even merely reading it and not having the opportunity to experience it, awed me. To explain to children at that age, and with such emphasis!, something of that philosophical weight and significance, stuck me as something of great importance that had been lost to most teachers before me. Why had no teachers the courage to entrust their students with this knowledge?

Michael and D'Niel showed me that, although this was the only Great Lesson Montessori taught in her time, her son, Mario, and those that followed her work, wrote four more and expanded on her original. Collectively, they are sometimes referred to as Great Lessons, implying the significance of the content, and sometimes, Great Stories, implying the significance of the presentation. The five Great Lessons/Stories are:
-The Story of the Universe (Creation Story, The Story of the Beginning)
-The Story of Life
-The Story of Humans
-The Story of Language
-The Story of Numbers
These five stories are broken down even farther by some Montessori educators to include individual stories about Earth, Civilization, etc. Because the are not lessons set in stone, any teacher can create a story about anything she feels needs to be talked about with the greatest of importance.

Cosmic education (and the Great Lessons it includes) is, according to Micheal and D'Neil, the foundation of Montessori education. It is the basis on which every other subject is taught, and every lesson in the Montessori classroom should be constructed with the Great Lessons in mind.

The Stories are told from large scale to small scale, Universe to individual level, which is directly opposite how traditional education is taught. The student in a traditional classroom might be taught about their neighborhood in kindergarten, their state and perhaps the nation in elementary school, and the world (and possible the stars if they had the opportunity to take the elective) in middle and high school, considering all the while how they can relate their studies to themselves.

Montessori students, on the other hand, begin their studies considering the universe as a whole, before they were born, before the Earth even existed, and the unquestionable laws of physics. They reflect on how stars and plants were created, then how the Earth was formed and what it was like before it contained the conditions for life. Then they learn the life that first began to exist on Earth and how it transformed and grew stronger and into billions of different species. Only then are they ready to consider themselves and humanity as it is today. It instills in the students an incredible sense of humility and lets them see their place in the world, their place in the universe. Cosmic Education teaches students to be one with the universe and to be at peace.

Reading Children of the Universe was quite an experience for me. I loved every bit of Cosmic Education (with the small exception of the option to include a divine creator in the Story of the Beginning), and yet at the same time, I felt as though I were an outsider looking into something I could not be a part of. I realized that the whole of Montessori is based on science, definitely not my best subject. I could just picture myself trying to give these Great Lessons, stumbling myself for the correct account, being asked questions I had no idea how to answer. Of course, this road block may be smaller than I see it as, because the Great Lessons are not given to show all the answers to students. They are merely to introduce concepts and inspire the students to research, teaching themselves the answers to their questions. Still, I'm not accustomed yet to students researching things in my classroom that I don't have the ability to clarify myself.

The second hesitancy I had was, of course, reading a purely Montessori book as a public school teacher. The majority of these Stories have no place in the American public school classroom due to separation of church and state. If I started teaching my students about the Big Bang and evolution, two very important pieces in Cosmic Education, I'd have enough public outcry to take away my license in a heartbeat. I know that there are ways to tame down what I've read enough to introduce it to my classroom, but I think I would always be afraid I was saying too much. In any case, I think I might be able to at least guide my students towards the gravity of topics such as the universe and world outside their backyard without making parents upset.

My own issues aside, there are a few notes I took from the book to share:

*"Montessori saw no contradiction between her acceptance of evolution and her religious beliefs as a Roman Catholic. In fact ... she considered human beings as collaborators with the deity in the work of continuing creation," p.21

*"'If the idea of the universe is presented to th child in the right way, it will do more for him than just arouse his interest, for it will create in him admiration and wonder, a feeling loftier than any interest, and more satisfying,'" p.31 (Montessori, To Educate, p.9)

*"The job of the Montessori teacher/directress is not to teach information so much as to guide or direct the children to an area of study by stimulating their imagination and interest, and then letting them go on their own as far as they wish using both the classroom materials and outside resources. The story part is the principle job of the teacher, the study part is primarily the job of the students, although some presentations involve an introduction of information by the teacher as well," p.34

*History is taught first with story, then with the making of a clock or timeline (such as the Clock of Eons, Timeline of Life, and Timeline of Humans), p.36

*When materials are used during a lesson or story, cover them with a black cloth to provoke mystery and suspense, p.44

*"It was only because of these billions of years of star life and death that the fragile conditions for life were created on this speck of rock we call home. We are the children of the universe," p.62

*Although the works with scientific names and classifications of life seem complex and daunting, they are not meant o be in depth studies like that they will receive in high school, merely a glance at what they will study in the future, and more importantly, a foundation for the appreciation of evolution. (It is important that while students are learning, teachers don't force regurgitation of facts), p. 91

*Students learn about early humans and evolution to current humans to learn that humans are animals, but also to consider real, physical differences between humans and other animals, p.106

*"The recognition that people in very different places in the world and in very ancient times all had the same needs that we have today is a deeply spiritual insight for children on the fundamental unity of all human beings," p.117

*Teach history not through the use of national boundaries. Humans are ll related--the world itself should be the only boundary, p.122

*"To attain true peace, she [Montessori] wrote, "We must create a different sort of man in order to have a different sort of society,'" p.127 (Montessori, Education and Peace)

*"Montessori students are taught to see themselves as citizens of the world, a species within the family of living species on Earth and, ultimately, as descendants of the universe," p.128

*"In a 1936 address to the European Congress for Peace meeting in Brussels, Montessori summed up her position: 'Preventing conflicts is the work of politics, establishing peace is the work of education,'" p.130

*"So why teach Cosmic Education? Montessori would answer that we must teach in this way so the children of today can understand more fully who they are and grow up to create a new kind of society, one in which peace is based on an understandin of the fundamental unity of humanity," p.130

Read more about the Great Lessons from Montessori for Everyone or Miss Barbara's website.

Read more about Cosmic Education from The North American Montessori Teacher Training blog or the Rose Hill Montessori school in Boise, Idaho website.

Buy Children of the Universe on Amazon.