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Storytelling in Montessori Elementary
Storytelling in Montessori Elementary

by Joy Messick, Lead Substitute Teacher

In order to serve the children in the second plane of development, Dr. Montessori's plan is to offer them Cosmic Education. But how do we offer the child the whole universe? Dr. Montessori has given us guidance in this task by sharing the Great Stories to the children. What makes stories appeal to the second plane child? They have reasoning minds and strong imaginations – so the stories need to be full of truth, mystery, wonder, allegory, cooperation, metaphor, magnificence, and gratitude, all delivered in beautiful, evocative language. We limit the aids to the imagination (charts and demonstrations) – so that children are not deprived of the opportunity to imagine for themselves because we have already imagined for them.

In my own life, I am preparing to become a mother for the first time. I look forward to my daughter hearing these Great Stories, and I also wonder: what are the stories I'm going to pass down to her? It is through stories that our legacy is preserved. Stories are passed down from generation to generation. When we share our family stories, we are sharing a part of our history and helping our children with their own storytelling and writing skills.

The Great Stories are a series of expansive, interrelated stories that offer children a sweeping view of the universe and everything in it. The stories serve as the framework into which the children can fit all subsequent learning and information. This panoramic introduction is an invitation to the children to discover their own interests and engage in further exploration. The Great Stories are designed to foster this admiration, and to help the children understand the connections between all aspects of the universe, including themselves.

We begin by telling The Story of The Universe. This story sets the stage for all to follow. It is the prelude to the rest of the Great Stories and to six years of exploration and study in Elementary – and the unnumbered years of exploration and study beyond. This is the story of the creation of the universe, a look at the origin of all things. The story suggests that we cannot "know" the details of creation (or creator) the way that we know other facts. The legacy of that mystery is the universe as it exists today, available for us to explore, study, and wonder about. The story invites children to consider a time before the universe, to ponder humanity's most profound questions, and to recognize that everything that exists has a unity and common origin. The story is both scientific and theological. This story introduces the sciences: cosmology, astronomy, physics, chemistry, geology, geography, as well as theology and philosophy.

The next story is The Story of the Coming of Life. This story is about how the universe came to be and the inanimate agents of this planet. How the water, the air, and the earth are following natural laws. The result of these interactions is a kind of chaos, and the ocean is filling with minerals from the erosion of the land by the cycle of water. But into this scene is introduced a new cosmic agent, life. Living things obey their own natural laws, and this new kind of being (first a tiny drop of jelly), evoked great changes on the planet. This story concludes with the unrolling of the Timeline of Life - which pictures the great diversity of life forms evolved on this planet. This is the first introduction also to a special kind of life form, shown in a red strip at the end of the timeline: human beings. This story introduces biology (zoology and botany), natural history, and ecology.

The Coming of Humans focuses on the special attributes that humanity brought into being in the cosmos. We have a special kind of intelligence, a special kind of hand, and a special kind of love. These gifts enable us to live a life that differs from the lives of other animals, and allows human beings to make unique contributions to the cosmic harmony. This story introduces anthropology, history, the humanities, and all the social sciences.

These first three Great Stories focus on the cosmos and the planet as a whole. The following two Great Stories focus on the creations of human beings.

After the children have been presented with the first three stories they will next hear The Story of our Alphabet. This story explores the development of writing from cave paintings forward, through the child's own handwriting today. The power of writing, and enabling communication across distance and time, is brought to the awareness of the children. Finally, they are invited to participate in this incredible human accomplishment. This story introduces language, history (with a different focus), creative writing, the humanities, and art.

Next we have The Story of Our Numerals. All cultures use numbers. Dr. Montessori described our innate ability to quantify and calculate as the "Mathematical Mind," a term she adopted from Blaise Pascal. In this story, we speculate about the origin of mathematics having arisen from humans meeting their needs, and we trace the development of our numerals. This story introduces history again, and all branches of mathematics, including geometry.

Hearing the Great Stories in the Elementary Program is analogous to an initiation or a rite of passage, and it's something that all the children in the community have in common. It is the structure of the Great Stories, and the key lessons that follow, that enables a Montessori Elementary teacher to serve each child as an individual. Because each child experiences the Great Stories in a different way, and because each child receives a unique subset of the key lessons tailored to that child's needs and interests, we offer a highly individualized program in our Montessori Elementary classrooms. The students become active participants in determining what they will learn at school. We have the potential for children to learn beyond what we teach them. This is how children can learn what we ourselves don't know, and this should give us all hope for the future.