What’s the Rush? When Presenting the Five Great Lessons, Slow Down

when presenting the five great lessons slow down teacher presenting five great lessons.

The Five Great Lessons are thought to be the catalyst of the Montessori elementary cultural curriculum. From the origins of the universe to the story of human communication, the Five Great Lessons provide the keys to learning about science, history, geography, and economics in the Montessori elementary environment. If these lessons are so important, why then, do we often rush to get through them?

A Case of Semantics


Perhaps a name means more than we think. In modern educational terms, a lesson is finite. It has a beginning and end, with the purpose of instructing. In short, a lesson is the amount of learning done at one time. If this is our definition of a lesson, then it is logical to think that the Five Great Lessons should be told quickly so that we can move on to more important activities.

Some Montessorians call all presentations “lessons.” NAMC intentionally uses the term “activities” instead, to indicate that children are actively participating in their learning rather than passively absorbing information.

What if we viewed the Five Great Lessons as the Great Stories, instead? A story conjures the image of a journey. We follow the progression of a story from beginning to end, pausing where there is conflict or where the story captures our interest. When we think of the Five Great Lessons as stories, we give ourselves permission to stop, reflect, and learn along the way.

The Story of the Second Great Lesson: Life Comes to Earth


when presenting the five great lessons slow down second great lesson.

We can use the Second Great Lesson to illustrate this shift to thinking of the lessons as stories. The Second Great Lesson is about how life came to earth, and the story takes place over 3 billion years. Can you tell the story of 3 billion years in just one sitting? Yes, you can because the story is kept very general, giving just enough information to engage the students and spark their imagination. (Although you may want to take 2–3 days so students can truly absorb the whole story.) But the Great Lessons aren’t a “once and done” presentation. We tell the story, and we invite the students to stop and explore.

To get an idea of what we mean, let’s look at the topics that are presented in the Second Great Lesson: Life Comes to Earth.

1. Bacteria, the first life on earth
2. The importance and function of oxygen
3. Early ocean life
4. Trilobites
5. Fossils
6. The appearance of fish
7. The appearance of vertebrates
8. Plants, the first life on land
9. The appearance of insects
10. The appearance of amphibians
11. The importance of ferns
12. The appearance of reptiles
13. Dinosaurs
14. Conifers
15. Flowering plants
16. The appearance of birds
17. The appearance of mammals
18. Earth’s changing continents (continental drift and plate tectonics)
We can look at this story as one GREAT story made up of numerous mini stories. Each mini story offers students a wide variety of exploration and learning. In the Montessori environment, we call this “follow-up work.” If the Great Lessons are the foundation of the Montessori cultural curriculum, then the follow-up work is the scaffolding. It is the children’s research and exploration that provide substance to their learning.

NAMC’s Five Great Lessons manual suggests that the stories be told at the beginning of the school year, within the first 8 weeks. However, you can certainly take longer than that, giving students time to connect with the stories and explore topics that have captured their imagination. In the next blog, we will explore how to use the Five Great Lessons as the foundation upon which to build your presentations throughout the year.

Michelle Irinyi — NAMC Tutor & Graduate

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