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The Great River: From Story to Study

In Montessori elementary classrooms, teachers often tell stories and use impressionistic models or charts when introducing new concepts or ideas.  The goal is to "spark the imagination" of the child.  Montessori described the child's mind as a "fertile field" in which we, as teachers, plant the seeds of inspiration.  We may not know which ideas will fully germinate and bear fruit, but it is important to prepare the child's interest so that she or he will fully engage with the material.  These impressionistic lessons are followed up with more detailed studies.  These might include additional presentations with a narrower focus or follow up work such as creating a diagram, memorizing vocabulary, or composing research paragraphs.  

In science class, we have now started a unit on Human Biology.  This will include indepth studies of two body systems that relate to the element of water: the circulatory and respiratory systems.  We started first, however, with an impressionistic story called The Great River that compares the human body to an ancient civilization.  The students were then asked to respond artistically to this story in some way through art, music, or writing.  

The following week, we focused in on how the human body is organized into subsystems (body systems, organs, tissues, cells), looked at a 3D model of the parts of a cell (using a watermelon, avacado, and assorted candies), and conducted experiments that demonstrate the semi-permeability of the cell membrane.  Students are now viewing actual human cells through microscopes, creating mind maps of the human body, and memorizing the parts of a cell.  Whether the students remember the exact terminology and cellular structures 10 years from now or not (not likely), what is truly important is the investigative process and the connections the students make through their collective efforts.  These are attitudes and experiences that will last a lifetime.

Seth (and the UE Team)

The Story of the Great River
By Maria Montessori
Today I want to tell you about an imaginary civilization on an imaginary river. This nation has a Great River that flows to each and every part. Of course, each part of the nation is very important, but most important of all is the Great River itself, with all its many tributaries and canals carrying water to each of the smallest fields, with ships carrying goods up and down. The Great River serves as the communication link between the parts of the nation. It also carries away the wastes, keeping the nation clean and healthy.
Who lives in this nation? How is all this harmony maintained? What sort of government do they have? This is what makes the nation so unique. The government has NEVER changed, and the inhabitants work tirelessly, day after day, following the directions of this government. They never get paid. They just cooperate and work without ever asking questions. They do their work without even really understanding how it contributes to the welfare of the nation. The work of each inhabitant is necessary for the whole nation, and they would all perish if the nation were to die. Of course, the inhabitants do die, and the river carries them away.
The government is located in the castle. This is where the decisions are made. The president takes information from all the ministers of senses. They stay in very close contact.
There are other departments. The mill is the Department of Nutrition. The Department of Purification works closely with this department. Its job is to rid the nation of unwanted substances and waste. The Department of Respiration is in charge of the air. On the chart, you can see the fans at work.
The Department of Defense is in the barracks. There are soldiers patrolling the river to protect the nation against invasions. They can quickly surround, attack, and remove dangerous elements.
The Department of Transportation is at the center and includes the Great River, constantly pumping to maintain the flow of the River.
What is the Nation?
What is the Great River?
Who are the inhabitants?
This strange nation is our body. The Great River upon which the nation is founded is our blood.
The inhabitants are microscopic beings, invisible to our eyes. There are millions and millions of them, doing different work, all with the same name: cells. What do they really look like? At first they seem like little bubbles of water. But inside the bubbles are all the secrets of the cell: the secrets that make it possible for the cell to build everything that is alive, from the simplest protozoan, to the tallest tree, to the most complex animals. The history of the development of the cell tells the story of changes and learning and coping with any difficulty.
Guided by the force of survival and by an unconscious drive to contribute, the cell has adapted, changed, specialized. As far as we know, humans are the only animals that think about the contributions that we can make to the Universe. We are made up of cells that do a more primitive work, working tirelessly, unquestioningly for the good of the body. The cell is working for its own survival: nourishing itself, protecting itself…and in the process, doing its work for the body and giving us the greatest gift of all…life.