Cosmic Education – nourishment for a lifetime

touching-the-universe

I recently gave the first great lesson – the story of the universe to the elementary children. This is a period of great excitement, questions and ponderings for the children and well, for me too.  I am always especially excited for the children who are hearing this epic tale for the first time. An entire universe is unlocked and ready for their explorations.

The entire Montessori ‘curriculum’ during the elementary years is dubbed as ‘Cosmic Education’. Cosmic Education connects all players in the Cosmic Drama, both animate, as well as inanimate. It is an opportunity for the child to unify themselves with the very cosmos!

Lofty ideals these, but Montessori is ALL about lofty ideals. The primary aged child has the gift of developing a ‘unified self’, the elementary aged child has the gift of ‘unifying with the cosmos’ and the adolescent, ‘unifying with ones fellow beings’.

Each and every year I see these stupendous ideals fleshed out into practical experiences that guide the children on their path.

This year, soon after I presented the story of the universe to the children I saw the movie ‘Agora‘. It’s the fictionalised story of the life of Hypatia– the Alexandrian mathematician and philosopher who lived during the 4th century CE. Living through times of religious strife, Hypatia managed to hold on to her beliefs and till the very end dedicate her life to probing the secrets of the universe. At a time when the mere thought that the workings of the cosmos was anything less of pure perfection was considered heresy, Hypatia anticipated that the earth went around the sun in an elliptical orbit. Now an ellipse was considered an ‘impure’ shape – a base figure as compared to the ‘perfect’ circle, where the centre is constantly equidistant from its diameter. Hypatia was a woman far beyond her times.

While viewing the movie (which had it’s good and bad points, but this is not a film review) I couldn’t help but see a parallel between Hypatia and the elementary child. Both probe the secrets of the cosmos and ‘touch’ it with their gift of imagination, are sensitive to issues of fairness, cannot help but ask BIG, philosophical questions and attempt to find answers guided by their reasoning mind.

I often meet adults who have completely lost touch with the child they once were. Philosophical questions, the awesomeness of the universe and all the many splendours out there, leave them unmoved while they plod along life’s path miserable in their day-to-day existence.

My hope is that children who have received cosmic education will, no matter how old they get, always have the child they once were alive in them. No matter what difficulties life throws in their path, and there surely will be many challenges, they will never cease to feel wonder at this truly majestic universe that we inhabit, never cease to ask questions bigger than themselves and never fear to look for answers.

In short, my hope is that the Cosmic Education they receive will last them a lifetime.

“Cosmic Education is intended to help each of us search for our cosmic task as a species and as individuals. To do this, we must understand ourselves in context. It is only against the background of our place in the universe, our relationships with other living organisms, and our understanding of human unity within cultural diversity, that we can attempt to answer the question, ‘Who am I?’”

~ Micheal Duffy and D’Neil Duffy – Cosmic Education – Children of the Universe

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

~ William Blake

Ode to The Lost Russian Book

For many of us who were kids in the 80’s, the mere mention of Russian books instantly brings a light into our eyes.

As a part of Soviet propaganda they were made available all over India, touching the lives of many children growing up in the 80’s. The books were highly subsidised and inexpensive with hardcover books being no more than a couple of rupees. They were translated not only into English but also into the many regional languages of India.

Reading them we were instantly transported into a rosy Russia. Mishka, Natasha and Yuri were familiar names. Baba Yaga was known to many of us. The jewelled colours of Russian folk art coloured our imaginations, as did the turrets of Moscow.

Even now, in many second hand bookstores around India, you will chance upon some of these books. This is becoming much rarer though. Up until 5 years ago, booksellers selling their wares on footpaths still had many of these Russian titles but not so much any more. Russian books in India are getting harder to find.

Re- reading these books of my childhood makes me marvel at how well the Soviets made their books for children. The illustrations are absolutely stunning, ranging from decorative Russian folk art to more minimalist graphics. The content of the books too are of good quality.

All in all, the books demonstrate respect for the children who read them.

In fact, some of the non-fiction titles we have in the library are used year in and out by the children at school for referencing!

Bringing the Russian books of the 80’s to the children of today, makes the child that I once was, sing.

A Ticket To Ride - Nikolai Osipov (Raduga Publishers)

A Ticket To Ride – Nikolai Osipov (Raduga Publishers) Illustrating seed dispersal via animals

How People Discovered The Shape Of The earth - Anatoly Tomilin (Raduga Press)

How People Discovered The Shape Of The earth – Anatoly Tomilin (Raduga Publishers) Illustrating the Indian view of the world. The world being an enormous tortoise floating in a sea of milk, with 4 elephants on the turtles back that raised the round, flat earth on their mighty backs

How people Discovered The Shape of the Earth - Anatoly Tomilin

How people Discovered The Shape of the Earth – Anatoly Tomilin (Raduga Publishers) Illustrating the ruler of the Maldives Islands and his beloved and lucrative Seychelles Palm

Barankin's Fantasy World - Valery Medvedev (Raduga Publishers)

Barankin’s Fantasy World – Valery Medvedev (Raduga Publishers)

Barankin’s Fantasy World – Valery Medvedev (Raduga Publishers)

Barankin’s Fantasy World – Valery Medvedev (Raduga Publishers)

A Ticket To Ride - Nikolai Osipov (Raduga Publishers)

A Ticket To Ride – Nikolai Osipov (Raduga Publishers)

The Making of Timelines

This summer break I have been busy with making the ‘missing’ timelines for the elementary environment.

Having already oriented themselves to their immediate environment in their first plane of development from 0 to 6 years, children in the second plane of development from 6 years to 12 years, seek to orient themselves to the entire cosmos.

In a Montessori environment, the universe itself is opened up to them through ‘Cosmic Education”. The lietmotif of Cosmic Education is the interdependance of all things, both animate and inanimate, and the gratitude that arises from this understanding.

Looking back in gratitude to all the participants in the drama of cosmic evolution is a subtext that plays constantly in the background of the elementary classroom.

The absence of easy accesibility to a vendor who stocks Montessori timelines in India has in fact been a boon. I have always found my understanding of a work crystallise when I am engaged in making the material myself. Moreover, the connection of the ‘hand’ to the material becomes more evident to the children.

Over the past two weeks rolls of cloth have been examined, measured and cut. An enterprising, and possibly only ‘alteration tailor’ in Bangalore has been befriended. Skeins of silk embroidery floss have been pulled out of dusty drawers and the tape measure has become my constant companion.

KHADI

First Stop was Khadi Bhandar, where the fabric was purchased. The patient salesman heard our request for unusual measures of cloth. Meters upon meters of black khadi, strange measures of blue, brown, green and red khadi were purchased.

Gandhi's beloeved Khadi

Gandhi’s beloved Khadi

SREEDHAR’S SHOP ON WHEELS AND THE BLANK TIMELINE OF LIFE

I have to admit this is the first time I have come across this particular piece of ingenuity. Sreedhar, an evidently enterprising gentlemen drove up to school in his tailoring shop on wheels!

For the next 6 hours he helped us put together the blank timeline of life. After hearing me wax lyrical about the timeline and explain the idea behind the colour coded strips of cloth, Sreedhar was sufficiently charmed by the idea of making it.

We had blue for the Paleozoic Era where life predominantly existed in the waters of earth, a brown strip to represent the Mesozoic Era where life invaded the land, a green strip for the Cenozoic Era where grass, mammals and birds evolved and finally a tiny strip of red to represent humans on earth.

The blank timeline is a blank replica of the timeline of life which charts the evolution of life. Children place pictures, labels and cards of information on pre-historic life and paleogeography onto the blank timeline to construct their own timeline of evolution. By engaging in this work they discover many inter-dependancies – the plants, the animals, the rocks, the oceans, the mountains, even the ice-ages, all interdependant, forming the web of life.

The sliver of a red strip at the end, represents humans. It visually communicates the short time that humans have lived on earth, as compared to all the other players.

The child eventually comes to see herself as the beneficiary of cosmic gifts.

Each year I hear, “Earth has been home to the jellyfish, amoeba, sponges etc etc, so much longer than it has been our home!” or “It is amoeba who are really our ancestors!”

Sreedhar's shop on wheels

Sreedhar’s shop on wheels

All measured up

All measured up

The completed timeline

The completed blank timeline of life

THE LONG BLACK STRIP

The story goes that the idea of the black timeline came to Montessori when she was residing in India. She had recently had a conversation with a child who had told her that there was nothing that he could learn from someone in the West as India had the oldest real civilisation in the world.

Later she observed workers in the heat and dust of Madras laying black cables in the ground.

From these two things was born the idea of the Long Black Strip – 300 meters of black cloth that represented 3 billion years of our universe’s history. The last few centimeters were coloured white to represent the time that humans have lived on earth.

Today we have reduced the 300 meters to 30 meters, and replaced the white strip with a red one.

Though the timeline does not precisely respresent the current accepted date of 4.5 billion years, it is an attempt to create an impression of the miniscule time that humans have made Earth their home.

The Long Black Strip is a compelling lesson in humility.

timeline black

THE HAND CHART

The hand chart creates an impression about the importance of the hand – of work – to humans.

It is a black strip of cloth representing 7 million years of human evolution. Bang in the center is a picture of a hand with a stone tool. There is also a slim red strip right at the end that represents the birth of writing and recorded history.

All throughout the history of humans, it is their ability to work that has helped them survive.

Here echoes a message: be grateful to those of previous generations who have faithfully, lovingly, and expertly done their work in the world so that you may have life and the benefit of their knowledge!

The Hand

The Hand

 

People say that narrow paths are difficult to walk about, yet, once you have narrowed down the whole, the vast and the big, to its least denominator, the narrow path is simple,
thanks to the process of reaching it.
Christoph Schiebold

Why The Kangaroo Hops

About a month ago, we at the elementary were lucky enough to catch a splendid, magical show, ‘Saltbush Cheering Carpet‘, that was visiting our city. It is was about 2 aboriginal friends that journey across Australia and learn the secrets of their land.

Since then the elementary children have been researching all things Australia and a web of Australia has filled our environment.

The children have studied human migration routes, paleogeography and crustural plates, Australia’s political and economic geography, it’s the flora and fauna, how people satisfied their fundamental needs – then and now, indigenous Australian art, and of course, dreamtime myths.

Finally, as a consolidation of everything they had been working on, the children produced a play.

They chose from the stories they had written in the style of dreamtime myths, through a secret ballot.

The story they voted for was “Why The Kangaroo Hops”.

Each afternoon for a week, they practiced their play. Each evening they worked with their parents to make their costumes.

Finally, they performed the play for the entire school on the day of our christmas celebrations!

Though I have worked with the elementary children for 10 years now, I never know where an experience will take us. A month ago as we sat mesmerized by the show, ‘Saltbush Cheering Carpet’,  no one had any idea that our christmas celebrations would have in it rainbow serpents, kookaburra’s and goannas!

 

Chossing from a list of aboriginal art symbols o paint on their faces

Choosing from a list of aboriginal art symbols to paint on their faces for the play

narrator

Once upon a dream time, there lived a kangaroo that loved to race with his friends. But because he was so slow, he always lost.

After a race in which he lost again, the kangaroo went to the Rainbow Serpents home in the outback and begged the Rainbow Serpent to give him speed. The great Rainbow Serpent agreed, but warned that the kangaroo should never use his speed to make others feel bad.

After a race in which the kangaroo had lost yet again, he could take it no more and made his way to the great Rainbow Serpents home in the Outback. He begged the Rainbow Serpent to give him speed.

The Rainbow Serpent agreed, but warned the Kangaroo to never use his new speed to make others feel bad.

The Rainbow Serpent agreed, but warned the Kangaroo “Never use your new speed to make others feel bad. Remember to always be kind and gentle to others”

It was the day of the great race and guess what? Much to the surprise of everyone, the Kangaroo won! Though the others were happy for him, the Kangaroo forgot all about his promise to the Rainbow Serpent and started making fun of the others!

It was the day of the great race and guess what? Much to the surprise of everyone, the Kangaroo won! Though the others were happy for him, the Kangaroo forgot all about his promise to the Rainbow Serpent and started making fun of the others!

The Rainbow Serpent soon heard about the Kangaroos rude behaviour and at a conference with the carpet snake, kokaburra and goanna, cursed, "From this day forward, all kangaroos will be destined to hop and not run. Yes, they will be able to hop fast, but each time they spring into the air, they will be reminded to be kind and gentle to others!"

The Rainbow Serpent soon heard about the Kangaroo’s rude behaviour and at a conference with the carpet snake, kookaburra and goanna, cursed, “From this day forward, all kangaroos will be destined to hop and not run. Yes, they will be able to hop fast, but each time they spring into the air, they will be reminded to be kind and gentle to others!”

That's all folks! Hope you enjoyed the show!

That’s all folks! Hope you enjoyed the show!

A Searching We Go

What are they looking for?!?

In Mr. K’s words, “Something older than dinosaur bones!”

That’s us on our moss hunt!

Recipe for Moss Milk (to grow your own moss)

from The Evolution Book by Sara Stein

1 cup of spore capsules

1 cup of milk

Put in a blender. This should break open the capsules and release the spores. The milk will provide some nutrition for the young moss.

Put liquid in a spray bottle and spray into crevices, rocks and other places that are constantly damp.

Spray water on these places for a while to ensure constant moisture.

In time you should see your own moss grow.

Story Of The Universe

We are a month into the new academic year and the children who have recently joined our elementary environment have received their first great lesson – THE STORY OF THE UNIVERSE. The story is accompanied by many experiments, including a show stopper – blasting a volcano! This year around, we used ammonium di chromate in the volcano for some real BANG, instead of the tame baking powder and vinegar routine. Needless to say it was all very exciting.

Along with the younger children, the older children too had the benefit of receiving the story again and like every year, it has sparked off great work!

Today, one of the many projects undertaken by the children after the telling of the story was completed.

After reading the awe inspiring book, ‘Born With A Bang – The Universe Tells Our Cosmic Story‘ by Jennifer Morgan and Dana Lynne Anderson, two boys decided to make a timeline depicting some of the major events in the Universe’s history.  There is a concise page at the back of the book that lists some of these major events and was just the right morsel for the boys.

Here is the long and short of their timeline.

They did some finger knitting and converted its length into a timeline. Each foot on the length of their finger knitting accounted for 1 billion years.

The timeline in our library corner, above the light box. Below is the much loved volcano. The timeline goes all along the wall ….

… and wraps around …

… to the other side …

A brass bell signals each major event. With it is a card that explains what happened at that point in time. The first two events are so close together that they have been strung one on top of the other – but – true to the need for precision that characterizes the elementary child, they are just ever – so – slightly, askew.


BIG BANG – less than 1 second old – In a fraction of a second the universe went from the size of a dot to the size of a galaxy …1 second to 3 minutes – the universe cooled down to 3,000 degrees and that was enough for the neutrons and protons to form …300,000 years after the Big bang it cooled down enough for the first atoms to form. The first atoms were of Helium and Hydrogen … 

1 billion years after the Big Bang galaxies formed. Mother stars were born. After stars die their stardust makes new stars that have complicated elements …

2 billion years after the Big Bang the Milky Way formed. Older star clusters joined new star clusters

7 billion years after the Big Bang our mother star might have exploded. There might have been more than one mother star that might have created our solar system …

8 billion years after the Big Bang our sun formed from clouds of gas and dust which came from a supernova of our mother star. Gravity made the clouds squeeze together. Atoms of Hydrogen joined to make Helium. This made the cloud shine. It was now a star…

8 1/2 billion years after the Big Bang the planets formed. One planet was perfect – not too hot, not too cold.

For the sake of convenience the timeline has now moved to a new location – above the science material.

“let us give him a vision of the whole universe. The universe is an imposing reality and an answer to all questions. We shall walk together on this path of life, for all things are part of the universe and are connected with each other to form one whole unity.” ~ Maria Montessori (To Educate The Human Potential)

History of Writing

I recently gave the fourth great lessonthe story of writing –  to some of the elementary children. The story traces the evolution of writing, from cave paintings, to hieroglyphics, cuneiform, phoenician, greek and roman. Writing being able to transcend space and time and the big leap to symbols representing sounds rather than objects and ideas, are highlighted.

While relating the story I didn’t really get a feel of where it was going, until after the story. One boy came up to me, eyes shining bright with a big smile on his face saying, “This is just what happened to me. When I was little I only drew pictures and they told stories and now I can write pages and pages using marks”!

The last few days have been all about exploring different scripts. We’ve brought out the clay to make clay tablets, as well as our bamboo quills, feather quills and our vintage ink wells!

The children have been leaving little messages in scripts long past, in each others lockers.

One child has finally started working with note taking. He has made points about how papyrus was made and is expanding his points and transliterating them into hieroglyphics simultaneously!

Another child has traced the evolution of the alphabet from phonecian to roman (which is the script I am using right now) and cannot believe that an ox’s head led to A !

There are tetrahedrons (pyramids) being constructed and covered in hieroglyphics that say, “The king is not dead – he is alive!” (a common inscription on pyramids)

At the end of today the same boy who we met at the beginning of this post, came to me saying, “All I see are capital letters! In Russian, in Greek, in Roman – where are the small letters? How did they come to be?”

Another story for another day …. These are fun times indeed!