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Help! How do I help non-readers at the Elementary level?

Dear Ask a Montessorian,  as a Montessori elementary teacher, I try hard to place the Cosmic Curriculum at the core of all of our work. However, more and more students are entering our elementary program as non-readers. How do I teach an authentic Montessori elementary program with students who are not reading or have no previous Montessori experience? -Cosmically Concerned, Baltimore, MD

Dear Cosmically Concerned, the dilemma you are facing is a common concern for many elementary teachers. It is true that Dr. Montessori envisioned the Cosmic Curriculum for students who had been through the Montessori Primary program and who were confidently reading and writing. In her book To Educate the Human Potential,  Dr. Montessori (2007) wrote that a child who has been through Montessori program “knows how to read and write, has an interest in Mathematics, Science, Geography and History, so that it is easy to introduce him to any amount of further knowledge. . . . [The plan of cosmic education] cannot be used with the wholly illiterate or ignorant, but it is received with joy by the child who has indirectly been prepared for it in the Montessori School.”

Many Montessori teachers therefore wonder how to implement an “authentic” elementary Montessori program with students who are not yet fully reading and writing, or do not have prior Montessori experience. While it is certainly simpler to implement the plan of Cosmic Education with students who are already reading and writing, if we carry out the fundamental principles of Montessori education, with some thought and planning, I believe we can absolutely provide a means for all of our students, regardless of their reading level, to benefit from the genius of the Cosmic Curriculum.

Whenever considering the plan of Cosmic Education it is important to remind ourselves of its origin, underlying philosophy, and ultimate goal. The vision of Cosmic Education was developed by Maria and Mario Montessori during the “Kodaikanal experience,” when they were placed under house arrest in India during World War II. During this period the Montessoris were in a period of “forced retirement” allowing them time to work with children, experience nature and reflect on the wider implications of world relations. It is also important to note that, during that time, they had been working with the Theosophical Society, whose philosophy includes a “Universal Brotherhood without distinction based on the realization that life, and all its diverse forms, human and non-human, is indivisibly One” (Children of the Universe, M. & D. Duffy, 2014). For Maria and Mario Montessori, the goal and ultimate purpose of Cosmic Education was both a way to help the child of the second plane develop in an environment structured to meet their needs, and a greater means of achieving world peace. They believed that the needs of the elementary child went beyond that of academic education, to exploring the greater questions of “who am I?” “where do I come from?” and “why am I here?” Ultimately, the child is searching for their place in the world in the form of their “cosmic task.” In Cosmic Education (1976) Mario Montessori wrote that if we, “place [the child] in relation with other men and make him realize what mankind has accomplished, then this will form the first step in the formation of the supraman, toward which humanity tends. . . to the older child we must give not the world, but the cosmos and a clear vision of how the cosmic energies act in the creation and maintenance of our globe”(p.5).

Our aim in presenting the elementary child with the plan of Cosmic Education is to inspire and impress upon her the interconnectedness of all inhabitants of Earth, both living and in the past. It is to show him the beauty and power of the world beyond our mother Earth, and out into the cosmos. It is to help her understand that human beings have a special role, an important task, in connecting with one another as stewards of the Earth. It is to spark her inner desire and motivation to explore these concepts while searching for her own cosmic task. This, I say, without a doubt, can be done regardless of whether a child is yet able to read and write fluently. In fact, it is quite important that we present Cosmic Education to all of our students in the second plane of development, for they are in a “sensitive period” for embracing all that it embodies. Comic Education was created to perfectly match the characteristics and needs of the second plane child. I would argue that not only must we present Cosmic Education to a second plane child who is academically “behind,” we must also refrain from moving a child who is academically advanced into the elementary environment, if she is developmentally still residing in the first plane of development.

A fundamental characteristic of the second plane child is an active imagination and a mind that can (and desperately wants to) reason. The ability to reason and abstract through imagination are crucial elements of Cosmic Education. As highlighted by Allyn Travis in her AMI/USA Cosmic Education Workshop, Theoretical Principles (2008), “we need to hold in mind that abstraction means arriving at understanding, not just using paper and pencil” (p.2). The Cosmic Curriculum begins when we present the child with the Story of the Universe. We present grand stories in the form of Great Lessons, as well as through impressionistic lessons in all areas of the classroom. From there we introduce images and materials designed to capture the imagination and inspire contemplation and curiosity. Materials such as the Timeline of Life, The Clock of Eras, The Long Black Strip, and The Hand Timeline give the child real experiences from which they can build. We present further concrete materials and experiences such as the science experiments, interplanetary distance cord, relative size of planets, impressionistic charts, botany dissection, and so on. Students are able to physically manipulate materials, create diagrams and charts, cause physical reactions, and explore natural specimens. All of these experiences should be open to all of the students in your elementary classroom and do not necessarily require the ability to read.

The role of the teacher in this grand plan is to connect the child with the environment. This is done not only through stories and presentations, but in creating an environment where each child has an opportunity to find and connect with work that speaks to him. The teacher must be tantalizing in her lessons, giving simple information, asking questions, and then providing a way for the child to further explore. For a non-reader the teacher must work a little harder to ensure resources and means for further exploration. This can be done, as described above, through work with concrete and visual materials. Materials can be created for early readers, such as a series of images with simple captions of the Great Lessons, which students could sequence and label. The teacher needs to ensure there is a variety of media, tools, and equipment available. As technology continues to evolve the resources available to us are expanding. There are many wonderful websites through museums, NASA, National Geographic, “The Kid Should See This,” etc., which provide not only images, but diagrams and videos on a great many topics. The teacher herself can be a tool for the student, reading with them, offering dictation or connecting them with tools such as dictation software. As follow-up work, students can find creative ways to share their knowledge. Dr. Montessori (2010) said simply, “To make it clear whether or not a child has understood, we should see whether he can form a vision of it within the mind, whether he has gone beyond the level of mere understanding” (p. 10). Students can both further their exploration of these topics and display their understanding through 2D and 3D art, by creating charts, copying diagrams and creating posters. For example, I have had students make books and card sets using pastels on black paper to recreate the story of the Universe, create a clay model of a volcano showing all the parts, and create a game which represented the evolution of man moving through different types of shelter, tools and food.

In connecting students to the world, teachers must remember to look beyond the walls of the classroom. Dr. Montessori (2007) explained, “In the second period the child needs wider boundaries for his social experiences” (p.3). The teacher must encourage students to go out into the greater community to explore and search for answers to their questions for, “to go out of a classroom to enter the outside world, which includes everything, is obviously to open an immense door to instruction” (Montessori, 2007, p. 17). Again, this requires preparation on the part of the teacher. As a guide you must ensure safety on these trips, create a framework for students to use in planning the outings, research opportunities that are available in your area, and make connections with parents and members of the community to find experts in the field able and willing to speak with students. “Going Out” is a wonderful experience and should be happening regularly in your classroom, not just as a culmination of research, but as a means for gathering information and connecting with the world. A Going Out is a perfect way for non-reading students to gather information and explore beyond the confines of a written book.

Students in the second plane of development require social connection and interaction. Students in an elementary classroom have a desire and need to work together. Lessons should be given in small groups, not on the basis of skill level, but based on interest and need. Groups should change and remain fluid in composition. In Practical and Essential Aspects for Implementation, Phyllis Pottish-Lewis (2008) explains that, “groups should vary in age, gender, abilities and personalities” (p.13). In grouping or pairing students of varying abilities and based on interest, students are able to learn from each other. Students who are free to work and talk together engage in discussions, debates and planning. When working together, students bounce ideas off of each other, question, and collaborate in ways that extend their education far beyond what any lesson or reading of an article can offer. This is particularly beneficial for students who need assistance reading and writing. I have witnessed a great many fruitful collaborations happen whereby students who are not competent readers have researched, experimented, created visual demonstrations, and presented information as part of a group effort with fellow students who can take on the role of reading and writing. These pairing or groupings can be designed when presenting a lesson or they can occur naturally as younger students learn to ask for assistance from their classmates. This is one of the great benefits of a Montessori classroom that make Cosmic Education possible for all of our students, regardless of their reading prowess. As Allyn Travis expounds, “The three-year mixed ages also help in the implementation of cosmic education, providing opportunities for motivation and to offer assistance. We want to see children helping and inspiring each other. . . Each child learns to determine strengths that can be used to help others. Each child also learns what areas need to be strengthened” (p. 4).

Finally, the beauty of the Cosmic Curriculum is that it is not only accessible to children still learning to read and write, it can and should be a tool used to help them develop these skills. We begin language study with the Story of Writing. This provides the child with a sense of connection to the written word. This story helps provide the deeper reason for learning to read, write, and study language. Students are having lessons and working in the language curriculum concurrently with the Great Lessons, thus their language work also informs their work in the cultural curriculum. While learning the complex rules of the English language students can learn how language itself has grown and evolved, and how different languages have different rules and forms of grammar. Students can be inspired by the grandeur and mystery of the Great Stories and use that as inspiration for reading and writing. They can practice reading and writing simple captions, or make stories with the moveable alphabet. Early reading materials can be brought into the classroom, which focus on topics being highlighted through the Cosmic Curriculum. Reading work is made more meaningful when it is connected to lessons and work introduced in the cultural curriculum. In Spontaneous Activity in Education Dr. Montessori (1965) reminds us, “Our care of the child should be governed, not by the desire ‘to make him learn things,’ but by the endeavor always to keep burning within him that light which is called intelligence”(p.240). If we keep this idea firmly in our minds and hearts we will find our students learning, growing, and flourishing within the Cosmic Curriculum, no matter their level of reading or writing.

Anya Bartlett spent 8 years as Lead Montessori Elementary teacher before transitioning into an administrative role as Head of School for another five years. Anya now resides in Glen Dale, Maryland where she now as an Instructor, Practicum Advisor and Field Consultant with The Center for Guided Montessori Studies and serves on the board of Montessori Schools of Maryland. She has presented workshops at local, national and international conferences throughout the United States. She received her Elementary I-II Montessori certifications through Pan American Montessori Society and The International Montessori Council. As a former Montessori student herself she has had the opportunity to experience and learn about Montessori from all perspectives, as student, teacher, administrator, teacher trainer and parent of two Montessori children.