In the Montessori classroom, I have been amazed by the power of imagination when applied to some aspect of our world and guided by what we believe to be real. As a vehicle of learning, nothing can compare to it except actual experience. The imagination of children is so keen, it is almost as if they are living it. Montessori said:
“The secret of success is found to lie in the right use of imagination in awakening interest, and the stimulation of seeds of interest already sown by attractive literary and pictorial material, but all correlated to a central idea…” To Educate the Human Potential
I have always been fascinated with creating the stimulation that she speaks of. I have been intensively researching and writing Waseca Biome’s continent portfolios for the last year. Delving deeply into books and documentaries to gain as much knowledge of the landscapes, people, plants, and animals, continent by continent, as I can. Endeavoring, as a guide, to write material for students that sparks their imagination and makes them feel as if they are truly experiencing the places and people in the portfolio.
Part of my inspiration for the imaginative approach of the portfolios came from a method called “Storyline Scotland.” I instantly recognized it as a tool of stimulation for an imaginary exploration. “Storyline Scotland” was developed by Steve Bell and Sallie Harkness, two Scottish educators. It starts with a theme introduced by the teacher that correlates with the curriculum. In conjunction with the material they are learning, the children create characters that bring the material to life by creating a story they build and enact. When a group of children share this exploration, it touches on that power of storytelling that moves a group of people who are imagining the same thing at the same time. We are experiencing the power of the collective mind. It pulls us in and reassures us that we are not alone and separate.
I got really excited when it occurred to me that the Antarctica Portfolio could be used as a jumping off point for a “Storyline Scotland” exploration of the continent of Antarctica. In the case of our Antarctica study, you would talk about who lives in Antarctica, what do they do, and the impact they have. The stories in the portfolio tell of the scientists and support staff who work there, what daily life is like, and what they are working to accomplish.
The portfolio is written in the second person so that you can easily imagine that you are there and exploring the continent yourself. The portfolio develops a context for the children to choose their characters. Some of the children might want to be visitors and be themselves. They write an essay about why they want to visit Antarctica so that they can win a contest to visit there. When everyone has decided who they would like to be, they then use collage (paper, popsicle sticks, cloth etc.) to create their characters. Each character is to be developed by that student in terms of their personal story; their hometown, their occupation, their relationships with other characters, their hopes and fears about working in Antarctica. There would be a sharing session so all the characters could get to know one another. Antartica is an international community of scientists. Different countries have their own research stations. The children could team up and create different research stations and decide the nature of their research and their nationality.
With the “Storyline Scotland” method, you need a stage. In this case, it could be a giant map of Antarctica. The children could find the location of their research station and place their characters there on the map. They could make two flags, one for their station and one to have at the South Pole. The Antarctic Treaty could be researched so that they know what they have agreed to in order to be there.
Once the stage and the characters are set, it is time to enact the story. The story progresses through a series of incidents and events some imagined by the students and others proposed by the guide. In this case, the arrival of visitors to entertain and inform might be the interactive plot. In the meantime, each station is carrying on their research which would involve actual research to become more informed about their subject of study. If more than one person chose to research penguins, they could collaborate at some point even if they were in different stations. The visitors would need to research their transportation to Hobart, Tasmania where they would board the icebreaker. They would need to be outfitted there with the proper gear.
When people first arrive in Antarctica, they usually undergo some training in how to respond to the extreme conditions there. At the US base, called Mactown, they call it “Happy Camper School.” The class could construct models of emergency shelters. They could respond to a group challenge to devise a way with a rope to search for a lost teammate in whiteout conditions. Conditions could be simulated by wearing white buckets on their heads. There could be discussions of what to do in many different emergency situations.
As the storyline unfolds, the guide has the prerogative of creating surprises. In this case, you could be in control of the weather. You might post the temperature and weather each day. The weather would determine whether you stayed inside or went out in the field that day. If scientists needed a vehicle, they would have to arrange with one of the drivers or pilots. As the guide, you might narrate the conditions of a sudden blizzard during an expedition out onto the ice sheet. The characters involved would have to react and remember their training.
Can you imagine how invested children would become in this process? We have all observed children acting out scenarios on the playground. There is an inherent need to imagine themselves in a different role, having experiences that they don’t ordinarily encounter. How would they respond? What would they do?
How do you wrap it up? At some point, you ask the children what they have learned so far. As it happens in a dynamic classroom, the amount of information that they can absorb when truly motivated is astounding. Then, you ask them what more they wish to learn. Once that is accomplished, you can devise an ending with the assurance that you will explore another topic in this way. In this scenario, it might just be that the visitors leave. Everyone says goodbye.
What I particularly like about this method applied to travel and exploration of different cultures is that the children have the opportunity to operate within a different set of cultural constraints. In Antarctica, according to the treaty between nations, there are protocols about how to interact with the animal life and how to dispose of waste. Within a tribe in the Amazon, there are ways of greeting others and ways of acting in harmony with nature. By giving children information about those cultures and asking them to behave as if they belonged to that culture, they gain the broader perspective that travel can give you. Perhaps, they might gain more perspective than the average tourist. Culture can be a set of habits that make us unaware of the choices that we make. Exploration of other cultures can allow us to think outside of that box. The student’s task in the process of maturation is to become a contributing member of their culture. What if they undertook that with awareness of how other cultures function and theirs might be improved?
Take our cultural attitude toward the environment. The scientists living in Antarctica see the effects of global warming. Their perception is not clouded by politics or economics. They deal in facts and their consequences. Children engaging in this role play can share that perception and gain a new understanding of the global threat to the environment. We can’t protect them from these facts. They will grow to inherit the problem we are creating. At Waseca, we are committed to spreading awareness, especially, among the children. We pledge to donate 5% of the proceeds from all of the new Antarctica materials to the Environmental Defense Fund to make a difference.