Art and the Great Lessons: The Story of the Universe

Last year I had the privilege of assisting in the Upper Elementary classroom, which helped me gain a deeper understanding of Montessori education and how our students learn during the morning work cycle.

I noticed that in all areas- math, geometry, science, language arts- Quest students are inherently creative beings. They love to make, build, create, share, and remain hands on all day. This was apparent in art class, but it was energizing to observe that their creativity stretches beyond designated art time, and is really an integrated part of their learning experience. Every content area is a potential opportunity for art class.

So what does it mean to be a Montessori art teacher? Art, in and of itself, is naturally Montessori so it’s fairly easy to implement the same curriculum one would anywhere else and have it fit the mission of a Montessori school. You introduce concepts and materials and the children instantly take the inquiry-based, hands on project and run with it so fast you need a personal fitness trainer to follow the child.

For me, the role of “Art Specialist” has been to help the children speak in a unique visual language that they can use to better understand their world.  A visual child may better understand a geometry lesson if they’ve recently learned to draw in perspective or vice versa. Concepts that are hard for a child to express verbally may manifest much easier visually. Plus, art is just really, really fun.

This fall I decided to try an experiment in connecting art to The Great Lessons, in particular, The Story of the Universe. I’ve observed this lesson twice. Last year I observed Kathy deliver the lesson to Upper Elementary, and this year I joined the Lower Elementary class to observe the third years assist Justine in her lesson. Both times I sat in the back of a darkened room, listened to the teacher’s calming voice, and let my imagination illustrate the story.

“A long time ago there was nothing. Nothing. No stars, no mountains, no Earth. Nothing. There was only a great space which had no beginning and no end. There was darkness and cold, and there seemed nothing more. We think that the night is dark, but our night is like daylight compared to the darkness then. When we think of ice, we think of cold, but ice is positively hot compared to the coldness then.”

It was easy for me to let my mind develop images of a developing universe. Out of the darkness Justine described, I saw light emerge, colors burst, and shapes form. I began to wonder if it was easy because I’m a visual person. Or was it easy because I’ve seen a lifetime of space imagery from books, television, and the internet? Was it as easy or difficult for the children to imagine? How can we use art to visually communicate the abstractions we just heard?

 Cosmic Art 

In the following art classes with Lower and Upper Elementary I asked the students “Was it easy or hard to imagine what was happening in the story you heard about the formation of the universe? What did you see in your mind as the teacher was speaking?” The answers varied. For some it was easy and some it was difficult. The younger children had a hard time articulating what they were visualizing.

“I saw a big swirl and stars and glitter!”

“I saw smoke and a volcano coming out of the ground.”

“I saw black. You know, like my eyelids.”

“I saw the solar system and all the planets moving around so fast.”

“I knew what she was talking about, but I couldn’t see anything.”

“I’m not really sure.”

“I saw a blast of color.”

“I remember it was very dark and so cold that it was hot.”

In both classes we discussed that the beauty of visualizing this story is there is no right answer. None of us were there. So anything we imagine, any illustration we make is valid. What a perfect opportunity to create art without risk.

The students and I have been referring to the demonstration that followed as “The Milk Experiment.” I explained that I was going to share what I believed the formation of the universe could have looked like as I imagine it. It wasn’t meant to be accurate or to discredit their visions, but if someone was having a hard time visualizing, maybe this could help. It could also serve as inspiration for making their own images of the universe.

We put a pie plate full of whole milk under a black light. Using it as a canvas and a straw as a brush we dripped watered down neon paint onto the surface. Students then manipulated the paint on the surface of the milk, swirling neon blobs and splotches together. When they were ready, they placed a drop of dish soap on the surface of the milk and watched the interaction between degreaser, fat, and surface tension create a reaction of cosmic illustration.

The elementary classrooms have been working on art that is inspired by their experiences with The Story of the Universe and “The Milk Experiment.” I look forward to sharing their creations with you in future posts. You can currently view Lower Elementary’s universe paintings on the walls here at Quest!


Upper Elementary at Work and Play! March 2014

Upper Elementary Has a Guest – Walker Mettling of The Providence Comic Consortium

The Providence Comics Consortium teaches comics and cartooning at Community Libraries all over Providence and they publish work by kid’s and comic artists of all stripes!

Quest Learns about Día de los Muertos, 2013-2014

The Toddlers through Middle School learned about Día de los Muertos with food, friends and fun!

Spirit Week 2013-2014

Pictures from the First Week of School 2013-2014

Upper Elementary Fall Trip 2013-2014

All-School Fall Family Picnic


Upper Elementary Greek Night – June 2013

Grandparents’ Day – May 2013

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