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The Long Black Strip: A Lesson in Humility

It just might have happened like this:

One hot, dry afternoon in Madras, India in 1939, Maria Montessori was talking with a group of children in the shade of a great, old Banyan tree. A boy, about ten years old, proudly proclaims the wisdom of his Indian civilization, one of the oldest in the world. Perhaps he even wonders out loud how much he can learn from Dr. Montessori and her far less ancient culture.

Later, over afternoon tea, Montessori reflects on the boy’s words, wondering how best to respond. She notices telephone workers laying long black cables on the dusty road as she takes another sip of her strong tea. She and Mario have been working for many months on the elementary curriculum; the Great Lessons have recently been shaped. Motivated by the boy’s comment, Montessori creates”A Lesson in Humility.”

A few weeks later, after enlisting the help of a local seamstress,Montessori invites the boy and his classmates to meet her. Following Dr. Montessori’s instructions, two teachers on bicycles position between them a long wooden dowel, upon which is rolled a huge spool of narrow black cloth. Without a word the teachers begin to unroll the black strip of fabric, laying it on the ground, as they slowly ride their bicycles down the street. Montessori and the inquisitive children follow behind and many neighborhood children join the procession, asking,”What is this? What is it for?”

Montessori is very quiet. Perhaps she says “Wait and see.” Perhaps she does not say a word until the end, when the long black strip has been completely unwound and now at the very end there appears a surprise: a narrow strip of white cloth.

Montessori finally speaks: “This little white part represents the entire time that human beings have been on Earth. Compare it to the black strip, which represents the age of Earth.”

The children gaze back down the street where the black strip has disappeared from sight, and then look again at the tiny strip of white in Dr. Montessori’s hand. Perhaps Montessori smiles at the boy who inspired her to create this lesson.

The Long Black StripHow Long Was the Original Black Strip?

While we don’t know exactly what Montessori said when she gave this lesson, we do know that the original black strip was 300 meters (984 feet) long, the length of three football fields! The beginning of it would have disappeared from view as it was unwound through the Madras streets. Today, most teachers use a black strip that is 100 feet in length, significantly shorter, but still long enough to inspire humility and awe.

An Impressionistic Lesson

The Montessori elementary curriculum has a number of important impressionistic lessons that are meant to evoke wonder, awe, and gratitude. Don’t be tempted to use too many words or facts when you present this lesson. It is much more compelling to present it as Montessori did, with few words so as not to distract from the one key point you wish children to be impressed with: How little time humans have been on Earth. We are latecomers to this planet.

This brilliantly concrete lesson is not meant to be another version of the Clock of Eras or a re-telling of the First Great Lesson. Imagine Dr. Montessori barely speaking as her extremely long black strip was unwound. Think of how much curiosity there was.

Give this Lesson Outdoors

Even if you have enough room to unroll the strip indoors, presenting this lesson outside as Montessori did adds to the drama and impact. After giving the lesson, I always tell children what motivated Dr. Montessori to create it. They love hearing that the original black strip was nearly ten times longer than ours today and we discuss how far from their school that would reach.

Preparation

  • This key lesson is given to 6-9 year olds during the first weeks of school, after the First Great Lesson and before the Clock of Eras.
  • Wind the black strip around a stick, starting with the white strip (so that the white section will be the last part to be unrolled). Be sure that the white strip does not show at all and that any distracting labels have been cut off. If you make your own strip, it needs to be at least two inches wide. (Narrow black ribbon or yarn is not nearly as dramatic.)
  • Practice giving the lesson several times before presenting it to children. Get comfortable with long pauses, where you simply unwind the strip and don’t speak. Feel free to use even fewer words than suggested in the steps below and to develop your unique style of storytelling.

The Lesson

  • Invite the children to come to a very special lesson outdoors. Impress upon the older students, who saw the lesson last year, the importance of not revealing the surprise at the end. (You can invite older children to help unroll the strip.)
  • Have another teacher or an older child hold the end of the black strip as you start to unwind it. (Or tie it off to a tree.) Begin the story, pausing often between sentences.
  • This black strip represents the age of Earth, from its very beginning.
    Silently unwind the strip for at least 30 seconds.
  • At first Earth was a fiery ball.
    Silently unwind the strip.
  • And this went on for a long, long time.
    Silently unwind the strip.
  • Earth was covered with volcanoes.
    And this went on for a long, long time.

    Silently unwind the strip.
  • The rains came.
    And this went on for a long, long time. 

    Silently unwind the strip.
  • It rained and rained.
    And this went on for a long, long time. 

    Silently unwind the strip.
  • Finally Earth began to cool.
    And this went on for a long, long time. 

    Silently unwind the strip.
  • Still, there was no life on Earth. Just rocks and oceans and volcanoes.
    And this went on for a long, long time.

    Silently unwind the strip.
  • Just rocks and water and fire. Nothing green or living.
    And this went on for a long, long time. 

    Silently unwind the strip.
  • Earth is very old. Look how long this strip is! 
    Silently unwind the strip.
  • We are getting near the end of the strip. Finally life begins to develop on Earth.
    And this went on for a long, long time. 

    Silently unwind the strip.
  • Watch for a change. Something different is about to happen! 
    Slow down as you near the very end and stop when the white strip appears.
  • Human beings appear on Earth for the first time.
    This little strip of white represents the whole time that humans have been on Earth.
    Compare this to the black strip which shows how old Earth is!

    Pause
  • Would you like to hold in your hands the whole time of humans on Earth? From the first humans who lived in Africa, the cave people, the Aborigines, the Egyptians, the Greeks, Native Americans, Mayans, to everyone on Earth today. Here, you can hold all of humanity in your hand.

A Powerful Lesson

When presented well, with minimum words and meaningful pauses, the Long Black Strip can be one of the most powerful lessons you ever give. It is often cited by children and adults alike as their favorite lesson. It truly lives up to the name that Montessori originally gave it: A Lesson in Humility.

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