Fourth Great Lesson: The Story of Writing | Complete Script

The Fourth Great Lesson, The Story of Writing, focuses on one of humanity’s most important inventions – the emergence and evolution of written language. The Story of Writing formally opens and provides the foundation for all Montessori language lessons. The story appeals to the imagination of the elementary child because they are able to travel back in time to imagine a time where written language did not yet exist and see how writing solved problems our ancestors had.

In my version, this story is a series of vignettes. My students really loved and connected with the characters in these personified accounts and I saw that they were remembering the content better when it was tied to a named character.

The first vignette is of an elderly woman who wants to ensure that her beloved oral histories will be remembered. She paints a picture of the whole story on a cave- the inception of recorded stories.

Next, an accountant in Mesopotamia is getting so overwhelmed with all the information he needs to remember! He invents a way to write whole words and simple tally’s into clay.

The final story is of a teacher in Mesopotamia, many generation after our accountant. He is teaching children to write in cuneiform and it is a cumbersome and dreadful process, there are so many symbols to memorize! He devises a system for writing down the phonetic characters representing distinct sounds.- this of course is the true birth of writing.

Where does it fit in the curriculum?

The five Great Lessons are a cornerstone of the Montessori Elementary curriculum. I find them to be an immensely useful tool in the classroom for helping my children integrate all of their knowledge. Because of the broad scope, you can always tie a lesson or an idea back to at least one of the great lessons. These links will take you to the hub for each lesson.

Materials Needed

Fourth Great Lesson Charts

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Fully updated and redrawn, I hope you love these new Fourth Great Lesson Charts!

The Story of The Invention of Writing

  • Recap First GL: The Earth was born and made ready for life.
  • Recap Second GL: Many varieties of life formed. Plants, fungi, animals (Fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals) at the very end was a very special animal- Humans!
  • Recap Third GL: We learned what makes humans so special: Our minds, our hands, our community.

This is a story of something that happened long after people had been working and living on earth. This is a story of humanity’s most important invention.

Part 1: Cave Paintings

Long, long ago in smoky caves, people would gather around bonfires and share stories of heroes, wild journeys, and mischievous pranksters. These people all told fantastic stories, but there was one very old storyteller who was more skilled than all the rest. Her name was Caya and she wove tales so vibrant you felt like you were really there in the thick of the action. You could smell the musky buffalo charging, hear as spears whistled through the air. All huddled close when Caya began her tales. 

But, Caya was quite old, she knew one day she wouldn’t be there to tell stories anymore. One day she would be one and all her stories would go with her. Caya wished that she could leave her stories behind for those she loved to enjoy. 

She looked around the cave, where she had shaped so many tales. She remember all the words that came alive in the firelight. She noticed the sooty marks  leftover from flames that were left on the walls and ceiling. 

She had an idea.

Caya went out to gather colored stones- rust red, coal black, clay white- and with her wrinkled hands ground them into a fine dust. 

She brought to mind her favorite story. A heroic tale of how her tribe had hunted a buffalo, narrowly avoiding death from its trampling hooves. The hunters were victorious and brought back enough food for all. There were no hungry bellies that winter. 

Montessori fourth great lesson poster L1 Cave painter

She pictured the powerful beating hooves and the beautiful red fur as she mixed her fine powders with sticky tree sap. She painted the whole adventure onto the wall. 

When she felt it was quite done, she brought her loved ones into the cave- The littlest children gasped in fear thinking that the paintings might be real buffalo! They all gathered around as she told the story again…

Caya’s stories lived on. Her children told their children and for generations people went back to the caves to see the pictures and add their own. 

Even today, ten’s of thousands of years later, we still see these pictures from ancient people. Though we don’t remember the details of those stories, the images still make us imagine great things. These cave paintings were the first kind of writing humans had- they wrote a whole story as a set of pictures.

Part 2: Pictographs

Generations after Caya and the other cave painters, early tribes migrated to Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. People here farmed the rich soil that was nourished by the yearly floods. Farmers here were able to grow more food than they needed to survive.

In the city of of Uruk a man named Baran was the royal accountant. He counted endless bushels of grain that were brought by the farmers to the city storerooms. His job was extremely important. He let the people know how much food was available and how much more was still needed to ensure there was enough food for everyone.

“You’re getting old and slow, Baran!” they laughed. Grizzled Baran only glared back. They were right. Once he had an incredible memory and was able to remember precisely who had given what, down to the very last grain. But now, his memory was like sifting sands, more and more details slipped away each year. He made many mistakes.

How much grain came in last year? 

Who still needed to bring more?

Complaints poured in as merchants and farmers disputed his approvals. What could be done?

One rainy day, Baran was carrying a bag of grains when he slipped in the mud. The grains burst from the bag and spilled out all into the muck. Humiliated, he pulled himself up and began to pick up the grains. 

He noticed the marks in the mud by the grains, they were like footprints, perfectly ordinary, but this time Baran saw them as something else.

Montessori fourth great lesson chart L3 pictographs and cuneiform

He scooped up a handful of clay with a gnarled hand and smoothed it out. Then he took a grain and pressed it against the clay. A perfect imprint.

What if pictures in clay could remember for him?

Simple shapes that were steady and stable. The shapes in clay would never forget or slip away.

Baran never forgot his grain counts again. Now at the market, he was the only accountant merchants trusted.

“Baran has the best memory in all of Mesopotamia!” they cheered. 

In no time, other people made symbols for items they needed to track, from sheep exchanged to barrels of date wine owed. What began as a tool for helping the memory of an aging accountant became a writing system for navigating agreements, resources, promises and more.

The writing system first invented was called pictographs. They wrote one picture-symbol for each word.

Part 3: Pictures of Sounds

In the generations after Baran’s invention of pictographs, scribes filled clay tablets with detailed grids of word-symbols. As more symbols were invented to write down more and more things, they created schools for young scholars to learn these symbols.

Master Enki observed his six apprentices in the musty scribe workshop. Their small hands grasped awkwardly at reed styluses, struggling to precisely copy the complex word-pictures he demonstrated. He’d work with many students over the years, they copied and memorized thousands of symbols, after a lifetime of practice they might become important scribes.

The walls of the workshop were lined with neat rows of clay tablets with Master Enki’s perfectly formed word-symbols. Symbols for “cattle”, “grain”, “river”, “man”, “woman.” Detailed images that could be used to write contracts and receipts. 

One day, little Ninsum came to class ready to start the day. Ninsum asked, “Most honored Master Enki, last night I was practicing my writing and I realized I do not yet know the symbol for ‘life.’ Sir, might you teach me this most important word?”

Master Enki replied, “Little Ninsum, we do not have a picture for such a complicated idea. Only simple nouns can be drawn as pictures.”

Ninsum accepted this answer and went to his workspace to began preparing his clay and stylus for the day.

The lessons continued, but little Ninsum’s question bothered Master Enki all day, like a buzzing fly that wouldn’t go away. With all their thousands of symbols that took an entire lifetime to master, they still couldn’t write the most basic word of “life”! What a failure! There had to be a way to capture all words without adding thousands and thousands of additional symbols! 

After school, Master Enki wandered through the bustling marketplace to buy some bread for dinner. He noticed a group of children playing a hunting game, one child shot an imaginary arrow while the other children spun in circles. 

“Ti, Ti, Ti!” The children shouted the Sumerian word for arrow. “Ti, Ti, Ti!”

Master Enki stopped in his tracks. “Ti” was the Sumerian word for arrow, but it was also the word for life. He thought, “What if I use the symbol for arrow, Ti, for life, Ti? What if the symbols represented sounds instead of words?

That night Master Enki prepared a new clay tablet and cut a reed stylus. He tried to solve the problem of making symbols for just sounds of Sumerian words. He started:

Ti – Too – Tah

Bee – Boo – Bah

Nee – Noo – Nah

By sunrise he had worked it all out. He had 200 symbols on his tablets, far fewer that the thousands his students memorized now, and best of all, by figuring out what sounds were in words, you could write down every word in Sumerian! 

Over the next years his students learned these new symbols and flourished. They mastered writing the entire language in only a couple of years instead of spending their entire lives to memorize only a small part of the language. Master Enki’s students went on to write epic stories, careful laws, beautiful poetry, holy prayers – The symbols could write everything now.

Other civilizations around the world heard of this fantastic invention from Mesopotamia that could make pictures of sounds and they created writing systems for the sounds in their own language: 

Conclusion

Other civilizations around the world heard of this fantastic invention from Mesopotamia that could make pictures of sounds and they created writing systems for the sounds in their own language: 

  • Egyptians
  • Phoenicians
  • Chinese
  • [Add to this list as much as you like. Show examples if you have them]
Montessori Fourth Great Lesson Charts L5 Egyptian Writing

The alphabet letters that we use today come from the Ancient Greeks, who learned it from the Phoenicians, who learned it from the Ancient Egyptians, who learned it from the Mesopotamians!

This invention lets us share information with people who are very far away and even with people who are no longer alive. We still learn from the Ancient Greek scientists, we use Ancient Roman laws, we even sent people to the moon using the mathematics invented hundreds of years ago in the Scientific Revolution. 

But to learn more about math and numbers, you’ll have to wait for the next story!

Further Resources

This lesson is your framework for linking together all language arts curriculum, whether it’s reading, composition, handwriting, grammar, or speaking. You can always relate back to Caya, Baran, and Master Enki and the incredible inventions they gifted us with.

Happy Teaching

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