Monday, September 24, 2012

Elementary Albums: Keys of the Universe

In this series regarding elementary albums, today I would like to talk about the Keys of the Universe albums offered by Jessica.  The Keys of the Universe albums are one of two complete, traditional album sets that I have access to.  Of the two, they are my favorite.  When I plan my presentations I tend to go use my favorite, complete set as my "spine" and refer to the others peripherally as I wish.  For that reason, I wanted to talk about the KotU albums first.  I want to disclose that I did pay for these albums, but I won half-off tuition through a giveaway at Living Montessori Now.  Regardless, I will be providing my own, honest thoughts.

I don't want to be responsible for communicating every detail about the albums.  You can read all of the specifics at the KotU website.  The same will be true regarding any of the albums I review.  I would, however, be happy to talk about some of the highs and lows that come to mind.

In my introductory post about elementary albums I said that there are many right ways to homeschool the Montessori way.  Each family will handle the inherent differences between a traditional Montessori classroom and education at home differently.  For this reason, Montessori elementary at home will look different from household to household.  The KotU albums are a good fit for the family that wishes to approximate a traditional Montessori classroom experience at home.  One will find all of the traditional Montessori elementary presentations in these albums. They are also good for a family that doesn't plan to do every Montessori presentation, but wants to see the "full experience" on paper so that they are picking and choosing from a position of knowledge.  They are AMI albums that cover everything for ages 6-12.  AMS albums sets are often separated into 6-9 and then 9-12. I don't know if that makes a lot of sense because the 9-12 curriculum is the same as 6-9, just deeper.  The kids cycle through the same great lessons leading to deeper and deeper work in many areas all six years.  Some presentations in Jessica's albums say they are meant for 9-12.  I assume those would be missing from albums sold as 6-9 albums, however the presentations in specifically 9-12 albums aren't the ONLY presentations the 9-12 kids would get.  It's nice to see the big picture all at once.  It can also be overwhelming to see the big picture all at once!

The albums you would receive include the following:  math, geometry, geography, history, biology, language, and theory.  Art and music will eventually be included, but are not available immediately (you will receive some sections to get you started).  Like almost all of the album options, these are available digitally.  When I took the Karen Tyler course I dutifully printed all of the albums out (not a total waste because she includes all of the three-part cards you need in all subjects, so I definitely used those printouts.) but now I do NOT print out my albums.  I LOVE having all of my album sets on my iPad.  It is such a convenience when you have more than one set of albums...even more so when you have one child in primary albums and another in elementary.  I am always remembering that I read "something" "somewhere", but can't always remember in which album or where in the album  I love being able to search my digital albums by keyword.   Jessica's albums look beautiful on the iPad!

The albums ARE illustrated.  One might not need illustrations if they have gone through traditional Montessori training or are purchasing all of their materials.  However, if you are trying to make your own "timeline of life" from scratch it helps to have an album that has a picture of each section of it so that you can recreate it at home.  I feel that the best albums for homeschoolers show what the materials look like and how they look on the mat while you use them.  I'll never forget how it took me three tries to do the decimal layout in primary because I only had a verbal description of how to lay it out on the mat.  A picture is worth 1000 words.  I do wish Jessica's photographs were in a slightly different format.  Another set of albums I use available from Jonathan at Cultivating Dharma, has the photographs formated differently.  They are included at very high quality and in such a way that you can click on any individual picture and enlarge it so as to read the smallest detail.  I cannot seem to get Jessica's to do that, and when I enlarge them the quality degrades so that I cannot always see the details.  It could be user error.  Also, one album, math, is still being converted to a tablet-ready digital format.  That album comes in chapters and does not have it's images in yet.  But, it will be available soon and you eventually get the updated version if you purchase.  We still have some time to spend in our primary math album before we can move on, so it isn't a deal-breaker.

Speaking of the digital age, while you certainly will download the albums to your own computer to print or not print as you wish, the albums are also stored online.  So, if you are out of town and left your tablet (or binder) behind and have a burning Montessori question the albums are still at your fingertips as long as you have internet access.

One of the main differences between albums sets is how much or how little you are left on your own to put together the materials you need to do and follow up the presentations.  A traditional Montessori elementary classroom would have a well-stocked non-fiction library and a lot of things on hand in addition to the Montessori materials (rocks, animal specimens, plant specimens, fossils, art supplies, etc.,).  Jessica's albums provide some suggestions for what you will need in the classroom to support the children's research.  More are available on the discussion board.  She has also compiled complete materials lists for each album so that if you wish to completely stock your supply room from the beginning and have the peace of knowing everything you need is on hand, you can.

Another difference among albums sets is in regard to learning beyond what is in the album.  If you follow the interests of any child, you will find that the great lessons and the key lessons stimulate interests past the amount of information in the album.  They are designed to do so.  Jessica's albums include all the lessons that are traditionally given and these are enough to "start the fire" so to speak. It is assumed that you will help the child pursue their interests in a Montessori way.  The timeline of life may get them interested in dinosaurs.  You won't find ten Montessori presentations on dinosaurs in the albums. The guide will, well, guide the child so that he or she can pursue their own research.  Some albums (NAMC and Montessori R&D come to mind) try to anticipate what these interests will be and include that information as well.  That might be really nice if you have a good understanding of what is "core" and what is "beyond."  Otherwise, it may be very difficult to ferret out what you actually need to present from what you might present.  This aspect can make those other albums even more overwhelming.  Even in Jessica's albums, every child will not receive every presentation.

The biggest selling point of these albums overall is the customer service.  You may be able to get your hands on another complete set of AMI albums, but will you know what to do with them?  Will you be able to translate them from "classroom" albums to "homeschool" albums?  Jessica's albums were designed for the classroom but Jessica is a homeschooling mom.  She has added, and is still adding, a lot to the albums that speaks directly to homeschooling families and the changes they may wish to make.  She provides private, online support for 150% of the length of your course, and there is a permanent discussion community moderated by Jessica.  A lot of excellent homeschool-specific nuggets can be found in that discussion community.  Jessica is also very active on the Yahoo! group Playschool6.

The online market for Montessori homeschool materials is in its infancy.  Some thing are still terrible hard to find commercially and/or are still very expensive.  Another fringe benefit of these albums is that Jessica is trying to provide her students with printables for some of these iconic materials for the elementary course.  At these time you can print some of the impressionistic charts and the labels and images for the timeline of life.  She sells things in her store that are found in few other places, such as the hand timeline and the black strip.  If you buy her albums there is a discount on the items for sale in the store.

Sooo...the obvious big question remaining is, "What DON'T I like about these albums?"  In a word, sometimes the "tone."  When I first received the albums I felt like a real failure at Montessori primary when I had been feeling pretty darn successful.  This was in a large part due to the tone in some sections of the albums.  These albums are the very real product of Jessica's very real, traditional, Montessori training.  As in any training program, some parts of albums are written completely by the students, other sections have wording or ideas that have been passed down from teacher to student for generations.  It is important to remember we are talking about a theory or philosophy here and as in many philosophical works for centuries the focus is on an "ideal." In this philosophical AMI-land one "should" do this and "should" do that and every child will have magically reached the end of each of the primary albums during the last week of their primary experience.  They will come to elementary fully prepared for page one of the elementary albums.

I was really confused for a little while about this  because I wasn't seeing examples online of students in their third year of primary wrapping up those albums.  I was seeing plenty of kids in elementary working on the stamp game and memorization materials.  What the heck?  It turns out that in real life an elementary guide begins with the great lessons and follows the child in the follow-up work regardless of their background but finishes any prerequisite material in the primary albums before beginning elementary lessons on those topics.  I couldn't shake the feeling for a long time that I SHOULD have finished the primary albums (we didn't in math and grammar.  We have to relearn the nomenclature for geometry.)  Having had the chance to peek at a few other AMI sources since, it is obvious that this is not "Jessica-specific" and to her credit she is working on eliminating the "tone" in those woulda-shoulda sections (and posts about it here and here).  These are not static albums (granted you won't see the changes immediately unless you refresh your downloads). In addition to changes to "tone" Jessica changes album content to improve clarity in response to questions she receives by e-mail and on her discussion board.

So on one hand, I don't often see kids online in either homeschools or Montessori classrooms zipping through the primary albums as fast as AMI albums seem to imply.  On the other hand, then one reads books like "Montessori in the Classroom" and you see how fast a guide can go.  Talented guides like those are the people that tend to write books and albums and that truly IS their reality.  So, go figure.  We always have to remember that you can get kids to move through the math lessons faster if they are working in groups (can't always do that at home) because the jobs can be divided up making each equation less tedious.  Things move a little slower at home.  I'm trying to let Me Too go a little faster as he works on primary math.  But then, there he is upset this morning because he was trying to do the 100 chain and couldn't find the "eleven" tag (there is no eleven tag).  These things just take time.  Also, THOSE Montessori kids go to "school" six hours a day, five days a week.  Mine had work periods for three hours, 2-3 times each week (we are doing more days each week now that Kal-El is a first grader).  Maybe we could have gone faster if we worked longer hours or more days each week but short hours was one of the main reasons I decided to homeschool in the first place.  In the end, I had to put my big girl pants on and remind myself that I was in charge.  I'm not a socially-awkward grade-schooler anymore, so why was I letting myself be intimidated by a little "tone"?

Other than that, I just find the elementary scope-and-sequence intimidating.  Even with complete albums and Jessica's help I STILL have trouble knowing what to do in what order.  I think this is because it is my responsibility to know what is IN the albums (which means a LOT of hours spent with the albums until I have memorized what is in them and where to find it.) and then pull the appropriate presentation out of the album when the child gives a clue that the should have it.  Still, I find it tricky to know which order to give some of the great lesson follow up presentations in.  Then I wonder, is this follow up BEFORE the next great lesson or does it not matter.  The great news is, I can ask!


There are a lot of complete album sets available but this is the only complete set of traditional albums that I know of that comes with customer service and user group. Not that I want to encourage everyone to pester Jessica, but she and I communicate many times each week.  She welcomes questions, responds freakishly quickly, and is extremely supportive.  The questions I ask range from "how do I know when to present XYZ?" to "XYZ is taking a long time, are we doing it right?", to "where can I buy an XYZ."  Later tonight I need to ask her about the contents of an envelope in one of the fraction presentations.

 There are other albums I like, other albums that are less expensive, other albums that are more expensive.  But this is the only traditional set of albums that comes with this kind of customer support.  Later this week (I hope) I will talk about two other interesting options that DO have this kind of customer support, but are less traditional.  You might have noticed the week that elapsed between my announcing "Elementary Albums Week" and my actually continuing "Elementary Albums Week."  A big gap in my posts during the school year usually means one of four things:

  1. I'm gearing up for a big post that requires a lot of sorting through ideas first.
  2. I sat down to write a promised post only to discover through the writing of it that there are still huge holes in my thinking.  Then, I'm embarrassed to post anything else because I am supposed to be posting the promised post but can't until I've finished thinking.
  3. I don't want to write the post.  Usually due to reason number two.
  4. I've started a home improvement project.  Usually to avoid thinking about something I'm avoiding posting about because it's hard.

In this case, it seems to be all four reasons.  On the positive side, I installed wainscoting in my front hallway while I was avoiding writing this post.  I would much rather be posting about all the fraction work Kal-El did this week, how we have begun the great lessons, or Me Too's successes and failures with the 100 board and 100 chain.  I will be really happy when "Elementary Albums Week" is OVER.


  1. This series you are doing is very helpful to me. I have stayed away from Traditional Montessori Albums due to the responses I read on other blogs. It's like the overall feeling of most Elementary Montessori Homeschools is that they are overwhelming. I am waiting patiently to hear more!! I do like the aspect that Jessica "freakishly" responds quickly. I need that type of support in my life:) Thank you so much for sharing your time to share your experiences.

    Also I just wanted to tell you that I feel that your blog is amazing! Just keep posting, even when you are getting your thoughts together.LOL. Now I am anxiously waiting to read about how the First Great Lesson went over at your house.

  2. It sounds like you are super busy with all of your reveiws! I cant wait to hear about what you have! I do think that pictures are worth a 1000 words too! There is just too much info to try and put together without a picture to help. That is one thing about my albums that is harder, the pictures are hand drawn, so they lack some of the detail I would like to see. Good luck with all of your blogging! I cant wait to see how your great lesson went!

  3. I am watching this series very closely. we are about to start our journey with primary with our special needs little one and i am taking Karen's course right now. i was looking at this course for elementary and i have Cultivating Dharma albums (which i love). I am still unsure about my ability to teach elementary so its good to see someone blogging who is just getting into it

  4. I totally agree with your comment about "a picture is worth 1000 words" and glad that you pointed out that Jessica's album is illustrated.

    I had purchased a different album elsewhere (primary level), though it's very detailed, I struggled to understand the concept, based on reading a set of written instructions without any pictures to guide me. (doesn't help when English is my 2nd language and I have no Montessori training whatsoever). So, when we get to Elementary, I will check out Jessica's album.

    In your experience: (1) which album would you recommend for primary level (3-6 years), mainly for Maths and Language? (2) If you had to pick, All About Spelling or Dwyer? I noticed you blogged about Dwyer, yet, you use AAS, or do they support each other? Thanks in advance! Cheers.

  5. As an aspiring home school mama who just discovered your blog; you rock!

    This blog is truly amazing and so unbelievably helpful!