Butterflies in the classroom

November 12th, 2008

Sarah Mulhern is a sixth grade language arts teacher in New Jersey. Her blog, The Reading Zone, not only focuses on her teaching and students, but also showcases the work she and her students do with Monarch butterflies. In this guest blog post, you can read about how Sarah integrates Monarch butterflies into her curriculum. A short commentary follows her entry by Herb Broda, author of Schoolyard Enhanced Learning

Chrysalis. Pupa. Larva.

Typical vocabulary for a middle grades science class, but not the norm for a 6th grade language arts class. However, if you were to peek into my classroom during the first month of school, you would see students reading, writing, and observing our monarch butterflies. My bulletin boards are plastered with monarch posters, butterfly quotes, and maps of North America. The tables have tomato cages, butterfly nets, and potted milkweed covering the season tablecloths.

Our word wall includes the words chrysalis, pupa, and larva alongside language arts words like genre and visualization. While this may sound odd for a Language Arts class, I raise monarchs with my students every fall. From egg to adult, we care for and eventually release our butterflies for their journey to Mexico.

Our classroom theme is “Journeys”, as my students are on the final leg of their journey to middle school. They also get the chance to emerge every morning, as a new person- just like our caterpillars. However, this is only the beginning of our connection to monarch butterflies.

What many people do not know is that monarch butterflies are amazing creatures. They begin their lives as small yellowish eggs on milkweed plants across North America. When they hatch they are so small you need a magnifying class to find them! For the next two weeks they will do only two things- eat milkweed and create frass (caterpillar poop!). During those two weeks they will shed their black, white, and yellow striped skin four times. The fifth and final time they shed their skin they will become a chrysalis (n.b. butterflies form a chrysalis while moths form a cocoon.) This chrysalis is a bright green that is flecked with gold spots. The monarch remains in this chrysalis for approximately ten days before the green outer layer becomes clear and we can see the butterfly inside.

When this happens, the adult is ready to emerge! When my students enter my classroom in September they are immediately greeted by our first caterpillars. We begin our reading and writing workshop by sharing our monarch experiences- we read picture books and non-fiction about monarch butterflies and we write about our shared experiences in our writer’s notebooks. Two weeks ago, we were extremely lucky and both of my language arts classes were able to view a monarch emerging from its chrysalis during class!

Even better, we were able to view through the document camera, which allowed us to zoom in for an even closer look. We have used that experience as a shared memory and have been writing a class personal narrative during the active engagement aspect of our writing workshop. This serves as a model for my student’s independent personal narrative projects.

While we read and write about our monarchs in September, our monarch theme continues through the rest of the year. Monarch butterflies from east of the Rocky Mountains make a lengthy migration each spring. Some of them travel upwards of 3000 miles, from Canada to the trans-volcanic mountain range southwest of Mexico City. The trans-volcanic mountains will be home to millions of monarchs for the months of November to March. The butterflies migrate to the sanctuaries of the in the Mexican states of Michoacán and México.

And this is what makes monarch butterflies so amazing. While the summer generations have a life cycle of approximately one month, the last generation born in August/September will live for upwards of nine months. This generation will make the long and dangerous journey to Mexico, to small sanctuaries that they have never visited. Their great-great-great grandparents made the journey from Mexico to the United States the previous spring!

This migration shapes our curriculum for the rest of the year. We participate in
Journey North’s Symbolic Migration by creating paper monarchs. On the back of these monarchs we write letters in English and Spanish, working with our Spanish teacher, and the butterflies are mailed to the Journey North offices. Journey North then sends them to schools around the monarch reserves in Mexico. We can even track our monarchs’ progress on the Journey North website! In the spring, each child will receive a paper monarch from somewhere in North America. Just as our fall monarchs do not make it back to us in the spring, we receive different paper monarchs in the spring.

In the spring, each student logs onto Journey North and plots their monarch on an interactive map. They can see if their monarch has made it through the winter and can connect with the creator of the monarch they received!

All of my experience with monarchs is courtesy of an amazing organization in New Jersey-the Monarch Teacher Network. The Monarch Teacher Network is a growing network of pre-k to secondary teachers who have received training to use monarch butterflies to teach a variety of concepts and skills, including our growing connection with other nations and the need to be responsible stewards of the environment. The group hosts workshops across the country and has a sister organization in Canada. This past February I was privileged to join the MTN on a fellowship trip to the monarch bioreserves in Michoacan, Mexico.

This life-changing journey was chronicled on my blog, which you can view here. I visited the mountaintops which are home to billions of monarchs each winter. I also spent time at a bilingual P’urhépecha school in Santa Fe, Michoacan, Mexico. The few hours I spent with those students and teachers forever changed my world view. When I came home, I was able to share these experiences with my students.

We don’t just focus on monarchs in my class, though! The monarchs lead us to discussion on responsible global stewardship and conservation. Last year we had a fantastic time participating in a project called Voices…From the Land. In Voices, students use natural materials to create (and photograph) “eco-art” in an outdoor setting. The art is based on that of Andy Goldsworthy. The students then write poetry or prose about the art and their experience… giving the art, landscape and authors a “voice”. Students then layout, design and publish a full-color hardcover book of their photographs and poetry, sharing books with other schools in the project. The schools involved come from the United States, Canada, New Zealand, and Peru. Last year, we produced a gorgeous book of art and poetry, along with receiving similar books from a class in Canada and New Zealand. This year, we hope to correspond with students from that school in New Zealand! In one simple project we covered curriculum areas from language arts, science, technology, and social studies.

Every year my students fall in love with the monarchs, and I fall in love with them all over again. We build a community around our caterpillars, say goodbye to our butterflies as a family, and work hard to be responsible citizens of the world. My teaching was revolutionized by my time spent with the Monarch Teacher Network. It was the best professional development I have ever participated in- which explains why I spend part of each summer as a volunteer staff member training more teachers! If you are interested in the Monarch Teacher Network workshops, please check their website. If your state isn’t listed, leave a comment and maybe we can work something out! Every year the project expands to new states (and continents)! If you have any experiences, questions, or comments about monarchs in the classroom, please comment!

Wow! What wonderful ways to integrate the monarch butterfly into so many aspects of the curriculum! I want to be sure to reinforce the mention of the Journey North website that is included in the entry. Journey North includes several highly interactive activities for students.
The Tulip Project, for example is a wonderful way for students to take part in a real scientific experiment. Bulbs are planted in the fall and you record the zip code of your school. In the spring you note when the bulls first emerge and then record when they are in bloom. What I love about the activity is that students plant the bulbs in the fall and then can monitor the results of their own labor in the spring.
As students all over North America record the emergence and eventual bloom of their tulips, an interactive map allows classes to follow the progression of spring across the continent! It really is one of the simplest interactive scientific projects that I have seen. Be sure to check out Journey North—there are a number of other interactive projects available there also.

Commentary by Herb Broda

Entry Filed under: Content Areas,Literacy

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Bruce England  |  November 12th, 2008 at 7:45 pm

    Hi Sarah,
    I just read your blog and found it to be exactly what I would have hoped to say in an interview. Nice job! Well done! Monarchs rule! LOL!

  • 2. Mary Lee  |  November 13th, 2008 at 5:57 am

    The monarch project looks so wonderful…but almost too big to jump into. The tulip project, however…Hmmm…I have time to plan it out for next fall. And I’ve always agonized that most of our plantings in the land lab are past prime by the time the students return to school in the fall. But tulips…now we’re talking!

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