“I always look for interesting and relevant themes to hook students,” says fourth grade teacher Ruth Pinson from Armuchee Elementary School. But, she admits, she never imagined she’d cast her lot with insects, much less have their young crawling all over the classroom! Inspired by a workshop on raising monarchs, Ruth became hooked. “The idea of working with monarchs gave me such a shot of enthusiasm that I figured it would surely do the same for my students.”
Ruth’s students didn’t just raise a few monarchs; they were engaged in a transformational journey. The young scientists observed butterfly behaviors and tracked weather conditions in their schoolyard, reported their findings online, and “joined” the winged jewels as they make their fantastic journey from Canada to Mexico in the fall, and northward in the spring. In the meantime, the youngsters learned what make these charismatic creatures tick, connected with butterfly scientists, and exchanged with peers in Mexico who live near the monarchs’ wintering grounds. In doing so, they tackled a host of Georgia’s core curriculum standards without even noticing!
Classroom and Schoolyard Metamorphosis
With support from a program called Monarchs Across Georgia, Ruth and her students first learned how to identify monarch eggs on wild milkweed in the fall, bring in the eggs along with their food supply, and observe their four-week transformation – from egg to mature butterfly – before releasing them into the wild. They also learned how to tag adult monarchs so scientists can learn more about their migratory journey.
Their passions ignited, students next set their sights on creating an oasis to provide food (leaves) for larvae, indoors and out, and nectar (flowers) for mature monarchs. The inviting butterfly garden they created, that other classes now maintain, sits right outside the classroom door.
“After calling several nurseries, we found perennial swamp milkweed plants for the garden,” says Ruth. “The students were amazed to watch the caterpillars eat them down to the ground each year.” She explains that she learned to be a guide and facilitator of student learning who lays the groundwork for building skills and concepts, but lets youngsters be independent and cooperative learners. So when her kids noticed aphids and milkweed beetles attacking their precious plants, she encouraged them to test some of their ideas for getting rid of them. (Word has it, hosing them off and sending in a squad of ladybugs were good choices.)
Journey North: Mapping Migration Mysteries
Mingling with monarchs got Ruth’s fourth graders wondering just where the winged beauties headed in the fall, where they came from in the spring, and what enabled these fragile insects to make the trips. “I found that the Journey North website is a fantastic, user-friendly resource to plug into,” says Ruth. This online math, science, and technology project enabled her students to track the migrations in real time with interactive maps, make local observations and report them online, learn about monarch biology and behaviors, connect with scientists, and follow fantastic migration stories.
On Fridays during the spring and fall, Ruth’s class clicked onto the monarch photo on the website and printed out copies of the latest color-coded real-time map, which revealed how the monarch migration was unfolding. They compared it with the previous week’s map, looked for patterns, and tried to make sense of what was happening. In the fall, they saw millions of monarchs funneling from Canada and states east of the Rockies down to a few mountaintops in Mexico. In the spring, students tagged along as the insects spread north and laid eggs as soon as their green food sources, responding to increased sunlight, became available.
The youngsters also uploaded data on their schoolyard observations: number of monarchs spotted, behaviors, minutes spent observing, wind direction and speed, and photoperiod (sunrise/sunset). Their reports were instantly reflected on migration maps, enabling them to see how their local observations fit into a global context. “We only have four computers in the room, so I often had one student group at a time working on Journey North,” explains Ruth. “Once a week, we all went to the computer lab down the hall.” While there, students tackled online lessons, read articles and field reports, and viewed photos and video clips of monarch development and behaviors.
Inspired by a Journey North activity called "Which Way to Mexico?," Ruth challenged her students to dig into directions. “Reading compasses is one of our fourth grade standards,” says Ruth. “And students had already wondered, ‘Which way do they go in the fall?’” The class pulled out large maps and figured out that Mexico was southwest of Georgia. But when Ruth asked her students to actually point to the southwest, they pointed every which way!
“I passed out compasses and students lined up the needles with the north,” explains Ruth.” The way to the butterflies’ winter grounds, and the use and relevance of these tools, soon became clear.” That determined, the students put butterfly stickers in the southwest corner of the room with signs reading This Way to Mexico! When students released their own butterflies that fall, the compass lesson was still in their minds. “Several students noticed that their butterflies headed off in different directions,” says Ruth. “That sparked a discussion of their need for nectar to fuel the long trip they’d make.”
Thinking Like Scientists
One year, a monarch biologist – concerned that the butterflies might be getting ahead of their milkweed food source in spring – asked Journey North participants to observe and contribute data on the timing between monarch arrival and the appearance of the first milkweed. As Ruth’s students participated in this “real-world” scientific research, they followed set protocols and got to “eavesdrop” on scientists as they asked questions, shared observations, set up tests, and puzzled out phenomena. In doing so, students began to grasp what makes science and scientists tick.
They also learned that science has its limitations. Through the Ask the Expert feature on Journey North, Ruth’s students asked, “How are monarchs able to know where to go?” “The scientists responded by sharing different theories (related to the earth’s magnetic field, sun angle, and other factors), but acknowledged that we might never really know the truth,” explains Ruth. “Their responses helped students understand that it’s okay to have some natural mysteries and not know all the answers.”
Integrating Language Arts, Science, and More
Science, after all, is at the heart of students’ monarch investigations. Math skills naturally emerge, too, as students graph how many milkweed leaves a caterpillar eats, measure and chart caterpillar growth, calculate distances flown, and so on. So do thinking skills – such as recognizing cause and effect or comparing and contrasting – that cut across the disciplines. Then there’s the pressure to boost literacy skills. Ruth didn’t let that take away from time spent on monarch studies. In fact, she finds that monarchs capture students’ imaginations and make them more likely to want to read and write. (In doing so, they learn more science, to boot!)
“I often had a hard time getting students motivated to read nonfiction, but they quickly beat a path to the library and to the articles, stories, and activities on the Journey North site,” says Ruth. Because they were so connected to these creatures they raised and followed on a fantastic journey, her youngsters were motivated to learn about caterpillars, milkweed, nectar plants, and butterfly behaviors. “I simply provided access to resources and helped guide them in the right direction,” says Ruth.
She explained that kids also tend to drag their feet when asked to write a story on a topic such as, How I Spent My Weekend. But their creative writing flourished when they were directed to write migration stories on the computer. Ruth and fellow teacher Marilyn McLean teamed up to teach their students about the monarch migration routes. They asked students to imagine they were monarchs in Canada and then had each one weave a tale about how he or she would get to Mexico. “They were so motivated to write these pieces that they wanted to go online to study the routes monarchs take, identify states they pass through, and learn about foods they eat,” says Ruth.
“Because students were so involved in the project, they didn’t even realize how much they were learning,” says Ruth. Throughout the unit, she also assessed student gains by observing small groups and reviewing science journals. She asked youngsters to make and explain drawings (e.g., a monarch’s life cycle), create models of caterpillars and butterflies, and respond to test items. Then there are less concrete, but ever-so-meaningful measures. “Again and again, parents asked me, ‘What are you doing? My child doesn’t want to stay home when he’s sick anymore!”
(Excerpted by author Eve Pranis and reprinted with permission from Georgia Science Teachers Association)
Join the Journey!
Learn more about Journey North and register to participate in one of its exciting migration studies or other seasonal adventures.