“I embrace emerging experience. I participate in discovery. I am a butterfly. I am not a butterfly collector. I want the experience of the butterfly.” ~ William Stafford
On Christmas Eve, while placing a butterfly ornament on my tree, I found myself thinking about three classroom Monarchs, and what they each taught me – about noticing the beauty of nature, about asking questions to deepen my understanding, and about caring for and giving protection to living things. I had the realization that not everything that happened with each chrysalis we collected and explored in the classroom reflected all I believed children can and should learn from this experience. Then, like a scene from a classic holiday film, I envisioned a cloud of Monarch butterflies, and from it emerged one of their advocates, Lincoln Brower. He regarded me earnestly, and I began to tell him about what was troubling me.
It all began with an earlier blog post I wrote in 2014, about a classroom chrysalis that dangled in its container, going largely unnoticed by the children. No one seemed to think it was necessary to talk about it, or to encourage drawing picures, asking questions or looking at books. Nothing happened to make the children aware of the little miracle that was happening in our presence. The transformation from caterpillar to butterfly is not something we are all lucky enough to see. I started to wonder why it had been brought into the classroom at all. And when it did eventually emerge, unobserved, it was released rather unceremoniously onto the playground. Afterwards, the children carried on as if nothing significant had happened, because little was done to spark their interest or to make them care. Lincoln Brower seemed to share my sentiment that this lost opportunity for learning was indeed very sad. I continued with my story.
“Metamorphosis has always been the greatest symbol of change for poets and artists. Imagine that you could be a caterpillar one moment and a butterfly the next.” ~ Louie Schwartzberg
The following year no chrysalis had been obtained for the classroom. However, I had found a dead Monarch butterfly, and thought that something could still be learned from this. Armed with magnifying glasses, paper and crayons and questions to spark an inquiry I was determined that the children would learn something, anything, from this butterfly. But they did not witness its transformation, or have the chance to ask big questions about things like migration. There was not even a candid conversation about the butterfly’s death, which I regret. It was later on, when I acquired a chrysalis from Carol Pasternak (a Canadian monarch advocate), that I had a greater sense of how to explain these things and help children feel a deeper sense of wonder. Because we had no way of knowing when the butterfly would emerge, I took the chrysalis home for the weekend to monitor it. On Monday, on the way to school, I alone saw the Monarch’s emergence – my first time seeing this happen! I released it into a neighbourhood garden, to begin its life, and later explained to the children what had happened, and why this was the right thing to do.
Luckily, a child in our class had found a Monarch caterpillar, and we were able to witness more of its life cycle and its transformation. The butterfly emerged over the weekend and on a very cold Monday we released it. However, it wouldn’t fly. Instead it clung to a leaf. Later, when I went to check on it, the Monarch was exactly where we had left it. I realized that it couldn’t fly, and I wasn’t certain about what to do. Perhaps I should have allowed nature to take its course, but I felt somehow responsible for it. Whether it was born with malformed wings, or something went wrong with its emergence, it would not be making its journey to Mexico, and it would not survive if it was left there. By taking it into the classroom, its natural life had been taken from it. Under the circumstances I felt it deserved to receive care, so I took it home. I created an environment for it, fed it and allowed it flap around in the bathroom as best it could, and it survived this way for three and a half weeks, essentially its full lifespan. I wish now that I had brought it back to the classroom because of what the children might have learned about compassion, responsibility and even advocacy.
“The joy in catching butterflies is the joy of capturing – for an instant – utter beauty. The satisfaction of being able to let it go is immense.” ~ Ruth Rudner
Now, perhaps you are wondering why I am sharing this story with you. Like a Monarch’s journey to Mexico, my journey has taken me from seeing a chrysalis largely as a classroom curiosity, to seeing a far bigger picture what we can learn and how learning can transform us and influence our actions. In short, my experiences with each chrysalis have changed me. Moving forward, I would talk to children not only about the life cycle (including its death) of the Monarch but about environmental factors affecting the Monarch population – for example climate change, pesticides, and logging. Our chrysalis was found in nature, but many classroom kits are purchased (not to mention butterflies that are released at weddings), and raising awareness of this industry is an opportunity to talk about what we think a butterfly’s life is worth. And I would talk about what we can do to be proactive and to show our caring, whether it is to write a letter or plant milkweed and butterfly friendly gardens. As educators we must be more creative with what we teach children about nature, so we create individuals who will grow up to make a difference in the world.
“Don’t waste your time chasing butterflies. Mend your garden, and the butterflies will come.” ~ Mario Quintana
This blog post is dedicated to the late Lincoln Brower, to Carol Pasternak, to David Suzuki and to children who will grow up to be tomorrow’s Monarch advocates.