Learning through Monarch Milestones
by Sheila Potter
At the same time of year that children are beginning to feel tingles of nervousness about the impending return to school, a special generation of monarch butterfly caterpillars is munching ceaselessly, preparing for an epic adventure of their own. Known as the “super generation”, the monarch caterpillars that hatch in late summer live 8 times longer than their parents or grandparents and travel over 4000km to their overwintering home in Mexico.
This coincidence in timing offers an opportunity for teachers to greet nervous students with something that will amaze and inspire them, distracting them from their private worries and setting the tone for the entire year.
Although a September start to the school year is most often too late for students to witness the egg stage of the monarch’s life cycle, the timing is usually just right for students to see the fully-grown caterpillar turn into a gorgeous turquoise and gold chrysalis, and then emerge as a bright orange butterfly. The metamorphosis and journey of the monarchs also offers a vehicle for lessons in social studies and environmental science that become all the more real with the presence of the butterflies in the classroom.
For teachers who are interested in undertaking this project with their class, there are many resources available to further enhance the learning experience of their students:
Students can follow in the footsteps of Canadian zoologist, Dr Fred Urquhart who was the first to tag monarch butterflies and to verify that individual butterflies make the entire journey to Mexico. Monarch tagging kits can be ordered from monarchwatch.org and even very young students can easily tag the classroom butterflies before releasing them. Tag numbers and other data can be collected and entered into a database, helping to monitor the size of the monarch population that has lately been in decline due to habitat loss and other threats.
Follow Migration Patterns
Using the website, journeynorth.org/monarchs, students can observe the progress of the monarchs as they move across the continent, eventually arriving in Mexico near the end of October.
Art and cultural exchange
A Peterborough Project: the monarch ultra and mini-ultra
In 2019, a team of ultra runners, film-makers and pollinator advocates followed the flight of the monarch butterfly by running the same distance of 4,300km (2,671 miles) from Peterborough Ontario to central Mexico. At the same time, local schools were invited to participate in the Mini-Ultra”. Once a school registers for the Mini Monarch Ultra Program, students can start running anytime of the year. Schools are encouraged to keep track of the kilometres that the students run or walk, aiming for a total of 4,300km – the total distance monarch butterflies travel during their fall migration. You can learn more or get involved at: themonarchultra.com/mini-
Teaching the teacher
Raising monarchs requires a permit and a bit of knowledge. Teachers can learn all that they need to know by taking an excellent workshop from the Monarch Teacher Network: https://trca.ca/learning/