Learning Cycle

I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.
— Maya Angelou

The life cycle of the butterfly is a topic taught from pre-K to high school biology. This month (August, 2019) my small education business, Dragonfly Nature Programs, is celebrating butterflies and their amazing life cycle which got me thinking about the cycle of my own teaching and the learning journey I’ve been on these last 18 years of teaching.

Do a quick internet search of a butterfly’s life cycle and you’ll find crafts, songs, books, flip charts, diagrams, nature documentaries, etc. Whole Pinterest pages are devoted to the topic! During my early years of teaching, it was these types of resources that I depended on. I would take this three-dimensional, awe inspiring topic and constrain it to a few pieces of paper and a TV/computer screen. I knew my students would learn it this way, but was I teaching them to love learning?

Many rely on caterpillar kits that you can buy online. In the kit comes a netted cage, a coupon to buy living caterpillars, some instructions and a synthetic but nutritious food supply. I believe they guarantee 4/5 caterpillars will metamorphose into butterflies. Then what?

Do you release genetically inbred butterflies into the wild to mix with natural populations? Does this have an effect on future generations?

I called one company that provides these resources and they promised me it is safe to release their painted ladies. Painted ladies are common worldwide like they assured me (I fact checked it) but they couldn’t provide me with a study or hard facts about their safety promises. I am still awaiting a return phone call from the manager as I was promised. I did do some digging on my own and found this Xerces Society paper on the topic if you are interested. I personally found it to be very informative.

While certainly a step above worksheets and nature documentaries, is this the best option for a nature centered classroom? This strategy does take the lesson into the third dimension, but it’s still stuck in a vacuum.

My own learning cycle would not have progressed as it has if I kept inside a vacuum, unwilling to change as a reflection of the students I’ve met, the teachers I’ve worked with or the professional development I’ve taken part in. Likewise, life cycles, of any animal, do not occur without influence from outside forces.

What if we raised up caterpillars with our students, outside, naturally? Where on your campus can you take over a small plot of land or put a large potted plant or two? Is there a place that is sunny and easily accessible? These kinds of classroom projects PTAs, parents and small local businesses love to fund. And this is a project more than one teacher can be involved in, sharing both the workload and benefits to students.

By going this extra step, you have taken this lesson out of the vacuum and met the topic where it belongs: as a part of life! Life that fluctuates with weather and the presence or absence of predators among other things.

Here in NC, you can reliably attract swallowtail butterflies with a few nectar plants and host plants, namely dill, rue, parsley or fennel. May I please suggest fennel? It smells so good and has a soft texture that will satisfy any sensory need; your students will love it! Plan for this unit in late summer or early fall for the highest rate of success.

Now what? Visit your plot and get your students (any age) to start thinking critically. If there aren’t caterpillars (the risk you take), ask why not. If there are, count how many. If age appropriate, make a data chart and plan to graph the data for a math tie in. Go out again and count again. Why did the numbers go down (predation or chrysalis formation)? Carefully look for eggs. Teach your students to be gentle! Watch out for the adults while observing the larvae. Tie in the use of electronics by bringing out devices to take pictures. Give students time to sketch or make a list of descriptive words as a class that can be used later for your poetry unit.

Take one caterpillar inside to keep and observe in your netted cage (see below for best practices). Keep your host plants fresh, but offer other foods. Which does the caterpillar prefer? Keep asking questions that get your students thinking about each step in this process.

When we purchase inbred caterpillars and feed them manufactured food rather than raising  them from the wild, we are denying our students a chance to learn about the one step in this beautiful creature’s life cycle that our kids have control over, the host plant. Students will love to learn this way and be inspired to plant their own host and nectar plants at home which will aid in the reestablishment of habitat these critters critically need.

Caterpillars don’t eat mushy food. They are uniquely adapted to survive predation with coloration, fuzzy hairs and horns. They don’t come in sets of 5. They are not born from nothing. These are the misconceptions we reinforce when we teach a complicated process in a vacuum.

My teaching has changed over the years. I’ve come to understand how much more successful and valuable my lessons are when they span multiple subjects at once and work beyond the first, flat dimension and outside of a short-sighted vacuum. Now that I know better, I always strive to do better.

As I do in my personal life, I’m trying to find ways to be more environmentally thoughtful and purposeful in my professional life. Approaching lesson planning holistically is one way I do that. Thank you for reading and please share your thoughts and questions, Rachel

Tips for Raising Caterpillars in the Classroom

Tip #1: I recommend a netted cage that opens from the side. Mine only open on the top and so I have to disturb the caterpillars every time I clean the cage. The Monarch Butterfly Shop is one place to buy them.

Tip #2: Caterpillars are small, cute, they eat a TON, and so they make a mess as well. Lay a plastic water tray on the bottom of your netted cage. You can buy them for less than a dollar at a local store, or reuse a gallon milk jug by cutting out the bottom! Repurposing materials and saving everything to reuse year to year is a great way to make this class project inexpensive.

Tip # 3: You have to keep the food fresh in water, but you can’t leave the water open. Caterpillars aren’t good swimmers. One option is to reuse old pill jars. I drilled holes in the top to make a great portable and covered vase for my herbs.  Pictured is organic rue with a young swallowtail caterpillar visible.

Tip # 3: You have to keep the food fresh in water, but you can’t leave the water open. Caterpillars aren’t good swimmers. One option is to reuse old pill jars. I drilled holes in the top to make a great portable and covered vase for my herbs.
Pictured is organic rue with a young swallowtail caterpillar visible.

Tip #4: Caterpillars are cold blooded therefore very sensitive to the lighting and temperature conditions. Try to keep them outside but not necessarily in direct sunlight for long periods of time. They can overheat as easily as they can be too cold. Natural lighting and conditions are the best! If they aren’t eating, that could be a sign they are not doing well. Consider putting them back in your garden.

Tip #5: Organically grown herbs are the best way to go. Caterpillars grow nearly 3000x their original size. Imagine all the chemicals they would be ingesting if the herbs were sprayed with pesticides.