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HomeBlogDeep Learning Across the Curriculum: Exploring the Lives of Caterpillars
March 9, 2017
Deep Learning Across the Curriculum: Exploring the Lives of Caterpillars

By Jill Bean, First/Second Grade Teacher

“One seeks to equip the child with deeper, more gripping, and subtler ways of knowing the world and himself.” ― Jerome Bruner

Integrated thematic units are a hallmark of the Lansdowne Friends School experience.  Our curriculum emphasizes depth, which allows students to attain enduring understanding, rather than exposure to a series of disconnected facts.  One example of the integrated curriculum is the first and second grade study of the lifecycle of monarch butterflies and silkworm caterpillars. 

A Science Unit

The unit is entered through inquiry.  Rather than start right in with the instruction of vocabulary and the stages of life, teachers step back.  Students formulate their own questions, based upon their background knowledge, and observation is emphasized as an important vehicle for learning.  Only as student questions become more specific and refined are resources introduced for students to read, watch, and explore in order to learn more about what other scientists have observed and hypothesized. 

The lifecycle unit is, on the surface, a science unit.  Students learn about the lifecycle of insects, all while observing the metamorphosis from egg, to caterpillar, to cocoon or chrysalis, to the adult butterfly or moth.  Children make and record observations in science journals, ask their own questions to guide their learning, hear and then use scientific vocabulary, and eventually read books to learn more.  First and second graders study the lifecycle of both monarch butterflies and silkworm caterpillars concurrently.  By raising two caterpillar species at once, students have ample opportunities to compare and contrast throughout the unit. 

Student writing is centered in their Observations Journals, where they write and draw what they see when they observe the caterpillars.  Students work to differentiate between what they see, “two caterpillars were climbing on each other,” and what that makes them think, “two caterpillars are fighting.”  At first, they often need support to articulate their initial observations, rather than their own conclusions. 

Using scientific tools enables students to be clear and specific in their journals.  The children use rulers to measure the caterpillars’ growth.  They practice measuring using both inches and centimeters.  The children often begin to seek out information about the lines between the whole units on the rulers, leading to lessons on fractional lengths.  Magnifying glasses and microscopes help students to observe especially small details about each stage in the lifecycle. 

Close observations of the caterpillars lead to opportunities to practice data collection and graphing.  As the silkworm caterpillars begin to spin cocoons, students count the number of cocoons each morning.  They collect this data in a table which they eventually later use to create a bar graph.  This data can also be analyzed to determine the rate of change from caterpillar to pupa. 

Cultural Connections

Learning about the annual monarch migration to Mexico is another aspect of this study.  The classes read books and watch documentaries about the migration, learning about the incredible distances the butterflies travel and the many dangers they encounter throughout their journey.  Students connect to the larger scientific community by tagging the monarchs they raise before releasing the butterflies to begin their journey south.  They report the tagging information to Monarch Watch and check the online database to see if any of their butterflies are recovered. 

In order to connect them further to the monarchs’ migration, students participate in Journey North’s Symbolic Migration.  Each child draws their own life-sized monarch butterfly and they collaborate together to create a class monarch that are then sent to school children in Mexico.  The students also write notes to the Mexican students, creating opportunities for collaboration in Spanish class.  The symbolic monarchs winter in Mexico classrooms, before being sent back north to other classrooms throughout the United States and Canada.  In the fall, students learn map skills through the examination of the flight paths that monarchs travel from Canada to Mexico.  In the spring, once the returning butterflies arrive, students examine maps again to see where these new butterflies originated, as well as where the ones they created finished their journeys. 

The journey of the monarch butterflies facilities the children’s connection to the cultural traditions of another part of the world.  At the overwintering sites in Mexico, the monarchs’ arrival coincides with the celebration of Día de Muertos, the Day of the Dead, on November 1 and 2.  Día de Muertos celebrates the lives of dead relatives.  Local populations believe that the returning butterflies are the spirits of their deceased loved ones.  The first and second grade students learn about Día de Muertos and recreate many aspects of the holiday.  Students create a classroom offrenda (alter), complete with drawings of their own departed loved ones that they want to remember.  The children make tissue paper marigolds, sugar skulls, and papel picado (cut tissue paper designs) to decorate their offrenda.  The classes learn about the history of calaveras, fanciful skull and skeleton drawings, and then create their own. 

The study of the silkworm caterpillars enables a different cultural and historical connection.  Students read about the legend of how silk was discovered in China over 4,000 years ago.  The children are introduced to the importance of silk in trading and how the source and production process of silk were carefully protected secrets known only to China for thousands of years.  Learning about modern silk farms and the production process leads to explorations of fibers and fabrics.  Some students begin to advocate for animal and, in this case, insect rights.  Later in the year, when the first and second graders study Japan, they connect the traditional silk kimono to the silk production they learned about in the fall. 

Project-based Learning

To culminate the study, students create projects to convey their new knowledge to their families and the rest of the school.  Every child creates a poster displaying a diagram of the caterpillar lifecycle.  They carefully draw illustrations or sculpt three-dimensional models and include written sections describing each stage.  Each child then also chooses their own project to represent another aspect of the study.  These projects are self-organized.  Students decide to either work individually or with others, what topic to focus on, and what kind of project to make.  These final projects have ranged from making a movie, performing a puppet show, creating a play, and writing a book.  When the children have agency to make their own decisions, they demonstrate fuller engagement and more internal motivation.  In fact, while they are working on their projects, students repeatedly ask to stay in from recess to continue their progress! 

By connecting students to the natural world through the lifecycle unit, we reinforce the Quaker tenets of simplicity, stewardship, and service.  Second grade students regularly choose to donate a portion of the money they raise from their annual pretzel sale to Monarch Watch, an organization dedicated to education about, conservation of, and research for monarch butterflies.  Furthermore, two years ago, as part of the all school theme of Sustainability, the first and second grade students created a butterfly garden on campus.  They researched the native plants that support monarchs, cleared an unused area on campus, and planted milkweed and other helpful plants.  The garden was certified as an official Monarch Waystation by Monarch Watch.  The maintenance and enhancement of our campus butterfly garden provides ongoing opportunities for our students to do service and act as stewards. 

Creating opportunities for children to experience the feeling of awe in response to nature, encourages students to care for the earth and make decisions that support the conservation of natural resources and habitats.  By raising children’s awareness of their feelings of delight and wonder whilst immersed in nature, we can help children find happiness in the simple joys of the world.  As students and teachers squeezed together to watch as the first monarch butterfly emerged from it’s chrysalis, one student exclaimed, “This is amazing!”  The reverence and wonder in his voice was evidence of our success.