Monarchs and Ballerinas: How Butterflies Turn My Students Into Earth Heroes

In 2012 Minnuette Rodriguez started a small butterfly nursery to strengthen her students' connection to nature. As students watch the butterflies’ transformations from egg to adult, Minnuette watches her students transform themselves. This is Minnuette’s story.

Photo by Noemi Segarra, a community member who assists with the butterfly farm.

If you visit the Julian E. Blanco Specialized Ballet School in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the first sounds you hear are the strains of ballet music floating through the morning air. Our students begin their school day early—their ballet classes begin at 7:30, which last until 10:00, and then they continue with their academic classes until 5:00. Sometimes, an ambulance sounds from the city hospital—we are located in an urban center of San Juan—but the sounds of the ballet music create a comfortable feeling of being in another place.

The first thing you see when you enter the gate is a small structure, 12 feet tall, covered by a green mesh screen and filled with the scents of fragrant flowers. Stand close, and you can hear the fluttering of tiny orange and black wings. This is our butterfly farm, which has nurtured generations of monarch butterflies since 2012. I call it the butterfly nursery.

I started the butterfly nursery to give my students a much-need opportunity to explore environmental values in a natural environment.

Julian E. Blanco is a public school for grades five through twelve, specializing in ballet. Students audition for entrance by completing a ballet routine to demonstrate their dance skills. I teach biology and earth sciences to the ninth through twelfth grade students. As a science teacher, it’s important to me that students develop environmental awareness. Until a few years ago, my students did not have a way to connect with nature at school because of the lack of green spaces and environmental activities. Then in 2012, my school endorsed the Earth Charter’s principles and began integrating them into the curriculum. That same year, I started the butterfly nursery as part of this effort, to give my students a much-needed opportunity to explore environmental values in a natural environment.

Students use the butterfly farm as a science laboratory for their biology class. Photo by Minnuette Rodriguez.

The butterfly nursery began as a project specific to my students, but it has grown into a school-wide project. I use it as a laboratory for my science classes, where students observe the life cycle of the monarch butterfly. Students in my classes and in other grades care for the butterflies and for the plants that keep them healthy. Older students, like my twelfth graders who started caring for the butterflies in ninth grade, help the younger ones who are new to working with the butterflies. When the butterflies are fully grown, we release them from the nursery.

The skills and knowledge that students gain from direct experience with the monarch butterflies are irreplaceable. My tenth and eleventh grade biology students care for the butterflies through every stage of their metamorphosis: tending a host plant, waiting for the eggs to hatch, feeding the newborn caterpillars, preparing a protective container when the caterpillar forms a chrysalis, and watching the adult butterfly emerge. Through this, my students practice skills of scientific investigation by asking questions, making observations, and recording discoveries.

After witnessing the monarch butterfly's metamorphosis firsthand, students were able to illustrate the insect's life cycle with more detail. Photo by Minnuette Rodriguez.

Marie, a 16-year-old student in my class, read about the life cycle of insects in a classroom textbook. She wanted to compare the textbook information with her real observations, so she created a diary documenting every step of the butterfly’s metamorphosis using photos, comments, and drawings. She wrote:

The biology textbook showed me four stages of the monarch butterfly: egg, caterpillar, chrysalis, adult butterfly…Now, I can describe more details in each stage. One of the most interesting observations was when the caterpillar makes the chrysalis. Wow, it’s amazing! It looks like the caterpillar is dancing—just like me!). The caterpillar is moving and moving and finally changes to the next stage. This detail is not shown in the book.

My students are ballerinas, and sometimes their demanding routine makes it challenging to inspire enthusiasm for academic classes like mine—especially if they don’t have interest in the sciences. When I plan a lesson, I focus on their skills—I have to remember that they are artists and like to move! When I teach about the water cycle, I ask them to prepare a dance, drama or interactive presentation for the class. Once, a group actually brought a small pool into my classroom! Stephanie’s gray dress represented a cloud ready to precipitate. John narrated each process in the water cycle, and Diana and Ashlie painted the sun to show how it makes the cycle possible. Afterwards, they used the water from the pool to water the butterfly plants—a requirement for using a pool in their presentation!

Photo by ninth grade student Carla M. Curuchet.

As an environmental educator, I develop my students’ bio-sensitivity and help them connect with nature as participants and stewards. Bio means life, and sensitivity is the ability to perceive or feel. When I say bio-sensitivity, I mean their ability to perceive the richness of life, and their capacity for responsiveness and respect towards the natural world. In the butterfly farm, you feel the butterflies fluttering around you and see them feeding on the nectar and host plants. You can even see the lizards that inhabit the nursery, trying to complete the food chain. Direct contact with a species helps students connect with issues of biodiversity and develop an enduring respect for life. Michelle, a twelfth grader, fell in love with the butterflies and has been a leader in the butterfly nursery since I taught her earth sciences in ninth grade. She even took a caterpillar home with her and cared for it until it turned into a chrysalis, taking beautiful photos to capture the details of the process.

“When we free the butterflies, we feel like Earth heroes.” We always free the butterflies because our role is only to take care of them, not own them. 

When people question how my students learn with this project, I sometimes respond by telling them that the nursery engages students in authentic investigative research. But it’s more than that. The butterfly farm is part of implementing the principles of the Earth Charter, in support of the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development. When students read about the four commitments of the Earth Charter—respect for life, ecological integrity, justice, and nonviolence—they identify actions to conserve nature for future generations. Last year, on Earth Day, we gathered around the nursery to release the butterflies and make our small contribution to Earth’s biodiversity. Each student took a butterfly gently on their hand, and watched it take flight. For a moment, the monarchs flew around us, as if to say thank you for the care we had given them, before flying away.

Watching the butterflies depart, one student commented, “When we free the butterflies, we feel like Earth heroes.” We always free the butterflies because our role is only to take care of them, not own them. We conserve a male and a female in the nursery, to start the cycle over again.

EarthCharterlogoThe Earth Charter is a declaration of ethical principles for a sustainable future and is considered to be an emerging consensus vision of sustainability. The Charter has been recognized as an invaluable tool in education for sustainable development by UNESCO, IUCN, and thousands of educators and educational institutions worldwide. Explore the Earth Charter declaration and its virtual library of education resources. The library is filled with an abundance of free, downloadable materials that use the Earth Charter as a powerful base for teaching about and taking action on issues of sustainability.

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