1. Background on Monarchs
Monarch butterflies are the ultra-marathoners of the insect world. Each fall, they wing south to central Mexico, some traveling as much as 3,000 miles. They spend the winter in semi-dormancy, clinging to oyamel trees sheltered high in the mountains. Come March, they begin the long journey north. The first monarchs only get as far as Texas, where they lay eggs that hatch into tiny caterpillars that transform into the regal butterflies. This next generation continues north until, gradually, monarchs once again fill the skies from Mexico to Canada.
2. Butterfly Books
Introduce the monarch with An Extraordinary Life: The Story of a Monarch Butterfly by Laurence Pringle. Monarch and Milkweed by Helen Frost illustrates the symbiotic relationship between monarchs and milkweed plants, the sole source of food for monarch caterpillars, while The Prince of Butterflies by Bruce Coville is a work of fiction that shows a young boy growing up to become an outspoken advocate for habitat protection.Have each student start a journal to record monarch observations. A ready-made journal, along with simple lesson plans, can be downloaded from the Journey North.
3. Tracking Monarchs
If you live along the migration route (check learner.org/jnorth/monarch to be sure), take your students outside for a field trip. Look for milkweed, monarch eggs, and white-, black-, and yellow-striped monarch caterpillars. The caterpillars are easy to raise in captivity (just be sure to supply plenty of fresh milkweed leaves). Or order a monarch rearing kit from educationalscience.com. The kit includes instructions, milkweed seeds, and a certificate for one to three monarch caterpillars. Your class can also track the migration at the Journey North. Sign up to receive weekly updates and interactive lessons. Students can also submit observations for inclusion in the weekly updates.
4. Butterfly Math
Monarch caterpillars grow at an incredible rate, so have your students measure and record the caterpillars' length on a daily basis. Graph the results for a visual record of their rate of growth.
If you decide to plant a milkweed, students can also measure and track the plant's growth. As the caterpillars grow, students can measure, record, and estimate the amount of milkweed consumed each day by the caterpillars. Track your milkweed and caterpillars on a calendar, too. How many days does it take for the milkweed to emerge? To reach maturity? How long do the caterpillars spend in their chrysalises?
Students can also measure and compute the distance traveled by monarchs as they journey north from Mexico. Help students pinpoint the monarchs' winter grounds in Michoacan, Mexico, then have them map and measure a route from Michoacan to home. Show them how to use the map scale to calculate the actual distance.
5. Viva Mexico
Beyond teaching map skills and basic geography, a study of monarch migration is a perfect time to introduce the language and culture of Mexico. Visit learner.org/jnorth for a great series of videos illustrating life for the children and families who live near the monarchs' winter grounds. Discuss the similarities and differences between students' daily lives and the lives of the Mexican children. Introduce a couple of simple Spanish words: Mariposa (mah-ree-POH-sah) means butterfly. Caterpillar is el gusano de seda (literally, the worm of silk).
6. Monarch Mobiles
Make a life cycle mobile. Have students draw, color, and cut out a monarch egg, caterpillar, chrysalis, and butterfly. Attach yarn or string to the cutouts and hang them from criss-crossed wooden dowels or an old wire coat hanger.
Or use black beans, yellow popcorn and glue to create mosaic monarch butterflies. Create or print out a basic butterfly shape. Show students a picture of a monarch butterfly and allow them to glue on the beans and popcorn to recreate the monarch's famous look.
Expand your students' musical horizons by playing music from Puccini's classic opera, Madame Butterfly, while they work.