Educator Spotlight: Supporting Monarch Butterflies

Shernina Nichols led her second-graders through an exploration of monarch butterflies, including their life cycle and migration routes. Learning about the challenges monarchs face to survive inspired students to plant milkweed on their school campus and advocate for community members to support the butterflies.

Shernina Nichols teaches Spanish at New City School, an elementary school in St. Louis, MO. Photo by Rosemary Davis

What inspired you to explore monarch butterflies with your students?

There is something magical about butterflies that captivates people of all ages. A suggestion from our science specialist, Eric Eskelsen, had previously inspired me to incorporate the Journey North Symbolic Migration project into my teaching about Día de los Muertos. Some believe that the arrival of the monarch butterflies in Mexico is symbolic of the ancestral spirits returning home. 

While working on my National Geographic Educator Certification, I realized there was so much more I could do to make the lesson more meaningful for my students. I showed students a time-lapse video of the life cycle; read them stories about the monarchs (Uncle Monarch and the Day of the Dead by Judy Goldman) and the challenges they faced (María La Monarca by Homero Aridjis, focusing on the images since the text was too advanced); used maps (examples here and here) to follow their migration over time; and brainstormed ideas for how we could make a difference.

Shernina’s students used maps of North America to track and measure butterfly migrations. Photo by Shernina Nichols

How did students become interested in taking action to help monarchs?

We discussed threats faced by the monarchs, such as lack of milkweed and use of pesticides. Students were saddened to know that our actions and habits were affecting the wildlife around us. Learning about the monarchs in class, and then seeing the butterflies outside during recess and wondering if they would make it to Mexico, motivated them to want to help. We came up with small ideas at first, and it spiraled from there. Before I knew it, they were wanting to plant milkweed at school and at home, and to motivate others in our community to do the same.

I am fortunate to work at a school that encourages our students to be leaders and changemakers, regardless of how old they are. Our garden committee wholeheartedly supported students in planting more milkweed on campus. We found some unused garden boxes in the playground area, and students cleared out the area and prepared the soil for planting. Another group planted seeds to raise indoors until they were strong enough to be transplanted. A third group counted out seeds and divided them into bags to be handed out at our school picnic. It was powerful to see how much students cared about the monarchs and how much they were willing to do. They were so proud of what they accomplished as a team!

Students planted milkweed seeds. Photo by Shernina Nichols

What did you notice about how students reacted to this project and the opportunity to take action?

My students wanted to make a difference, and when they saw that they could and would have support if they needed it, they went all out. As adults, we often underestimate the power of children, but they are passionate and driven. They see the world we live in, hear about animals that are endangered or going extinct because of our consumer-driven habits and climate change, and want to make it better. Many of them commented that it isn’t fair that the wildlife has to suffer because of us, and they want to undo the damage by taking small steps. They were empowered and felt like they did indeed influence change by educating our community and sharing their “seeds of change.” Children want to help, and they can, in both small and big ways.

Students shared their learning about monarchs with their school community. Photo by Shernina Nichols

This project presented many opportunities for interdisciplinary connections, from the biology of butterflies to the geography of their migration route. How and why do you seek out these kinds of connections in your teaching?

I am constantly seeking ways to tie other disciplines into my Spanish curriculum. I think it makes the content more meaningful. Students need to see language as a means to acquire and share information, not just a subject in isolation. When I can, I try to incorporate or expand on what students have already learned in other classes so that they aren’t struggling with the content and can focus on language acquisition. The language comes alive through the use of other disciplines!

As the only Spanish specialist at my school, collaborating with other educators leads to less isolation and a more exciting curriculum. I am fortunate to have some fabulous colleagues who are willing to share ideas and help me tie in other subject areas. It is a team effort, supported by my administrators, and we are all working towards the same goal. I am always learning new skills and acquiring knowledge when I incorporate other disciplines into what I do. Just like my students, I am curious and excited to learn more about the world around me from others.

Interested in joining Shernina as a National Geographic Certified Educator? Learn more at NatGeoEd.org/Certification.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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