Fall is an eye-opening season for eighth-graders in Kenan Kerr's English language arts class at Whitewater Middle, where raising butterflies is part of a lesson linking science and self-discovery.
Kerr's students are studying Latin American folklore and began the year by reading a novel about a Mexican American family, Summer of the Mariposas by Guadalupe Garcia McCall. Mariposas means butterflies in Spanish, and they are a recurring symbol of protection and migration throughout the book, which celebrates sisterhood and culture. This is the second year that raising real monarch butterflies has gone hand-in-hand with the reading of the text.
"We have a garden here at school that is planted with the milkweed monarchs eat," Kerr said. "We collect the eggs that are laid, put them in a cage in the classroom, then we get to watch the eggs go from caterpillar to chrysalis. We release them and follow their path to Mexico, like the path of the five sisters in the novel."
During last year's pandemic, Kerr raised the butterflies at home and showed students their progress from her patio. Despite being virtual, Kerr said it was still a fun learning experience for her students.
"The butterflies were always part of the plan because we're an environmental sustainability magnet school," Kerr said. "The monarch is endangered, and this is a neat tie-in for experiential learning."
The project resonates in many ways with the 26 students, who are from various backgrounds, and allows them to reflect on their own culture, as well as the culture of others. Kenan said the overlap with Hispanic heritage is also an interesting element for their school, where the Latino population is about 40%.
"Migration simply means movement," said student Kennard Willis. "Just as people move, the monarch butterflies move, too, based on their needs. Migration is a normal and beautiful process."
"My parents immigrated from Liberia to the United States, so I could connect with the monarchs' experience of migration," said Annel Rennie. "Butterflies are living creatures and so are immigrants. Both should be treated with respect and dignity!"
The class also participates in a symbolic migration with the help of Journey North, an organization that tracks the migration of monarchs, birds and other species. Each eighth-grader creates a paper butterfly that represents aspects of their identity, from their favorite football team or favorite color, to words that describe their personality. The butterflies are then sent to a school in central Mexico, where monarchs hibernate in winter. In the spring, those students send their own butterflies back to Whitewater around the time the monarchs return north.
"I enjoyed learning more about Mexican culture through our novel and this project," Quinten Adams said. "Sending these butterflies to Mexico was a way for students there to learn more about us."
"We are building connections between partners to the south and celebrating migration in an era when it's been politicized and misunderstood," Kenan said. "This is also an important means of ensuring our Latino students are represented, that they can see their culture and traditions recognized and celebrated in our curriculum."