I have been a preschool teacher at the Bergen Community College Child Development Center, a laboratory school in NJ, for the past 25 years. When I began planning my trip to visit the monarchs in Mexico I had no idea the trip would become a defining spiritual journey. A pre-trip letter from Monarch Teacher Network (MTN) suggested that participants visit a doctor prior to the trip. As a result of that suggestion, I discovered that I had breast cancer. Instead of packing for the trip, I found myself riding a wave of diagnostic procedures. Finally, my doctors approved my trip to Mexico, with surgery scheduled for the day after my return. I packed in a haze, then off I went, traveling with other teachers from New Jersey, other states and Canada.
Personally and professionally, that first Mexico trip was the most defining experience of my life. As I quietly rode on horseback through the high mountain forest of the Sierra Chincua monarch sanctuary, I realized how truly interconnected I was to the forest, the butterflies, the horse and my guide. What a very small thread in this web of life I was, but an enormously important one. I imagined I felt like the preschool children whom I teach: both tiny and huge all at the same time! I was open in a way I had never been before. I wanted to share this joy and wonder with my students. I envisioned having “Circle Time” with my little ones while a river of thousands of monarchs swirled like autumn leaves overhead. I wanted to introduce my New Jersey students to the Mexican students children I met, who were so very much like themselves.
Because of my illness, upon my return from Mexico I could not return to my classroom that first year. But I had traveled to Mexico with a class mascot, a stuffed raccoon named Yummy. So I created a book for my students about the adventures of Yummy and me in Mexico. And, just like the monarchs, I find that I MUST travel to Mexico each year, and so I have, each year since, with Monarch Teacher Network. This past February was my fourth trip.
My students help me plan for my trips. We create tri-lingual books: Spanish, English and Purhepecha (Purr-HEH-peh-chuh is the language of the indigenous people who live in the area where the butterflies stay each winter), and games for the Mexican students I meet. We create a quilt to present to a Mexican school as a symbol of friendship. My students create photo albums to share the life of our classroom.
And I return from Mexico with so much to share! Videos from my trip, dances and games from the Mexican students, hand-made Purhepecha embroidery that I display in our classroom, tiny “butterfly fishing boats” for our classroom water table (the Purhepecha people fish with butterfly-shaped nets), Loteria for our classroom game table, and painted butterflies from the sanctuaries which are counted in the math center. My students create papel picado needlework and murals. They prepare frothy, hot chocolate the way the Aztecs did 500 years ago, using a carved wooden utensil called a Molinillo (Mole-le-KNEE-oh). They prepare guacamole with a mortar and pestle made from volcanic rock, exactly as people in Mexico do today. My students listen to music from Michoacán (the butterfly area) and set up a “Market” in our dramatic play area. They create butterflies to place on an oyamel fir tree (a donated artificial Christmas tree—oyamels are the trees in the sanctuaries that protect monarchs through the Mexican winter). Through songs, stories, pictures and art my students and I learn about this distant, magical place where Monarchs go every fall.
The monarch’s cycle of life, including its fall migration, is now at the heart of our curriculum. The curriculum stems from student interest in monarchs and the outdoor environment near our school. My students are intensely curious about Mexico. Where is this place? Who lives there? What is it like there? My students feel a sense of pride and accomplishment that they are helping nature “raise a butterfly.” They become teachers as they share their knowledge with their parents and with community college students on our campus.
The teachers and directors of Monarch Teacher Network, both here, in Mexico and Canada have enriched my life in ways that are precious. Mexico has become my sanctuary. In turn I have become a more inspired teacher.
I want to extend a heartfelt thanks to the Dodge Foundation for their support of this project and for giving me and other teachers the opportunity to participate in this amazing journey.
Every teacher who has the privilege to go to Mexico and witness the monarch spectacle has their own story to tell. Like me, they will be inspired to tell that story and bring the joy of that experience back to their students.
Below are links with photos and information from three of my trips to Mexico with Monarch Teacher Network.
Best wishes on the wings of butterflies,