New Guest Series: Monarch Mondays

May 10, 2010

Welcome to Monarch Mondays! For many years the Dodge Foundation has supported EIRC in their efforts to provide teachers with environmental experiences that both inspire and empower their classroom work. Our efforts started with the NJ Teachers for Biodiversity but when EIRC launched its monarch butterfly program, we witnessed the meteoric rise of Monarch Teacher Network (MTN). MTN trains pre-kindergarten to 12th grade teachers, gardeners and naturalists. The training utilizes monarch butterflies to teach a variety of concepts, skills and issues (e.g., science, language arts, geography and cultural studies; character education, global warming and extinction, deforestation, lawn practices/gardening). As the project has spread across New Jersey, other states and Canada, it highlights our shared North American heritage and the need to be responsible stewards of the environment. The butterfly’s story of transformation has had transformative effects on teachers and their students. The monarch’s annual 2,000 mile migration to Mexico is paralleled by an EIRC-led trip for teachers to the monarch overwintering colonies.

Over the next few Mondays, we will hear accounts from several teachers who recently made the journey to Mexico with the Monarch Teacher Network. The first story comes from Mary Lenahan, a fourth grade teacher at Leeds Avenue School in Pleasantville, New Jersey.

Mary L - View from Sierra Chincua butterfly colony in Mexico as storm moves through

View from Sierra Chincua (Mexico) butterfly colony as storm moves through

By Mary Lenahan

My journey to Michoacán was the journey of a lifetime. Never has a place touched me as much as this beautiful region in southwestern Mexico. The breath-taking mountains, the cool, verdant valleys, the kindly people, the rolling countryside in contrast to the bustling cities, and of course the multitudes of monarchs, all spoke to me in ways I never expected. I have done a great deal of traveling, mostly in our United States. Traveling abroad for the first time was an adventure in itself. Mexico is a much different place than I ever imagined. From the moment we started our adventure in Mexico City, I knew this would be a very special trip. I had no way of knowing just how life-altering it was going to be.

Mexico is a place of many peoples. Despite being conquered by the Spanish in the 1500’s, the indigenous Mexican people are numerous and varied. Our group of educators learned much about these native people, especially the Purépecha. The Purépecha are a proud group who strive to keep their history alive by teaching their language and culture in their schools. Our group visited a bilingual school on Isla de la Pacanda, situated in the middle of Lake Pátzcuaro. Students learn vocabulary, mathematics, science, geography and history in Spanish and in their native Purépecha language.

Mary Len -  Students at Pacanda school - Mexico - in traditional dress

Students at Pacanda School

The Purépecha have a great appreciation for the land and its inhabitants. Our group visited two of the overwintering colonies of monarch butterflies in the Transvolcanic Mountain Range, west of Mexico City. Here at elevations of 10,000 feet, the monarchs gather in magnificent clumps on the branches of the oyamel fir trees. Millions of monarchs migrate to this region to rest for the winter. The Purépecha people have a close relationship with the monarch and understand the importance of protecting this delicate ecosystem. Learning about the Purépecha way of life has made me realize the importance of keeping one’s culture alive. The Purépecha people do just that by instilling in their children an appreciation for the mountains, the land and the creatures that coexist there.

Mary Len - Leeds Ave School Pleasantville NJ student looking at caterpillars turning to chrysalids

Mary Len - Leeds Ave students reading about butterflies

Leeds Avenue students learning about monarch butterflies

The excitement that I felt upon returning from Mexico and the knowledge I gained was evident to my students and staff at school. My students were very interested to learn about Michoacán students and that they studied in both their native Purépecha and Spanish. The teachers were so excited about my journey that several of them decided to take the Monarch Teacher training that summer. As a result, our school contracted “monarch fever.” Our students and teachers raised and released more than 300 monarchs at a school-wide release ceremony, with the school superintendent in attendance as well as the local media. The joy that students and staff felt when the monarchs were released was obvious and overwhelming. Each person felt a special attachment to the monarchs that were released, and our collective hearts flew away that day on a journey to Mexico and the oyamel fir trees high in the mountains of Mexico.

Mary Len - Student examining a butterfly at Leeds Ave School release

I have been teaching almost 20 years. Our butterfly release was the first time I witnessed anything that got all students and staff connected and working towards a single goal. The experience made our school feel more like a large family. It was a joy to watch, and an even bigger joy to experience. Since then, the teachers who participated in the monarch training have continued to spread their monarch fever, and it has been contagious with many other people.

Mary Lenahan - Student holding butterfly at a release at Leeds Avenue School, Pleasantville, NJ

As another school year comes to a close, my students continue to ask, “When are we going to raise more monarch butterflies?” I smile to myself, pause and reply, “Let’s go check the milkweed patch.”

Mary Lenahan is a fourth grade teacher at Leeds Avenue School in Pleasantville, New Jersey. Ms. Lenahan was chosen as the 2009-2010 Teacher of the Year for both her school and district. Mary is a New Jersey Volunteer Master Naturalist and a Certified Interpretive Guide for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. She volunteers at the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in Oceanville, NJ. Be sure to check her fourth grade class blog!