Above: Students at the Newcomer's Academy in the USA record video messages on Flip for Cat's IB DP Economics students at Dulwich College Beijing.
Picture 24 17-year-old highschoolers living completely different lives and with very different socio-economic backgrounds collaborating on a project 13 time zones apart. Today, such learning is made possible with technology and new pedagogies such as digital storytelling, and this is the story of one such collaboration.
Cat Ho, IB Diploma Program (DP) Economics teacher and head of department for Business and Economics at Dulwich College Beijing (DCB), embarked on an innovative learning journey with her students this year that involved partnering with 12 students in Arlington, Illinois. The US-based students attend the Newcomer’s Academy, a high school designed to help young refugees learn English and process their painful experiences.
Cat’s students interacted with the US-based students online, and the stories that surfaced changed Cat’s students’ understanding of the world in profound ways.
“I wanted to find an authentic opportunity for my students as part of our sustainable development unit and I reached out to my EDD course mates about ways to connect my students to peers,” explains Cat, a doctoral candidate at the University of Illinois. “The person who introduced me to these students is a year ahead of me in the program and he co-founded the Newcomer’s Academy. The students who agreed to work with us had a higher level of English and came from Venezuela, Colombia, the Ukraine and Mexico. They had all fled their home countries because of economic distress.”
Cat’s students have learned a lot of economic theory about sustainable development, and she wanted them to investigate and explore real-world situations and stories to better understand the complexity of root causes and sustainable solutions. Her students first conducted research and interviewed their peers from the Newcomer’s Academy, and then they synthesized their learning into proposed policies.
The students used a website called Flip (formerly Flipgrid) to communicate. Cat’s students sent questions to the Newcomer’s Academy students by email. They then used Flip to record video responses and share their stories. A true sense of connection emerged, so much so that when Cat’s students realized a US-based student was celebrating a birthday, they all sang and recorded “happy birthday” in Chinese.
“I think my students saw how political stability is so essential for the day-to-day functioning of an economy,” reflects Cat. “We don’t cover that much in economics but it’s such an important component. In countries like Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, it’s not very safe, and my students were challenged to see the world differently by hearing the stories of peers who had to leave dangerous and difficult situations.”
This is a tangible impact of sharing stories: theory becomes reality and statistics take on human shape and form. Cat’s students in Beijing have not experienced conflict and instability of such scale, and their new connections were transformative.
“I also invited one of our Kenyan teachers to come and speak to the students and that was impactful, too. A lot of students reflected on the fact that their experience is very different from that of others in the world,” says Cat. “The IB DP Economics syllabus lends itself to these conversations. Gaining critical economic literacy means appreciating the complexities and interdependence of factors and pressing toward solutions that allow all to flourish.”
Cat’s students not only synthesized their learning experience into policies for economic responses and reform; they also created videos and a website to highlight what they had learned, harnessing the power of digital storytelling to share their story with the DSB community.
“Some of my students hadn’t worked much with video before, so technical aspects of the storytelling were challenging,” reflects Cat. “I had the students create storyboards before making their videos; in the future, I would scaffold these approaches earlier so students could gain confidence.”
Student learning was curated on a Microsoft Sway site that Cat created for her students. She set up the site with essential questions to frame the student posts and reflections.
As a first experience with digital storytelling and inter-school partnerships, Cat created a purposeful and impactful learning experience for her students, and what she learned in the process will create additional layers of impact in years to follow.
When trying new pedagogical tools and frameworks (like service learning or digital storytelling), it’s key to embrace an open and curious approach like Cat did in this example. She wasn’t sure how the process would unfold and she was keen to try new things and offer her students new experiences. She was able to roll with challenges as they surfaced (such as a program audit at the Newcomer’s Academy that made it impossible for her students to circle back to connect with their partners at the end of the unit). And she involved her students at each stage of the learning journey to promote their sense of voice, agency and leadership.
Cat’s story shows that embedding interviews, authentic connections and digital storytelling into a unit (in everyday teaching and learning and in summative assessments) can be rich and rewarding, even in IB DP courses where curriculum is dense and plentiful. These are approaches that allow for deep engagement and learning, and for the transformation of students’ thinking about themselves and the world (a perfect fit with the EIM mission of “living worldwise”).
Below: some of Cat's students recording messages for peers at the Newcomer's Academy.
Above: Ben Widdowson teaches Nursery (2, 3 and 4 year olds) at Dulwich College Suzhou in China and he is excited about building digital literacy skills in his young learners.
When Dulwich College Suzhou (DCSZ) nursery teacher Ben Widdowson learned about a fun digital storytelling tool called Chatterpix, he knew it was something he wanted to use with his young learners.
Ben teaches 2, 3 and 4-year-old children and the students all have iPads and use some devices at home.
“They know how to swipe and do basic things,” says Ben. “I want them to see that we can use technology in active ways, not just for playing passive games, and that they can produce something meaningful. I want them to use the iPads for purposeful learning.”
This is where Chatterpix became a valuable tool for Ben and his students in a recent unit about food. Students learned about fruits and vegetables and the types of foods they eat on a regular basis; as part of the unit, the class went on a field trip to the grocery store. Ben had students take photos of specific fruits and vegetables and, back in the classroom, use Chatterpix to record what they had learned about each one.
Chatterpix is a fun and easy app for iPads and iPhones that allows users to animate photographs. You can take a photo of any item and layer in an audio recording that animates the photo. The user gets to choose where to place a “mouth” so the object can talk, and it’s also possible to add text and other graphic elements.
“Students learned the app quite quickly,” says Ben. “One student mastered the whole app, start to finish, in a really short time and it was great to see him playing with it and discovering all he could do. I’m a big believer that we do something once and then come back to it again and again to learn the skills well and ensure mastery. I had a 2-year-old mastering an app after 20 minutes of playing with it and I wonder what he will be able to do next time.”
Ben had his students practice what they wanted to say about specific fruits and vegetables and then record their stories. Students shared these and listened to them in class, and Ben recounts that everyone had fun and laughed as they learned and shared.
“The parents really enjoyed seeing the videos and were excited that the students were speaking some English,” says Ben. “Most of my students are early language learners and this was the first time some of them said English words out loud for me, which was a big deal.”
Above: screen shots from Chatterpix videos the students made about food. See video links below to watch the students' animations.
The tangible and immediate nature of Chatterpix as a digital storytelling tool also resonated with the young learners, allowing them to understand its purpose and receive feedback right away.
“Seeing the animation really helped them see why they were recording their messages. It was effective; at this age, you need instant feedback and gratification,” reflects Ben.
Ben used Chatterpix in his next unit focused on the story of We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. He read the story to his students and then tasked them with summarizing the story in parts. Students created story maps as a visual aid for recording their summaries, and used Chatterpix to layer those recordings onto illustrations of parts of the story.
“I love teaching nursery students because they come up with these amazing ideas,” smiles Ben. “They have incredible imaginations and when they learn something new, it can become an obsession to keep learning. They’re so passionate!”
Ben came to DCSZ after teaching in the UK for six years. He loves living in Suzhou and participated in the 4-week “Becoming a Digital Storyteller” course with EIM colleagues in February, 2023.
“The best part of the course for me was the core module video each week,” says Ben. “Hearing and seeing examples of digital stories was helpful and that’s what led me to Chatterpix and trying it out.”
You can use Chatterpix for many different synthesis activities in everyday teaching and learning with learners of any age. An elementary art teacher at the International School of Kenya had students animate one of their own pieces of art and was also planning to have students animate portraits of artists to share biographical information based on research.
Marta Lobo Perez, a Spanish teacher at Dulwich College Singapore (DCSG) has used Chatterpix with her middle school Spanish students to animate various photographs with spoken Spanish, as well.
There are so many ways to use this simple app, and the fact that Ben has used it with the youngest EIM learners is exciting and purposeful. Building digital storytelling skills from PreK onwards is an excellent way to develop digital literacy as well as global and digital competencies, and Ben’s story is an excellent example of what is possible at the start of that continuum.
Below: Ben's videos of Nursery students recording their voices using Chatterpix to show the foods they learned about in their food unit, and to re-tell We're Going on a Bear Hunt.
When Dagne Furth, an experienced English literature and global citizenship educator, helped her students publish a book called Dear Tariq this past year, she knew she wanted to make the project available to teachers around the world.
Dagne supported two of her own students and a young Syrian artist living in Jordan to write, illustrate and publish Dear Tariq, a story about two boys (one from the US and one from Syria) whose paths cross through an exchange of letters and a deep sense of connection. The book explores the impact of the boys’ connection in terms of developing intercultural understanding and action related to the root causes of circumstances that result in humans becoming refugees, migrants and asylum seekers.
“It was amazing to watch these students create Dear Tariq and connect with each other through the process,” says Dagne. “I was determined to help them publish this book, and this led me to create my own organization called New Day Storytelling Advocates.”
Through New Day, Dagne is committed to helping young changemakers publish more stories, both in book form and through blogging, and the two students (Geo Chen and Selena Morse) who authored Dear Tariq are mentoring younger students in how to use their voices to create positive change.
Because Dear Tariq involves themes that relate to many units of study related to migration, equity and conflict, Dagne reached out to me several months ago, wondering if we could partner to create curriculum for Dear Tariq. I am thrilled to share that we wrote a full unit for this text! It’s a unit geared for grade 3 students, but can easily be adapted for a range of grade levels, and you can access the curriculum through Dagne’s website.
Photo above: Dagne and I collaborating on Dear Tariq curriculum.
“We hope that teachers will be able to use Dear Tariq to teach about global issues and root causes, as well as see an example of how students can use storytelling to create impact,” says Dagne.
Check out Dagne’s website and the video below that features both Dagne and student Selena Morse (now a freshman in college). The interview provides background on the process of writing and publishing Dear Tariq, and also highlights the leadership role that Selena had throughout the experience. For any educator interested in engaging students in advocacy and storytelling, the interview will be inspiring and helpful.
In addition, check out these additional resources if you’re interested in exploring more resources related to teaching about migration and amplifying student agency and voice in your classroom!
The first quarter of 2023 has been a wonderful whirlwind of time spent with students and teachers in various parts of the world. Along the way, I have been able to coach students of all ages engaged in digital storytelling and active global citizenship, and this post highlights some youth voices in this realm.
First, check out the video below with Seba, a fifth grade student engaged in telling stories through videos. He created a video about veganism and sustainable food for Impact, his classroom digital storytelling site, and I was thrilled to connect with Seba, his dad and classroom teacher Michele Turner (a passionate storytelling advocate!) on Zoom. The video shares what Seba created and why he thinks digital storytelling is so engaging and important. Deep learning, civic readiness and #techforgood: yes!!
Fast forward to high school. Check out what these high school students from United World College East Africa (Arusha campus) have to say about the power of digital storytelling. The students served on the media team for this year's AISA-GISS 2023 conference in January titled "The Future is Now". AISA stands for the Association of International Schools in Africa and GISS stands for Global Issues Service Summit. This is a powerful gathering of international and local students each year that celebrates active global citizenship and sustainable, inclusive service, and this year's media team was incredible. Check out the summit website to see some of their daily highlight videos. When I was able to talk with Eduardo, Mohamedali and Via about the power of digital storytelling, here's what they had to say:
Equipping students to connect with others and develop the ability to listen and empathize with others is foundational in our service learning programs and experiences. This is the backbone of good, critical service learning that shapes our students’ understanding of the world and opens up complex layers of thinking about self, community, equity and belonging.
Often, we celebrate the action components of service learning. The action that students take to create positive and purposeful change in local and global communities tends to be the focus of the stories we share as students demonstrate what they learned and what they did during a service learning experience.
While it’s important and good to honour what students do as active global citizens engaged in applying curricular knowledge and skills to local and global community assets and needs, we need to spend more time celebrating the deep thought work and identity formation that is key to preparing students to take action.
In order for our students to take action in sustainable, open, inclusive and equitable ways, they need to spend time listening to community partners and others who are different from themselves. They need time to reflect deeply on what they have heard and learned, and to analyze their own sense of power and privilege in relation to others. They need the time and skills to unpack root causes of inequity and root causes of local and global issues. They need to know how to identify community assets and abundance that may look very different from what they see in their own communities.
The skills of deep listening can be taught when we create deliberate and purposeful experiences for our students to learn from and with community partners, and where we set up protocols for students to listen quietly and carefully to others. As you think about past, current or upcoming service learning experiences you may have planned or be planning, can you identify where you have carved out time for these types of settings for students?
The investigation stage of a service learning cycle is an excellent place to begin. As students engage with MISO (Media/Interviews/Surveys/Observations) action research, deep listening can take place in interviews with community members. Teachers can also schedule group interviews or listening sessions with community partners to augment MISO learning, and during the action stage, teachers can work with community partners to schedule purposeful listening/story circles so students have the opportunity to participate in thoughtful conversations and dialogue. During reflection, deep listening can also play a role as students share what they have learned and what questions they have about community assets and needs.
In all of these opportunities, students can cultivate genuine and deep empathy for others, to develop mindsets and dispositions that honour and celebrate others, and to grow the ability to think critically and carefully about the human experience from multiple perspectives.
There are several protocols available to help teachers plan for deep listening experiences with students to foster this type of learning. UNESCO has some excellent resources, as does Narrative 4.
As we work to deepen our service learning and global citizenship practices to a more critical level, the role of empathy through deep listening and community connections becomes foundational in everything we do.
When I had my first conversation with Kauthar Mohamed, the student leadership and service learning coordinator at Aga Khan Academy Mombasa in Kenya, I knew I needed to interview her and share her story on my blog.
Many schools may have some embedded curricular service learning, or aspire to build genuine and purposeful service learning programs that align with the mission and vision of the school. It can be challenging, though, to design a whole school model that meets the needs of learners, supports and engages teachers, and honours community partnerships as collaborative, reciprocal relationships.
At Aga Khan Academy Mombasa, Kauthar and her team have built a robust model that equips students to understand and apply all five stages of the service learning cycle through grade-level experiences (rooted in the timetable and in a detailed plan for lessons and community engagement) and curricular experiences in a variety of subject areas.
The service learning program involves the key aspects outlined in the infographic (above); she stresses that having dedicated time in the school timetable each week is key to success. Some additional components of the Aga Khan Academy's grade 6-10 program are:
* a Service Learning coordinator
* a Service as Action coordinator (who aligns unit objectives and curricular planning with service partnerships & service learning blocks in the timetable)
* grade-level fellows (recent university graduates who are trained in service learning and coordinate work with grade level homerooms)
* teachers who are engaged with professional development about service learning and who embed service learning experiences in the curriculum to align with grade-level work with community partners
* options for students in grades 6-10 to stay with one community partner for four years or to experience a range of community partners (a different partner each year)
* a new mentorship program for students in grades 6-8 where they will work with “experts” in a variety of civil society organizations, in thematic areas that align with the Aga Khan Development Network pillars and service learning
* a Service Learning handbook that guides all teachers, students, parents and community partners
Primary school students (up to and including grade 5) engage with service learning through the PYP curriculum and the PYP Exhibition, and grade 11 and 12 students engage with the IB CAS (Creativity, Activity and Service) program. Kauthar and her team focus on grades 6-10, equipping students to listen to community partners, identify community assets and create action plans that are collaborative and co-created with the community partners.
Check out the video below to learn more about how Kauthar has designed her service learning program. Some of her ideas might work for your school, too! And you may want to look at one of her student's Reflection Sites to see how students document their service learning experiences, as well.
And if you're looking for more examples of purposeful and thoughtful all-school models, check out these additional stories from schools that partner with Inspire Citizens:
* Whole school global citizenship at the International School Nido de Aguilas in Santiago, Chile
* Personalized learning through innovative scheduling & systems at Frankfurt International School, Germany
* Whole school service learning at the American Embassy School of New Delhi
* K-12 service learning at COJOWA School in Cartagena, Colombia
Photo above: the Carbon Neutral Alliance team at the International School of Kenya.
Responding to the climate crisis with purpose and a sense of hope and action is key for educators who want to equip students to think critically and creatively about the future.
At the International School of Kenya (ISK), this approach has led to the creation of a collaborative and action-oriented network called the Carbon Neutral Alliance, and the students in this network have spearheaded a mission to make their school carbon neutral this year.
The growth of the Carbon Neutral Alliance is an exciting story that features student agency and leadership, student voice and choice, responsive and open-minded school leaders, and community awareness and commitment to sustainability.
Teacher Tom Wallbridge is the teacher advisor for the Carbon Neutral Alliance and explains what ISK has done to work towards its carbon neutral status. In the video below, Tom shares many ideas and details of the ISK story, and these can be applied to other schools keen to improve their environmental footprint.
In terms of a template for action, here are some of the key steps that the ISK team took to create a campus-wide initiative with tangible impact:
1) Student leaders from one club (Students for the Environment) liaised with several other clubs to create a student coalition to take action in response to climate change.
2) The student coalition (Carbon Neutral Alliance) drafted a proposal for the campus to become carbon neutral by 2030.
3) Students made a presentation to the board and their proposal was accepted.
4) After updated climate change data was released, the student leaders revised the timeline for their proposal and made a second proposal to the board; this proposal was also accepted.
5) Students met with experts about carbon mapping and did research.
6) The school contracted an outside company to conduct a full external audit of the campus to evaluate its environmental practices and footprint; students raised money to pay for this audit.
7) After the audit was completed, leaders defined what "carbon neutral" would mean at ISK and what parameters would be applied to their data.
8) Two community partners were established to direct carbon offsets to local settings in Kenya and allow students to develop meaningful partnerships for learning and intercultural understanding.
9) A plan for annual, ongoing assessment of day-to-day school practices and sustainability was created. Students have also connected with peers from other international and local schools to share ideas and resources.
10) The Carbon Neutral Alliance experience won an Association of International Schools in Africa (AISA) award as an "Outstanding Service Project" for 2022.
If your school community is interested in becoming more sustainable and decreasing its environmental footprint in the world, listen to the video below and also check out the following links for tools that may help you begin this work.
Thanks to ISK for leading in this way, and for serving as an example to other schools of what is possible!
Inspire Citizens: Global Citizenship Self-Discovery Tool for Schools
Green Schools Initiative: Multiple Calculators and Tools for School Sustainability
Earth Gen:Carbon Calculator for Schools
Sustainability in Schools:Calculator Tools to Get Started
Compass Education: Assessing and Designing Innovation and Sustainability in Schools
10/24/2022 0 Comments
Growth in balance with rest and repair: how to prioritize personal and collective health and well-being
Two weeks ago I had the privilege of running a workshop for AISA (Association of International Schools in Africa) educators about mindfulness.
Since that experience, I have been thinking non-stop about good health and well-being and the nature of our busy schools. Perhaps if you're like me, your typical teaching day is a whirlwind of activity, conversation and tasks, and there never seems to be enough time to get everything done. Planning, grading, meetings, co-curricular responsibilities... sometimes you finish the week and it feels like you've just completed an Ironman race. Right?
Yet Sustainable Development Goal #3 highlights the importance of good health and well-being, and the Inner Development Goals show us that only by attending mindfully to our own mindsets and sense of being can we care for others and the world. Many of our schools have created important SEL (Social and Emotional Learning) programs in the past few years, and mental health and well-being has been brought to the fore as a result of Covid-19. All of these important signals suggest that a school week like the one I just described is unhealthy and unsustainable.
I listened to a podcast this morning where someone mentioned the obsession we have (culturally) with growth, and the pervasive mindset that growth needs to be continuous and rapid, as if we're driving with our foot continuously jamming the gas pedal to the floor. Yet, to sustain growth (personal, economic, intellectual or innovative growth), there needs to be a balance with reflection, rest, consolidation and healing.
The best example of this might be how we build muscles at the gym. When we lift weights, we create tiny tears in our muscle fibers. But this isn't what makes our muscles stronger. Strength is built during the rest period that follows the workout. During rest, the body repairs the muscle fibers and actually fuses fibers together to create stronger strands, and more of these strands. Hence, your muscles increase in size and capacity. Without a rest period, your body wouldn't be able to build stronger, bigger muscles.
If this is true of our physical bodies, and a growth cycle is dependent on rest and repair, it makes sense that other types of growth would benefit from similar periods of purposeful rest.
I wonder how we might create classroom and school cultures where this is possible for teachers and students. Instead of running frantically from one class to the next, and inhaling your lunch while working at your computer, what if the school day was calm and peaceful, allowing for mindful eating, walking and learning? How might this impact the way teachers and students learn, communicate and connect?
This may seem like a pie-in-the-sky idea, but I think schools would benefit from creating conversations and ideation sessions where teachers and students could discuss the value of slowing down and the importance of personal and collective health and well-being.
As a starting point, individual teachers might want to consider their own classroom space and how they might invite students to co-create opportunities to rest and repair as they learn. I can imagine solutions like extended (and creative) reflection time, quiet reading time and meditation or stretching to start a class or create a break during longer class periods. I'm sure students would have innovative ideas about how to create more mindful experiences and settings for their learning, as well as valuable insights to share about what they need to grow (intellectually, emotionally and socially) in purposeful ways.
Teacher self-care is also a vital ingredient in this recipe. In what ways are you carving out time and space for your own cycles of rest and repair? Are you caring for yourself with exercise, meditation/reflection, time in nature and creative endeavours? How might you design your days and weeks to include elements that allow you to pause, rest and heal so you can grow personally and professionally?
In the AISA workshop I mentioned in the first paragraph, we began with deep breathing and a conversation about wellness and mindfulness in our schools; we then engaged in a guided meditation and a quiet partner conversation to reflect on what we had experienced. In one hour, we were able to create a space where it felt like time slowed down a little bit and where we could all could exhale slowly and let our shoulders relax. If we can create that space in a one-hour workshop, what might happen if we build mindful moments regularly into our days?
Here are some resources to help you create a more mindful classroom and school:
Learning for Justice
(Important considerations of mindfulness that advances equity and acknowledges student trauma and systemic failure)
Source of image above
Last week, our family experienced a beautiful miracle.
Our oldest daughter gave birth to our second granddaughter, a perfect little 5-pound human named Clara, and the world shifted on its axis. Our hearts divided and replicated like active cells, encompassing a universe of love for this new little one who has captivated us with her tiny fingers and her alert, bright eyes.
When I look at this precious new baby, and at my energetic and wonderful 3-year-old granddaughter (Clara's older sister), I am overcome with many emotions. Love and gratitude, of course. Joy and contentment and wonder. And also worry, a sense of urgency around the grave issues facing our planet and its future.
It's one thing to imagine a future for myself where climate change and other factors have made life challenging and/or untenable. It's quite another to imagine that future for my grandchildren; I want them to experience life in its fullest, most rich and beautiful iteration, not life that is compromised, broken and painful.
So I have been pondering futures thinking this week, a dynamic way of thinking about a desired future and using design thinking skills to design strategic solutions that support that vision. The idea is that our thoughts lead to action, and if we imagine a more sustainable, just and stable future, we can create ways of making that future come to life.
I have been an ardent fan of design thinking since I attended an introductory workshop at the Stanford d.school back in February of 2018. Since then, I have participated in several d.school training events, and served as a facilitator for two d.school workshops at Concordia International School Shanghai. I have seen the power of design thinking in opening up thought patterns, encouraging creative and critical thinking, and in fostering action that is positive and generative. I have participated in design thinking sessions with colleagues, and also with students. It's pretty amazing and if you haven't experienced design thinking, you can learn more here.
Futures thinking uses the principles of design thinking to inspire people, young and old, to shape the future of our world. Given the state of many things in 2022, this can be a powerful way to create change, and also to generate hope and a sense of agency and ownership for how the future may unfold. Often we can feel removed from many factors (governmental and otherwise) that shape policy and communal ways of being; futures thinking allows us to tap into the power of who we are, as individuals, to shape what we can control, and then to amplify the ripple effects into local and global communities.
While this might sound rather pie-in-the-sky in terms of realistic action, evidence suggests quite the opposite. Where we focus our attention is where our energy and efforts are concentrated. Reflecting on the future helps us understand what is happening now, and allows us to change behaviours that aren't positive or that don't support the kind of future we envision. And engaging in this kind of dialogue fosters the type of creative and critical thinking that is the basis for radical innovation, the kind of innovation we need to solve some of our pressing problems.
So this post is all about hope, and I encourage you to check out these resources about how to use futures thinking in your classroom. Equipping your students to believe they have a role to play in creating the future of our world is a way to empower all students, PK-12, to engage in positive and sustainable work in this world.
Some sites that include excellent resources about futures thinking include:
1) Teach the Future
2) Encounter Edu
4) Futures Thinking Course for Teachers on Coursera (free)
And I can't close this post without including some photos of little Clara and her big sister Eden. These two little humans (along with all the little humans you know and love) make it imperative for all of us to engage in futures thinking and in sustainable, purposeful action for our planet and its people.
Please share these resources about futures thinking with any colleagues who would be interested.
Photo by Kathy Servian on Unsplash
I have been obsessed with Monarch butterflies for a long time, perhaps since I was old enough to first see them in my yard in rural Ontario.
I love Monarchs so much that I have one tattooed on my left shoulder.
When I read Four Wings and a Prayer: Caught in the Mystery of the Monarch Migration in 2000 (when it was first published), I couldn't put it down and devoured it in a matter of hours.
When our daughters were young, every year we sought out Monarch caterpillars on neighborhood milkweed and brought them home to our glass aquarium so we could watch them go through the magical cycle of metamorphosis.
I remember one particular morning in 1997 when we woke up to a clear chrysalis, which meant the Monarch would emerge sometime that day; our girls were heading off to school and day care, so we carefully placed the aquarium into our van and took it along. The butterfly hatched out of its chrysalis during nap time for our then-3-year-old daughter Hannah. Later that day, we heard she remained awake the entire time, lying quietly next to the rectangle of glass, completely absorbed in the butterfly's birth. She watched it pump its wings full of fluid and then sit quietly in the sun, drying its new wings until it was ready to fly. When we arrived at day care, she ran over and the details came excitedly spilling out, her eyes sparkling with wonder.
On another memorable day a few years later, I was lucky enough to catch a caterpillar in the act of transforming into its chrysalis (a challenging feat because this happens so fast!). I had placed the aquarium beside my laptop so I could keep one eye on the caterpillar; it had been hanging in its "J" formation for several hours and I knew the transition would happen soon (many times, prior to this day, I had turned my back for what seemed like a few minutes, only to miss the transformation!). When it began, the caterpillar straightened and began to undulate as a sliver of what looked like mint green silk emerged from its bottom (closest to the anchor point at the aquarium's mesh top). The green chrysalis seemed to grow from the body of the caterpillar itself, unfurling and spreading like the mirror that absorbs Neo's arm in The Matrix (remember that scene right before he takes the red pill?). Within minutes, the chrysalis, with its shining gold rim and dots, was complete and the caterpillar was no more, not so much contained within the chrysalis as having disrobed and stepped into something entirely new.
Can you tell how much I love these butterflies?
Thus, it was with great sadness that I learned a few weeks ago that Monarchs have been added to the official list of endangered species. Habitat loss and climate change, both the result of human behaviour, are listed as the causes for the sharp decline in Monarch populations over the last few decades.
While I was absorbing this terrible news and ruminating over the way our species has ravaged our planet, my daughter sent me a text to say a friend who lives in the countryside was bringing her some Monarch caterpillars from a large milkweed patch on her property. She asked if I would like some, as her friend was bringing her several; she was setting up a mesh insect tent (much like our old glass aquarium) so her daughter could watch the magical metamorphosis occur.
I confess my breath caught in my throat as I read this text. Imagining my wonderful granddaughter (who is now 3) bearing witness to the Monarch miracle made me so happy and sad all at the same time. Happy because she, too, will become enthralled with nature and its cycles by observing this incredible transformation. Sad because she may be part of the last generation to have the privilege of honouring the Monarch with such attention.
"Of course!" I immediately wrote back. "I would love some caterpillars, yes!"
Since then, I have been watching my Monarchs every day, attentively observing the caterpillars eat voluminous quantities of fresh milkweed leaves and grow rapidly, their rings of white, yellow and black expanding by the hour. Just as the caterpillars seem full-grown, they are already climbing up the sides of the mesh tent, hunting for the right place to pause and attach themselves, bottoms-up to the roof, inverting themselves to prepare for the change to come.
I now have two perfect spring green chrysalises hanging quietly downstairs. Some sort of alchemy is happening inside and, any day now, one of the chrysalises will turn clear, revealing the crumpled and cramped wings of an adult Monarch butterfly inside.
I await this moment with much anticipation and joy, nervous and excited to watch this next stage that symbolizes liberation and freedom, hope and perseverance.
And I find myself thinking a lot about climate change and my ongoing hope that we humans might still make the necessary changes to save the Monarchs and all of life on Earth.
If you have an opportunity to bring caterpillars (of any variety) into your classroom to teach your students about the magic of metamorphosis and the importance of habitat preservation, please do so. Often we assume this would only appeal to younger learners but students of all ages are fascinated by nature; having an aquarium in your high school math or English classroom will also spark wonder, curiosity and conversations about our role in preserving natural spaces.
Below are some links to resources that may be useful in teaching your students about climate change. Please use these resources and pass them along to other educators and parents. And if you live in North or Central America and can help preserve the Monarchs, check out this site for advice on what you can do.
Thanks for reading! I'm heading downstairs to check on my chrysalises.
Resources for teaching about Climate Change:
1. The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells: this book is excellent for high school readers. I used to include it as a book circle option for students in my grade 11/12 Global Development Studies class and every student who read this book was impacted deeply by what they learned about climate change and the urgency for each of us to become part of global solutions.
2. Taking Action Global has created a climate change book list for readers of all ages. This is an excellent curated list of titles, along with some ideas of how to incorporate the books into your curriculum.
3. Taking Action Global has a full program for students, teachers and schools about climate change, including training for educators. In September there is a period of onboarding for new participants and you can check out details here. There are options to learn about how climate change is connected to digital agency and action, project-based learning, and equity and inclusion, along with opportunities for global collaboration.
4. The Climate Action Project is a global endeavor linking students to experts and peers to learn about climate change. This year's experience will launch on September 27th and will involve a 6-week learning experience. You can enroll as an educator and take your students on this learning journey endorsed by HH Dalai Lama, Queen Elizabeth II, Dr. Jane Goodall, world leaders and Ministries of Education across 16 countries.
5. Resources about teaching climate change from the New York Times: check out this article with valuable links and resources.
Photos of my two Monarch caterpillars and chrysalises this year, along with a Monarch butterfly I saw in August at North Beach Provincial Park in Ontario and a photo of my 3-year-old granddaughter watching the butterfly fly down the beach. Bottom row, middle: Monarch letters my daughters sent to penpals in Mexico in 1997 to participate in a program linking children in places connected to the Monarch migration.
Update: Butterfly #1 emerged on September 5th!