Can Caterpillars Teach Us About Remote Learning?

A close friend told me today: Those caterpillars were sent to you for a reason. 

She was talking about the monarch butterfly caterpillars who appeared on a piece of swamp milkweed I had brought into my house. A deer had tromped on the stem, so it went into a vase. Several days later, these beauties appeared. I wrote about the discovery last week.

Two monarch caterpillars on a piece of milkweed.
A morning surprise with coffee!

At the time, a high school classmate urged, if you want monarch butterflies, those two have to go back outside.

Two more milkweed plants came home when I picked up my weekly farm share. By the end of the weekend, I had essentially erected a small butterfly garden of swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) and butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Buttefly garden

These two caterpillars have sent me on several learning adventures, the kind of adventures teachers could consider creating for students during this time of virtual learning. Remote learning can not merely be delivering instruction to a different location via Zoom or Google Meet. Instead, remote learning could send students on learning explorations. And here, I am essentially writing about K-8 adventures, since I hold a BS in Elementary Education.

The monarch learning started with a discovery. I had to figure out what kind of caterpillar I was seeing (Thank you Lisa S. for the confirmation of my hypothesis!). I decided I really wanted to help these creatures become butterflies! And then I had to learn how.

When I homeschooled my younger daughter, we learned about Linnaean classification. Everything on earth has been scientifically classified. My daughter loves birds; together we learned about song birds and parrots, along with a few favorites like penguins, egrets and herons. She filled three-ring binders creating her own Who’s Who of the avian world.

The Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus sorted flora and fauna into Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species. The species name is called the Binomial name (bi-two nomius-name). As we all learn, homo sapiens is the binomial name for human beings. So what, I wondered, was the classification for monarchs?

Here it is; Linnaeus classified these beauties in 1758.

What butterflies were related to the monarch? A search using the Family name, Nymphalidae, led to this:

picture of monarch relatives
By Felder –, Public Domain,

Yesterday, I had four caterpillars. Here are two. Can you find the little one?

Two caterpillars on milkweed.

This morning, those two seemed to be missing. I needed to find out what (besides birds) might prey on monarchs! And here is the ugly truth!

But I think I have another problem. See all those stones in the picture up above that I thought looked so cool? I think they are giving off too much heat, because one of the caterpillars I thought was lost, had migrated to a shady piece of cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis).

Caterpillar on cardinal flower

So how would my adventure work in remote learning? Every child has access to some form of nature–even a dandelion has a binomial name and relatives. A potato under the sink with eyes growing has a binomial name. Give that budding potato for toothpicks and a jar of water and see what happens. And one can usually see a stray robin, sparrow, or crow which can spark an exploration.

As I see it, in remote learning, the teacher becomes mentor. The teacher asks the student to make a discovery and then the mentor leads the student down that path. Heck, if I wanted to, I could get out a ruler to put along side my caterpillar. I could start with the small one and measure each day and chart its growth. Monarchs are endangered, so there’s another line of exploration.

If I had a potato, I could chart the growth of roots and greens. I could send a student off to learn about the Irish potato famine. I could have a student look at what species of potatoes grow in the United States and where. Do farmer export potatoes from the US to other parts of the world? Are yams potatoes? Could a student make a mock-up website for a potato farmer? How about an internet ad to generate business? The possibilities for learning are endless.

Depending on your age, you may be familiar with the SC Johnson Company product, Scrubbing Bubbles. The tag line at one time was: We Work Hard So You Don’t Have To. When I taught college writing I would tell students right up front: I am not your Scrubbing Bubble. I don’t work hard so you don’t have to. I work hard and you work hard. This acknowledges that teaching this way means the mentor has to constantly be thinking, planning and directing. It is demanding at first. But eventually, when your students learn how to learn, they will come to you and say: Can I do a project on . . . .

That happened with my own daughter. One day she woke up, looked at me and said: I am going to learn about Komodo dragons today!

Honestly, this seems like such an incredible time to teach. There is no longer a need to be wedded to texts (oh, those Basal Readers!). Students can find so much information on the internet; as teachers we need to encourage and guide their explorations, while helping students process what kind of information is accurate. This happens at the graduate school level all the time. It needs to happen sooner!

Yes, the other Lisa in my life (Lisa L.) was right. The caterpillars were sent to me for a reason. I hope they inspire teachers to think about the learning labs all around them–backyards, kitchens, parks. Learning does not have to always happen in a classroom.

I’ll keep you posted on my caterpillars. Have you ever seen a monarch chrysalis? (Your tasks? What’s the difference between a chrysalis and cocoon? What does a monarch chrysalis look like?)

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