Why Teach with Monarchs?

Because students can learn about more than just monarchs!

The Power of the Monarch Story…

One reason the monarch is such a powerful learning tool is because it’s a great story . Stories help learners to integrate knowledge into a coherent picture of how the world works. Researchers believe that story-telling is something we virtually have to do to make sense of all the information that bombards us each day, and to remember anything at all. Facts presented in story form are easier to remember. Stories draw us in and carry us through difficult concepts, leading to new understanding. Good stories convey information and describe events and actions but also engage our emotions and imagination in the learning process. Facts that stir up emotion are more quickly and easily stored in our brains, which function by constructing stories. Adults and children live, learn and relate to each other, every day and minute, through the stories they know and tell each other. Or, as expressed by Lori B, 2 nd grade teacher…..

“The day we released our last monarch butterfly, I asked my students to write about what they learned. I told them that by writing what they learned they might help to send their teacher to Mexico They all cheered and started making plans: “Should we put you in an envelope or a box?” The general consensus was they would pack me in a box with some holes for breathing and about 600 bologna sandwiches for snacking. After that decision was made they sat down and wrote as I never saw them write before. “Why?, I asked myself. I believe partly because they were truly enthusiastic about what they learned but most important was that they were writing for a purpose. In the process they started asking more questions, “How far away is Mexico?”, “Where does the monarch go after Mexico?”. Several students consulted a globe to find Mexico and others took out their social studies text to refer to the map in order to count the number of states the monarch would have to travel. The best part was that this was all coming from them.” [Lori received a fellowship and visited the monarch sanctuaries in March 2004].

Character Education

Caring for monarch butterflies can help students learn far more than the habits and needs of a species. Observing and caring for an animal can lead to a sense of responsibility and respect for life. It can also increase sensitivity and awareness of the feelings and needs of others, developing responsible behavior, compassion and respect for both animals and humans. Classroom experiences with animals can be especially valuable for urban students who may have fewer opportunities to have direct experience with animals. In The Ten Trusts c2002, ISBN 0-060251757-0, Jane Goodall shares her hope and vision for how to live with respect for all life.

Global Warming and Extinction

Global warming is a serious threat to monarch migration through its affect on weather and climate in the monarch winter sanctuaries in Mexico. In January 2002, possibly 80% of the Mexico overwintering monarchs were killed by a severe winter storm. It may seem alarmist to worry about the disappearance of the monarch migration, when monarch populations still number in the tens of millions, but numbers give no immunity to extinction. The passenger pigeon was the most common bird in North America in the 1800′s, numbering in the billions. By the early 20th century, it was extinct. And global warming is a threat to more than just monarchs. A 2003 British study predicts that climate change in the next 46 years (within your students’ lifetime) will lead to conditions that could bring about the extinction of nearly a quarter of the world’s land animals. For example, Australia could lose as many as 54% of its 400 species of moths and butterflies. A study of monarchs leads inevitably to the topic of global warming and its consequences for people, wildlife and the planet.


The monarch’s Mexico winter sanctuaries are located in old growth, fir forests. In Mexico and around the world, old growth forests are rapidly disappearing as a result of legal and illegal logging. When timber corporations do replant, the new “forest” is a monoculture, no longer a diverse forest at all but simply a fiber plantation. Most forest creatures cannot live there any better than they can live in an Iowa cornfield. Less than 5% of the original ancient forests of the US remain. Seventy-five percent of the world’s large intact forests in the temperate and tropical regions are now threatened. Between 50-90% of all land species on earth inhabit the world’s forests. A study of monarchs inevitably leads to the topic of deforestation and what we can do to help. Each American consumes about 700 pounds of paper per year; every 10% of recovered waste paper saves a million acres of forest from being cut. Read: Strangely Like War: The Global Assault on Forests by Derrick Jensen, c2003, ISBN 1-931498-45-8.

Lawn practices/Gardening

Americans plant, weed, water, spray and mow an estimated 25 million acres of lawn. More than 13 million lawn utility machines are sold every year in the US. Grass is now the nation’s third largest crop. And what do we get for this crop?

  • More air pollution (a California study found that one hour of lawn mowing releases pollutants equal to driving 350 miles in a car) and more global warming .
  • Less water . One study found that 30% of the water used in East Coast urban areas is for lawns.
  • More chemicals in the environment. One study found that homeowners use up to ten times as much chemical pesticides per acre than farmers.
  • Less butterflies and less diversity . Nature loves diversity, creating it every chance it gets. But the lawn is a biological desert, where diversity is strictly limited through the use of chemicals.

If we want monarchs in our future, we need to celebrate diversity. We need less lawn and must preserve (or restore) parts of our community and backyards as natural areas with a diverse community of plants and animals. “What a catalyst this has been for me as a teacher! At Back to School Night, I actually found myself encouraging parents to alter their mowing practices so milkweed can flourish. Their children are now ‘driving them crazy’ to get that milkweed planted.” — Sharon D., 2nd grade teacher “By educating youth about the importance of open fields and meadows, it is my hope they will gain the respect to help preserve these areas as they grow into young adults.” — Linda F., 2nd grade teacher.

Learning Communities

In a true learning community, everyone is learning, intellectually and emotionally, from everyone else… students, teachers, other staff, parents and the community. Teaching and Learning With Monarchs facilitates the development of a learning community, as shown by teacher feedback: “The whole school is excited about our project. I am putting daily monarch facts in our bulletin, and set up a display in the school lobby.”… “Our school parade was videotaped by the superintendent for the local cable station: the whole school watched, and many parents were there.”… “The first-grade teachers, vice-principal, PTO members and children planned and planted our butterfly garden.”… “The class is in the midst of writing and presenting a program educating other grades and parents, who will be invited to attend.”…”I can’t believe how excited the community was by all the monarch activity. It was wonderful to see the sense of awe in parents as well as students.”