Growing, Changing, and Transitioning: Monarchs & Middle Schoolers Journey Together

“The fifth grade is like a metamorphosis.” Christine Mayer, Middle School Spanish Teacher, made that statement with a lot of perspective. She has been teaching MICDS students for 22 years and, for close to a decade, has been using monarch butterflies as a launching pad for studying Mexico and Mexican culture. 

The monarchs are an ideal subject to link what students know as local and familiar with things foreign and new. “I felt like so much of fifth grade was a journey that the butterfly takes, as well,” Mayer said. One super generation of monarchs flies to the Michoacán region in Mexico where they spend the winter months. From there they head north to Texas before the cycle continues. The parallels for fifth-grade students are particularly apt. “Fifth-grade students migrate from Beasley to Danforth and transition from elementary to middle school students,” she explained. Fifth-grade students “undergo a lot of growth, change, and exploration about identity and resilience as the monarch does.” 

Mayer’s fifth graders hatched and released six monarch butterflies but noticed that this Spanish lesson wasn’t like their other language lessons. Students were surprised to be learning science in Spanish class. “We don’t live in isolation in our disciplines,” Mayer explained. That integration will happen again when Mayer’s students learn numbers and begin doing math problems in Spanish. Our disciplines “are melded together, overlap, and are blended,” she said.

Shortly after one of the class butterflies emerged, students were told it would soon fly away. Mayer details how some of her students were disappointed they wouldn’t have time to throw the butterfly a quinceañera–the traditional Mexican celebration on a girl’s 15th birthday, marking her passage from girlhood to womanhood. That exchange prompted other students, unfamiliar with a quinceañera, to ask about the practice. Those organic conversations, sparked by the monarchs, spur the sort of discovery, understanding, and appreciation for Mexican culture that the lesson aimed to achieve.  

“The monarch story is so unique, but so is starting middle school,” Mayer said. 

From egg to caterpillar to chrysalis. “It’s a unique journey like no other. It’s like our fifth graders emerge as butterflies.”