For educators, fall really feels like spring.  A fresh year, a new class, brand-new students: all of these embody new beginnings and the opportunity to grow.  My growth during this season, though, often begins with a search.

Whenever possible, I scan my yard and local fields for milkweed.  If I see a patch, I examine the leaves for monarch butterfly caterpillars so I can capture a few, put them in a jar with milkweed leaves, and prepare to witness a miracle.

Who taught me how to do this?  One of my fourth grade students.

One first day of school, Stefan brought in a Mason jar stuffed with milkweed and placed it carefully on his desk.  He announced that a monarch caterpillar was inside and he was going to watch it metamorphose into a butterfly over the next two weeks.

I was enchanted!  Here was a student with curiosity, an interest in science, and the confidence to place a jar on his desk on the first day of school.  Without knowing it, he led the class and me into a frenzy of learning about monarchs, learning that spilled over effortlessly into evenings and weekends.

Together, the students and I researched monarchs and learned geography alongside new science vocabulary.  We read books about them, sharing our favorites back and forth.  We discussed what we learned and wrote essays and poems. We raced into school every day to examine the monarch for changes, learning patience and developing the deep understanding that comes from observation.  We drew diagrams showing the stages of metamorphosis, carefully coloring in the proper colors of each step.

When the great day came, we watched the monarch emerge from its chrysalis and take its time drying its wings.  It was a breathtaking moment.  We let it sit on our hands, feeling the peculiar touch of its legs.  Stefan opened the outside classroom door and placed the monarch butterfly on a plant in the sun.

The monarch wasn’t the only creature with a metamorphosis.  I realized in a new, powerful way that by embracing students’ interests–and letting a fourth grader have a caterpillar jar on his desk–that this was an eloquent way to put student learning first.

Thank you, Stefan.

Kathleen M. Nollet, Ph.D.

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