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BANNER, March 2016: Katie Alexander

Each fall Kindergarten teachers Katie Alexander and Enrique Polletta teach a unit that is always a favorite with their students. For eight weeks the group studies and raises caterpillars into monarch butterflies and then tags and releases them, tracking their migration south for the winter.

“Even though I have observed the monarch life cycle alongside my students for seven years, their transformation never ceases to amaze me. I learn something new every year as we study these incredible creatures,” Katie says. “Students are always captivated as they learn about monarchs’ anatomy, habitat, migration, and threats to their survival. They become advocates for butterflies as they help scientists track migration patterns and educate others on the importance of planting milkweed. The more we study this species, the more interested I become in deepening my own understanding.”

For a week this past January, Katie had the unique experience of being able to follow the small creatures to some of their winter destinations as she travelled to the west coast with the Monarch Teacher Network. On the trip she visited three of California's monarch sanctuaries and observed other wildlife along the rugged seacoast near San Francisco, Monterey, and Pismo Beach. She also learned firsthand about the migration of monarchs, birds, and mammals (such as elephant seals, sea lions, and gray whales) and explored the ecology, geology, and history of this beautiful part of the country.

“While our monarch butterflies migrate to Mexico each fall, the monarchs west of the Rocky Mountains travel to the coast of California to spend the winter,” she explains. “Along their journey south, they visit old-growth forests full of ancient redwood trees, Douglas fir trees, and incredible sequoia trees. We got to experience it all too as we traveled up and down the coast.”

She adds, “Every day we witnessed a piece of nature more spectacular than the last. One of my favorite moments was in Monterey when another teacher and I woke up early to see the sun rise. We had heard that there was a colony of sea lions nearby, and sure enough, we found them and got to watch (and hear!) them wake each other up as the sun rose over the ocean. Another incredible event was at a monarch colony in Santa Cruz, where I was lying on the ground watching thousands of monarchs fly between the trees in front of a cloudless sky backdrop. I am so excited to bring these experiences back to my classroom and share them with my students.”

Throughout the week, Katie blogged with her students. [Read the entire blog.]
The post from Sunday, January 17 describes her first trip to a monarch colony:

Dear Kindergartners,
Today we got to visit the largest monarch colony in California – the Monarch Grove at Pismo State Beach. We learned that there are 200 colonies all over California, and these are where the monarch butterflies from British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and California spend the winter. About half of these are on private property and half are open to the public.

At the Pismo Beach colony, the monarchs are hanging from eucalyptus trees, which is different than the trees they roost on in Mexico. It turns out that when monarchs choose where to spend the winter, the type of tree isn’t important. They look for shelter from storms and wind and a very specific climate. They need a warm place with high humidity so they don’t dehydrate while they’re staying still on the trees.  The coast of California is perfect because it is often foggy.

The colony we saw had about 28,000 monarchs! They were very high up in the trees so we saw them best with binoculars. Otherwise, the clusters of butterflies just looked like leaves. They were hanging from leaves and branches in huge clumps.  Every so often a butterfly would leave its clump and fly around, then join a new clump.  They only do this when it’s sunny and above a certain temperature.  It was a spectacular sight.

In early February, these monarch colonies will break up so the butterflies can head to areas with milkweed to lay their eggs. Then the life cycle begins all over again!

 Ms. Alexander

On Tuesday, January 19 the children replied and included a list of questions for Katie: (Katherine: Was your plane trip long?; Zoe: Are you having fun looking for monarchs?; Kyle: Did it take you overnight to get there?; Cabot: Have you seen any whales?; Mason: Is that place different from this place?), which she dutifully answered in her subsequent posts.

“It was important to me to keep the trip interactive for my students at home so they could share my experiences,” she says. “We also had two chances to talk by FaceTime while I was away.  During one video conference, I was standing about 10 feet away from a sea lion that had wandered onto shore! I turned the phone camera around and the Kindergartners had a blast trying to ‘talk’ to the sea lion.”

In most every post there were lessons:

Wednesday, January 20

Dear Kindergartners,
This morning we visited another monarch colony, and this time it was sunny so the butterflies were out! They spend a lot of time clinging to the trees in clusters during the winter, but when it’s sunny they do fly around the colony to stretch their wings. We saw tons of butterflies flying all around us and many more hanging from the trees. Some of us decided to lie down on the ground and stare up at the sky as we watched them fly over our heads. I even got to release one from my hand!  I could have spent all day in this magical spot.

We learned more about how monarchs choose the spots for their winter colonies.  The climate is the most important thing to them.  They need protection from wind and storms, so they often look for places where there are circles of trees in rings. The monarchs stay in the middle of the rings and are protected by the many layers of trees around them.  They need trees that have thin leaves so they can hang from them without sliding off.  Most of the trees we saw in today’s colony were Monterey Cypress trees.

Katie explains, “This type of education was really at the heart of my trip.  Of course the program was an incredible chance for me to expand my own knowledge of monarchs and collect information to add to our unit in future years.  But one of the most powerful elements of the experience was being able to teach my students from 3,000 miles away while standing in the middle of a monarch sanctuary.  That is a unique opportunity for which I am especially grateful.”

Katie says she has many ideas of ways in which she will grow the monarch unit and expand it into a broader, yearlong study of migrating animals. She’s excited about the limitless opportunity to add visuals, videos, information and projects to her classroom all as a result of her trip. “I’m looking forward to collaborating with Enrique to develop a thematic curriculum on migration for our students.  I hope that we can ignite the same feelings of awe and excitement in our students that I felt throughout my week in California.”