Yesterday an amazing thing happened in our classroom. First the back story... Several weeks ago we planted some fennel outside of our classroom knowing that it is the larval food of black swallowtail butterflies. One corner of our room has a wide floor-to-ceiling window facing a sunny hillside and a pretty little garden. We could see the fennel easily from our pillow-filled reading area in the bay window.
Sure enough, within a couple of weeks we spied some tiny larvae munching on the fennel. We watched them every day. They increased in size incredibly fast, shedding their skin regularly. They ate, and ate, and ate. We took seven of the caterpillars into the classroom and kept them on potted fennel plants in a large net enclosure. They ate and pooped and ate and pooped until the fennel plants were only nubs. We carefully lifted them off the old plants and placed them on new ones as they continued to mature. I unzipped the enclosure regularly to take photographs so we could record their amazing growth.
Our class is so into animals that every single day someone brings in a dead bug, a snail, a feather, a cocoon. Our class walks to the library every few weeks. It's about a ten minute walk from our campus. Walking there and back can be a bit of a challenge since everyone is on the lookout for animals. My friend Geri, who walked to the library with us last time made the understatement, "Wow, you guys are really interested in animals." This after kids brought up dead bugs, pointed out many spider egg sacs, a dead squirrel and other roadkill. "Yes, I guess we are a little obsessed," I answered.
So, the other afternoon we hear this shriek from the reading area. One little girl was backing away, eyes wide, pointing to the pillows. "What's that?!" she almost screamed.
"It's a chrysalis," said another. Indeed, a beautiful khaki and dark brown chrysalis was attached to a US shaped pillow with two silken threads. It was actually attached to the map of Canada. The Northwest Territories. We photographed it and it became a shrine-like fixture on the bookshelf.
On Tuesday morning, during our class meeting, a little boy said, "Hey! There's the butterfly!" Next to the pillow-map was a jet black, rumpled black swallowtail butterfly. There was a collective "Ahhhh," as all heads turned toward the sight. It was trembling and we could see its abdomen pumping slowly. Its body was covered with thick black hair and it was rolling its coiled proboscus (tongue) in and out. It was truly a beautiful sight.
I asked the little guy who first spotted it to pick it up gently so we could release it outside. He put his index finger up to it and the still wilted butterfly dutifully climbed on. I snapped several pictures for our web page. There's this one picture of the boy with the butterfly clinging upside down to his fingers. The look on his face shows this incredible mixture of joy and awe, of magic and excitement. It captured how we all felt.
It is one thing to talk about complete metamorphosis with my students. Even reading books with large colorful pictures and watching a butterfly emerging in fast motion on Youtube couldn't hold a candle to witnessing this miracle happening right in front of us in class. We ooohed and ahhhhed at the tiny larvae.
When we first spotted them they were hard to see they were so small. They grew quickly and we found their shriveled up shed skins behind them as they grew. When we brought them into the classroom we could smell the fennel as they gorged themselves. We chuckled at the size and amount of "poops". We watched the chrysalis thin almost to transparent and we were awed and inspired as the butterfly emerged as an adult.
It was one of those miraculous moments that makes this year different from every other of my 30 years as a teacher of little kids. And yet, it is an ordinary sort of miracle that happens every day, right?
Part of the joy of teaching little ones is that the ordinary becomes extraordinary because you can see life partly through their eyes. I have witnessed this before, but seeing it with a group who have never seen it makes it new for me too.