lesson and unit plans
Elementary

Butterfly transformations: the astonishing changeling

  • from caterpillar to featureless chrysalis to flying flower
  • from a static youth of incessant eating, to silent darkness, to astonishing flights across continents and oceans
  • mystery of the monarch butterfly’s incredible 3,000 mile migration, and their built-in “compass”
  • the “butterfly bush, brought from the mountains of China 150 years ago

Ages 5 to 8

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Opening Context:

 

  1. General orientation: The transformations that butterflies go through in their life-cycle are among the most dramatic in the animal world. Many animals go through significant changes, but the butterfly seems uniquely to move from one opposite to another constantly; from feasting voraciously to eating nothing to merely sipping nectar; from inhabiting a small space to travelling huge distances; from monochrome dullness to the most colorful creatures.
  2. Narrative introduction: If we think of the squirrel and the caterpillar or chrysalis, the squirrel seems by far the most active and energetic, running around energetically almost from birth. But while the early part of the butterfly’s life is static and constrained, that silent dullness is preparation for a freedom of movement the squirrel will never know. The ultimate great freedom of the butterfly to travel hundreds and sometimes thousands of of miles is possible only because of the constraint of its earlier forms. We will conclude this brief unit by looking at the relationship between early constraint and freedom in the lives of other creatures, and compare them with the butterfly’s.

Binary opposites: Constraint and freedom

Engaging image:

The images of the imprisoning chrysalis and the free flight of the adult butterfly is perhaps the easiest to use. We can describe the early life of the butterfly egg, the caterpillar, and the chrysalis as preparation for escape from the small space of its early life. The caterpillar does nothing but eat, which hardly seems the way to prepare for flight. But then, quite suddenly, it stops eating. It molts from its skin one last time and waits, perhaps bewildered at what is happening to it, as the skin hardens into a chrysalis where it lies inside, inert, helpless, and cold. How can it be escaping in there? It is certainly changing again. We can see the hardened chrysalis begin to take the imprint of a developing head, thorax, and legs. But whatever is happening, it does not look like an escape from the prison of the chrysalis. Then the cocoon is forced slowly apart. What freedom can the caterpillars expect to achieve once it comes out? But out comes the a trembling creature with crumpled wings. A rush of blood through the frail body and the wings unfurl, and then sway and flap, and its colors glisten. And it can fly, immediately. The frail butterfly can often migrate over a thousand miles.

Any film of this process will likely have greater impact if the teacher first describes the process briefly, as above, so the students can form their own images in their minds.

This unit is designed to take approx. one to two weeks.

You can download the full unit plan here: (coming soon)

The wonder and terror of heat

  • How can you make heat?
  • Where does heat come from, and where does it go?
  • Who drove a chariot of fire?
  • Do you know where the hottest place on earth is?
  • Sweaters don’t work because they are warm and ice-cubes do not give off cold

Ages 5 to 8

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Opening context:

1. General orientation

While it is common to begin a unit on heat with some practical experiment in an everyday setting (small groups each given an ice cube in a plastic bag, with a race to see which group can thaw their ice cube first; thermometers in cups of water with silver or matt black covers over the glass; metal and wood or wool surfaces at the same temperature feel as though they are different temperatures; etc.) we will start differently. We will indeed return to such experiments, but only after creating a vividly meaningful context to engage students’ imaginations in them. We find it is often useful, with science topics, to begin with the ancient Greek myths, because they usually capture something central to the topic with great vividness, which we can then build the content and concepts around. (Those myths are, after all, the historical bases from which subsequent scientific understanding grew.) So we will create a context for our study of heat in terms of the vivid way in which the ancient myths make clear the power that control over heat gave human cultures and the terrible dangers inherent in that power.

2. Narrative introduction

Students will learn in the unit that the Sun is the source of all the heat on earth, so we might begin with a story, or, indeed, we might begin with four stories: Classic tales that are deeply a part of Western culture. Prometheus stealing fire from the gods and being punished by Zeus; Phaeton trying and failing to drive Apollo’s fiery chariot across the sky; Hephaestus, whom the Romans called Vulcan, limping around his workshop; Daedalus making wings so his son Icarus can fly, but Icarus excitedly flies to close to the sun and comes crashing down. They are great and terrible tales. We can start with Prometheus, telling (with the help of YouTube or a dramatic text, or in the teacher’s own voice) how he stole the gods’ fire and gave it to humans—the start of civilization. The gods punish Prometheus by tying him to a rock and letting eagles eat his liver. The teacher can move on to Phaeton’s escapades to show what destruction can follow when the terrible servant, heat, gets out of control. (Phaeton is allowed to drive Apollo’s fiery chariot, which is to us the sun, across the heavens. But he loses control of the chariot’s terrible fire-breathing horses and causes devastation on the earth. The god of light, Apollo, quickly regretted giving his child a wish and pleaded, “No, my child, choose something else. You ask for too dangerous of a gift. Even Zeus, the mighty god of thunder, will not drive the chariot of the Sun. The horses breathe out flames and the chariot itself is fiery hot. So powerful are the steeds that I, a full-grown god, can barely restrain them. What chance would a mortal boy have? The journey is steep and at times I have grown dizzy looking down from the great heights at the Earth below. The path through the stars leads near great, dangerous creatures. You would have to pass Taurus, the giant bull and by the fierce lion. If you succeed in getting past them you would face the Scorpion with its huge deadly stinger and the pinching claws of the great Crab. I beg you to pick some other gift. Think of all the riches in the world or pearls from the boundless sea. Ask for any of these and I shall gladly give it to you.” Anyone unfamiliar with these stories can find them in any of a dozen tellings in books of Greek myths. It is very hard to make them dull.

Binary opposites: Heat as helper / Heat as destroyer

Engaging image:

The four stories with which we began will generate a series of images, from Icarus ecstatically flying higher and higher, till the wax holding his wings together begins to melt and he comes tumbling down the sky. Or the great workman, Hephaestus, striking his anvil and working his terrible underground forge with might bellows, driving up the torrents of fire that spat out of the earth through volcanoes. These can keep vivid for the students’ images of heat as helper and destroyer. And we can also bring these images down to earth, as it were, by considering related images today of heat being used to cook our meals, drive our vehicles, keep our houses comfortable, and what can happen when any of these uses of heat can get out of control. All the heat we use comes from the Sun, even the heat that is generated in our computers and light bulbs, and our dominant image might be of the endless ways that single source heats our planet so that we can live, but how this most fundamental source of life and movement can so easily become a destroyer.

This unit is designed to take approx. one to two weeks.

You can download the full unit plan here: (coming soon)