Nancy Gottung opened her seventh-grade science class last week with this rather unusual request: "Raise your hands if you want to have honey put on your nose -- for the butterfly to land on it."
Sure enough, hands shot up, as students vied for the chance to get a close-up of the newly emerged monarch.
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Gottung has taught science at St. James School in Arlington Heights for five years, but this was the first time she and her students raised monarch butterflies, carefully observing their various life cycles.
"It's so different from other animals," said student Jack Hartman of Arlington Heights. "You can watch its complete transformation in a month."
Gottung brought in microscopic eggs she found on the leaves of milkweed plants growing wild in her neighborhood. Each of her three classes had their very own butterfly.
"I didn't want it to be a mail order project," Gottung said. "I wanted students to know that these were some of the insects found right in this area."
Over time, students watched as the eggs hatched into caterpillars, and each caterpillar eventually turned into a chrysalis -- the green, hard shell which covers the pupa. Then, they dramatically shed their skins and emerged as beautiful monarchs.
"It was really fun to see them shed their skin, in person, and not read about it in our book," said student Alyssa Andruszko of Arlington Heights.
Other students, like Adriana Archia of Arlington Heights, said she couldn't wait to get to class every day, to see if the caterpillar had changed.
They kept their caterpillars in a "rearing cage" in the back of the classroom. However, they were so small that they needed a document camera, which blew them up into larger-than-life creatures, so the students could see them in color and in movie-screen proportion.
"I really enjoyed seeing the children take so much interest in watching a live, organism complete its life cycle," Gottung said. "There is not a more beautiful insect than the butterfly."
Students found the chrysalis to be almost as beautiful, with its hard green shell and gold rings at the top, appearing almost like a crown.
"That was my favorite part, seeing the gold rings develop on the chrysalis," said Josh Kerr of Arlington Heights.
That is, until they watched the butterfly emerge. Each of Gottung's science classes gathered in the school's prayer garden for the release. Set in a courtyard between classrooms and surrounded by rose bushes, benches and religious statues, the garden offered a serene setting for the bittersweet release.
Just as Gottung had predicted, the newly hatched butterfly stayed briefly on Sarah McGrath's nose during the release -- butterflies smell with their feet, students said -- before flitting over to one of the rose bushes and ultimately flying off.
monarchs migrate to Mexico, students learned, for its microclimate, where they hibernate until spring and then head north to begin laying their eggs on milkweed plants.
Next year, Gottung hopes to find more eggs and caterpillars so that her students can participate in the Monarch Watch program, where they would record and tag the monarchs, before they are released.
Upon finding them during their migration, monarch staff members then would log the date, location and circumstance of the tagged specimen, into a database, which students could check.
While tracking their monarchs would be rewarding, Gottung thinks the unit goes further than that.
"We're participating in the preservation and continuation of the monarchs," she says. "It's our little conservation effort to help students learn more about the world around them."