This teacher uses butterflies and bracelet-making to bring science alive for her students
Kristin Poindexter sits on the floor with her feet tucked beneath her, quietly motioning to the group of students in front of her as they hover over containers of colored beads and a pile of black pipe-cleaners.
The goal is to assemble bracelets keeping with the theme of the day’s lesson: Learning about the lifecyle of Monarch butterflies. Eventually, the bracelets will serve as physical reminders to the kindergarteners at home.
“What’s the first thing that happens?” Poindexter asks the students, holding up the unadorned pipe-cleaner.
“Egg!” the kids reply, thinking back to the story she read the class just a few minutes earlier.
“So these are my eggs, the clear beads,” Poindexter says, sliding one bead onto the bracelet. She continues stringing beads until she finishes. “Now I’m going to squish them all together. Your job is to take this home.”
Chalkbeat visited Poindexter’s kindergarten class at Spring Mill Elementary School earlier this month as part of an ongoing series aimed at learning more about how skilled teachers teach.
Poindexter received one of teaching’s highest honors this year when was named among 213 math and science teachers from across the country to receive the Presidential Award for Excellence. The award comes with $10,000 from the National Science Foundation and a special celebration at the White House.
“Never in a million years did I think that I would arrive at that award,” Poindexter said.
On the afternoon of Chalkbeat’s visit, Poindexter’s class was in the middle of its Monarch butterfly unit. Poindexter said she’s helping her students learn about the lifecycle of the butterflies and why their population is shrinking. She’s also connecting the idea of butterfly migration to migration of people and animals.
“I’m kind of making the segue between animals and people, and what migration means, moving from one place to another,” Poindexter said. “We’ll end up at Thanksgiving about how people migrate and move from different places.”
We spoke with Poindexter after class and included her thoughts in block quotes beneath highlights from her lesson.
1:20 p.m. Sitting with her class gathered in front of her, Poindexter holds up a book: “A Butterfly is Born.”
Slowly, she reads the story, which details how tiny caterpillars hatch from eggs, grow and then form a chrysalis before turning into a Monarch butterfly. As she reads, Poindexter stops frequently to ask the students questions.
“Their tongues help them sip nectar from the flowers,” she reads. “Do you remember what nectar is?”
“Sugar water!” the class choruses back.
“I let them discover it for themselves. I don’t answer a lot of questions. I answer ‘Can I use the restroom?’ and that’s the only question I’ll give a direct answer to. You’ve got to figure it out on your own. They can figure it out.”
1:28 p.m. After the story, Poindexter tells the class that they will be coloring their own life-size Monarch butterflies to send to a classroom in Mexico, signifying how the Monarchs migrate in the fall from the United States to Mexico.
“We’re going to send 22, one for each of us,” Poindexter tells her students.
“I really want them to understand there’s a whole mystery involved with these Monarchs going to Mexico, and scientists don’t even understand why. I also want them to kind of develop a level of concern for the Monarch butterfly because many are getting hit by cars, and there’s not enough milkweed to sustain them. A lot of them lose their little lives on their way to Mexico.”
1:30 p.m. Before the coloring can commence, Poindexter tells the class they’ll be learning a song about the butterfly lifecycle, which they need to teach to someone at home for homework. To remember the lifecycle steps, they begin constructing their bracelets.
Poindexter demonstrates how to make the bracelet using a black pipe-cleaner and a small handful of beads: one white for the egg, a black and two yellows for the caterpillar, a green bead for the chrysalis, and a butterfly-shaped bead for the final stage when the caterpillar turns into a Monarch.
Then, she moves on to another tool for remembering — a song, sung to the tune of “Up on the Housetop.” As she sings about the butterfly stages, she points to the corresponding parts of the bracelet.
“First comes the butterfly and lays an egg/Out comes a caterpillar with many legs/Oh see the caterpillar spin and spin/A little chrysalis to sleep in/Oh, oh, oh, wait and see/Oh, oh, oh, wait and see/Out of the chrysalis, my oh my/Out comes a Monarch butterfly.”
“I wanted to give them something physical to manipulate and really cement that in their brain, and the song, to really get that to stick. I promise they’ll come back tomorrow and sing that song that’s stuck in their head.
I’m looking for growth over time. By Friday I’ll be thrilled to death if they can tell me the lifecycle, where the Monarchs go and migrate to, name the milkweed plant. Then we’ll start brainstorming things we can do as citizens of the Earth to help the Monarch butterfly. I originally planned this lesson for a week. This group is so into it, I’m going to have to go another week.”
1:51 p.m. Once the class has finished their bracelets, now safely on their wrists, Poindexter’s teaching assistant collects the freshly colored butterflies.
To finish up, Poindexter gathers the kindergarteners together for one more round of the butterfly song.
“Let’s sing it again,” she says cheerfully.
Some of the kids mumble at first, but by the last verse, they all join in.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.