TCRWP Saturday Reunion

At 5:40am this morning, I was out the door and headed towards school, where I would drop off my car, meet up with some friends, and head to the train station. By 6:35am I was on a northbound train headed to Penn Station. By 8:00am I was inside Riverside Church on Riverside Dr. in NYC. After years of trying to attend, I was finally at Teacher’s College Saturday Reunion.

When my colleagues and I arrived, we picked up our schedules and began scanning the multitude of workshops being offered. Within moments I announced I would be eating my brown bag lunch on the run and attending all four sessions. My colleagues quickly agreed. How could I possibly choose to give up a session for something as silly as lunch?! As I read the descriptions of the many sessions being offered, I was circling possibilities left and right. How on earth would I ever decide which workshops to attend?

Eventually, I made my choices. In the meantime, we made our way to the main chapel to hear the keynote speaker. Tomie dePaolo (author of over 200 books, including Strega Nona), renowned and award-winning author/illustrator gave a rousing talk entitled “No Teacher Left Behind”. He was a brilliant speaker and had the packed church in stitches. He shared many tales of his childhood and the importance that reading and writing held in it. He is also a strong supporter of teachers. He told us that his personal book sales have decreased 50% since the inception of No Child Left Behind. He and his agent attribute this to the huge number of teachers and school districts which can no longer purchase and use his books because they must focus on “the test”. It was a staggering statistic and I would be very interested in hearing if other authors have experienced a similar drop in sales.

After dePaolo’s speech, I made my way to my first session. I was very excited to finally hear Mary Ehrenworth (om/gp/product/0325006881?ie=UTF8&tag=thereazon-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=0325006881″>The Power of Grammar: Unconventional Approaches to the Conventions of Language) speak, as she heads the middle school aspects of the Project. She gave a great presentation on working with stronger readers, the ones who are usually left on their own in workshop. She shared some great picture books to use in small groups that allow students to stretch their thinking above and beyond the literal. I ended up with a great list of picture books and plan to order one immediately, for our Holocaust unit.

More importantly, Ehrenworth told the group that we can not expect our students to be readers if we are not readers ourselves. We must share books with them, carry books around, even tell them, “I’m sorry, I didn’t even get to finish planning my lesson last night- I was reading this phenomenal book!” You will teach them more with that non-lesson that you would with any mini-lesson. She also shared a great analogy, courtesy of Lester Laminack. Ask any middle schooler what they can’t wait to do, and invariably you will hear “drive”. We don’t teach them this desire- there are no minilessons, no group discussions, no direct instruction on why driving is great. Instead, their experiences with cars and in cars have made this a natural desire. We need to make reading just as natural a desire. They should want to read, they should desire to read. I can’t wait to share that analogy with some of my colleagues!

My next session with with the famous Lucy Calkins (The Art of Teaching Reading, The Art of Teaching Writing). Her session was standing room only and it was like being in the presence of a celebrity. While she didn’t teach as much as motivate, she was extremely inspiring. She shared some sample writing with us and I still managed to learn a lot.

The third session was one I was looking forward to because it focused on grammar. A project leader (whose name escapes me right now) took us through a typical week of grammar instruction in the middle school she coaches. It was a great marriage of direct instruction and inquiry, and a model I think my district would be satisfied with me pursuing. She also told us that we shouldn’t spend more time planning our grammar lessons that we actually spend teaching grammar. So if we teach 20 minutes of direct instruction grammar during word study, then don’t plan for 3 hours. I took lots of notes in that session and walked out with a booklist of books I must buy! Already I am planning to get Constance Weaver’s The Grammar Plan Book: A Guide to Smart Teaching and Don Killgallon’s Grammar for Middle School: A Sentence-Composing Approach–A Student Worktext. Has any used either of these? Or have a suggestion for where I could find them a little cheaper?

I was very excited for the last session. Georgia Heard shared her poetry unit of study with us and it was phenomenal! First of all, she was a lot younger than I expected (which surprised me, for some reason). It was so inspiring to hear her share her own experiences with poetry in the classroom. I also have a much better understanding of the doors to poetry that she discusses in Awakening the Heart: Exploring Poetry in Elementary and Middle School. I took copious notes in all the sessions, but especially hers, and can’t wait to go back and read them over to let them really sink in.

I swear, I was such a fangirl today. I could have stayed at TC all day, because I was finally in the presence of these men and women who have shaped so much of my teaching. They were practically celebrities to me. To hear my own beliefs and experiences in the classroom affirmed by the Project leaders and the other teachers attending the Reunion really strengthened my resolve to continue what I am doing. It was an invigorating, renewing, energizing day. I would go every month if they offered it! My next goal is to attend a summer institute at TC, as soon as I can afford it (our district doesn’t pay for it). If 5 hours taught me this much today, I can’t imagine what a week would do! I would just need a little more sleep. Getting up at 5am killed me today!!

Oh, and I finally experienced a document camera/ELMO for the first time today. How do I get one in my classroom?! It was amazing! I could already name a million ways I would use it in my classroom!!!


Reflecting on Reading Workshop

My school is on spring break this week and I am enjoying some much needed rest and relaxation. However, I am also using this week to do some reflecting and planning. Last night I ordered a few books that I want to use in planning our April Poetry Month and our upcoming Holocaust unit. But today I finally sat down and did some of the professional reading I have been putting off.

I read about half of Franki Sibberson and Karen Szymusiak’s Day-to-Day Assessment in the Reading Workshop: Making Informed Instructional Decisions in Grades 3-6 and can’t wait to read more! As Franki and Karen say in the beginning of the book, there is a dearth of professional literature related to reading and writing workshop in the intermediate grades. As a 6th grade teacher, I have a hard time finding appropriate professional reading. Books either focus on early readers or middle school readers. Perhaps if my 6th graders were in a middle school environment it would be easier, but we are in an intermediate school. In our district, 7th and 8th graders are in the middle school. Thus, I have been looking forward to reading this book. I had no idea how awesome it would be!

Franki and Karen have broken down their reading workshop into manageable chunks. I am thrilled that each chapter deals with a different routine in reading workshop, including how much time is spent on each one. Very few books get into the nitty gritty of a teacher’s routine and even fewer include as much real classroom anecdotal evidence. I’ve been reading, flagging, reading more, jotting ideas, and flagging more. I’ve already come up with a few new ideas to integrate into my workshop. Even better, I have a new perspective on my reading workshop. I’ve struggled with assessing my readers this year. While I know I have succeeded in creating a room full of passionate, habitual, and critical readers (Atwell) I also know I have not done the best I can in terms of assessment. I need that hard data to back up my choice to use reading workshop (it’s not used in the intermediate/upper grades in my district) and Franki and Karen’s book is full of authentic and realistic assessments that I can integrate into my workshop routines.

This type of reflection and reading energizes me.  I am brimming with new ideas for my classroom and can’t wait to implement some of them!  I am also planning to attend TCRWP Saturday Reunion this coming weekend, which will also be an inspiring bit of professional development.  I should be rested, relaxed, and re-energized when we get back to school next week!

I’m only about halfway through the book right now but I expect to finish it tomorrow. I expect I will re-read it over the summer when I am planning for next year. I can not recommend this book enough!

Professional Books Reviewed

I am very excited about a website I found today while looking for some reviews.  I am constantly looking through catalogs and deciding I *need* every professional book.  However, professional books are expensive and I can’t afford to buy them willy-nilly.  A co-teacher and I are considering purchasing a fairly expensive professional resource but aren’t sure if it will be suitable for our classes.  They seem to frown upon returning  professional resources after perusing them, but what else can I do? However, while looking for the author’s website I found a site that publishes reviews of many, many professional books and was pleased with the reviews I read.  Most of the reviews are written by education professors with many years of experience in the field.  Check it out!

Looking for a great read-aloud and some PD

I am at a loss for my next read-aloud. Normally I have a book chosen months in advance, for specific reasons. But for some reason I am stuck this time. We just finished Sonnenblick’s Drums, Girls, And Dangerous Pie. We begin our Holocaust study in a few weeks, so I am looking for a short read-aloud. I am considering The Entertainer and the Dybbuk, but I don’t want to overwhelm them with Holocaust novels. So I need suggestions from the Kidlitosphere! I am looking for a short book (meaning, no 300 page books this time!). Any genre, though I would prefer to avoid sci-fi/fantasy this time around. Hit me with your best shot!!!

I have also spent the last two days searching for some great professional development opportunities. I have a professional development day left and am dying to use it. Unfortunately, I can’t find anything that seems worthwhile! We are only reimbursed for $50 through the district, so it can’t be something too expensive. I would love a reading/writing workshop PD but there don’t seem to be any in the area. What are some of your best PD experiences??

Monarch Teacher Network: Day 5 in Mexico (Part 1)

February 20, 2008


After breakfast this morning (where we learned there was wireless internet available in the dining room!), we boarded the bus once again. This time, we were joined by a special guest- the superintendent of the lake schools district in the Patzcuaro area. We we would be driving about 20 minutes from the hotel to the town of Santa Fe, to visit la Escuela Primeria Miguel Hidalgo. la Escuela Primeria Miguel Hidalgo is a bilingual school, which prides itself on teaching not only Spanish, but also the native language of P’urhépecha. On the ride over, the superintendent explained to the group that in the mid-twentieth century the Mexican government tried to force the schools to only teach in Spanish but the district and teachers fought the mandate. Luckily, they won!

We also learned a little about the P’urhépecha. The P’urhépecha, sometimes referred to as Tarascan people, are a pre-Columbian civilization of Mesoamerica. Their capital city was Tzintzuntzan (which we would later visit). Tarascan architecture is well-known for its step pyramids. The superintendent proudly informed us that the P’urhépecha were never conquered by the Aztec Empire, despite several attempts by the Aztecas to do so. This was probably due to the fact of P’urhépecha’s knowledge of metal working, an advantage over the Aztecas, and still widely regarded today, in particular their coppersmiths. He also explained that even though they were enemies, the Aztecas still traded with them, mainly for copper goods. He was also very happy to let us know that his people had never paid taxes to the Aztecas, unlike most other groups in the area.

The P’urhépecha once ruled an area over 100,000 square miles (mainly the state of Michoacan). They were one of the most powerful empires in Mexico but sadly fell victim to the Spanish conquest when Cortes came from Spain and conquered all the once great native people taking their land (in most cases killing them and by spreading European diseases like small pox). By the end of the 1500’s most of their culture and empire had vanished due to European invaders. The P’urhépecha never returned to power in the region but over the next 400 years the P’urhépecha people began to re-populate this region and it took until the 1970’s for their population to reach as many people that had existed here in the early 1500’s.

cimg2102.jpgThe town of Santa Fe was founded in the 1500’s by a Spaniard. It combined a few communities that had been impacted by the Spanish atrocities occurring in the region at that time. Since 1535 they have had to defend the land, territory, culture, an language from outside attacks and invasion. The town is currently divided into 8 neighborhoods. The school serves all 8 neighborhoods, mostly those with few opportunities (lower-income). The next town over speaks Spanish, but Santa Fe has protected its native language for centuries. They believe it is very important that the children have a deep grounding in their language, customs, culture, and the nature surrounding them. The adults worry that maintaining their language and culture will only get more difficult, as P’urhépecha is beginning to adopt Spanish words and phrases, integrating them into the ancient language. The school itself only uses 16th century stories and texts, ensuring some preservation of the original language. The town also holds festivals and celebrations each year, which have been passed down for centuries. Children receive excused absences for attending these cultural events. The children at the school speak P’urhépecha at home, and it is the first language for most of them. However, it is also second nature for them to speak Spanish. They are truly bilingual.

The school is still working on a fully-developed curriculum. Right now, the teachers and supervisors use their own knowledge to teach the school children. As the superintendent explained, “P’urhépecha is their first language. For the children, it is how they think, talk. They sometimes struggle learning Spanish because it is so different”.

Each classroom at the school is named after a different P’urhépecha king. While we use numbers or letters in most US/Canadian schools, they use history! The school has 150 students, all from Santa Fe save two, who commute from nearby towns. There is no tuition. The students choose to come to Hidalgo because it is a bilingual school. There are other schools in Santa Fe that are not bilingual, and the remaining children attend those neighborhood schools. When Hidalgo opened in 1965, the superintendent explained, they did well to get teachers who spoke both languages. Degrees were not a requirement. Today, they have many teachers who have gone on to receive their Masters degrees. There is a school in Michoacan which only trains bilingual teachers now! There are also new university training programs. There is no national teaching certification process.

The superintendent also answered our questions about graduation rates and continued schooling. Of the students at Hidalgo, approximately 40% will stop school after 6th grade for economic reasons. The nearest secondary school is in a different town, and 40% of the students can not afford to commute to the school, despite the free tuition. The remaining 60% do attend secondary school. Of those students, 30% will prepare for university. Three or four of those students will actually attend university.

The students go to school 200 days per year, from 8:30am-1:00pm. Remedial classes are held from 1:00pm-2:00pm and 2:00pm-3:00pm. These remedial classes are available for students who are struggling in their classes. Every two months the students take a cumulative exam. There are also exams at the end of the year. As the superintendent explained, exam grades are important, but other items are considered in the final grade evaluation. The school does not have a specific plan for dealing with special needs students, but there is a school for special education a few miles away. However, if parents can not afford to send their children to the special education school, Hidalgo will work with them. The school is working to develop a special education curriculum so that they can do the best for them. They are currently looking for a special education teacher.

When we arrived in Santa Fe, the bus had to park at the bottom of a steep hill, which we would walk up to reach the school. The first thing you notice, as in most of the places we have visited, is the poverty that seems to hold so much of this area in its grip. The streets are small and narrow, the homes small and sometimes disheveled. Yet somehow the locals make do with what they have and wherever you go, you are greeted by happy, bright, smiling faces. Most, if not all, of the buildings in the town date back to the 1500’s, as do the narrow stone streets. Walking down the street is like being transported back in time.

When we reached the school, we congregated on the basketball court. The students were still arriving at school and wecimg2107.jpg were unsure of ourselves. We were their guests and there was the ever-present language barrier. However, one of our high school teachers broke the ice by racing the preschool children across the basketball court! Soon enough, the children were laughing and showing off for us, the foreign teachers. Then the superintendent and principal had the classes line up for morning exercises. Each grade level was introduced, from preschool to 6th grade. The 6th graders reminded me so much of my own 6th graders- the girls giggling and trying to communicate with the guests while the boys were climbing the flagpole and trying to distract the girls. They were too cool (and embarassed) to come meet us!

During morning exercises the director greeted us and everything was done twice- once in Spanish and once in P’urhépecha. Then, one of our teachers would translate the Spanish into English (which sent the older students into fits of giggles). The 3rd grade class then presented us with a song in P’urhépecha.

After morning exercises we found out that due to a slight miscommunication, the school had expected 4 foreign teachers, not 40! They were a little panicked (I can only imagine how my own school would react in the same situation), but managed to work everything out.

Once everything was under control we split into four groups. I walked up the hill a bit further, to visit the older students at the newest part of the school. I was very excited to visit the 6th graders and couldn’t wait to present the class with the bilingual book that my class had made for them. It was bit of a walk and we had to watch our step, as the town was in the midst of digging trenches to bring water to the newer buildings at the school.

We entered a 6th grade classroom and the teacher was reviewing a language lesson. We were invited to sit with the students, who began frantically waving us over. There were 10 students in the class, each at their own table.

cimg2121.jpgWe observed the language lesson for a while. It was fascinating! The students did everything in translation, Spanish and then P’urhépecha. I was shocked to see that the room had a mounted SmartBoard and LCD projector. The teacher told us that the older elementary classrooms were equipped with these, courtesy of a grant.

The students were giggling and showing off for us. We observed the lesson and learned that P’urhépecha uses a base-20 system of counting, so the students also learn bilingual math! They use two different number systems and are able to easily move between them. As someone who is not mathematically inclined, I was extremely impressed.

Once the lesson was over, Bonnie (our amazing Spanish teacher/translator), helped us introduce ourselves to the class. Using the map in the room, we were able to show the students where we were from. Among the 5-6 adults in the room, we hailed from NJ, Connecticut, and Manitoba, Canada! The students then told Bonnie that they wanted to learn a bit of English from us. I volunteered to teach them, and it was wonderful! We began with numbers, teaching them 1-10 in English. The children would repeat the English word, say it in Spanish, and then tell us how to say it in P’urhépecha. Then were learned our colors in P’urhépecha after reviewing them in English. The students thought that blue and purple were the funniest sounds in the world! Despite the language differences, standing in front of that classroom was just like standing in front of my students at home.

Next, we handed out our bilingual books. The students loved them! They then surprised us by giving us an amazing gift-cimg2137.jpg P’urhépecha literature books and grammar books (from the 2nd grade class, as we couldn’t read the 6th grade books!). We spent about 20 minutes hanging out with the students, looking through the books while they attempted to teach us P’urhépecha words. I was working with three young girls, ages 10-14; Anna, Maria Jeni, and Maria Antonia. They tried very hard to teach me P’urhépecha, but the sounds were difficult for this New Jersey gal. They would burst into fits of giggles whenever I attempted to repeat a P’urhépecha word, then they would slowly repeat it until I said it correctly (or close to correct!). They would point to a picture and I would say the word in English and they would repeat it in P’urhépecha. Every time I cimg2144.jpgstumbled over a word, we would all laugh! However, my teachers were very patient and did their best with this student. I was impressed! Right before we left, Anna presented me with a cheat sheet she had made, listing words in Spanish and then their P’urhépecha counterpart. It was the sweetest gift I have ever been given by a student!

While the students went to lunch and recess we were shepherded into an empty classroom for an impromptu international faculty meeting with the staff of the school. They took the time to ask us questions, and it was fascinating to see our teaching methods and our own schools through their eyes. It was a once-in-a-lifetime dialogue between 3 nations and multiple cultures. We discovered we have a lot in common. Many of the Mexican teachers admitted that they surf the internet, looking to the US/Canada for the newest teaching methods and ideas, which they then attempt to implement in their own classrooms. Without compulsory schooling or a standardized, national teaching certificate the country does not spend a lot of time or energy on education. These teachers are on their own for the most part.

They also shared their worries regarding illegal immigrants in NJ. They desperately want their people to stay home, andcimg2161.jpg to create opportunities in Mexico. They hope that educating more of their people will encourage them and create those much-needed opportunities so that they do not need to flee to the United States.

Sadly, they also brought up a much harder topic to deal with. One of the teachers asked us about the numerous school shootings that have taken place in the US over the last few years. They see the shootings on the news and can not understand how or why they happen. We told them that this is something teachers and parents in the US struggle with, too. None of us have those answers. We did tell them about Code Blue Drills and other similar practice drills that take place in our schools. But the question was definitely a tough one.

As we prepared to leave the school and head back to the bus, we passed through a gauntlet of students. Many of them had raced home during their lunch break and had returned with gifts for us. This made many of us very emotional….it was an amazing gesture on behalf of the students and was completely unexpected. Many of the students’ parents are in the ceramics business so we received mugs, piggy banks, and ceramic necklaces. The school also presented each of us with a beautiful mug, with the date and school’s name inscribed on it.

As we loaded back into the bus, it was very quiet. We were all very touched by the experience and were still digesting everything we had experienced as we moved into our next destination…..Los Yacatas. (to be continued)

Monarch Teacher Network: Day 4 in Mexico

February 19, 2008


This morning I decided to skip the breakfast buffet and just grab one of the Poptarts I had packed for the trip. Before checking out, we walked around the hacienda and just took in all the scenery. We picked limes from the lime trees, birdwatched a bit, and just breathed in the fresh mountain air. But by 8:00am we were back on the bus and ready to go to our second reserve, Sierra Chincua.

About two hours from the hotel, on a mountaintop not far from El Rosario, Sierra Chincua is a wilder colony. The ejido who own the land have only recently begun to develop the area into an eco-tourism attraction. The road to Chincua was bumpy and wound its way up the mountain like a snake. When we pulled into the parking lot we could immediately see the differences between El Rosario and Chincua. To begin with, there was no parking lot at Chincua- it was just a grassy area. The shops and restaurants were much smaller and there were a lot fewer of them. It was a sharp contrast from the day before.

Once we unloaded from the bus, we were able to rent a horse for the ride up the mountain. The ejidos at the bottom of the mountain told us that the Monarchs were only over the first hill and only a 5 to 10 minute ride by horse. After checking our altitude (10,700 ft) we mounted our horses and were led up the mountain. The horse ride was enjoyable and relaxing. My legs and lungs were very happy to get the break the horse offered- no walking and hiking!  The ride was quite short- after about ten minutes, the horses had gone as far as they were allowed.  We dismounted and prepared for the short walk to the colony.  Due to the warm weather, the monarchs had moved further down the mountain and were very close!

When we arrived at the top of the Mountain we were greeted by Francisco who is the head Ejido and who is in charge of cimg1920.jpgall the money for the Sanctuary of Sierra Chincua.  Francisco is very passionate obout preserving the Oyamel Fir forests for the Monarchs, and has spent the greater part of his life battling illegal loggers and working towards re-foresting the tracts of forest that were illegally cut down.  Francisco received a big boost a couple of weeks ago when the President of Mexico, Felipe Calderon visited Sierra Chincua and  rode horses with Francisco into the Sanctuaries to see the Monarchs.  Francisco said that President Calderon has pledged to help stop the illegal logging by giving the Mexican Army more of a presence in the Sanctuaries  with the responsibilities of protecting the forests for the butterflies.  He also explained that the colony has allowed his town, down the mountain, to begin local improvements.  They were recently able to purchase a new bell for the church for $9000 pesos and begin renovations on the church.  They will soon begin to build a high school in their town.  Francisco was extremely passionate and his attitude was contagious.  Many of the teachers became teary-eyed during his speech and we gave him a round of applause when he finished.  He was just as grateful to meet us- he was grateful to us because he said it was our work with the students in the US and Canada that convinced the President to visit the colonies.  The popularity of the monarchs in the US/Canada has shown the Mexican government that other countries do care, too.

As we climbed the small hill, the path forked ahead of us.  To the right, the downhill path was dark and cool.  We could see the oyamel covered in monarchs, like fur on the trees.  Many of the butterflies were lifting into the air as the warmth from the sun hit the branches higher up the mountain.cimg1937.jpg

To the left, you climbed up into the peak of the mountain, where the sun shone like golden fire.  The light blue sky was alive with orange and black, fluttering, flapping, diving, and streaming down the mountain.  The river of monarchs, mariposas, flowed around us.  There were no ropes separating us form the monarchs.  It was and absolute avalanche of orange and black.

For a while I just sat on the mountain and absorbed the scenery.  Soaking in the wonder of the colony.  It was as close to being one with nature as I can ever imagine being.  You could hear the breeze blowing through the trees and the quiet flapping of cimg2016.jpgmillions of butterfly’s wings.  A monarch even landed on my head!

The ride back down the mountain was also on horseback.  It was even better going down the mountain- the steep, gravel-filled path looked treacherous to this blogger!  After we dismounted from our horses, we perused the shops.  We decided to eat our brown-bag lunches in a corner of the reserve, out of the way of the busy shops and restaurants.  We were soon joined by two small children, ages three and seven.  They laughed and signaled to us as we struggled to communicate, despite our language barrier.  They giggled and showed off, playing catch with each other.

We spent about three hours at the colony and then drove an hour west to visit Alternare.  On the way, we passed through a large crowd of men, women, and children carrying fireworks, singing, and dancing.  At the back of the crowd we saw a small coffin with glass sides.  We were shocked and horrified at what we assumed was a ghastly funeral ritual.  However, Marcos explained that it was a very important tradition in Catholic villages.  The coffin contained a baby Jesus and represented his death for their sins.  The coffin was carried from town to town on a daily basis, and it was a very big honor to host the coffin in your church.  The crowd would set off the fireworks before reaching the next town, so that the townspeople were prepared to receive the baby Jesus.  It was fascinating!

About 45 minutes later, we reached Alternare.  Alternare is a Mexican non-profit organization that works with the natives in the monarch sanctuary areas to promote sustainable living- food  production, forest conservation, and environmentally sound economic activities. We visited their training center just outside of Angangueo, where they educate instructors. These instructors then go back to their homes, carrying the knowledge from Alternare with them.  They then work as leaders in their community, sharing the knowledge and spreading the ideas.  We were introduced to a young boy, no more than seventeen years old, who had spent the last year training at the facility.  At the end of Februarycimg2081.jpg he would be going back to his home to begin sharing his knowledge with his community.  The young man spent about 30 minutes explaining Alternare and their work to us.  He looked so nervous!  You could tell this was some type of final exam for him, and he looked terrified.  But he did a wonderful job!

Much of what they teach at Alternare is knowledge that the local people knew many generations ago, but has long since been forgotten.  For example, they teach crop rotation, adobe as alternative building technique (instead of oyamel wood), construction of wood-saving stoves, tree nurseries, reforestation and sustainable use and management of the forest, use and preparation of medicinal plants , and honey production.  After the wonderful presentation, we passed a collection hat around and made a wonderful donation to Alternare.  A few teachers (who had been on the trip before) delivered donations from their schools and students.  The men and women at Alternare then offered their goods to us, and many teachers bought honey and herbal medicines.  It was wonderful!

Monarch Teacher Network: Day 3 in Mexico

February 18, 2008


This morning we overslept a little! Luckily, we made it down to breakfast on time, where Chris and I tried cactus juice for the first time. It was pretty good! It was as green as newly-cut grass, with a taste of pineapple in it. After racing through breakfast, we boarded the bus to go to El Rosario, our first monarch reserve!

cimg1771.jpgThe 2.5 hour drive to the sanctuary was amazing, with mountains that are actually dormant volcanoes hovering above you. Some of them reach as high as 12,000 feet above sea level. Remember, here in NJ we are at sea level. As we drove up the cobblestone road that leads into the sanctuary, Marcos explained that the local townspeople had laid the road by hand in order to make it easier for tourists to visit the sanctuary. About halfway up the mountain we saw our first monarchs, a breath-taking sight since none of the teachers on the trip had seen monarchs since last fall, when we released them in the US and Canada. As we drove up toward the mountaintop, we could see the effects that years of mining and logging have had on the oyamel fir forests that blanket the area. For years the local Ejidos have cut down the forest to meet their everyday basic needs for shelter and wood for heating and cooking. More recently, the forests have also fallen prey to illegal logging because the wood from the oyamel trees is extremely valuable and can be cut down and sold for a very large profit in some parts of Mexico (especially Mexico City). If this illegal logging continues, then the migration of the monarch butterfly will become extinct. Thankfully, the Mexican government has begun to work with the local Ejidos and number of local non-profit organizations to restore parts of the de-forested areas and educate the locals about taking better care of their environment. A big part of this is the designation of the Monarch Biospere Reserve in this part of Mexico. In this reserve the Monarchs’ homes are now protected by the government and the local people who live here. El Rosario is one of these reserves.

As we drove, Marcos took the time to explain the background of the Mayan and Aztec calendar. The MesoAmerican cultures used an anthropomorphic calendar. This means that it is based on the humans and not on the sun. There are 260 days in a year because the average amount of time that a child spends in the womb is 260 days. It is absolutely fascinating!

Finally, we arrived at approximately 8,000 ft above sea level, to the parking lot of the El Rosario Sanctuary. We de-bussed and headed toward the mountain path. We passed through a gauntlet of shops and restaurants, and Marcos reminded us to “Be-a strong!” Anything we bought at the bottom of the mountain would have to be carried to the top and back down again. No thank you! However, our senses were assaulted by the sights and smells of the shops, making our mouths water and our eyes wander from item to item. It was hard to be strong!

After paying at the visitor center, we began our ascent. The ejido members have built concrete steps into the mountaintop for about half of the climb. This made the climb a little easier! As we reached a slightly higher altitude, we began to see a few monarchs flutter by our heads, headed down the mountainside to the flowers closer to the bottom. As we reached the Plains of the Rabbits (a meadow halfway to the peak), we entered a river of monarchs, flowing down thecimg1806.jpg mountainside. As the warmth from the sun hit the clusters of monarchs on the bowed branches of oyamels, thousands more monarchs lifted into the air in search of nectar and water. It was surreal to stand in the midst of thousands upon thousands of monarch butterflies, tumbling down the mountain like flakes of orange snow.

As we kept climbing we saw more and more monarchs. More than I ever imagined possible. We came across hundreds of them puddling in small streams. We even got pictures of Mariposa (our class mascot) with a few other classroom mascots from around North America. They puddled with some of the live monarchs and even had a real, live monarch land on them!

Throughout the hike we would meet people on their way down, encouraging us to keep climbing. “It only gets better! You haven’t seen anything yet!” They were right! At the peak, the scene stole your breath away. Because the warmth of the sun had not yet risen to that height, the boughs of the oyamel trees were weighted down by cimg1835.jpgmillions upon millions of monarch butterflies. We spent about 45 minutes just sitting at the peak, surrounded by orange sunbursts flitting through the sky. It was serene and tranquil, like a silent snowfall. The only sounds were the wind blowing through the trees and the flapping of millions of butterfly wings.

As we descended the mountain later that afternoon, we stopped every few feet to lift sunning monarchs off the path. You had to watch each step to ensure you did not mistakenly step on a monarch gathering its strength in the afternoon sun. It was magical. The climb down was much harder than the ascent, though. It was so steep that you would have to grab into trees to keep your balance while scooting downhill. Because of the altitude and the length of the climb, many climber’s legs began to tremble as they walked.

Once we reached the main path we were inundated again by the shops and restaurants. The native people were shouting prices but the language barrier presented a problem. They began holding out goods to attract our attention, while slowly repeating the prices in Spanish. We were able to work together to determine the prices and even to bargain a little! Icimg1856.jpg purchased a few t-shirts which were hand-embroidered on the site, along with pine needle baskets made by hand down the mountain. Even now, when I open the basket, it’s like a Pandora’s box of Christmas. The scent of pine and winter is overwhelming. We browsed through all of the shops, and even though I love to shop it is not easy when you don’t speak the language. It made shopping an intellectual experience if nothing else!

We had lunch at one of the small shacks on the side of the trail. The homemade blue corn tortillas were delicious! We don’t raise blue corn here in the States, so it was a treat to see blue tortillas. And fresh tortillas taste nothing at all like store-bought ones. I had quesadillas, and it was the best grilled cheese sandwich I have ever eaten! Almost everyone in the group ate at the restaurant and we all raved about the food. At one point we heard a cell phone ring, and we were amazed that anyone had service. Then, we saw one of the young Mexican girls grinning. It was her cell phone receiving a text! Even though the Masawa people have retained much of their own culture, technology like cell phones has made the leap over the great divide and become a part of daily life.

cimg1793.jpgWe finally got back on the bus later in the afternoon for the 2.5 hour journey back to the hotel for the night. I spent much of the long ride back thinking about what I had witnessed in the sanctuaries. Words can not describe what you see in the sanctuaries, and I wish that all my students could have the opportunity to see the magic takes place there. When you are here and you see, hear and feel the billions upon billions of monarchs, you are overwhelmed with the fact that we really are just a tiny part of this giant universe. It is a truly life-changing experience. Looking back at my pictures, video and words I realize that nothing can accurately describe the sanctuaries. The emotions that run through you as billions of Monarchs cling to the towering trees overhead and dance and play in a river of orange with a stunning blue sky behind them are indescribable.

I received a fellowship for this trip from the Monarch Teacher Network/Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.  MTN is a fantastic organization that gives summer workshops, “Teaching and Learning with Monarch Butterflies”, all over the country.  Anyone who attends the workshop (you do not have to be a teacher!), is eligible to go on one of the 3 yearly trips to Mexico.