Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Dead Butterflies

This is going to freak some of you out, but you really must watch this:

One of the truths about every cooperative preschool is that, as a school, you're strong where your parents are strong and this year our 3-5's school blog is one of our strengths. It's only accessible to members of our class, written by the woman known to us around the internet as Floor Pie. (Please click over, it's worth it, I'll wait. She also made me aware of this video.)

We released our butterflies last week and Floor Pie chronicled it there, winding up with this paragraph:

“I hope a bird doesn’t eat them,” Teacher Tom remarked matter-of-factly, absolutely rattling my misplaced maternal instinct for our newly released “babies.” But the children took it in stride, discussing the food chain for a minute before moving on to watch the other butterflies in the garden. All part of the life cycle.

One of our painted ladies was fluttering away from our garden, the first of our small colony that once numbered 13 to do so, tasting innocent, unlimited freedom for what was likely to be only a matter of minutes given the gang of city crows that lives in the trees around our school. That's when I said it.

I've always spoken matter-of-factly around preschoolers about death. Trying to keep the truth as simple as I can make it, not muddying it up with dogma -- that's the business of the families. My job is to report the facts, and my hope about that butterfly's fate was a fact.

We were releasing our butterflies, frankly, to a certain death. Three of them had already died in our "viewing chambers," leaving us with 10 geriatric "babies" by the time we finally got around to releasing them. They had given the better part of their 3 week lives to science and we were setting them free in a world of predators and temperatures likely to be too cold for survival beyond sunset.

On Tuesday, after releasing the living specimens, I put our 3 carcasses on a low surface, along with the chrysalis husks, and one whole one from which the pupae had not emerged, directly on the poster we'd used to talk about the life cycle, which I only realize now doesn't cover the death part. I guess that's why they call it the life cycle.

These are mostly young 3-year-olds by now, so like the girl from the video they had to touch. I used the word "dead" and the admonishment "gentle" quite a bit, and mentioned a few times that I wanted the dead butterflies to stay on the table, but otherwise I either hovered, listening in, or just left them alone with their meditations and conversations. From the outside, they appeared to maintain a scientific matter-of-factness, an attitude I've found almost universal among the youngest preschoolers.

I heard many of them use the word "dead" in their conversations amongst themselves. One of the children mentioned that butterflies don't fly when they're dead. Another blew on them and when they moved, fluttering, claimed they were alive again. Then dead again. I couldn't tell if it was a joke or not. At one point one of the girls handed me a wing. At our closing circle time at the end of the day, Charlotte informed me that she'd put them back in the "cage," which is where I found two of them on Wednesday morning: two very tattered, dead butterflies.

I did the same thing in our 3-5's class yesterday, with the two remaining carcasses, but no one gave the dead butterflies much attention. A few of them fingered the filter paper upon which the chrysalid husks remained connected and discussed the ones we'd released, perhaps already taking a more "grown up" approach to the life cycle by concentrating on the "life" part. Of course, they'd already demonstrated their facility with the topic of death in the context of the food chain earlier in the week. None of them asked me questions. Maybe they initiated conversations about death at home. 

Or maybe, for the time being, that's all our preschoolers need to know about dead insects.

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Mullin Avenue Workshop said...

I'm glad you allow a matter of fact approach to the dead butterflys. The video here shows well, the natural feelings of this child for the dead squirrel.She wasn't afraid, or reverent, or squeamish- and I'm glad her parents didn't alarm her, or frighten her over the hygiene issue.

This gives me pause for thought, in my work with my 2 year olds, I hesitate to use the word dead. When we find the dead ladybugs, sometimes I've said they were still hibernating. This year I've started to say, yes they're dead. And some of my children say, No, they're sleeping. So, I do tend to take my cues from the particular child.

We saw a dead mouse the other day, and I shepherded them away. I think this is due to adult sensibilities, more than the children's needs.

I think I'm getting better at acknowledging death as part of the life cycle in my work, with children.

I did appreciate this video. Bravo to Mom and Dad who maintained their cool!

McGeeky said...

Death, its part of the circle of life. I think a lot of educators get uncomfortable talking about death and dead things. A week ago we found a dried out frog in our yard, its bones were visible and some skin still remained, all the organs had been eaten by other animals or sun dried. Other staff were horrified that I let children touch it and carry it around. One child in particular was extremely fascinated and wanted to take it home, so into a container it went. The questions and comments I got from the staff were surprising ranging from fear that it would make them sick, repulsion that I let children handle dead things and wonderment that I would even pick it up and begin to talk about it. The learning that took place with me, the dead frog and the children was what made the whole experience and my week. We discussed how it might have died, what predators it had, that you could see its skelton, it was like a dried tomato, how items dry in the sun, the life cycle of a frog, how a grandparent had died, how it must have been dead a long time, animal food chains,skin pigment etc. This carried on for hours and lead to rich meaningful learning, all that would not have been possible without handling a dead frog. And don't worry nanny staters we throughly washed our hands afterwards-my preschoolers are smart like that.

Juliet Robertson said...

Great video. I once had a child who was mute bring in her dead mole to school that she's adopted as a pet. So she got to hold it, show it to the other children and then it was left on my desk.

Trouble was, she and I both forgot about it. I went away on a 2-day course and by Day 3 the mole was reeking the class out big time. I opened the door and the stench of death was appalling. Luckily it was 8am and no child was in school. The janny and I had a covert "Operation Mole" where we carefully disposed of Dead Mole on the golf course next to the school. By that time, mole was leaking!

Mullin Avenue Workshop said...

Well, it looks like I'm your first comment after the "Blogger outage", I thought I'd left a comment, but it may have been erased over the period of reupstarting Blogger.
I just wanted to say again, I really appreciated this video.

It shows well that this child had no unnatural fear or hesitation in handling the poor squirrel. She didn't exhibit reverence, or fear, or squeamishness about the body.
In fact she seems to be exploring it with all her senses she's touching it; weighing it; and also experimenting with placing it.

I applaud Mom and Dad for staying pretty calm, and not alarming her; creating fear in her; chastising her; or being overly panicky about the hygiene issue.

I like your post as it examines a sensitive issue.


Deb said...

I was amazed at first at how well my girls handle death, I've realised it's very much an adult thing to be upset.

We first observed a dead mouse, leaving it outside and checking it every day. The main reaction to the maggots was 'well they need to eat too!' Now they either ask to keep dead things or happily put them in the bin - it's just part of life.

They've also gone through the death of a grandparent, they're too little to really miss him but they do understand the connection. It's been a good reminder to me to let them experience things as children and not put my adult expectations or constructions on them.