Rainforest Caterpillars

As a teacher, I’ve had some amazing opportunities over the years. For a while now, I have wanted to write a post about them here to share some insight into who I am – to describe how I came to be the person I am today. I wanted to share some of them with you in hopes that I might inspire you. Accordingly, some of the posts you see around here in the near future may be a bit of a departure from your garden-variety homeschool blog. Sometimes, I just like to get these things in print so I’ll remember that they actually happened. For today, here’s a snapshot of one of those teaching experiences that changed my life.

rain cats

People are pretty jealous when I tell them I’ve recently returned from a trip to Ecuador. They immediately ask, “Did you go the Galapagos?” Did you stay at a beach resort?” I have to be honest and answer, “No, I collected caterpillars.” While this may seem a bizarre way to spend ones vacation, I really did venture into the rainforests of Ecuador for two weeks as part of an Earthwatch expedition.

Rainforest Caterpillars

The purpose of this particular expedition was to assist a team of scientists in their investigations of caterpillar defenses against their natural enemies, particularly parasitoids. The principal investigators, Dr. Lee Dyer (Assistant Professor at Tulane University), Thomas Walla, and Craig Dodson (Associate Professors at Mesa State College), had four major research goals. The first was to gain a better understanding of the effectiveness caterpillars have against their natural enemies. Secondly, to examine caterpillar diets (generalist versus specialist feeders), hoping to clarify to what extent plant chemistry and natural enemies affect the diet of herbivores (more specifically, caterpillars). The third goal was to relate the results to agriculture as an alternative to the current use of pesticides. The fourth goal was to inventory the biodiversity of an ecosystem that is disappearing at an alarming rate.

After several years of caterpillar study at La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica, Dr. Dyer and his colleagues are pioneering a companion project in the lesser-known and threatened Ecuadorian rainforest. My expedition team was the first to work at Yanayacu Biological Station in Ecuador, a privately owned preserve on the eastern slope of the Ecuadorian Andes.

Caught between plants, predators, and parasites, caterpillars have been forced to develop a bizarre armory of survival skills. For the most part, while many butterflies are well known as adults, the details of their life as caterpillars (the longest part of their life), is poorly known, and many inter-related questions need to be answered. Getting data to provide answers for these questions is what the expedition was all about, and in order to obtain that data, many mundane chores and practical tasks needed to be carried out.

A typical day of research usually involved a lot of hiking. In order to study caterpillars, you need to find them first. We usually set out with our collecting kits, to scour the roadsides and other disturbed areas (prime caterpillar habitat) for these elusive creatures. Finding one elicited shouts of joy in the beginning. After a few days in the humidity and nearly constant drizzle of the forest, the excitement wore off (but it was always exciting to find a new or interesting species).
Rainforest Caterpillars

In the lab, another group of volunteers was ready to process the new arrivals. Essentially, each individual caterpillar was given a unique number, identified taxonomically, and the behaviors, coloration, and morphology were recorded. The caterpillar was then ready to be placed in the “zoo”. The caterpillar specimens are then cared for until they pupate and either emerge as adult Lepidoptera or a parasitoid emerges. Each day, volunteers cleaned the bags of frass (entomological term for caterpillar droppings) and condensation, and assured that each bag had fresh plant material. As we did so, we also checked the status of the caterpillar and noted any changes (presence of a parasitoid or pupa).

In the Classroom

So, how will I use all this in the classroom? As a fifth grade teacher, one of my favorite (also the most popular with students) thematic units is on invertebrate animals. Since caterpillars are considered to be one of the most serious pests of agriculture, it was only natural that part of the study included trying to find a more natural way to control their population. Using their natural enemies against them, parasitoids seem to be a logical solution. This would be something that my students could explore locally.

But much more important than any facts which I can teach my students are my experiences and adventures in the rainforest. One of the main things I have learned is that we need a new “law of the jungle.” Biodiversity and the interconnectedness of all the creatures of the rainforest show us that we must honor the balance of nature. These are the great lessons of the rainforest which I hope to pass on to my students: attitudes and perspectives which provide a new vision of the world, one celebrating life’s diversity and offering an alternative to the 19th century views which still persist. That’s my lesson plan.

I wish to thank the other Rainforest Caterpillars of Ecuador volunteers – Kristen, David, James, Bruce and Joanna; the Principal Investigators – Lee, Tom, and Craig; and our host – Harold Greeney, for helping to make the expedition so enjoyable. I would also like to thank the Earthwatch Institute for providing the opportunity for the expedition. And I offer special thanks to the Society of American Foresters, Menasha Corporation, and Dr. Craig Stephenson for making my part in the expedition financially possible. It was the adventure of a lifetime and a dream come true.

Which Wings? A Word Families Activity

I came across a great activity in a Mailbox magazine I picked up at the library last week. Essentially it was station activity that provides an opportunity for learners to create a list of words with similar sounds or spellings. As teachers & parents of young learners, these are typically referred to as word families. For example, at, cat, hat, and fat are a family of words with the “at” sound and letter combination in common.

Utilizing the Word Families chart from Enchanted Learning and the creative idea from Mailbox, I created a simple game for Sweetie to discover the word families on her own. Here are the steps to create the game:

  1. Using red construction paper, I traced out a circle shape several times.
  2. I then stacked several sheets together and cut out the circles.
  3. The circles were then cut in half to create half-circles.
  4. On one half, I wrote the word endings (-all, -ink, -ore…. )
  5. On the opposing half, I wrote the beginning sounds (st-, m-, b-…. )
  6. **Optional: I then created one slightly larger black circle with a half circle on one side to which I glued a pair of craft eyes.

Sweetie then played the game with me – I assisted her in sounding out the blends (a skill she is still working on). Here are the steps to play the game:

  1. Select one word ending (one right wing) and place a beginning sound (one left wing) next to it on the black template.
  2. Sound out the word and if it makes a true word, write it down on a piece of paper.
  3. Then select another beginning sound, continuing in this way until all the beginning sounds have been used.
  4. At that point, select a second word ending and proceed in the same way.

As I opted to create a wing for every word in the word family chart at Enchanted Learning, Sweetie created a words lists for only 2 families. It would have taken a long time to do all of them. I was thereby very pleased with little time was invested in creating this activity whereby its return will be great.

Sweetie and I are also putting together a variation for Buddy, using a simple picture on one wing and the starting letter sound on the opposing wing.

Toad Abodes: Creating Habitat for the Western Toad

One afternoon each month, I coordinate a nature outing or service learning activity for the children in our neighborhood. We usually meet at the park or our home where I lead them through a different hands-on activity. This past week, our activity focus was on native amphibians, specifically the Western Toad (Anaxyrus boreas).

The Western Toad is a large toad species, between 5.6 and 13 cm long, native to western North America. The range of Western Toad extends throughout the Pacific Northwest. Though the species occupies a variety of habitats, it is listed as near threatened largely due to the impact of disease and chemical contamination of the environment. We wanted to do something to help provide habitat for these animals.

Upon arrival, everyone gathered around the dining room table and took their time to paint a terracotta pot. Once dry, the pots will be placed in our backyards in the hopes of providing habitat for frogs and other small critters. When the kids finished painting their pots, we gathered on the carpet as I read excerpts from several books about frogs and toads.

We discussed the difference between frogs and toads, the concentration of poison in the skin of poison arrow frogs, rough skinned newts and others, as well as the life-cycle of amphibians. The kids also enjoyed a mini-activity called Hands-on Herps from Ranger Rick’s Let’s Hear it for Herps.

Here are a few great links to learn more about encouraging wildlife, specifically frogs & toads, to inhabit your backyard:

I love Roots & Shoots Tuesdays.

Bugs!

The highly anticipated Bugs! exhibit opened at the museum and we spent some time exploring it this morning before our nature walk. We were all very impressed.

Vinagaroon or Whip-tail Scorpion

Hercules Beetle

In one area they have a TV set up with a short documentary on the Mountain Pine Beetle and the devastation it is causing in our forests. Next to the television is a wood plank with visible beetle tunnels. I started to verbalize what the signs said and what the plank was there to show and Sweetie asked me to stop, “I know mom! I’m trying to learn. I can’t hear the guy on the TV when you are talking, Mom!” I could only apologize for distracting her and smile as I walked away.The most interesting message the exhibit delivered was how insects impact our lives – both beneficially and detrimentally.

Honeybees & a mannequin modeling beekeeper attire.Insects traveled the Oregon Trail as well.

A child’s bedroom – I’m certain Buddy would have loved to call this room his own.

4-H ~ Leaves

Today was the day of our first official 4-H Adventurers Club gathering. Our focus was on Leaves – one mom brought a leaf press. Remarkably, iIt presses and dries the leaves within minutes in the microwave. I was very impressed and of course want one of my own.

We started out with a couple of everybody books – I mistakenly returned the one I had wanted to read ( ) to the library so I had to go with an alternative. Sweetie was delighted with my selection, In the Leaves by Huy Youn Lee. It is basically about a young Chinese boy who introduces his friends to several Chinese characters (grain, fire, autumn, field, sprout, pig, family, mouth, harmony, and rice). It is a cute story but it did not focus on ‘leaves’ as much as I had hoped. We also read Leaf Man by Lois Ehlert – more for the artistic leaf collages than for the text.After the stories, everyone gathered around the table I explained how to do the leaf prints. Everyone worked so well – there were no conflicts despite 13+ bodies around our small dining room table (seats 6). I was very impressed with how attentive the moms were – everyone chipped in and helped assure that everyone’s needs were addressed. I didn’t even have to wash the brushes or anything once everyone had departed – another mom had done so on my behalf while I worked on our last activity. I was surprised and delighted! Thank you!
The last activity involved a set of leaf cards that I had made years ago for my classroom. There must be 20+ different leaves represented. We worked together to learn how a dichtomous key is used for identification. The key vocabulary I emphasized was the difference between simple and compound leaves.

Before everyone departed, I announced the focus for November – Handcrafts. My vision is to have several stations set up so the kids can make several simple crafts as gifts for family & friends this upcoming holiday season. I encouraged the other moms to bring an activity. Based on the feedback I received already, I know it will be a fun afternoon.

Joyful Signing

I have been trying for months to get Buddy interested in an activity like Taekwondo, Soccer or Sign Language. Each time I ask if he would like to do Taekwondo with his sister he says, “No, I can’t. I not big enough.” I continually reassure him and try to encourage him to try but he always says no … his facial expression nearly kills me … he looks withdrawn and rejected. I ask him what he would like to learn and his response is, “Nothing. I not want to do anything. I want to play with trucks and cars.” I don’t want him to feel like all the classes we do are for his sister and not him. I feel so bad.

When he was two, we did a Parent-Toddler Creative Movement (dance) class and he seemed to like it okay. There were three other boys in this class but now that they are older, the boys have moved on to other activities. If he were to continue with Creative Movement (ballet/tap doesn’t begin until age 5 at this school), he would be the only boy. I’ve been a little frustrated with the school anyway.

The choreography has been basically the same every year and Sweetie (having had taken classes there since she were 3) is bored with dance. She has even asked if she could do just the recital and not the weekly classes. We’ve lightly considered another school but haven’t looked into much as she seems content to stick with Taekwondo. DH is insistent that the kids do just one activity and he is a little frustrated that she does Taekwondo and Mandarin Chinese. Urgh! I’ve hijacked my own post – I was talking about Buddy. This is a material for a completely different topic.

Anyway, we have had these Signing Time DVDs since Sweetie was an infant. We used Sign Language a lot before the kids were speaking, though we haven’t used it much since. In August, another homeschool family offered to teach a Sign Language class for homeschoolers. I signed Sweetie up immediately. When I spoke with the instructor, I got permission to stay in the room with Buddy but my assumption was that he wouldn’t be interested. When the opportunity to take Mandarin arose, I briefly considered dropping Sign Language due to the schedule conflict but opted to give it a try knowing we’d have to leave early.

In anticipation of the class, we borrowed some of the newer Signing Time DVDs from the library. When we watch the videos, Sweetie is always eager to sign along with Alex and Lea. Buddy, on the other hand, sits attentively and simply watches. We’ve tried to encourage him to sign too, but he always replies, “I can’t.” I feel bad for him but I always respond, “Yes, you can, Buddy. When you want to try, I’ll be waiting.”

Imagine my delight when earlier this week, he started signing tree, forest, candy, more, and please as we were going about our errands. He has also only recently been able to work his fingers to sign ‘I love you’.

So, yesterday was the first day of Sign Language class. As we left the house, as usual the kids started asking, “Where are we going first? What next?” I went through the plan with them and they were both excited to go to Sign Language. When we arrived at the church where the class is taught, Buddy started asking, “Sign Language my class? I take Sign Language?”

A light bulb went off in my head – “Yes! This is your class, Buddy. You get to learn Sign Language. We will be there to learn with you so we can practice at home, but this is your class. Sweetie is learning Chinese. You get to learn Sign Language.” I think he liked to hear this but just before class started, I think he got shy again when he saw all the other kids. He said he wasn’t going to say anything. I explained that in Sign Language you don’t use your mouth to talk. You use your hands. He wouldn’t need to say anything. He said he didn’t wan to do that either. I told him that we would stay in class and that Sweetie and I would sign. When he was ready, he could join in.

He didn’t sign at all during class. However, when Sweetie was in Chinese shortly thereafter, I got him to practice the ASL alphabet with me a little. Then, in Taekwondo, he started pointing out the letter ‘A’ but rather than point with his index finger as he has done in the past, he was signing the letter and gesturing in that direction. I responded with enthusiasm and we did letter ‘B’ and ‘C’ as well.

I think he is warming up to it. I suppose I just need to be a little more patient. He is more reserved than she was and I need to remember that. He’ll find his niche soon.