Sunday, September 26, 2010

Teachable Moment- Caterpillar Investigation

Last weekend I noticed some new residents in our vegetable garden when I was harvesting parsley for dinner. My first thought? It's time for an investigation with the kids!

This is the perfect example of what educators call a "teachable moment:" a time when an event prompts learning about a new, unplanned topic. In a classroom, the moment may be spurred by an intriguing question asked by a student or a guest who arrives unexpectedly. For science-oriented teachers like me, it may be when something exciting happens in the classroom aquarium such as a crab attacking a mummichog (Challenge: Does anyone know what a mummichog is? If so, post it in the comments!) Or, in this case, some caterpillars decide to move into our garden.

When teachable moments occur in a classroom, teachers usually have a few moments, at best, to decide whether to veer off topic and delve deeper into the new topic or to continue with the scheduled lesson. Ideally, our days would be filled with teachable moments because they represent times when kids are usually highly motivated by the events at hand. The reality is, however, that digging into every teachable moment could lead to a classroom with no focus or one that doesn't reach the required goals for the year. Teachers are faced with the daunting task of choosing those moments carefully.

(Note to educators: I would choose to explore this particular teachable moment with my elementary students because I know I can address many state mandated science and ELA standards along the way. This represents a place where standards and a teachable moment overlap. A win, win all around!)

 So how do you plan an investigation? It's simple. You watch. You make observations. You ask questions and try to find the answers to your questions.

The kids and I went out to examine the little caterpillars more closely on Wednesday. We chose to draw them and record other important data such as the date, their size, their location on the plants, the number of stripes, etc.   Each of us chose a different focus, but between us we have a fairly complete record of what we saw.

My 4 year old daughter focused on drawing the pattern in the stripes. Her dictated caption reads, "His eyes are tiny. We found him in the garden. We found him on the parsley."
My 8 year old son focused on the stripe pattern, the shape of the caterpillar, and it's legs.

My journal entry included the most data, which makes sense since I'm older and have been doing this longer! I included measurements, locations on the plants, etc. A portion of my entry:
Our plan is to watch them over the next few days or weeks and record the changes we see. We're hoping to see a big change in a week or so. Check back to see what happens! I'll post the changes as we see them. I'll also offer suggestions for guiding children in their science investigations.

Has anyone seen these caterpillars before? Do you know what they are? We've purposely avoided field guides for right now, though we have a pretty good idea what they are. If you know, please share!


  1. I think these are the same caterpillars that I once hatched into butterflies in a library in Philadelphia. I can't remember, though, which butterflies they hatched into: monarchs or swallowtails. I released them into Rittenhouse Square. Ask me next time you visit and we'll look them up.

  2. What do you think, readers? Is Gail, our local librarian, correct? What do you know about swallowtails and monarchs? Parents... children in the state of Massachusetts usually study Monarchs in grade 2 or 3. Enlist their help. What plant do monarch caterpillars eat? Is it parsley?

    Please resist the desire to "google" this. I know it's hard since you're literally sitting at your computer. Go ask a kid. Ask your neighbor. See if you can figure this out together the old fashioned way! That is why my kids and I have not reserached them yet (I technically already know the species but that's about all I know)... I want us to discover something together by observing and by talking to other people.

  3. I love how you all went into the garden together to observe and document the caterpillars and then represented your findings in the journals. I think it's essential for children to have the opportunity to observe and document the world around them.