Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

How We Learn: Celebrating Earth Day with Katherine Shaw (CA '16)

April 24, 2017

Earth Day is a big deal at Washington Elementary School in Bellflower, California, especially in the kindergarten classroom of Milken Educator Katherine Shaw (CA '16). Katherine gave us a glimpse of her students’ Earth Day activities, including an extended unit on the life cycle of butterflies.

We started our butterfly project with six caterpillars. As we examined and talked about our caterpillars, the students took notes in a journal and became very invested in learning about what would happen next. We talked about the animals, birds, insects and bugs in our world and why we need to appreciate them.

Throughout the second trimester we focused on animals' needs and homes. The kindergarten students wrote informational paragraphs; we concluded that animals need habitats in order to survive. We watched videos and read poetry and books that examine the connection between animals and our planet. Every day the students' first question was, "What stage are the caterpillars in?"

A few days after I read Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar to the class, the students noticed how much their own caterpillars had grown. Their prediction and dialogue were beautiful to hear. We began our mornings discussing what colors they wished the butterflies would be or wondering when they would begin the next stage. My class includes a large number of English Language Learners, and my students exercised their knowledge and new vocabulary with their peers.

Katherine Shaw Earth Day 4

By spring break, each caterpillar had developed into a chrysalis. I took them home, took pictures, and sent them to the kids throughout the break. Communicating with families is key: I want parents to feel like they're part of the classroom so that the children can engage in meaningful conversations at home. I use the Class Dojo app to communicate with parents, telling them about the topics we discuss in class and sharing links to websites and videos. The children would come to class and say, "My mom showed me a video about the life cycle of a butterfly in Spanish!" Seeing the children view their parents as teachers thrills me. I truly believe in fostering their primary language and connecting parents and children throughout their learning journey.

When we returned from spring break I brought in the butterflies. The kids were screaming with joy—some of their predictions of wing colors came true! The young entomologists walked around asking and answering questions, which fulfills our reading standards. Throughout the process students are learning to collaborate, add on to conversations, exchange in conversions, and agree and disagree.

We kept the butterflies in our class for three days. On Friday we decided it was time to release them. Some children wanted to keep them longer, but students reminded each other that the butterflies needed nature in order to survive. Students' emotions were mixed; happy, sad, excited, and wondering if they would ever see their butterflies again.

We went to our school garden and chanted, "Fly, beautiful butterfly, fly!" With squeals and screams, the students released the butterflies. "We are lucky our earth is clean so they can fly," said one student. We then added to our journals. Salvador said, "If we chop our trees and do not plant flowers, then we won't have butterflies." It was amazing to see the children make a connection between our planet and all its animals and insects.

Katherine Shaw Earth Day 1

For Earth Day, we spent time viewing media clips on waste, singing songs, and looking at pictures of our beautiful planet. We categorized our understanding of the three R's (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) using a Thinking Map. Students had the opportunity to "talk off the map" and formulate complete sentences using specific vocabulary.

Katherine Shaw Earth Day 3

We made Earth Day promises, and students wrote about what they could do at home. I modeled by sharing what our class had done throughout the year to preserve our Earth. We have a recycle bin where we collect plastic bottles. On the first day of school, I told students that I collect plastic bottle caps; at the end of the year they will help me make letter and number tiles for a literacy or math center. We also reuse scratch paper and extra worksheets for drawing, printer paper, cards for parents or birthday cards. We talked about the fact that even though their hands are small, they are giving back to our planet in a very big way. Some tell me they have created similar habits at home.

Katherine Shaw Earth Day 2

As Earth Day approached, we made hats with promises on how students will reduce, reuse, and recycle. They practiced sharing their ideas with their parents. We sang and danced to Jack Johnson's "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" song and added some dance moves. Finally, we created an Earth Day visual display and attached their writing—these will be shared at Open House. We ended the day by reading and then watching Dr. Seuss's The Lorax. As the students watched they made immediate connections with what they had learned. At the end of the day, the students were engaging in meaningful conversations about Earth Day, our animal friends, and keeping our planet clean for future families.

Katherine Shaw Earth Day 5


  • Students became knowledgeable about how to preserve our planet.
  • Students developed empathy for the earth and animals.
  • By incorporating literacy, writing, music, art, dance, TPR, and hands-on exploration, students captured new knowledge and physically experienced learning.
  • Using a variety of modalities ensured that all students learned.
  • English Language Learners were supported with visuals to make new vocabulary stick.
  • Parents were included in their children's learning and enabled academic dialogue at home.
  • Students were excited and engaged.
  • The activities were teacher-facilitated but student-led.
  • Students are now empowered, knowing they can make a difference in our big world.

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