Ashley Falls students design, build Monarch butterfly garden on campus

Students at work in the Ashley Falls butterfly garden.
(Karen Billing)

Ashley Falls School students recently created a Monarch waystation habitat on their school campus, showing the power that a group of sixth graders has to limit the threat for the declining butterfly population and inspire others to take action.

The project was hatched by Ashley Falls sixth grade teachers Thalia Ormsby, Shannon Sewell, and Catilin Fallon-McKnight as a hands-on design thinking challenge, preparing students to solve complex, cross-curricular, real-world problems by teaching them effective ways of learning and collaborating.

The garden was made possible by a $2,500 donation from the Ashley Falls PTA.

For the project, the sixth graders split into three groups, each with their own purpose: the filmmakers group, the gardeners and the authors.

On March 29, students were working on a tight deadline to be ready to showcase the garden and premiere their documentary and all of the project literature at that night’s open house. In the classrooms, documentary filmmakers were sharpening up their film and the author groups made finishing touches on their article and informational brochure.

Students Jonah and Brendan.
(Karen Billing)

Outside a group of students worked in the sprinkling rain, planting colorful flowers to attract the butterflies, putting the finishing touches on hand-painted garden signs (one read “future home of zinnias”), hammering in the stake where they will post their welcome sign and official Monarch Waystation certificate.

One student approached teacher Fallon-McKnight to ask where they should plant one of the flowers: “It’s your garden, you decide where it goes,” she told them.

“I love how the adults don’t just do everything,” said student Zane Schornstein. “I like how it teaches us that making a change can have an effect on the ecosystem. That’s kind of a big deal.”

Students took ownership of the project from the beginning.

In teams, they researched and designed their ideas for a waystation habitat to fit in a designated garden space at Ashley Falls. The spot in question was an underutilized corner of a campus courtyard that was “just a bunch of bushes” and some dirt. The spot is across the courtyard from the school garden that fifth graders designed about five years ago and ties into Nathan’s Garden, a spot with a mural and flowers in memory of Nathan Gordon, an Ashley Falls fifth grader who passed away in 2020.

Utilizing their public speaking skills, the groups presented their garden ideas to the staff. “Team Metamorphosis” was the winning team, designed by Jesse Benmoshe, Fathina Amalia, and Nina Iyer. Their design features a winding pathway through a garden with brightly colored groupings of butterfly bush, red lantanas, asters, coneflowers, Mexican sunflowers and three types of milkweed, the plant that butterflies are most dependent on—they exclusively lay their eggs on the plant and hatching caterpillars eat the leaves. A tangerine tree will add a finishing touch.

Shital Parikh, a local master gardener, gave the sixth graders tips on how to start the garden, including prioritizing finding a local nursery with native plants—the students got an assist from Anderson’s La Costa Nursery. With their donation from the PTA they had to keep close tabs on their budget and planning.

Students said it took forever to pull the weeds by hand and to build the path, but the garden started taking shape despite several rain delays.

Students at work in the garden.
(Karen Billing)

Filming of the project started on day one and while some in the documentary group had experience working with Eagle Eye News, the school’s news program, none of them had ever made a documentary film. Ormsby got them started by teaching them how to tell a story and build a narrative, using the steps of design thinking: empathy, defining the problem, ideate and prototype.

“This project is really about showing your learning through your eyes,” she told the students. “You’ve created the journey…the product is fully yours.”

That morning the students were adding footage and titles to the documentary—a visiting reporter was even treated to an on-the-spot interview about her take on the garden.

“It makes me feel really proud of what we’ve done so far,” said Ayesha of the documentary.

The author group was tasked with writing an article about their work and creating an educational brochure to help others to take their own actions and create a butterfly garden. However, as Sewell said, the students were so engaged that the project just kept getting bigger. The authors decided to also design a collection of scavenger hunts for each grade level, based on Next Generation Science Standards so that the garden can truly be a space where all students can learn about the endangered Monarch species.

As the authors Matthew Stone, Mason Love and Zoya Chowdry wrote:With such determined sixth graders helping them, the Monarchs are one waystation safer!”