Monarch Mondays: Week 4

Posted on by Dodge

Today’s story from Maren Pearson, a Special Education teacher with Marshall High School (Fairfax County Public Schools, VA), is the final installment in our Monarch Monday series.

We thank the Educational Information Resource Center and its Monarch Teacher Network for so generously sharing their stories of transformation with us. We hope that you have felt as inspired by Mary, Sarita, Hope and Maren as we have.

Maren Pearson with male Monarch on shoulder

By Maren Pearson

Mexico’s history and culture are so much more rich and beautiful than I ever realized.

Our trip began in Mexico City at the Museum of Anthropology, which really started the entire journey off right by laying the foundation for what we would experience during the week. A labyrinth of halls, each museum hall is filled with artifacts and dedicated to a different indigenous Mexican culture. As a prelude to our adventure, we toured the halls of Teotihuacan, Toltec, Aztec, Olmec and Maya, getting our first glimpse of the Mesoamerican god, Quetzalcoatl, the “feathered serpent”.

Quetzacoatl, the feathered serpent, Hall of Teotihuacan

Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent (Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City)

Throughout the week, our Mexican tour guide, Marcos Garcia, gave us the gift of his knowledge of Mexican people, history, culture and soul. Before becoming a professional guide, Marcos worked for four years at the Museum of Anthropology. Now as he moved fluidly between present and past… on foot or on horse… Marcos became our gateway to understanding.

Marcos Garcia on horse at Sierra Chincua monarch sanctuary

Marcos Garcia at the Sierra Chincua Monarch Sanctuary

On the final day of our trip, we explored the ruins of the ancient city of Teotihuacan (Tay-oh-tee-WHAH-cahn). Built by a culture that flourished a thousand years before the Aztecs, Teotihuacan is dominated by the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon, some of the largest pyramids in the world. After discovering its ruins, the Aztecs were so impressed they named it Teotihuacan, “the City of the Gods”. Visitors can climb the Sun Pyramid’s 260 steps to the top and ponder its connection to Mesoamerica’s 260-day Sacred Calendar.

Maren P - on top of the Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan, Mexico

Pyramid of the Sun

Also on the final day, we toured the Diego Rivera murals at the National Palace in Mexico City that capture the history and richness of Mexico’s indigenous past. A masterful explanation of the murals by Marcos brought our trip to a powerful close.

Diego Rivera painting at National Palace

Diego Rivera painting at the National Palace depicting Cortez taking a bribe after the Conquest while the indigenous people are enslaved

I have always wanted to learn about other cultures, but Monarch Teacher Network’s trip to Mexico made me thirsty for more knowledge.

My professional ‘a-ha’ moment happened when we visited a school in the rural town of Santa Fe de la Laguna, a lakeshore community near the butterfly area. I teach students with severe disabilities, so learning that Mexican children with disabilities are not given the opportunity to attend school broke my heart (parents have to cope with their children’s disabilities the best they can). It made me grateful for what America offers people of all abilities. While I yearn to know more about the culture of the indigenous Mexican people I met, I am thankful for the inclusive culture and opportunity of America.

Maren P - sharing bilingual The Hungry Caterpillar book with Purhepecha student, Santa Fe de la Laguna, Mexico

Sharing a bilingual copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar with a Purhepecha student, Santa Fe de la Laguna, Mexico

The Mexico trip was a chance for me to learn more about monarch butterflies, as I expected, but even more it was an opportunity to learn about a nation and its people. While monarchs are a great hands-on science unit, I now have information for a social studies unit about Mexico to accompany the science unit. Next year, I want to do more classroom work with cultures and include what I learned about on my journey.

As I reflect on my trip to Mexico I find new ways to bring those experiences to my students. I hope someday I have the opportunity to return to Mexico and learn even more to bring back to my students and school. I think my students could use their knowledge of Mexico to teach other people, which would empower my students.

I am a special education teacher of students with disabilities. The students I teach are not able to speak orally, but they can express feelings and communicate in other ways. I brought back lots of photos and artifacts for my students to enjoy and explore. Some of my artifacts made sounds, some had smells, some were brightly colored or had a great texture to feel. These items gave my students the chance to experience authentic Mexican culture in a way they could not do before. Telling my students about what I learned is not as meaningful as when I create opportunities for them to learn in new ways – this experience helped me to do this and have fun!

I have one student who was born and raised in Mexico, so my Mexico journey helps me to speak and relate to him more than ever. This also offers my class the opportunity to celebrate the different cultures that are found within our classroom. Students can learn about each other and interact in new and exciting ways.

18 Responses to Monarch Mondays: Week 4

  1. Susan Bishop says:

    I participated in the MTN workshop and went to Mexico thanks to the generosity of the folks from the G.R. Dodge Foundation. Starting the school-year off in September by raising Monarchs in the classroom is an invaluable experience for students of all ages and levels; with all the cross-curricular activities available, it is a great project-based learning opportunity. I would recommend the MTN workshop to all teachers.

  2. Cindy says:


    I can only echo what you have expressed about the l experience of the trip, the people, the new understandings about and sensitivities to Mexico and Mexicans. I’m so glad you got to go. I, too, would love to return.

    Thanks Geraldine R Dodge Foundation for your continued support!

  3. Maren,
    Thank you so much for sharing your wonderful MTN Mexico Journey with all of us. Your posting brought back so many memories of my MTN fellowships. I particulary love the wonderful photo of Marcos on the horse at Sierra Chincua. This was the first time in 4 years where I didn’t have the opportunity to ride up into the sanctuary with him.

    I too had the incredible opportunity to travel alongside Marcos Garcia with the Monarch Teacher Network (MTN) on EIRC / Geraldine R. Doge Foundation Fellowships in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009. These experiences have changed my life and shaped everything I do since returning from my 1st fellowship experience in February of 2006.

    During the summer of 2005 I took my very first MTN Teaching and Learning with Monarch Butterflies Workshop. That first September I jumped head over heals into raising Monarchs with my students in Kinnelon, New Jersey. That 1st year we raised hundreds of Monarchs. We tagged many of them and then eventually held a release in our school garden. A few months later in early February 2006, as I prepared for my February Fellowship experience my grandmother became gravely ill with lymphoma and was given a week or 2 to live. I remember how difficult the decision was whether to go to Mexico or to stay in New Jersey to await her succumbing to the terrible ravages of cancer that was taking over her entire body. I remember my aunt telling me to go and to say a special prayer for my grandmother at the Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico City should I have the opportunity to visit there. It just so happens that the Shrine was on our agenda for the final day of our visit.

    As I traveled throughout Mexico with Erik Mollenhauer and our beloved guide Marcos Garcia, with the thoughts of my grandmother in the back of my mind I began to learn that Mexico is a study of contrasts. After seeing the incredible metropolis of Mexico City , its National Museum of Anthropology that takes you on a tour of the earliest inhabitants of North America on through the conquest we then began our trek to the state of Michoacan. Our first stop was the mountain town of Tlalpujahua, a former gold and silver mine that operated under French occupation and where over 40,000 men lost their lives working in the mines during the 40 years it operated. From there our travels took us to the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuaries. I remember my anticipation of wanting to see the clusters of Monarchs as I unboarded our bus and began our ascent of the trail that led up the mountain and into the El Rosario Monarch Biosphere Reserve. Until this day I tear up when I think of the spot on the trail where we finally began to see some of the Monarchs clustered in the Oyamel trees, and almost instantly I became flooded with emotion and couldn’t hold back the tears as the thoughts of my grandmother dying at home crossed with the realization that raising Monarchs in my classroom had led to that very moment in a forest over 2,000 miles away from home.

    If I thought that visiting the Monarch Sanctuaries would be the highlight of my trip I was sadly mistaken because as we traveled and took in Marcos’ passionate explanations of each and every location I began to learn an appreciation and a love for this beautiful country and its people. As we traveled though much of the impoverished countryside I began to notice that the faces of so many of the native people showed happiness and an appreciation for what they had instead of sadness for what they did not have. This made me think, why couldn’t Americans be more like them, why do we live in such a materialistically dominated society surrounded by so many things that we never really appreciate.

    My crowning moment of change came when our group visited the school in Santa Clara del Cobre. La Escuela Primeria Salvador Escalante sits surrounded by dormant volcanoes near Lake Patzcuaro in the state of Michoacan. As you looked into the dark, dusty classrooms with dirt floors and a 40 watt light bulb hanging from a rusty ceiling the first thing I noticed was the beautiful smiles on the faces of the children in the classroom. My epiphany came when I asked a young girl in my broken Spanish why she was writing on her arm with a broken piece of number 2 pencil. Her response to me was that at the beginning for the school year her teacher had to break the pencils into 4 pieces so that every student in the class can have one. With that she stood up and asked the teacher to sharpen her pencil which he did with the pocket knife he pulled out of his pocket. My thoughts raced back to my classroom where my students sharpen their pencils in my electric sharpener and how at the end of the day I find no less than 6 pencils on the floor broken in half and discarded. With mixed emotions I saw this little girl’s happiness with her little piece of broken pencil and how she contrasted to my students back in New Jersey who have 20 or more pencils in their desks and who are so unhappy because they didn’t get the latest cell phone or hot new video game. Having to leave the Salvador Escalante school was one of the most difficult things I ever had to do. At the end of the afternoon as I prepared to leave the school grounds I was besieged by a large group of students who were crying and asking me not to leave yet. As Marcos pulled me away I attempted to hold back the tears, but as I boarded the bus and saw 30 other teachers so emotionally moved by what they had just experienced I found myself once again flooded with emotions. As our bus pulled away (when I close my eyes) I can still see the children crowded against the school fence waving goodbye, many of them crying and giving us the hand sign for “I love You”. As I thought about my experiences at the school that day I thought to myself that every teacher should experience the day that I just had. That day, in that school I learned so much about myself and I came to the realization of why I do what I do, why I am who I am, and why I am a teacher, and why I love what I do.

    As our fellowship travels came to a close we visited ruins of Las Yacatas de las Purepechas in the town of Tzintzuntzan. This was one of the largest ceremonial centers of the greatest rivals of the Aztecs. We also climbed the mysterious Pyramids of Teotihuacan just outside of Mexico City, toured the historically significant Diego Rivera murals in the National Palace, the Metropolitan Cathedral, and as my aunt had requested before I left New Jersey, we visited one of the most holy places in Christianity, as well as being such an important place for over 99 percent of the population of Mexico, the Holy Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe. As I prayed in the Basilica there where Pope John Paul said mass for millions in their native tongue of Nahuatl, spoken by so many native Mexicans of Aztec decent. I remember asking that my grandmother have peace when she passes and that she not suffer from the cancer that was so quickly taking over her body. My grandmother not only lived for a week or two but she stayed with us for another 5 months while undergoing cancer treatments. She finally passed peacefully on July 8th, 2006, almost 5 months to the day of my returning from Mexico. She passed on while in her own bed within hours of me stopping over her house with my son Nick who was 7 years old at the time. When we sat on the edge of her bed she opened her eyes, held my son’s hand and said I can go now. A few hours later her soul was flying with the Monarchs. Mexican tradition that comes out of the Catholic observance of the Days of the Dead belies the belief that upon ones’s death you turn into a Monarch and return to Mexico on or about November 1st the Mexican celebration of the Day of the Dead or the Christian All Souls Day to say goodbye before going to heaven.

    As I arrived in Newark, New Jersey following my 2006 Mexico fellowship aboard my Continental flight, I felt so different in so many ways I wasn’t the same person who left just ten days before. Mexico, it’s people, their faith, their traditions and their kindness which I had discovered with the assistance of the Monarch butterfly had changed me. My Mexico journey had not only taught me so much about pre-hispanic culture that our history books here in the US never address, it softened my heart, it gave me a new appreciation for what I have which since my first visit to Mexico I have instilled in my family at home and have tried to instill in each and every one of my students since. My lessons from Mexico that I learned from the Monarchs, Erik Mollenhauer, Marcos Garcia, Francisco and his wife Dona Lola at Sierra Chincua, the beautiful school children and their teachers from all three schools I have visited during my 4 years of traveling to Mexico in Santa Clara del Cobre, Santa Fe de la Laguna and from the island of Pacanda, as well as the many teachers I have traveled with especially Hope D’Avino Jennings are lessons that I share with my students every day that I am blessed to be alive. To visit my website that has photos a blog and details from each and every one of my Mexico trips please go to

    Thank you Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation for changing my life and allowing me and many of my colleagues to travel to Mexico throughout the years. For ever teacher who has this rarest and most wonderful learning and teaching opportunity hundreds of lives change and the world becomes a better place for it.
    Bob Szuszkowski

  4. Sarah says:

    Great post! It brought back memories of my own trip to Michoacan, courtesy of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. It was a life-changing experience!

  5. Maren’s beautiful pictures and eloquence were such a pleasure to see and read. I went to Mexico with a group of friends, three of whom have extensive classroom experience. My interest is in landscape design and the environment, and learning how the monarchs fit into that picture was so rewarding. Since returning I have helped design a butterfly garden in one of Boston’s public parks, that my co-designers and I have some hopes of seeing implemented. The Mexican experience gave me greater confidence in ‘selling’ this proposal.

  6. Cathy B Griffin says:

    Maren, it is wonderful to relive the Mexico trip with you. I traveled with the Monarch Teacher Network in 2004, and it is still one of the best memories of my life. Thanks for sharing your story and impressions. And thank you to the Geraldine R Dodge Foundation for working with EIRC to educate teachers about the Monarch migration through workshops and trips. You help us to touch the lives of so many children and families.

  7. Hi Maren,

    Your pictures are beautiful and your words have left me yearning for more. I hope to someday visit Mexico too! Thank you for sharing your amazing story and I hope we will see each other again soon. Keep inspiring

  8. Maren…. I loved your blog. Thank you… for bringing Marcos Garcia, soul of Mexico, into this series and for bringing the Monarch Monday series to such a wonderful close.

    Thank you Dodge Foundation… for the opportunity to showcase some very special people and their experiences with monarchs… and for believing in the value of this work. It has been and continues to be an honor to work side-by-side wiith people like Maren Pearson, the other Monarch Monday bloggers (Hope D’Avino Jennings, Sarita Matari and Mary Lenahan) and the many, many wonderful folks who have made Monarch Teacher Network what it is. Thank you one and all.

    A great American conservationist, Aldo Leopold, once said: “Think like a mountain”.

    Another great conservationist, Edward Abbey, said: “Feel like a river”.

    To these precepts we must now add: “Fly like a monarch”.

    Love you all…

    Erik Mollenhauer

    PS – Bob Szuszkowski Your words come from the heart and strike deep. Keep your face to the sun….

  9. Jennifer Sperry says:

    Reading these blogs has renewed my interest and excitement regarding the monarchs and Mexican culture. I attended my 1st Monarch Teacher’s Network Conference two years ago and have already signed up for this summer’s workshop. I have raised monarchs in my preschool classroom for over 14 years. Each year, it is my favorite unit and I love to watch the transformation of the monarchs as well as the transformation of my students. It never ceases to amaze me how much my students learn and retain. I hope and pray that someday I am able to make the same journey to Mexico as many of you in order to add to my knowledge and understanding of these beautiful animals and the rich Mexican heritage.

  10. Judy Buchheim says:

    Hi Maren,

    Reading the article about your trip to Mexico was like reliving my own journey in 2009 with Monarch Teacher Network. It was a trip filled with many inspiring moments and I will treasure the experience forever!
    Thank you Geraldine Dodge Foundation and EIRC for helping to make it all possible.

  11. Barbara says:

    Beautiful pictures and wonderful inspiring script. The Dodge foundation’s generosity is much appreciated by all involved. I am so looking forward to continued learning.

  12. Maren,

    The value of your Mexican experience is contained almost entirely in these words: “Telling my students about what I learned is not as meaningful as when I create opportunities for them to learn in new ways.” When teachers visit schools in other countries it instills brand new ways of reaching students and especially our students with disabilities. The sense of exploration that I have felt in Mexico and other overseas countries has sparked a whole new desire to discover abilities in all of my students in my goal to improve student success. I am currently exploring the field of neuroeducation and find myself more grateful than ever for my MTN experiences. Hands-on butterfly science and connecting with people in Mexico and the US has touched my heart and opened my mind to a world of possibilities for stimulating student engagement in the classroom. Thank you to the G.R.D. Foundation and the Weston Foundation(Canada).
    Carol Peterson

  13. Lisa Hartpence says:

    Hi Maren,

    Thanks for sharing! I hope to travel to Mexico someday and meet the beautiful people there and see the monarch sanctuaries.

    It has been so enjoyable for me to meet so many teachers, conservationalists and others through the MTN who care about nature, children, families and our world.

    A great big heartfelt thank you goes out to the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. Many people appreciate the support!

  14. Mary Lenahan says:

    Thank you for sharing your wonderful experiences with us all. I see that Mexico has touched you as much as she has touched so many of us. I am so glad you were able to share your inspiring story with us all.

    I hope to see you in DC next month!

    Mary Lenahan

  15. Beverly Donofrio says:

    I was blessed to travel to Mexico with Sarita, Hope, and Maren. Thank you for bringing back all the wonderful memories of our trip! I waited 5 years to “go to Mexico”. I was so excited to finally see the butterflies in their beautiful, peaceful sanctuary, but that was only the beginning of this life-changing experience. As Bob said in his blog, the people of Mexico have so much to teach us. Their smiles and gentleness were contagious. The pride the students had in sharing their culture and lives with us, even though their school was humble and simple, was so moving. Sharing the pictures and movies with my students changed them too. My students really felt a connection with the students they made bilingual books for and they often ask me questions about my trip. I look forward to returning to Mexico again one day, especially to be with Erik who is a life-changing force himself, and to spend more time with the gracious Marcos, who can’t share enough of his country and always wants to tell us more! Thank you Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation for making this experience possible for so many people, I will never forget it!

  16. Judy Molnar says:

    Bob, Erik, Mary, Hope, thank you all for bringing back the memories of the changes the MTN workshop & Mexico trip wrought for me. I hadn’t realized how much Bob’s personal life experience & reactions to the trip were the same as mine.
    I had to move my mother to live in assisted living closer to me as her health deteriorated in 2008. She seemed stable enough for me to go to the MTN workshop in August 2008 but it was a tough decision since I had to miss her birthday. I already had been rearing and tagging monarchs as part of my job for some years already, I wondered what more I could learn. WOW. I found kindred spirits, met Marcos & Eric, experienced new ideas for activities, rearing & handling, and a taste of Mexican culture. I’d always wanted to complete the monarch cycle for myself and visit the overwintering colonies, and here was my chance! It would be my first trip out of the US outside of Canada.
    But Mom’s health needed attention the next few months. Tagging the monarchs in the fall helped give me some solace from the stress of all Mom’s new doctors’ appointments, minor surgery, getting her settled and through the “culture shock” of leaving her home of over 50 years. We both mourned the sale of the house I grew up in which closed October 3. Twenty three days later one of the female monarchs I tagged & released on that very day in Virginia was photographed in a garden in Austin Texas!! Through Monarch Watch an 8 year old boy, his Dad & I exchanged photos and emails to share our special “Data point” as a science fair project. They had let her go to continue her journey. This was a sign to me that I HAD to go to Mexico THIS coming winter, I could NOT wait, I had to find out what became of her if possible.
    Mom’s health stabilized, her eye surgery restored her eyesight after almost 1 year of blurred vision! I went to Mexico February 2009 and met Hope, Bob and Mary on the trip, shared the wonderful experiences that they have already elaboraed on. It was overwhelming to make it to the top of El Rosario, I just wept with joy, gratitude and mixed emotions, feeling the presence of friends & kin that had died years before. I felt drawn to all the shrines, from the tiny shrine at the base of Sierra Chincua to the most impressive display of religious devotion I ever experienced, the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. I was drawn to the children, and their teachers, who struggle to pass on their culture and try to prepare the next generation for what they will need to make their way in the world. I felt pain in knowing how few of these children will get to high school or beyond. I felt drawn to learn the different world views of the Purepecha, Maya, Aztec, and the complex issues surrounding the Bioreserve. Many preconceptions about Mexico & its people were displelled by Marcos’ explanations & answers to many questions about what we experienced. He should be Mexico’s Ambassador to the US! Our group demonstrated great concern for each other’s welfare throughout the trip, the networking and exchange of ideas & knowledge was & still is incredible. I’m so grateful & glad I went, even though my tagged monarch has not been found in Mexico.
    My Mom passed away June 2009. I was glad I was able to share the stories and photos of my trip with her before she joined my Dad. There was a cabbage white butterfly that lingered during her funeral and I saw another when I got back home to my own yard. From now on monarchs & all butterflies will be connected to her memory in a special way.
    Thank you, Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, for making the MTN workshops & the trip to Mexico possible and unforgetable.

  17. Tiyika Tonge-Mason says:

    I’m a Special Education ParaProfessionsl at Rogers heights ES. This year will be my first time participating with MTN. I’ve been offered a summer position with the Washington Ballet’s Summer Dance Intentsive as there Academic Instructor. The staff and parents are excited about there children learning about butterflies as a multi-discipline curriculum. As a conclusion to the program, we will plant flowers and plants that will continue to attract butterflies to the Arts & Recreation Campus in Washington, DC. Thereafter, I hope to use these lessons at my school in the fall.

    If things continue to do well, I hope to travel to Mexico and witness what the other MTN teachers have experienced in Mexico!

  18. Nancy Yard says:


    I loved viewing your pictures and sharing your experience. I had the opportunity to travel to Mexico with the Monarch Teacher Network on two occasions. The program as a whole brings so many meaningful experiences to children. The opportunities for cultural connections, school gardens, and problem solving on an international scale are huge. I have not found any other program that provides the support or is as far reaching. Thank you to the Geraldine Dodge Foundation for the continued support of the program. A special thanks to Erik and Brian for dreaming big and making this happen for so many teachers and children. Finally thank you to my fellow educators that have made learning exciting and meaningful for kids.

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