Explore the Monarch's Winter Habitat in Mexico
Use photos to build scientific observation skills

Teacher Guide


This Teacher Guide provides a framework and tools for exploring the monarch's winter habitat in Mexico through a collection of images. Use the photos and activities as a springboard to address the essential question: How do the winter sanctuaries in Mexico meet the monarchs' needs for survival?

Included here:

Observation is the cornerstone of scientific inquiry.
Journey North features a wealth of photos and video clips which you can use to engage students, build observation skills, inspire scientific thinking, and create fertile ground for discussions and new questions.

Prepare for Instruction

Before introducing the instructional activities (below) to your students:

  • Take your own “walk” through the photo gallery. As you examine each photo, record your thoughts, questions, descriptive phrases, and instructional notes.
  • Read through the activity descriptions and review the student handouts (below). Select and adapt activities to meet the needs of your students and curricular goals. Plan for a variety of instructional activities over several class sessions to give students multiple opportunities to build and strengthen scientific and observational skills as they learn about the winter habitat of monarch butterflies.
  • Review the list of Questions to Inspire Close Observation. Use these questions when you take your class on a photo tour of the winter habitat to help students observe details, make comparisons, interpret what they see, and consider new information.
  • Remember the teacher’s role in an inquiry-based classroom:
    • Model keen observation skills by thinking aloud and recording what you see and wonder as you study a variety of photos from the gallery.
    • Be a co-explorer who cultivates curiosity and challenges students to think and act like scientists as they explore intriguing questions.
    • Inspire students to observe closely and think like scientists.
    • Challenge students to ask their own questions.

Questions to Inspire Close Observation


Discussion Questions and Writing Prompts

Choose From the Instructional Activities:

Use the photo gallery of images in a variety of ways to build and strengthen students’ scientific and communication skills. Choose from the activities below to get your class started on their own scientific exploration of the monarchs’ winter habitat.

Activate Prior Knowledge: Send a Postcard from Mexico
Purpose: Determine what students know (and do not know) about the winter habitat of monarchs. Assess their background knowledge and pique their curiosity by having them share what they imagine when they think about the monarchs' winter stay in Mexico.

Begin with a summary of the monarchs’ fall migration, reminding students that the butterflies flew thousands of miles to reach their winter habitat. Use questions to spark students’ thinking about Mexico: What's it like in Mexico where the monarchs spend the winter? What kind of habitat do monarchs need in order to survive in the winter? Ask students to imagine receiving a postcard from a monarch. Pass out index cards and invite them to create Monarch Postcards that show and describe the winter habitat. As students are working, spark their thinking and curiosity by asking detail-specific questions: What kind of place do you see when you imagine the monarchs’ winter habitat? What do you imagine the monarchs are doing for the four or five months they are in Mexico? What kind of place does your picture show (desert, prairie, beach, forest, backyard garden)? What is the weather like? What are the seasons like in Mexico? What are the monarchs doing in your picture? Challenge them to add details to their postcards as they think about the questions you pose.

Take a “Wonder Walk”

Purpose: Help students experience a walk through the winter habitat of monarch butterflies.

Activity: Present a series of photos from the gallery to help students experience a “wonder walk” through an oyamel forest in Mexico. Establish a sense of quiet as students imagine stepping into the winter world of monarchs in Mexico. Invite them to capture their thoughts, feelings, questions, and wonderings on the “Wonder Walk” journal page.

Journal Page
Wonder Walk

Take a Scientific Tour of a Monarch Sanctuary

Purpose: Build strong scientific observation and communication skills.

Activity: Have students imagine a tour of the monarch sanctuary through the eyes of a scientist. What questions would a scientist ask? What sketches and notes would an “inquiring mind” record in a field guide? Invite students to “walk” through the photo gallery as a scientist on a quest for clues. Choose from the selection of student handouts to help students capture their observations and scientific questions. Encourage them to examine the photos carefully and record observations, write questions, and pose hypotheses. Provide an opportunity for them to share their work in small groups.

Journal Page
Scientific Tour

for Teacher Reference

Examine Photos With the Eyes of a Writer

Purpose: Build and strengthen communication skills. Develop descriptive writing skills.

Activity: Writers collect words to help them describe the world. Have students imagine a tour of the monarch sanctuary through the eyes of a writer. What sketches and notes would a poet write in his or her journal? Invite students to revisit the photo gallery as a poet on a quest for descriptive details. Use the “A Writer’s Quest for Details” chart to help students use a variety of writing strategies to “find the words” that describe a monarch’s winter habitat. Invite them to use the collected words and phrases to write captions for specific photos. When students read observers’ accounts of their trips to the monarch sanctuaries, encourage them to collect the words and phrases the authors used to describe the experience.


Journal Page
Writer's Quest

for Teacher Reference

Draw from the Collection of Observation Handouts

You can use this collection of observation handouts for many purposes. Print and pass out copies to guide observations of Journey North photos, video clips and the natural world.

Explore Related Links

Explore these related links for background information and additional ideas.

Assess Student Observations

You can use the list of Questions to Inspire Close Observation and any of the observation handouts above to assess your students' thinking and growth. Ask yourself these types of questions as you review their responses:

  • Are students’ responses increasingly detailed?
  • Can students increasingly distinguish between observations and inferences?
  • Do they increasingly use visual evidence (along with past knowledge) to support their explanations?