top of page

Creating Peaks - What Monarch Butterflies and Digging in Dirt have in Common

Last week while dropping off my daughter at her STEM elementary school, I was struck by the sight of about 40 fourth and fifth graders crowded around their teacher on the playground. School hadn’t officially begun for the day.  Other younger students were playing boisterously or chatting with friends and yet all of these students were intently focused on their teacher -- both his words and actions as he began to remove a recently emerged Monarch butterfly from his net enclosure. I only caught a few of the teacher’s words as he wasn’t speaking like a presenter, but instead more conversationally as a fellow naturalist alongside the students on their journey to discover the transformation of the Monarch butterfly. Some of the students were asking questions and those who weren’t were listening to the responses.

Intriguingly, the butterfly, like the children, didn’t want to leave the teacher’s side.  The teacher provided some hypotheses for why the butterfly was reluctant to depart for his great migration and suggested placing the butterfly on a flower in the nearby garden.  So the entire group walked ceremoniously to the garden and the teacher placed the butterfly on a flower. They watched for a moment and then proceeded back into school. The scene prompted discussions among a few parents who were observing the events and again I was struck by the power of this moment, especially for the students.

At Pathways High last week, a similar moment occurred for students in the Urban Landscape seminar. Their teacher, Angelique Byrne, took them to the Guest House, a Pathways High Impact partner, to help harvest vegetables from their garden. For some students, this was the first time they were seeing what vegetables look like before they reach the grocery store. It was a beautiful, sunny day and the students were able to connect with their classmates as they worked alongside one another, immediately seeing the fruit (or in this case, vegetables) of their labor. Please see the photos below. Giving back to one’s community makes a powerful impact on the giver as well as the receiver.

Perhaps it’s more obvious now what Monarch butterflies and digging in dirt have in common. According to Chip and Dan Heath, co-authors of The Power of Moments, they both could be described as positive defining moments or peaks. These peaks influence our perspective and our lives and are what’s remembered for years to come. As described in The Power of Moments, peaks are created from one or more of the following elements:

  • Elevation: Moments that rise above the everyday.

  • Insight: Moments that alter our understanding of ourselves or the world.

  • Pride: Moments that capture us at our best such as when we have achieved something important or were courageous.

  • Connection: Moments that are social and strengthened because we share them with others.

Chip and Dan Heath state, “We must learn to think in moments, to spot the occasions that are worthy of investment.” I believe students and teachers would benefit greatly from building more peaks into the significant time invested at school. According to the Heath’s, building peaks isn’t costless. Clearly, if it were quick and easy there would be a lot more peaks at school. Thinking in moments and building peaks takes time and effort. The Heath’s share the components of elevating a moment as follows:

  1. Boost sensory appeal - “turn up the volume” on reality

  2. Raise the stakes - add an element of productive pressure: a competition, a game, a performance

  3. Break the script - the moment should look different than what people expect

I’m certain teachers and students, alike, have many ideas for building peaks at school. In fact, many inspiring projects at Project Based Learning, STEM, Montessori and some traditional schools in Milwaukee and across the country are peak moments for students.  However, they are not the norm and some teachers and students may feel they don’t have the time nor permission to execute their ideas for building peak moments. As an educational community, let’s make the conscious effort to invest in these moments so that education isn’t only “occasionally remarkable and mostly forgettable.” Please share the peak moments you and your colleagues are building at your school in the comment section below.

Chip Heath will be a Keynote speaker at the ExcelinEd conference this December in Washington, DC.


bottom of page