The Butterfly Project

For those of you who teach students about the Holocaust in the literature classroom (and even outside of the literary realm), my wife introduced me to a wonderful project a few years ago. I usually start on a Wednesday, and the project requires two weeks with very little in class time needed.

1. First, I introduce the students to poems composed by children who lived in a ghetto called Terezin. The poems are found in the book I Never Saw Another Butterfly. You can order it here. These were the children of artists whose poetry and artistry have been compiled. By the way, I do not tell the students the name of the compilation because they find out later, and the impact is stronger then.

2. I randomly assign each student a poem by drawing names from a hat and assign each student a butterfly to create. The butterfly must represent the poet and include elements from the poem. I give the students one week to create their butterflies. I included pictures below this post.

3. I inform the students that they have two weeks to memorize their poems (or they can read them for a lesser score). This is an oral interpretation of poetry, in which the students must express the feelings of the author during their recitations. Inflection, enunciation, passion, emotion, poise, and more are factored into the score.

4. The students hang their butterflies after one week has passed, so I have quite the decorated classroom for a time. It’s quite a spectacle.

5. On the day of the recitations I have the book of compiled poetry with me because the end of the book details what has happened to each poet. After the first student recites his/her poem, I tell the student to remain standing and then I tell the student what happened to his/her poet. If the student’s poet died, then the student must cut down his/her butterfly. If the student’s poet lived, the butterfly remains to decorate the ceiling a few more days.

After the first butterfly is cut down (and only 2-3 butterflies will remain, and not the first butterfly), the class goes silent as the students realize the gravity of what they just learned. The students have identified with their poet by the care of the butterflies’ creations and by the memorization of that child’s words. After all, our students are close in age to the poets. This can be a very moving experience, and I rarely escape the period without tears or, at a minimum, silence.

Once the students have finished their recitations, I impart the following to them:

  • It is not necessarily the biggest or strongest or most beautiful butterflies that remain hanging.
  • Survival of the Holocaust was random.
  • The reason the students created butterflies is because the compilation, taken from one poem within the book, is I Never Saw Another Butterfly. These children of Terezin did not see more beauty, did not reach their potentials, and did not have the opportunities our students possess.
  • Life is precious and must be cherished.

At the end of the school year, this project is regularly cited as the students’ favorite or most memorable. Here are some pictures from my classroom. Any favorites?











14 thoughts on “The Butterfly Project

  1. tamaraeden

    Hi there, I don’t often comment here but I read always. Nice to officially meet you 🙂

    This is a powerful project. I love the visual of cutting the butterflies down. WOW! I have a few questions…

    What grade do you do this in? If you have more than one period with this project, how do you do it? Do you hang the butterflies in different areas of the room? At what point in teaching the Holocaust do you do this?

    I’m including a link to another powerful Holocaust lesson I use, figured I’d “pass it on”.

  2. drpezz Post author

    I do this project with my 10th graders, and it’s worked well no matter how many periods of Sophomores I have. I just ask my classes not to tell the other classes what will happen, and they are very respectful about it.

    I also use this project as I introduce Elie Wiesel’s Night. We finish this memoir in about a week, and we start Chaim Potok’s The Chosen right after it. We’re maybe a week into Potok’s work when the recitations are given.

    Thanks for the site. I’ll check it out.

    P.S. Thanks for commenting, too. It’s nice to know who is out there. Admittedly, I’m not a good commenter. 🙂

  3. mrschili

    TENTH graders, huh? I’m surprised by this – I was envisioning this as a unit one would do with middle schoolers.

    I think this is fantastic, regardless of what age group we’re talking about. The visual representation of the butterflies and the impact of there only being two or three left out of the whole class is powerful. This is a lesson that’s less about the poetry, I think, and more about the big picture.

  4. drpezz Post author

    Ms. Teacher, I imagine it would work with middle schoolers. I match it with my Sophomores because of the unit I’m teaching (Eli Wiesel and Chaim Potok). Plus, some of the images are somewhat disturbing when we study the unit, so the maturity of the high schoolers helps.

    LS, I really like the black and yellow one as well.

  5. drpezz Post author

    LS, I also have the students include the poem on the butterfly, and if you click on the one you mentioned you can see the poem forming an outer border on the butterfly’s wings. I like that detail.

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  7. tamaraeden

    What do you do with The Chosen. This is one of my all time favorite books. I would love to figure a way to teach it at some point. Is it actually paired with Night? If so, HOW?

    We are creating a winter Honor’s project now and I came up with the idea of pairing The Chose with The Kite Runner. Many similar themes, the most obvious being two boys, same culture but different sides, supposed to be enemies, become friends, etc.

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