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A Big Lesson from a Small Friend

Outside the Box Teaching Ideas

 

I received an email from a parent asking if their child could purchase the class a pet frog. It is no secret that I like frogs -- the entire class is decorated with frog stuff, so I knew it was just a matter of time before someone offered to bring in a pet frog.

I thought about it, figured it wouldn't be that much work, and agreed. A day later, a new email was sent, explaining that care for the frog was a bit much (per pet store employee) and so they decided to purchase a hamster instead. I happily welcomed Bubba the Chinese Dwarf hamster to our class.

I am no stranger to class pets, especially hamsters. I have had at least six different hamsters in the course of my teaching career as well as snakes, a gecko, hissing cockroaches and a mouse.

Pets are a wonderful way to teach responsibility, compassion, and care. They are cute, cuddly, and fun to watch. Beyond the lessons of responsibility and so forth, pets can be great springboards to other lessons/activities, even classroom games.

I have a challenging but great class this year. My students are witty, fun, and extremely bright, however; they are also extremely chatty and often disruptive.

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I quickly discovered Bubba had this amazing calming effect on them. Twice a week I brought Bubba out of his cage and allowed the students to hold him one at a time (for a minute or two) while we were reading. I am amazed at how calm they were with him. They were so gentle. The students took turns reading and holding him. The attention level was great and I was thrilled to have had such a great reading class. We even have pictures of Bubba reading!

Bubba also had great adventures with the class. Each weekend students took turns taking him home to care for him. They sent me pictures of the things they did with him. I printed the pictures and posted them on our “Bubba” board. The parents even participated in the care of Bubba and sent me emails about their weekend. I am hoping the students will help me turn Bubba's adventures into a classroom chapter book before the end of the year complete with pictures the students have submitted.

Bubba was also great at bringing the class back in to manageable levels (after classroom games especially). Whenever students seemed to get a little loud, I would remind them that Bubba has sensitive ears and the noise might bother him, not to mention he is nocturnal so we wouldn't want to disturb his sleep. Sounds silly, but it worked. The students would immediately quiet down.

Unfortunately, having a class pet of any kind, there is always the risk of the pet passing away, as did Bubba. We only had him a little over a month. I had the sad task of breaking the news to the class. There were many tears and questions. Instead of just telling them, letting them express themselves, and move on, I used Bubba as a lesson in death and grieving. Teaching is a mixture of the academic and emotional. Students need to see we care about them and their feelings.

I emailed the parents to let them know what had happened and my plans for dealing with the death in class. We discussed what we loved most about Bubba and the joy he brought us. I then allowed the students to write a note or draw a picture that would go in the box with Bubba. A wonderful parent offered to bury our beloved pet in her Angel garden (a garden for all deceased and loved pets). She extended an invitation to all students to visit as they liked. It was a nice way of dealing with a sad situation.

Later, we talked about it as a class and decided that despite the risks, we wanted a new friend to love and care for. Thanks again to another family, we have now welcomed Pumpkin, a Russian Dwarf hamster, to our class. Once again, there are smiles in the classroom.

Having a class pet is an added responsibility to the teacher. It means extra care, work, possible distraction, and often dealing with death, but the benefits are great. To the student who has challenges being still, a pet can easily calm. To the student who needs to feel love, this fills the void. For the teacher, seeing the compassion and care from the students to this little creature is priceless. Watching my students love Pumpkin, tend to her needs, and create little stories about her, makes up for the sometimes stinky cage.

What about you? Do you have a class pet?