In our last blog post, we discussed the article, “Literacy Lessons in One Language Arts Sixth-Grade Classroom: The Year of the Guinea Pigs” by Barbara J. Radcliffe, which was published in the March 2015 Middle School Journal.   The article outlines the positive impact Radcliffe’s guinea pigs made on her students academically, socially, and emotionally.  Our last blog summarized the social and emotional benefits of classroom pets Radcliffe witnessed in her language arts sixth-grade classroom.  In this blog post, we want to reflect on the academic benefits.

Guinea PigFor the sixth-grade students of Radcliffe’s class, learning began before the guinea pigs even arrived.  Students did research to learn more about the animals and their needs: food, exercise, housing, grooming, and veterinary care. As Radcliffe states in the article, “students developed their research skills, tested a research strategy, and engaged in critical thinking as they investigated the basic needs of guinea pigs, identified the required supplies, and determined the associated costs. Preparing for the guinea pigs provided an authentic purpose for engaging in the research process.”

Learning continued after the students welcomed the guinea pigs into the classroom and began the process of naming the guinea pigs.  The naming process provided an opportunity for students to learn the importance of a name, learn about persuasive writing and speaking techniques, and learn the value of the democratic process.

While most of the lessons were carefully and thoughtfully planned out, one of the more remarkable lessons came to Radcliffe out of frustration.  While students were supposed to be reading by themselves or to another person, one student refused.  Radcliffe describes the interaction by stating: “In absolute exasperation, I retorted, ‘Well, then go read to a guinea pig!’ That one sentence, a sentence that poured out of my mouth in a moment of complete desperation, ignited a fury of excitement that changed the mood of the classroom and the students’ attitudes toward reading for the rest of the year.”

The authentic, nonjudgmental audience that the guinea pigs provided gave students a comfort and excitement that changed their attitudes toward reading. They began to enjoy the process and no longer worried about struggling with an unknown word or new text.

While this summary of the academic benefits that are mentioned in the article is brief, the benefits themselves, are not.  The guinea pigs provided lessons – academic, social, and emotional – that will have a lasting impact.

Radcliffe summarizes their impact by saying:

“Gucci, Oreo, Angel, and Patchez were not able to read, write, or speak, but they clearly communicated with the 15 sixth-grade students in the intensive reading class. The power of the guinea pigs was in their inviting eyes, calming touch, listening ears, and accepting presence–all of which provided the comfort of feeling safe. Within the safe environments, the students learned it was okay to care and love and show emotion toward others. They learned how to accept one another, build relationships, and fix damaged relationships. They learned that making a mistake or getting something wrong did not always come with ridicule or embarrassment. They learned to take risks and engaged in literacy learning as they practiced strategies and developed their skills in researching, reading, writing, and speaking and listening.”

To gain a better understanding of the lessons that occurred and the impact that was made in Barbara Radcliffe’s classroom, read the full article, “Literacy Lessons in One Language Arts Sixth-Grade Classroom: The Year of the Guinea Pigs,” in the March 2015 Middle School Journal.

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