If there was one tool that would provide your students with unconditional love, give them an outlet for emotions, and build community at school, would you get it? Alexandra Jackson, a middle school teacher at Beck International Academy in Greenville, SC, answered, “Why not?!” For Mrs. Jackson, her classroom pets – 3 guinea pigs – have been an incredible source of learning and growth for her students and do just that…give unconditional love, are an outlet for emotions, and build community, among other things. As this month’s Featured Teacher, Mrs. Jackson shares with us her classroom pet experience….
Why did you decide to get a classroom pet?
Well, first, why not?! Animals are so amazing in all of their capacity! I got classroom pets for multiple reasons. First, I work at a fantastic school that allows us to do anything we think will help our students achieve success. Second, I teach academic literacy, which reinforces foundational reading skills students need to be academically successful. These students are below grade-level reading for a variety of reasons. Often, my students have traumatic pasts or parents who work multiple jobs to provide for their family. For these reasons, I wanted to provide my students with animals to teach them how to care for something, receive unconditional love, have an outlet for emotions, and build community at school.
Tell us a little bit about your classroom pet:
Well, we have three! I used the generous grant to buy our Copper and Gus. Then, my students begged and begged for a third piggy, specifically with long hair, Oliver-Clyde. Our students’ collaboration named all of the guinea pigs. Copper is our tri-colored alpha, Gus is our sweet brown and white snuggler, and Oliver-Clyde is our shedding nugget of white and pink-eyed love. Our classroom pets are nurtured by students’ school-wide. They roam and play in their “mansion,” accompany students on their desks, and even travel to other classes for instruction! They have their morning announcement slides to show their cutest moments at school; they also dressed up as mermaids for Halloween.
How do you use your classroom pet to facilitate learning?
Before getting our new addition, students researched how to care for guinea pigs. It required reading, writing, reflecting, and then, of course, hands-on practice. Students across the school are “trained” guinea pig caregivers who teach these methods to other students interested in helping with our class pets. During instructional time, students are allowed to have a guinea pig sit at their table to facilitate focus and motivation. Each week there is a different “Guinea Pig Leader” who rotates, times, and rates the productivity of the guinea pig in the classroom. Students can also apply to take a guinea pig to another classroom. It allows students to act as a caregiver while learning important content. It has been a massive success with ADHD students or others who have traumatic pasts and keep their minds focused.
Furthermore, I use it as a learning tool for teaching soft skills and care. My students do all of the care-taking. They spot clean each day, trim their nails, provide necessary baths, and even clean up accidents (quietly without distraction) during class. Furthermore, there was a winter break project contest that allowed students to demonstrate their learning styles in a competition to take the boys home for break. The winner was a student named Raina, who completed a fantastic trifold about guinea pig care for the win!
What is your favorite thing about having a classroom pet?
It is mind-blowing to watch my students with these pets, who are members of our family. Middle schoolers are in a tough stage of life: they conform to their peers and tend to care more about socialization than other essentials. Normal, right? We all remember that from our middle school years! These guinea pigs allow them to access that innocent-caring-authentic-loving aspect of themselves. I love seeing my “toughest” students cuddle and care for Gus, or my girls work as a team to carefully clip their nails. Honestly, that blows me away. I am too scared to cut them! My students say, “It’s okay Mrs. Jackson, we got this!” And so, they do. I allow all students to bring the guinea pigs home for the weekend. Regardless of the economic situation or transportation, I ensure that they can have the opportunity to experience pets at home. Currently, the boys are at a house with a student who lives in poverty. I drove them over, and the mom was thankful to allow her daughter the opportunity. With all the supplies provided, my students can enjoy a pet in their care for a whole weekend. My favorite part of having a classroom pet merely is seeing my students excel; they amaze me.
Did you see an improvement in your classroom due to the classroom pet?
I saw an improvement in leadership. For example, I have a student who struggled to sit still, stay on task, and behave in class. Since we got the guinea pigs, I have noticed she excelled at leading the guinea pig rotations. She has become more focused, well behaved, and caring. She has improved her Lexile and overall performance in school. She regularly brings Copper to classes, and all of the teachers have praised her for her improvements. Of course, this did not happen overnight. It took training and a lot of conversations, but in the end, we have seen improvements! There is another student who struggles with anger. He cuddles a guinea pig when he experiences outrages, and it completely calms him down. It is breathtaking to see; he has come so far. It’s not perfect, but it is a work in progress!
What advice do you have for teachers who are thinking of getting a classroom pet?
My advice is to have faith in your students. They have or can build skills to care for your classroom pet. Remember that they are children who are still learning to care for themselves- and others. Get classroom pets if you are committed to taking the time to teach students how to hold, care, feed, and love a classroom pet. It is not perfect overnight: it takes teaching and time to help students learn what to do. It also requires you to be humble and willing to grow. It has been a learning journey for me as I trial and error process and procedures to ensure that my students are benefiting from the experience, parents feel included, and other teachers are incorporated and respected. Be patient with yourself and your students. Be willing to change methods and accept feedback. Lastly, be careful with your verbiage to students. When they say, “I wish I had pets.” Respond with, “You do.” Most of all, have fun and love on your class pet. It is truly a magical experience.
Do you have any tips on caring for your classroom pet?
Let your students do the caring. They love it! Not only do my students do all the daily and long-term care, but they even build the cage. They feel involved, just as they should! Remember that you are getting these additions to your classroom for your students- make it a goal that your students do 100 percent of the work and care! It will grant them an opportunity that is unique and fun.