We survived our first day on the road. I’m still not convinced as to the sanity of the idea but so far, we’re good. In the meantime I’m kicking off the Summer Guest Series with a back to school missive from my friend and brave, brave teaching professional, Kristie W. Kristie shares her thoughts on that age-old tradition, the classroom “pet”. Thank you Kristie!
Int. shot of small striped lizard, crouching on the sand.
Narrator: Searching for his next meal, the common alligator lizard scans his surroundings.
Camera pulls back to reveal what the lizard is looking at: a cricket, cowering under a small piece of wood. Music from the Psycho shower scene slowly fades in.
Narrator: His prey, the humble cricket, senses that something is amiss but is powerless to stop the inevitable.
Continued focus on the cricket. Music grows louder as we see the lizard start to twitch, ready to spring.
Narrator: Unbeknownst to the lizard, something is watching HIM.
Music peaks. Focus in on lizard’s twitching tail, then we see another lizard appear seemingly out of nowhere to grasp the first lizard’s tail in his mouth.
Narrator: A pitched battle ensues over the single cricket.
Lizards fight. Original lizard manages to escape by shedding its tail. Meanwhile, the cricket has discovered a new rock to hide under. Next shot is of the second lizard, looking anthropomorphically forlorn, with the first lizard’s tail hanging from the corner of his mouth like a forgotten cigarette.
Narrator: The cricket forgotten, both lizards slink back to their respective corners. There will be another battle, another day, but for now, the cricket survives.
Pan back slowly, farther and farther, until we can see that the creatures are in a terrarium and we’re looking from within. Beyond the glass walls, we see the rapt faces of schoolchildren.
Most of us who have been through some traditional K-12 school system have at least one memory of a class pet. Mine was the above. I vividly remember thinking how cool it would be to regrow a body part, and what an impression it would make on my sister if I could just shed my arm the next time she tried to grab me. Perhaps that was not the lesson my teacher wanted to impart when accepting the lizards into our class, but that was what I came away with.
It’s still reasonably common (although slightly less so with concerns over allergies, liability, etc.) for teachers to have classroom pets. In my five years in the classroom before the birth of my daughter, I had a plethora of classroom pets and saw many others in the classrooms of colleagues. It is also still reasonably common for us to fail to teach our students the messages we intend them to learn by having animal companions in a classroom setting. Whether you are a parent, a classroom teacher, or just a random interested party, it’s important to understand what we want students to get out of classroom pets and to be careful that we’re teaching those lessons in the manner in which we intended.
This should go without saying, but not all animals make good classroom pets. While creatures of the small and furry variety are often chosen because of the cute factor and because their more complex mammalian structure seemingly makes them more ideal to teach lessons, in reality, they’re some of the most difficult pets to have successfully in a classroom setting. Mammals require tricky things like socialization, constant temperatures, regular habitat cleaning, and a reliable supply of appropriate food.
Given the allures I posted above, it’s no surprise that hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs, and rabbits are among the most common classroom pets. However, unless a teacher is extremely conscientious about the animal’s well-being, these animals are actually the least-suited for a classroom environment.
Hamsters, for instance, are crepuscular, meaning that they’re most active early in the morning and around twilight, which can tend to irritate many young children to “want to see the hamster do something.” They, like most of us, get cranky when their sleep is disturbed, which makes them ill-suited for handling in the classroom. Popular “hamster balls” sold for “exercise” often serve more to amuse the humans and terrify the hamster.
Another popular classroom pet, rabbits are also crepuscular but at least don’t burrow themselves under their bedding as do hamsters and gerbils. However, rabbits are more akin to a dog than a hamster or even a cat in their needs and behavior.
They normally live in groups and can become depressed when solitary. They can live up to ten years when properly cared for. They need a minimum of ten or so square feet of cage space, not the two to three feet common in commercial cages. They need places to hide, and they need a varied diet with unrestricted access to fresh hay.
Guinea pigs have many of the same challenges with the added issues of being extremely shy and having even more specialized dietary needs.
I’m not trying to discourage classroom pets. However, I’ve seen too many cases where the class hamster was passed around from student to student over the weekend, or worse, where it was left in an unheated school building with “a little extra food” over two weeks of winter break.
What are we trying to teach our students when we show them that an animal is something to be passed around as a “treat” to someone who knows little to nothing about its care needs? What lessons do they learn when we allow them to poke at the hamster to wake it up because it’s “boring?” When the cage is left uncleaned for two weeks because other obligations got in the way, what do the students learn about their responsibilities in caring for beings that are unable to care for themselves?
I’ll address how to EFFECTIVELY use classroom pets in part 2.