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Welcoming a Class Pet, a Living Mascot

By Alycia Zimmerman on January 2, 2013
  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

My amazing colleague Debbie is a pet person. She ogles pets on the street and always has a new photo of her darling lizard on her cell phone. So for her, a classroom animal is a logical extension of one of her passions — a natural fit. Not so for me! I admire animals from afar, but the responsibility of keeping a creature alive makes me panic. Why then did this human-centric teacher decide that a classroom pet is (mostly) worth it? Read on for my honest thoughts about keeping a classroom pet and how I make it work.

 

 

Pets = Work … So Why Bother?

Lesson planning, grading, meeting with colleagues — oh, and teaching — we teachers are insanely busy! Who has the time and energy to take on the care and feeding of an animal? Every adult knows, as much as children promise to “totally take care of Spot by myself,” at the end of the day, the responsibility falls on us. Which is a pain in the neck.

Yet I still think a classroom pet is worth it. A pet teaches students compassion and responsibility, and it builds a strong community among its young human caregivers. When a student is having a rough day, a quiet conversation with our pet sometimes helps. A pet spurs on lots of incidental learning and provides a boy-friendly rationale for writing. And for some, checking on our pet is the very first thing they do when entering the classroom — I can’t help but think that Kermit is their sole reason for coming to school each day with a smile.

The students gather close while exitedly observing our pet tadpoles. 

 

A Realistic Pet Plan

All that being said, taking on a classroom pet should be thoroughly considered — we want to model responsible pet stewardship for our students, not neglect or impulsivity. Just don’t overthink it, or you’ll never take on a pet! Here’s a checklist of things to consider before choosing to get a pet:

      · Do any of my students have allergies? (Email or send a letter to their parents)

      · Are pets allowed in my school/district? (Check with administration)

      · Who will care for the pet during school vacations? (Come up with a plan)

      · How will we fundraise to cover pet-related expenses? (Food, habitat, etc.)

      · Will the pet be able to survive over the weekend at school, or will it need to be a houseguest?

Do you think you’re ready for a classroom pet? Visit Pets in the Classroom for articles about keeping a classroom pet, animal fact sheets, and the application to apply for a Pet Care Trust grant for $100-$150 towards the purchase of a classroom pet and supplies.

A local pet store can be a great resource when deciding on what type of pet to purchase, what materials you’ll need for the habitat, and more. Some pet stores will welcome your class for a research visit prior to deciding on which pet is right for you. I find that small, local pet stores are the most helpful in terms of providing long-term support and advice for our class pet, but big-box pet stores are often happy to host class trips. Petco, for example, has a K-8 field trip program.

We visited the American Museum of Natural History to learn more about our pet frogs.

 

Part-Time Pet Solutions

Not every classroom (or teacher) is ready for the responsibility of a full-time pet — after all, some animals live for many, many years! If you want to try out having a pet in your classroom, without a lifelong commitment, there are some part-time options.

Some local pet stores will either “rent” or lend you a pet to keep in your classroom for a limited time — a month, a semester, or a single school year. A pet store near my school is happy to lend out hamsters with a habitat for a small security deposit.

Hatching chicks is another fun part-time solution that will let your students take part in an exciting metamorphosis — and after a week, the darling chicks return to live out their days on their farm.

Some teachers at my school share one pet for their grade, and the teachers prefer this “joint custody” arrangement. I find that my students form a closer bond and take on more responsibility when the pet is just for our class, though. Some years, parents have approached me about adopting the class pet in June, which is a nice way to hand off responsibility after the school year ends. (I always double check to make sure the adoptive family is fully aware and willing to take on the burden of a pet, financially, time-wise, and emotionally.)

We frequently visit the pet turtle in the classroom across the hall, and they come to visit our frogs.

 

Read About It … Pets as “Book Hooks”

Some students naturally gravitate towards animal stories, but for others, non-human characters leave them cold — until you bring a classroom pet into the equation, that is. I always fill a basket with books — both fiction and non-fiction — relating to our classroom pet, and we keep the basket right next to our pet’s habitat. My students pore over these books together, sifting for new facts about our pet to share with the class.

I also have some favorite books about pet ownership that I enjoy sharing with the class.

 

In Betty Birney’s Humphrey series, a precocious hamster shares his insights about the strange humans in Class 26. Before we get a class pet, I read the first book in the series aloud to my students to help them think about life from a pet’s perspective. As Humphrey says, “You can learn a lot about life from observing another species.”

I use the picture book I Wanna Iguana by Karen Kaufman Orloff to help my students begin to think about the responsibilities of pet ownership, as well as how to craft a compelling argument for (or against) pet ownership. Then I have my students write persuasive letters (essays) convincing me to get a class pet. This is a very authentic motivation for persuasive writing. (The book of children’s writing Should We Have Pets also serves as good model.)

We Can’t All Be Rattlesnakes makes students think twice about the ethics of pet ownership and the importance of respecting wild animals through a gopher snake’s snide tale of capture and eventual escape.

Three years ago my class’s pet frog died after a problematic water change in the tank. (Yes, we were careful to use only bottled water. We don’t know why M.J. died.) I worried about having to discuss M.J.’s death with my students — and then worried even more when I overheard one boy say to another, “Don’t be sad, it was only a frog.” Judith Viorst’s picture book The Tenth Good Thing About Barney discusses a pet’s death in a sensitive, sensible, and non-religious way, while validating children’s feelings. It set the perfect tone for our classroom discussion about death. 

  

 

The “Write” Pet for Us

My students are unusually motivated to write when their writing is about our classroom pet. I post a corkboard square next to our pet’s habitat for students to post their “wonderings” about our pet. Our pet becomes its own writing center: students write poems, news articles, and stories inspired by our animal.  

For several years, I used the Grow-a-Frog kits in my classroom — the African clawed frogs that come with the kits are completely aquatic, easy to care for, and live in a space-saving cube tank. Best of all, the frogs arrive in the mail as tadpoles, and the students get to witness the daily metamorphosis from tadpole to frog — an enormously fascinating process for my students. (Based on all of the teachers who visited to check out our budding frogs, it’s pretty exciting for adults too.)

The frog life cycle, experienced in “real HD” as one of my students said, is perfect fodder for a student-created newsletter or blog. Three years ago, my 1st graders published their first attempts at digital writing on our “Frog Blog.” They raced home from school to show their parents’ their tadpole updates online and to comment on each other’s posts.

 

 

Do you keep a pet in your classroom? Tell us about your class pet and any advice you have on how to manage it. I'd love to hear about what types of pets teachers keep in their classrooms!

For updates about my upcoming blog posts, you can follow me on Twitter or Facebook.

Comments (8)

I recently got a guinea pig from pets in the classroom grant for my 2 grade dual language class. We named her Oreo because she's black w/white in the middle. My students have jobs and can't wait when it's their turn to care for her. They love cleaning her cage, feeding, watching and listening to her noises. My students have learned to be more compassionate with her and each other. They will begin taking her home for the weekend next week. They will write about her adventures while she is in their care.

Mary, your students are so lucky to have Oreo and an awesome teacher like you! Thanks for sharing about some of the benefits that you've seen while caring for Oreo in your classroom - it all sounds so exciting! All the best, Alycia

Alycia-

I work with Pets in the Classroom and we so appreciate your willingness to include our information in your article! We love helping teachers and hearing how their students have been impacted by their class pets. Thank you for helping us spread the word about our grant!

In the past, I have had pets in my classroom. I taught 4th grade overseas and acquired a pet mouse during the time we were reading Cricket in Times Square. It was a great first pet to teach responsibility to my class. However, when I became pregnant with my first child, the mouse had to find a new home. His habitat had a very strong odor that I could not stomach! Consider the smell and mess factor when deciding on a classroom pet. I also housed a very friendly rabbit with this class. We were very lucky because even with free roam of the classroom, this rabbit only messed in his cage. The kids loved him because he was friendly and would stop to quietly nibble on whatever they had next to their desk. It was a little tricky on the weekends and holidays. I am currently planning on bringing in a betta fish to my fifth grade class. I have had several and find them to be very low maintenance and beautiful to look at!

I'd like to speak as a former wildlife rescuer/volunteer and kindergarten teacher so that your classroom experience will be as good as possible. I rescued injured and orphaned wildlife, but also worked with domestic exotics like chickens, ducks, and rabbits. Kids need experience with critters, especially children who aren't being shown empathy in any other way, like at home. It's almost vital. Classroom pets are such a great idea, for some kinds of animals! But not chicks. They don't go to live out their days on a farm. Most are just thrown away, especially the boys. I mean, literally thrown away. That is the awful reality. And for the ones who do go to farms, on most chicken farms, they'll live crammed in indoor, sunless cages for a bit, then be killed.

Rabbits are horrible classroom pets, too, because they shouldn't be caged animals. Some of the most sensitive and loving ones will develop "cage aggression", lunging to bite, considering everyone who reaches in to be a predator. It comes from loneliness, which they can get even with a few dozen kids outside of the cage. And having them loose means being responsible for rabbit-proofing (covering up electrical cords, protection from dogs, and in the case of a baby rabbit, cats (you do NOT want to see that happen - I have), etc.

And any kind of critter that needs to be passed around on the weekends, shouldn't be a classroom pet. You know from being a teacher how homes aren't dependably positive and trustworthy places. When I taught, I hated sending some of those kids home to the not-so-nice parents they had. But since sending an animal home with them would have been under my control, I wouldn't have ever done it. Even in the best homes, a lot of those classroom pets get killed over the weekend by over-enthusiastic kids and their pets.

So just giving you my input and experience, I hope it helps!

All good, except the part about hatching chicks without the caveat that someone has to take them home one day, which indeed provokes an old yarn of my own family's lore whereupon one sister, we shall call her Lorna (not a real name or a real sister) volunteered her (and her family's) home for domestic poultry residence, a non-democratically agreed to commitment for which she would later regret upon years of continuous reminding, often in the presence of people already familiar with the story. Strange thing, chickens once they have served their scholastic lesson period reach the more tenuous hunger/nourishment resolution period, a fact that did not go unnoticed by this family's neighbors, who were given to poultry consumption and unopposed to the violent means by which one would render the meal compliant to the severe conditions under which active chickens with a future in front of them are then transformed to less active energy sources for others with a more distant future in front of them. "Margo", a name which such a chicken bore over her truncated tenure, at some point was separated from a cautious, but diminished, care-taking family due to a temporary loss of location which can be attributed to the shift of responsibility from one sister to the other (let us call her Lesley in this case) while the younger sister was unable to conjure monitoring skills beyond that of remembering which was "The Skipper" and the other "Gilligan", a premise that would put any pet in life threatening jeopardy, particularly with carnivorous neighbors lurking about, a preposition which cannot end a sentence. So let the lesson truly be learned that chickens cannot be cooped when the cooper flew the coop and the neighbor gulped down the bird. Finished.

We have a red betta named Grendel in my classroom. Fairly low maintenance, and my students love having him in the classroom. For a fish, he's fairly expressive, or seems to be. I took him home before Thanksgiving, but won't bring him back until this Monday, when we are back from winter break. Students have been asking where he was because they missed seeing him in his bowl.

PS: I teach 11th grade English.

Wow, thanks for the story of your beta fish Grendel, (and what a great name!) It's such a good reminder that it isn't only our elementary kiddos who might benefit from the chance to connect with a class pet.

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