|In Detroit, character education has teeth. And beaks. And fur.|
“Let’s compare ourselves to earthworms,” science teacher Lory Quaranta instructs her 6th graders at St. Clare of Montefalco School in Grosse Pointe Park, Michigan. “How are we like earthworms?” Several kids eagerly raise their hands to respond. “We both have hearts.” “We both have intestines.” “We’re both productive.” The class goes on to talk about people’s negative reactions to the squirmy creatures—how no one wants to touch them, how people squish them. Quaranta guides her students to the point of the lesson: Earthworms aren’t so bad. In fact, they’re more than just fish bait. They’re vital to our habitat because they make our soil good enough to grow healthy plants and to provide us with the food we eat.
The class is an example of what Quaranta and other Detroit-area teachers call “humane education": using animals and insects to teach kids about kindness, compassion, and empathy. Last summer, the Detroit Zoological Institute conducted a workshop for about 20 local teachers to design lessons that impart such values to elementary and middle school students. Now, those teachers are testing the lessons in their classrooms. Over the next few years, they’ll continue to meet with zoo officials to evaluate their work and develop a curriculum they hope to make available nationwide.
Animal cruelty is often a red flag to psychologists and law enforcement officials, who note that children and adolescents who abuse animals are very likely to exhibit violence toward people in the future. In a recent study by the University of South Florida and the Humane Society of the United States, violent offenders in a maximum-security correctional facility in Florida were significantly more likely than nonviolent offenders to have committed acts of cruelty toward pets as children. Quaranta and her colleagues are hoping the opposite also is true: If kids are taught to treat animals kindly, they’ll treat each other better, as well.
While the facility has always promoted animal study and conservation, this is its first foray into character education, says Kim Sneden, the organization’s curator of education, who adds that she doesn’t know of any other zoo in the country that has such a program. But the project fits with the institution’s unique interest in local animal welfare. “Most zoos are concerned about animals within their facilities, but ours has expanded to include animals beyond our boundaries,” Sneden explains. Because Detroit serves as a major port of entry into the United States, creatures that are confiscated at customs are often brought to the zoo. The animal specialists on staff have also rescued retired racehorses that were going tobe euthanized and a bear that was abandoned after appearing in beer commercials.
Science teacher Dwight Sieggreen believes the creatures in his “animal room” can encourage students to treat humans with compassion.
So far, the teachers have tried out units on animal care and endangered animals; plays in which kids take on the roles of typically feared creatures like bats and garter snakes; and nature walks that emphasize positive interaction with critters the students encounter. In addition to teaching kids about exotic animals at the zoo, the emerging curriculum examines creatures students might find in their neighborhoods. “It’s surprising how many kids have little awareness of what animals live around them, or even in their own backyards,” Sneden observes.
The humane education project puts a new spin on teaching science for veteran instructors like Dwight Sieggreen, who has been collecting exotic animals for years. He keeps a hedgehog, alligators, a 10 foot Burmese python, and other creatures in an “animal room” equipped with special lighting and ventilation next to his 6th grade science classroom at Hillside Middle School in Northville, Michigan. “If you teach life sciences, you need to have life there,” he says. “Kids want to come to this class because of the animals.” Sieggreen has added activities such as discussions of provocative articles to his traditional lessons on classifying and comparing organisms. In a class this fall, two large macaws squawked in the back of the classroom as his students talked earnestly about a reading assignment on a parrot who had been caught in the rain forest and shipped to a small apartment in New York City, where it eventually died.
Zoo program participant Tanya Sharon, a 5th grade teacher at John F. Bennett Elementary in Detroit, says animals have helped her introduce values in a nonjudgmental way. In one class, she had her students look after guinea pigs. “They learned how to treat the guinea pigs, how to take care of them, and not hurt them and not do things that would scare them,” she recalls. “And they learned to treat each other pretty much the same way— because we had a reference to talk about. ‘How do you think the guinea pigs would feel if you treated them that way? Wouldn’t kids feel sad if you treated them like that too?’ And they were willing to see it about the guinea pigs, so they saw it about each other, as well.”
Though it’s too soon to tell whether the program will prevent violent behavior in the long term, participant Kathleen Koziel believes it’s at least a step in the right direction. “Children, unless they’re taught by anoutside influence, sometimes aren’t going to get the message that it’snot OK to mistreat animals,” says Koziel, who teaches science at Bennett Elementary. “In the city of Detroit, there are places where there’s pit bull fighting, and children are raised in houses where parents promote pit bull fighting. And so they don’t know any different.
“When teachers have stopped and talked to their students about treatment of animals,” she adds, “there’s a change in their attitude about the animals and about each other. It becomes a more peaceful classroom.”