A little over a year ago, Daphne Hughes walked into a local pet store, mulling over the idea of purchasing a pet for her middle school math classroom in Spartanburg, S.C.
The teacher was on the fence, mainly wary of the cost associated with an animal and its upkeep. But the store manager helping her find a pet knew of a solution to ease Hughes’ financial worries: the Pets in the Classroom grant program.
Pets in the Classroom is a grant established through the Pet Care Trust that provides funding for the purchasing and upkeep costs associated with a classroom pet, says the organization’s CEO Steven King.
“Teachers are usually paying out of their own pockets to make learning more fun,” King said. “So we thought it would be a great way for the pet industry to support the efforts of those teachers who aren’t able to afford getting a classroom pet on their own.”
The program, which launched in 2010, has awarded over 109,000 grants. Since the start of the 2017-18 school year alone, more than 14,000 grants have been given out to pre-K through 9th grade teachers in the United States and Canada. No two grants will look exactly alike, as there are different levels of grants that teachers can apply for, based on the type of animal they want to purchase from participating pet store chains in their areas, and if they are previous grant winners.
Of course, classroom pets are nothing new—a 2003 Education Week article described both the benefits and challenges of keeping a classroom pet. The challenges, educators said, included the issue of air quality and students’ health and whether students and teachers are properly equipped to care for the animals in the long-term. More recently, a superintendent in Oregon banned all classroom pets after he heard of another district that had faced a lawsuit due to an incident with a classroom animal. The Redmond school district superintendent, Mike McIntosh, said that his district’s insurance policy didn’t cover classroom pets, according to the Associated Press, and that continuing to allow pets was too much of a risk.
King said there are obvious risks and responsibilities that come with having a pet in the classroom, but that they are outweighed by the benefits.
When Hughes eventually settled on purchasing a bearded dragon named Pathagorina her intention was to use the animal for positive behavior reinforcement, by rewarding well-behaved students with time to play with the animal. But then, Hughes said she started thinking about what cool things she could do with Pathagorina in her lessons. That’s when a bell went off, she said.
“If I hadn’t thought out of the box, I wouldn’t see the huge connections I made,” she said. “I didn’t think about her being mathematical, but then I thought if we can weigh her and measure her, then we can plot that on a graph. Then it began to morph into a set of activities that went all year long.”
The response from Hughes’ students has been continually positive, she said. This year, Hughes purchased a new bearded dragon—Archimedes—so students could start tracking his growth right from the beginning. Her classes across grade levels incorporate Archimedes into their lessons in different ways, but Hughes said all of her students are invested in the little scaly creature in the back of the room.
“In a Title I school, some of these young people do not have an experience to attach to an abstract math concept that’s in their everyday world,” Hughes said. “The classroom pet was able to bring something abstract, it wasn’t just on paper. They could touch her and make their own visible observations. It made sense.”
When thinking back to that day in the pet store, Hughes said she never imagined how much she’d become a proponent of classroom pets. Now, she is preparing for an upcoming South Carolina state conference where she’s presenting about utilizing pets as a classroom tool.
Having a pet in the classroom is also proving to be a beneficial tool for Natalie Hagat, who brought a bunny into her 3rd grade classroom less than a month ago.
When Hagat’s friends called saying they found an abandoned rabbit in a parking lot, she couldn’t have predicted that the tiny, fluffy brown-and-white bunny would become the newest member of her class at Kernan Trail Elementary in Jacksonville, Fla. But Hagat’s friend knew of the Pets in the Classroom grant program—and then Hagat, who hadn’t had a pet in her classroom in years, got the all-clear from her principal to bring in her rescued rabbit.
In anticipation of the bunny’s arrival, Hagat said her students’ excitement was through the roof. To prepare, the class read nonfiction books about rabbits, and drafted a set of rules for keeping the animal in the classroom.
While the bunny—which the class named Peter Cottontail—serves as a positive behavior reinforcement, he’s also used as an academic tool.
“We’re learning a lot about rabbit facts and information, and taking what we learn and [trying] it out,” Hagat said. “We got him a toy because we read it’s good for them to chew on something. We’re learning that even though a book says bunnies like apples, Peter Cottontail likes broccoli best.”
Next year, Pets in the Classroom will have research behind them that King, the group’s CEO, hopes will prove what he already believes to be true: that having classroom pets is beneficial for students’ academic and social growth.
The upcoming study, produced in partnership with the American Humane Association, was conducted through a series of questionnaires from students, parents, and teachers before, during, and after a pet was in their classroom over the 2016-17 school year.
Photo courtesy of Daphne Huges.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.