When I think of the Los Angeles Unified School District, I don’t generally picture hands-on learning with animals and gardens. So when I found out that a local teacher, Cynthia Christopher, was looking for chicken egg donations to hatch for her kindergarten class, I wanted to know all about this project. Turns out she’s been doing this for her 5- and 6-year-old students for 33 years. In the past, she’s bought eggs online, including a batch of quail eggs, but most years she takes donations from local farms and returns the chicks once they’ve hatched.
Then I wondered, with the recent teacher strike, whether the costs associated with this project were covered by the school. They are not. The incubator, chicken feed, heat lamp, feeders, tank and base lining are out-of-pocket expenses. And projects like this aren’t the only classroom expenses Ms. Christopher covers, as is the case with so many teachers in public schools. She even buys everyday supplies like the homework booklets that the kids use.
Until last year, teachers were able to take a standard $250 deduction on their taxes and then itemize additional expenses. But starting in 2018, $250 is the cap. (Sources: IRS, U.S. News). Federal data from the 2014-16 school years shows that 94% of teachers spend their own money on classroom materials, at an average of $479 per year. For teachers at city schools, teachers in low-income schools, and elementary school teachers, that number is even higher. (Related)
So why keep doing activities like the chicken egg hatch?
“It’s a miracle,” Christopher says of seeing chicks emerge every spring after keeping them at a near-perfect temperature of 100ºF for 21 days. The students were clearly thrilled to see science in action: they took turns watching in absolute awe of the eggs, even before they hatched. For the three weeks they waited for chicks to emerge, the students read books about the hatching process, drew pictures, and wrote about what was happening in the incubator. When the chicks finally did hatch, the students gathered around thinking of names, watching intently, and even reading books to the chicks.
I don’t think many adults remember the general curriculum they got during elementary school, but they probably remember activities like this. In addition to hatching chicks, Stonehurst Magnet School has a community garden with vegetables, native plants, and butterfly-friendly flowers, and an Aquaponics lab with fish and plants for the students to observe. Christopher reflects, “Anytime I can do something that’s real and alive, like butterflies or eggs, that’s more powerful.”
A version of this article first appeared in the Full Frame blog.