Animal Teachings

Educators weave awareness and respect for animals into their lessons

by Tracy Basile,
AWI editorial consultant and adjunct professor at Pace University
A young girl practices reading aloud with the assistance of a registered therapy dog in the R.E.A.D. program. Dogs and their handlers work as teams, going to schools, libraries and other settings to serve as reading companions for children.

Last year, when New York City's United Federation of Teachers Humane Education Committee saw the poems and drawings about farm animals created by Gail Frydkowski's sixth graders, they honored her with an award in her first year of teaching. Now, Frydkowski teaches ninth grade special education at Murry Bergtram High School in New York City and dreams of creating a R.E.A.D. program for her entire district. R.E.A.D., which stands for Reading Education Assistance Dogs, is gaining national recognition as an innovative way to improve children's reading and communication skills by simply reading aloud to a dog.

DePetrillo's fifth grade students practice and perform a school-wide play about animals from around the world.Literacy rates appear to be declining in our schools today. The latest results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that 40 percent of fourth graders read below their grade level, and more than a quarter (27 percent) of high school seniors are functionally illiterate. That's why Frydkowski sees R.E.A.D as being a program that can make a significant difference, and studies are proving her right. When children participate in R.E.A.D programs, their literacy scores improve.

DePetrillo's fifth grade students practice and perform a school-wide play about animals from around the world.

"Animals are non-judgmental," explains Frydkowski, who is completing a master's thesis on the topic. She says the experience "lowers a child's stress and raises self-esteem," telling the story of a handler and a dog named Molly sitting with a boy as he reads aloud. When the child came to a difficult word, such as "frighten," the handler interjected, "Tell Molly what 'frighten' means; she doesn't know that word." The boy responded with an impromptu definition. Molly is so relaxed that on occasion her eyes gently close. At this point, the boy inquired, "Is she sleeping?" The handler replied, "Oh no, she's just shutting her eyes so she can listen to you that much better."

Many of the books the children select to read are about animals. "You can build a whole lot around it," says Frydkowski, "since two hours of instruction in humane education are mandated in New York City public schools." This mandate is, for all intents and purposes, ignored. Nevertheless, if Frydkowski one day succeeds in her dream, many New York City children will be able to do something they have never done before—read, relax and have fun interacting with animals, all at the same time.

I hardly ever see kids on bikes anymore," observes Christine DePetrillo, a fifth grade teacher at Old Country Road School, in Smithfield, R.I. Worried that children are spending too much time in front of computers and less time outside exploring the natural world, she sometimes assigns her students to sit in their backyards and write down what they notice. "I teach a lot about nature and science. I use it when I talk about writing. A lot of self-discovery comes from being outside."

Taking an interdisciplinary approach is often the only way that teachers can interweave animal topics into their curricula. To this end, DePetrillo's students have been performing for the past few years in a play she wrote about endangered animals around the world. She has designed lessons around the play to include research, poetry and non-fiction writing, public speaking, poster art, choreography, music and science; they begin preparing months in advance for their performance in June. When the big day arrives, all 300 children in the school sit hushed in the school auditorium. "There's not a sound!" says DePetrillo. "It's so different from anything else the school does."

Every year since 1994, Kathy Zeigenfus' students at Ocean City Primary School in Ocean City, N.J. have raised funds for the Save the Manatee Club. In fact, manatees permeate nearly every part of her second grade curriculum—math questions, puppet plays, map reading, core literature reading, science and art. Students design and sell t-shirts, canvas bags or cookbooks, and then use the money to each "adopt" a manatee. Over the years, Zeigenfus estimates that she and her students have raised nearly $25,000 for the cause.

In addition to teaching reading, writing, science, math and social studies, Denise Waterman instills in her third graders lessons that draw from thousands of years of Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) culture. At the Onondaga Nation School on the Onondaga Nation Territory, just south of Syracuse, N.Y., the guiding philosophy entails instructing students to use "the good mind." Imbedded within these traditional teachings, she explains, is a respect for animals and nature.

Waterman's students learn a creation story in which all the animals lament that there is no land; everywhere there is only water. Painted Turtle suggests they swim to the floor of the lake and raise up some mud. All the animals try and fail. Then, the humble Muskrat brings back some mud in his claws, but sadly dies in the process. The animals spread the mud on Painted Turtle's back and a little island begins to grow. "All the winter tales, such as 'How Bear Lost his Tale,' are still taught. We still do that," Waterman says.

The Thanksgiving Address is another integral part of Onondaga culture and education, so it figures prominently in Waterman's lessons. In reciting the address, thanks is given to the natural world—the Waters, the Fish, the Plants, the Animals, the Trees, the Birds, the Sun and the Stars. "Such stories keep alive the reality that animals and plants belong to related families and that a communication between the families is essential for a virtuous life," said educator and author Four Arrows (Don Trent Jacobs) in a presentation he gave at the American Education Research Association Conference in 2002. "They remind us that not even love, the ultimate virtue, can flourish unless it is connected to earth."

Don't worry, Ms. P. If you get put in jail, we'll come bail you out!" exclaim the students of G.W. Childs Elementary School in Philadelphia, Penn., in support of art teacher Maria Pandolfi, who often protests for human and animal rights and brings her passion for civic engagement into the school community. Her students have volunteered with Artists for Animals, signed petitions to stop testing on primates, helped host the Fab Rat Festival, and made toys for animals at the city shelter. This winter marks the completion of a large mural in a busy hallway of her school, featuring numerous animals and quotes from Gandhi and Martin Luther King. The mural was designed by one of Pandolfi's star students, Daemon Welcome, shown here during the early stages of the project.

After just a few minutes talking with Magaly Madrid, it is impossible not to notice the confidence and enthusiasm that emanate from everything she does. Now working full-time as a fourth grade teacher at the Start Young Finish Strong Children's Academy in Miami, Fla., she already has a wealth of experience in humane education. Most notably, she has created the Empathy Project, a holistic, bilingual humane education program and 501(c)(3) non-profit organization for youth in grades K-12, as well as adults.

Olga the German shepherd is one of the rescued and re-homed dogs who help Madrid-center-teach children from Citrus Grove Elementary School powerful messages about healing broken hearts.While earning her teaching degree, Madrid volunteered at an afterschool juvenile delinquent center in Miami. There, she worked with a group of a dozen youth, many of whom were struggling with issues related to anger, violence, grief and low self-esteem. In response, she taught them ways to understand their own feelings by "exploring relationships with other people, animals and the planet." She began by bringing rescued dogs and their guardians to class as guests. "Having rescued dogs in the classroom serves as a living example of overcoming one's past and returning nonviolent responses," Madrid says. Sure enough, the students started opening up.

Buddy the Chihuahua is one of the rescued and re-homed dogs who help Madrid-center-teach children from Citrus Grove Elementary School powerful messages about healing broken hearts.In class, she talked about gangs and dog fighting. She showed video news clips of the recent Michael Vick case and assigned her students to read Vick's court papers. "What would you tell Mike Vick if he were here right now?" she asked them, and had each respond by writing Vick a letter.

Madrid has brought her vision and determination to summer camps and elementary schools throughout Miami. Recently, she partnered with Bruce Peru, a non-profit grassroots organization in her birthplace of Lima, Peru that builds and staffs schools for children living on the streets. Madrid is also the program director of the Miami chapter of the Healing Species, a multi-state humane education program that focuses on character education and violence prevention in children, and serves as the board secretary and chair for the Education Committee of the United Nations Association, Greater Miami Chapter.