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Schools As Places that Forbid Live Things

Publication Date: 2014-10-07

Jerry, a teacher in northern California, sent this in a note, and I asked him if I could post it. A wonderful quality comes through--a teacher trying to help kids make connections--as well as the dreadful constraints teachers face.

The funny thing about school rules: kids could watch the film about the chimp but can't pet a dog.

Maybe the world would be a better place if all school reformers watched the film about Lucy the chimp.

Go figure.

My honors students are reading White Fang. We're in Jack London country after all. I tried to schedule lots of animal-oriented activities to go with the book. My favorite was the NPR show I played for them about a chimp who was raised as a human by some nutty psych professor. The story ends badly with the chimp offed by poachers in West Africa after she is exiled for bad behavior, but before she leaves the prof providers her with copies of Playgirl Magazine so that she can masturbate.

I wanted actual live animals in my classroom so I contacted a local nature center. I was excited when they said they could bring local birds of prey in for a demonstration. I wondered how the school would react to an English teacher devoting time to birds. I told the new, fresh-faced assistant principal what I'd planned and he was excited about it--until he found out that all animals in the classroom must be approved by the school board. My nature visit was nixed since there wasn't going to be another board meeting till the day after my scheduled demonstration. That would have been the sad end of it except that I'm a habitual attendee at school board meetings and I know most of the board members well. I emailed the chairperson my problem and he quickly contacted the superintendent who okayed my nature visit. So my kids got to experience some ooh's and aah's for an hour. (At one point I noticed a girl out of her seat wandering around the room. I quickly realized she was maneuvering to stay as far away from the gopher snake as possible.)

I asked the kids to do a project on animal intelligence. Really I just wanted anything about animals that interested them. My most intellectual boy student decided he wanted to bring his german shepherd into class to demonstrate some tricks. But, of course, we can't have animals without school board approval and the assistant principal had by now learned what he shouldn't/couldn't do. He immediately told me that there was no way anybody was going to bring a dog to class. I didn't dare ask the board president about it. I had to tell the boy he couldn't do it. (That same day a girl, unaware of my first request, said she, too, wanted to use her dog in a demo.)

This whole incident helped explain something I'd wondered about for years. Why are the science rooms in our high school so sterile? I don't think there is a single living thing in any classroom in our school. As a former horticulturist I've always been appalled at the science standards that require kids to learn the Krebs Cycle, but have nothing at all about growing petunias or touching actual insects. Now I get it. You can't have actual life in a classroom, just textbook pictures of such.

So my students will not get to pet anymore snakes and I'll have to try to resist learning what I can't do.

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