Ham-a-Lam Pepper Stevens, my last class’ beloved pet hamster, died yesterday at the pretty-elderly-for-a-Roborovski* age of three. I’d grown pretty attached to him, not just because he was completely adorable, but because he represents a lot of my favorite things about the classroom culture my students and I built in Room 120.
A little background info: I believe that community-building is the first and most important job you can do as a teacher. From a practical perspective, “managing” thirty other people is a lot easier when they all get along (more or less), and when they like and trust you enough to uphold positive norms for themselves, instead of relying on you to manage their behavior for them. From an academic perspective, learning happens more easily, deeply, and meaningfully when students feel safe and comfortable.
My then-fourth graders didn’t necessarily come into my classroom with a lot of social problem-solving skills, though. Though some had team sports or unstructured play experience, a lot had also grown up in front of screens watching TV or playing video games, which means they’d had fewer chances to learn those basic social skills many of us take for granted. To help us all get on the same page, I built time into our day for brief morning and afternoon meetings (where we got to know each other and check in about what was happening in school), and I also created a point system. Each time I ‘caught’ students being good– doing things that helped build our community, like lending a pencil to someone who needed it, helping a table-mate when s/he didn’t understand something, or resolving a conflict peacefully– I added a glass stone to a clear jar. That helped them visualize how many great things were going on in the classroom. At the beginning of the week, they’d vote on a goal for how many points they thought they could earn, and at the end of the week we’d count them to see if the goal was met.
The overall plan worked, and as the kids started to feel at home in the classroom, they started clamoring for a pet. I was a bit skeptical. I thought there was a good chance this pet would end up being my responsibility, I couldn’t immediately see how it fit with anything we were doing, and I don’t believe in adding things to the classroom that don’t have a clear purpose. But I made them a deal: if they met or exceeded their point goal five weeks in a row, then we would have a serious conversation about getting a pet. Much to their credit, the kids stepped up, setting ambitious goals for themselves, and working hard to exceed them for the next five weeks.
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That meant it was my turn to step up. Instead of teaching the CSAP prep unit DPS includes in the curriculum in late fall (ruh roh…), I designed a whole unit around our potential class pet. First, I had the students think about what kind of pet they wanted. They each wrote about the kind of pet they’d like the most, and then as the list of potential pets was reduced a little, we held debates to help us decide what kind of pet would work best in our classroom.
(The debates were hilarious, by the way. Most kids ended up on one of three teams: turtle, bird, and hamster. But one brave soul thought we should have a pet snail, and dammit if he didn’t stand up by himself in those debates and argue for it. It was incredibly funny, and I was so proud of him for being brave enough to stand up for an unpopular idea.)
Eventually, Team Hamster won. Then, it was time to figure out what our hamster would need, and how we would pay for it. The kids did a lot of reading about hamsters, and then we brainstormed a list of fundraising ideas to help us pay for it, the supplies it would need, and any other toys we thought it might like. A few jewelry and hot cocoa sales later (staffed entirely by the kids, some of whom went from “struggles with math” to “mental cash register” the minute the smell of chocolate and money mixed in the air), we had a new addition to the family.
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He was disappointing from the start. He hated noise, a major liability in a fourth grade classroom, so he spent most of his early time with us hiding in his tubes, or under his bedding. When I discovered he liked to bite (*quite contrary to the articles and books that say Roborovskii “rarely bite”), letting students handle him was out of the question. The kids felt totally cheated; they’d done all that work for a pet they couldn’t even see.
In one of our meetings, we talked about our disappointment. In the course of the conversation, it dawned on me that all the kids were expecting him to be like a little dog or cat. “Well, why might he behave differently than a dog or a cat? What do you think might cause him to act like he does?” Thoughtful glances spread around the circle. A hand went up. (It was Mr. Snail )
“Well, I remember in one of our books it said that he’s a prey species. Dogs and cats are predators. Maybe he’s shy because he’s afraid he’ll get eaten?”
A stunning insight. The kids started buzzing about ways we could help him feel more comfortable in the classroom. “Use our inside voices all the time.” “Not being loud when we move our chairs and tables around.” “Not crowding by his cage in the morning when we first come to school.” Recognizing that we had a lot to learn about him, we also set up an Observation Station so we could systematically observe him and document his habits, and think of ways to entice him to become more visible.
It worked. After a few weeks, he started to come out and play on his wheel, or munch on sunflower seeds while peeking at the kids from the top of his habitat. I was even able to coax him into his ball for some of our Friday afternoon meetings, if the kids had met their point goal. We’d sit knee-to-knee, and reflect on what we’d learned that week, or how to solve problems we saw in the classroom or the playground. It was wonderful.
The whole experience inspired the kids to write a book as our end-of-year project: “Scaredy Pepper”, a parody of Mélanie Watt’s Scaredy Squirrel series that we all loved so much. The students worked together on the project, and when it was finished we held a day-long book release party, where we invited other students to say hi to Pepper, have snacks, and listen to the authors read the book aloud. The sense of pride and accomplishment that filled the room that day is one of my fondest memories of teaching.
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In preparation for Pepper, students practiced persuasive writing and speaking, research, real-world math skills, and scientific observation. After he joined us, he helped us to learn patience, responsibility, empathy, and respect for life, no matter how small. Of course, students wouldn’t have described it that way. What they knew is that they were doing something that mattered to them. The learning came naturally.
In H. Pepper’s honor, I’m declaring this school year The Year of the Hamster. Though I’m not working with students directly, I’m resolving to support, defend, and promote teachers, principals, and education policy makers who stand up for the kind of learning he represents: learning that’s rigorous and relevant, personal and organic. The kind of learning that stays with you over the long term, after the test is done; the kind of learning that has life in it.
Will you observe, too?