In the most recent edition of the NJEA Review, BCEA Member and Cliffside Park ESL teacher, Dr. Julie O’Conner had her feature article “Humane Education: A Way to Motivate and Engage Students” published! Congratulations Julie!
Humane Education: A Way to Motivate and Engage Students
By Julie Bolkin O’Connor, Ph.D.
As teachers, we understand the importance of engaging our students. Researchers agree that motivation to learn is one of the most important indicators of student success, regardless of age. An interested student will give the learning task extra attention, and is more likely to retain what he or she has learned. In short, an engaged student will learn more than a disengaged learner.
What is humane education and why teach it?
Humane education is the teaching of curriculum related to animal well-being. Its purpose is to foster compassion in children’s relationships with both animals and people. Because most children are naturally attracted to animals, humane education lessons have the ability to stimulate motivation to learn and engage in class activities.
Did you ever notice how your students seem to light up when they talk about their pets or if you show a picture of yours? Children naturally love animals. In a study conducted by the Humane Society of the United States, it was noted virtually all (99.3 percent) of children ages 3 to 13 desired to have pets. You can tap into this innate love of animals to enhance students’ interest in any lesson.
An improved student and teacher relationship has also been reported by many teachers who use humane education. Bonding over a shared interest in the well-being of animals is another benefit to including humane education in your lessons. You may be surprised as to which student feels a connection to you!
How can you incorporate humane education?
Teachers can use humane education in any subject they teach and with children of any age. While some of the examples noted below target younger students, one could argue that humane education becomes more motivating the older students are, because the topics are more thought-provoking. You need not feel that it is necessary to have a live animal in a classroom to motivate students. Rather, the mere inclusion of an animal-related topic increases student involvement.
Teachers may find that certain animals, such as wild species, interest one set of students more, while domestic animals draw greater interest from a different group of students. Generally, however, students are very interested when animals and animal welfare is part of the topic. It is important to note that humane education is not meant to preach, but rather to provide students with information so they can make informed decisions regarding kindness to animals.
Through the subjects
Language arts has multiple avenues through which to explore humane education. Educators can teach language arts through books that advocate for compassion toward animals such asCharlotte’s Web and Black Beauty. Persuasive essays can be turned into letters students can send to politicians or directors of companies as ways to advocate for animals.
It is just as easy, and more engaging, to identify the parts of speech in sentences that focus on animals, rather than generic, uninteresting topics. For example, “Androcles pulled the thorn from the lion’s paw” is more interesting than “The man pulled a thread from his sweater.”
For a small fee, classroom subscriptions to a humane education magazine called KIND News,similar to the format of Time for Kids or the Weekly Reader, is available through Red Rover at redrover.org/readers/kind-news-magazine. Students are eager to read the animal-related articles when the subscription comes every six to eight weeks.
Math can be an easy fit for humane education. For example, a humane education math lesson teaches multiples and provides information on the epidemic of pet overpopulation. Annually, six to eight million animals end up in U.S. animal shelters. One unspayed cat can lead to the births of 370,000 cats in just seven years!
The students start with one cat who has four kittens. They chart how in eight months, two of those female kittens are now responsible for the birth of four more kittens each. The lesson follows the population growth, multiplying along the way, for seven years. The math worksheet and the chart, are available for download at TeachKIND, which is listed in the sidebar, allow the children to be engaged and motivated by the math because it is within the context of learning about animals. The HEART resource guide listed in the sidebar has a math lesson on the cost of pet ownership.
Children are also left empowered, learning that there are actions humans can take to help companion animals; in this case, people can spay or neuter pets to prevent overpopulation.
Social studies presents an interesting context in which to explore attitudes toward animals in different cultures. For example, did you know that the national animal of Australia is the kangaroo, and the national animal of Iraq is a kind of partridge? If teachers include animals, and explore the cultural norms surrounding them, educating youngsters about a new nation will be more engaging and motivating.
Animals can lead to deeper learning in geography. Did you know that Feb. 18 is World Whale Day? Founded in Hawaii in 1980, it honors humpback whales which swim off its coast? World Sea Turtle Day is June 16. Sea turtles are found in all oceans, except for the polar regions.
Teaching about the delicate balance in the environment presents one avenue of scientific focus. For example, destruction of habitat has affected black bears, foxes, and deer, and many other species. Humane education science lessons can explore the impacts of human decisions on nonhuman animals and their ecosystems, making the learning more relevant.
Biology is the study of life, a subject truly lending itself to teaching respect for all life. “Project Pigeon Watch,” through the Cornell Ornithology lab, is an international research project in which students can participate. Teachers can take their students on a neighborhood walk, observing pigeon flocks, acquiring data to send back to the lab. Information on this free and valuable humane education opportunity, exposing students to the study of biology, the scientific method, and respect for animals more broadly, is available at this website celebrateurbanbirds.org.
“Project Feeder Watch” is another opportunity for students to transform into real world data collectors for the Cornell lab as well.
Many biology classes include animal dissection in the curriculum, but New Jersey law permits students to choose not to participate in the activity. Computer-based alternatives provide teachers with the opportunity to help their students learn the content while not participating in dissection.
Chemistry can cover lessons on the cruelty-free alternatives to animal testing of the chemical elements in household products and makeup. Humane education can be the broader curricular umbrella your students need to motivate them to do well in a host of science-based learning opportunities including physics, earth sciences and other topics.
Health and physical education teachers can infuse their lessons with information on non-meat alternative foods. A teacher can play “Steal the Tofu,” rather than “Steal the Bacon,” with his or her students in physical education class. Art and music teachers have many lessons they can present as well, which are available from TeachKIND and HEART, found in the sidebar.
Opportunities to connect to current events
Whether it is Cecil the Lion, famously killed by a trophy hunter; Harambe, the zoo gorilla met with a tragic end; or a cow who escapes from the local slaughter house, animals are the focus of ever changing current events, and they have the power to engage our students to be more informed and educated citizens.
Increasingly, it is becoming recognized that wild animals performing tricks in captivity is considered anachronistic and cruel. Bergen County was the first location in New Jersey to ban travelling wild animal acts on its county property in 2016. This past year, when New York City was considering passing a ban on wild animal acts, some teachers used humane education lessons to work with their children to explore how performing animals feel.
The teachers’ lessons focused on critical reasoning, empathy, research skills and language arts. After children researched how lions or elephants behaved in the wild, they learned of the demands made in traveling shows. Through a shared writing lesson (pictured), teachers and students wrote supporting arguments as to why travelling wild animal acts have far from optimal conditions. Reasons included “Babies are taken away from their families” and “They are hurt when they are taught unnatural tricks.”
Students turned those reasons into their own persuasive letters and, with their parents’ permission, sent the letters to the council members in advance of the vote. According to their teachers, the children felt tremendous pride and accomplishment when the New York City Council voted to ban wild animal performances in 2017. The children were motivated and engaged in every part of the lesson and they also helped affect change for the animals.
Improving student behavior
The universal affection for animals leads to societal concern when children are cruel to animals. Many adults who harm others started by perpetrating cruelty on animals when they were younger. Given this behavioral link, starting in 2016, acts of cruelty against animals are now counted in the FBI’s criminal database.
Humane education increases pro-social behaviors because it encourages children to care for animals who are, by definition, vulnerable. Educators can use humane education to model positive and responsible behavior toward animals, possibly helping to curb some societal violence.
According to the Tufts Institute for Human-Animal Interaction, animals facilitate conversation and decrease anxiety. More schools are using these benefits when they arrange for dogs to visit children while they read. The increased reading fluency that is achieved after students participate in a “reading to dogs” program provides one example of the power animals have to impact student learning.
Lastly, if students are provided with the information they need to work together to solve problems affecting animals and the environment, they will feel empowered. An empowered student is a motivated student. Teachers of humane education help encourage student empowerment because many of the activities are designed to have children take ownership of their own learning.
Teachers who are interested in animals will find humane education personally rewarding. However, even those educators who are not “animal people” will do a disservice to their teaching if they do not purposefully include animal-themed lessons. Students are more motivated and engaged to learn the content when humane education is utilized. Also, humane education helps the world become a kinder and more compassionate place.
If you take advantage of free resources and explore the many lessons, you will unlock the benefits of this curriculum. Your motivated and engaged students will learn more effectively and enjoy your classroom more.
Julie Bolkin O’Connor, Ph.D. is an ESL teacher and coordinator for the Cliffside Park Public School district. Additionally, Dr. O’Connor currently serves as the Vice President of The Humane Education Committee, Inc. For further inquiries about using humane education in your classroom, you may contact her at HECommittee@hotmail.com.
Resources for your teaching
Some of the most exciting aspects to humane education are the free materials you can obtain for your classroom and the free standards-aligned lesson plans ready for you to print and teach. These are a few of the easy ways to infuse humane education into your teaching. However, if you just include animals in the topic, there are many more ways you can make your teaching more exciting for your students.
The humane education division at the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
Humane Education Advocates Reaching Teachers (HEART)
This website has an “Animal Focused Humane Education K-12 Teacher Resource Guide,” developed in conjunction with the animal welfare organizations, ASPCA and IFAW.
The Raptor Trust
The Raptor Trust is a wild bird rehabilitation center located in the Millington section of Long Hill Township in Morris County. It hosts field trips where students can learn about the birds of prey that rehabilitate in the facility.
Lakota Wolf Preserve
Located in Columbia, New Jersey, the Lakota Wolf Preserve has educational Wolf Watch tours.
The Tenafly Nature Center
The center is the steward of nearly 400 wooded acres for the purposes of conservation, education and recreation. Located in Bergen County, it hosts school groups.
Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center
Students board an Opportunistic Research Vessel and have the opportunity to become “citizen scientists” while observing marine animals in their natural habitat.
Palmyra Cove Nature Park (PCNP) is a 250 acre urban oasis along a highly developed area on the Delaware River. Habitats included in PCNP are wetlands, woodlands, meadows, wild creek and river shoreline, and freshwater Tidal Cove. By protecting this habitat, PCNP preserves the ecological richness of the local environment.
The Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries
This organization provides accreditation and is a good place to start when looking for field trip ideas.
For a small fee, classroom subscriptions to this humane education magazine are available through Red Rover. Students are eager to read the animal-related articles when the subscription comes every six to eight weeks.