The academic and social-emotional benefits of caring for chickens at school has been on Jessica Hagen's mind for years. As our Outdoor Science Education & Elementary Coordinator, she's been excited to finally introduce chickens into The Montessori School Elementary program. The lessons have been plentiful and exciting, to say the least!
"Caring for chickens is relatively easy. The cost is minimal and the rewards are plenty. Around five years ago, a small group of students showed interest in raising chickens at TMS. My family had chickens throughout my childhood and I loved them, so I was entirely on board with the student project proposal. However, there were some logistical barriers and the chicken project was stalled. Fast forward to 2022. The pandemic was hard on everyone and we recognized that we all needed extra emotional support. That's where Uncle Jim, Invisible, Marshmallow, '55 Cadillac, Popcorn, and Snowball come in. Note: the chickens each have about ten names, but these names seem to be repeated most often. The chicks spent a week in my apartment and then I moved them to the classroom where we raised them until they were ready to move to the coop outdoors. While indoors the chickens enjoyed being sung to, read to, oohed and aahed over, observed, and hand fed. We added curricular elements to daily chicken observations and voila, we have a multitude of important practical life lessons and are able to observe the obvious calming and therapeutic effect the chickens had on both the students and staff. The chickens bring us so much joy!
One student in particular, has really taken interest in learning to care for the chickens. Emily, age 9, has been holding and talking to these chickens since day one. Only a few children will confidently pick up and hold the chickens, and Emily has shown a big interest. She says that having chickens at school makes her days at school better than usual. "They're fluffy. It feels really good to have them here." Emily is responsible for feeding them, checking for eggs, and helping clean up after them. She even gives lessons independently to other students who are interested in learning to care for the chickens.
Henry, age 9, recently expressed an interest in the chickens so Emily spent part of the morning teaching him how to check for and remove eggs. Emily patiently coached him through it and noted, "Joey Ramone, our rooster, is usually right there when we go to take them. He's protective of the eggs." Jessica adds that this what they hoped for when they added a rooster to the flock recently.
Emily adds, "I took the last batch of eggs home, and we cooked and ate them!" Emily's parents see endless benefits of having access to chickens at school. Her dad, Jim, shares:
The chicken stories coming home are endlessly entertaining. Moreover, they show Emily’s growth in so many ways. Obviously, we’re learning a lot of new chicken facts. Green eggs? Who knew? Even cooking- she made us breakfast the other morning. But it goes beyond that. Stewardship and empathy. Taking care of those chickens really matters to her… understanding what their needs are, what their personalities are, and kind of their core chicken-ness. Responsibility. She understands the importance of taking proper care. She knows they need her attention to thrive and survive. It matters to her. Peer leadership and mentorship. She loves helping her friends properly handle the chickens and care for them. And pride. Not boastful, rather knowing she has accomplished a stretch challenge. She recognizes she is growing, and doing good in the world.
Jessica notes that Emily, with Henry's assistance, will track the daily egg count. They'll notice there will soon be less eggs as we get less light. "We layer in a ton of other curricular components- egg life cycle, chicken life cycle, anatomy, anything you can think of that connects."
Henry says he's excited to learn more and get to be part of daily chicken tasks. "I love having them here and would not like it if they left."
Anne Wester, Willow Lead Guide (Lower Elementary), sat down with us to explain a recent project the Elementary students have been working on.
"The Elementary program recently got two new sets of SRA cards for our language work. SRA works so well with Montessori because it's self-guided and has leveled selections. It's essentially about developing confident readers who are working at the right level and moving at their own pace."
SRA sets help to:
"We finally got a set that included our emergent readers (those who are reading about three letter words). The SRA uses pictures in this set. We noticed, in our very first set of our brand new 2022 box that they used gender binary pictures. For example, the student looks at a picture and is supposed to decide which cartoon character is the father, which is a girl, which is a queen. The kids got fired up about it. The intention is to contact McGraw Hill and figure out who we should focus our letters to. They have an Equity Advisory Board and we think we’ll start with the head of that. The sixth years will use this as a persuasive writing lesson to teach them how to be heard when they feel passionate about making a change- in this case, a change for more gender-inclusivity in their materials. You can see we are fixing these for the time being. The images that depict gender binaries are being covered up with objects instead. Repetition of images helps the emergent readers so if they see these objects multiple times it works well. In this case here, an image where you are supposed to pick out a cartoon of a father is getting covered with images of pants and a belt."
Charlie Avink, a sixth year student at The Montessori School, shared his perspective as a student:
“I don’t want to say they didn’t try or intentionally overlooked people who are non-binary or transgender. It can just be better. They can edit the problematic ones. The other SRAs have bigger problems, but this is still an issue and it's not good enough. It’s brand new so you would think they could just not include something like this. Instead, use more objects like maps or boxes instead of a woman or a man. Because it tells us 'A woman is supposed to look like this, a king is supposed to look like that.' You don’t know who is reading it. They are assuming someone will look like the image on the card. Say I said, 'My friend here is a boy because he has short hair and looks like one to me.' But I don’t know that! I didn’t ask him his pronouns. It has to do with how you feel. I identify as a boy but maybe my friend here doesn’t - you can’t assume those things and it’s imprinting on children that a boy or a girl is supposed to look this way, or you have to be one or the other in the first place. I’m proud of them for making improvements from the last set to this one but they still have more work to do. If they could just stop production and fix those issues, that would mean a lot to us."
Students in the classroom are helping The Montessori School advance our commitments of being an Anti-Bias, Anti-Racist community where all children and adults feel validated and celebrated in their identities. We thank the Elementary program for their work on this project to ensure classroom materials are reflective of that.