Classroom critters

HANCOCK COUNTY — On a recent afternoon, students in Lynn Hartley’s fourth-grade class were given a special assignment: Describe Flapjack.

The students gathered in a circle with their iPads. After they calmly sat on the floor, Hartley placed the classroom pet in the center.

Flapjack, a desert turtle, started to slowly make his way from student to student. The students at McCordsville Elementary took turns touching Flapjack’s hard shell, his soft legs and semi-sharp claws. Their assignment was to use their tactile sense to help think of descriptive words to characterize the pet.

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Teachers from across Hancock County use classroom pets such as Flapjack to teach students lessons every day. Some teachers said the pets help students conquer fears and learn responsibility. Hartley likes to use Flapjack as a way to help immerse students in their lessons at school, hopefully making the learning experience more fun for younger children.

Lumpy, bumpy, scaly and coarse were just some of the words the students started to shout from the circle. Students are always more energetic about class work when Flapjack is involved, she said.

“I’ve always thought that every classroom should have a pet,” Hartley said. “It helps make the learning experience more interactive and engaging.”

She’s not alone in her thinking.

Chris Vetters, a fifth-grader teacher at St. Michael School in Greenfield, has kept pets in the classroom since her first year teaching 15 years ago. The first pet she bought was a ball python, and it’s still alive today.

She chose a ball python not just because the breed is social and docile but because she wanted to give her students a chance to have a new experience in a safe place.

“I wanted something that could help someone get over a fear,” Vetters said. “These snakes make great pets, and the students love them.”

Recently, Vetters also purchased a sugar glider, a small marsupial that resembles a flying squirrel. Named after one of Disney’s flying cartoon characters, Peter Pan is slowing becoming socialized.

Care for the animals, from feeding to cleaning cages, is a shared effort. The entire class has the responsibility of taking care of all the animals’ needs.

Those values are something Hartley also hopes to instill in her students.

“It’s awesome to give them the opportunity to take care of something other than themselves,” Hartley said. “It helps teach responsibly.”

Darcy Rund, a fifth-grade teacher at Brandywine Elementary School, agreed, adding the kinds of lessons students learn while caring for a class pet can’t be learned from a textbook.

Animal care duties in Rund’s classroom are passed from student to student each week. Not only do students feed the class gecko, Kiwi, they also clean the pet’s cage, and sometimes students also take home the pet over long breaks.

“This animal helps make us a family,” Rund said. “It helps bring everyone together.”

Her students, along with others in Hancock County schools, seemed to have no problem with the additional classroom responsibilities attached to the pets. Each one seemed to take an immense amount of pride when feeding the animals, even — as in Kiwi the gecko’s case — if it meant touching live crickets.

Chase Ankney, 10, became so enthused he actually began catching and bringing in crickets from home for Kiwi to enjoy.

Picking up after the pets isn’t a problem, either, for student.

McCordsville Elementary School student Cristian Etchison, 10, said he is happy to help, as the small tasks mean more time with the animal.

No sooner had the words popped from his mouth than Flapjack had an accident.

There were shrieks from some students and shrill giggles from the others, but Cristian was calm.

He shrugged it off and said with a smirk, “That’s OK; it means he likes me.”