KINGSBURG – When you think of helping with a teacher outfit their classroom, you may automatically think of books, microscopes or art supplies. To help her third graders learn about responsibility though, one Kingsburg elementary teacher was in need of something else – a very small house.

It was the end of the previous school year when Lincoln Elementary teacher Lauren Sembritzki brought Beans the Rat into her class as a project.

“When I was growing up, my mom would always have pets in her classroom. So, I was really excited to get our own because I love animals. I asked Principal [Matt] Stovall if that would be alright and he said ‘yes.’”

To help students learn about responsibility and teamwork, Sembritzki has them take turns with a number of tasks in the class each week, including serving as the animal keeper.

That week’s animal helper was Lyla Glover. As soon as she put some rat food in the small container on the top level, Beans wiggled his whiskers before climbing up a ladder to get a nibble. He quickly returned to his house on the first level to finish the morsel of food.

“When it’s your turn, you feed Beans daily, fill his water and help clean out his cage,” Glover said.

Beans typically comes out to exercise on Wednesdays and Fridays and gets passed from student to student. The more he’s handled, the tamer he’ll be.

“He’s really tame now. He’s had a lot of exposure with the kids,” Sembritzki said. “We also take him and even do deployment where students from other classes will come in during the day. We take him out then, too. Some of it is incentive. If they’re having good behavior and are on task, Beans is allowed to come out and play. It’s like a reward. And then it’s the responsibility of making sure he has water and food.”

Being a rat, Beans likes to chew. Unfortunately, he damaged his housing and it needed to be replaced. While Sembritzki could have just purchased that using her own money, she’s like any number of teachers who could literally spend themselves out of a paycheck if they bought all the extras they’d like for their students.

“I can think of a million things I’d love to buy for this classroom,” she said. “We do get a lot of funding for other projects and materials from the school, but this is typically stuff we’d spend our own money on, or it’s things we wouldn’t be able to get for our class unless it was donated. It’s really nice to have this since it provides the extra learning opportunity for students.”

Instead, she turned to a website developed by Bronx high school teacher Charles Best in 2000. DonorsChoose.org helps public school teachers create classroom project requests where supporters can donate whatever amount they’d like until a project is fully funded.

Sembritzki previously turned to DonorsChoose to provide child-sized flexible seating options of exercise balls and bean bags for her students.

Most recently, she asked help keeping Beans safely contained in a new house and so he could keep adding to the classroom experience.

“The previous cage was broken. He’d bit through the wires of the cage and he was going to be able to sneak out.”

Third grader Brynn Palsgaard predicted if that were to happen, they’d all feel frustrated and sad as they have all worked together to exercise Beans and take care of him.

“He could be anywhere. This is a big school. He’s very safe right here.”

Glover said they’d miss Beans if he were to get out since he lifts their mood just by being in the class.

“Anytime you’re sad or you’re down, he’s always there for you to cheer you up. When class is kind of boring, he makes it more fun.”

To let Beans get fresh air and exercise, Glover said the students sometimes brings Beans outside, sit in a circle and watch him as he runs around.

“He sniffs around but if there’s a gap between our legs, he tries to escape. If he gets scared, he’ll pee and once he almost pooped on me.”

Ironically, the students don’t even mind when it’s time to clean out Beans’ bedding. In fact, they’re beginning to realize it’s a much-needed task to keep their entire classroom pleasant.

“It stinks so much you could almost go blind from the smell. It stinks a lot,” classmate Maverick Morisson said when they open up the container. “I’m willing to do it because number one, he’s adorable and number two, it’s got to be clean so we can see him.”

So while one student holds on to Beans or puts him a small carrier, the others take turns dumping out the soiled bedding into the trash can.

It’s because of an anonymous donor that they have a new safe cage, fresh bedding and food for Beans.

“That was really nice,” Sembritzki said of the unnamed donor who funded the full amount of this project. “The students were super excited. Part of the DonorsChoose requirement is that you send thank you notes so all the students wrote hand-written notes. They thanked [the donor] for the supplies and told them why they enjoyed having him in the classroom.”

They’ve also posted pictures of Beans in his new home so the donor can see their donation in action, she said.

“We’ve just loved having him for the sake of the kids learning responsibility. It’s funny because it’s a gross job, but they’ll beg to clean out his cage. They all want to do it and help out with him. We’ve also had different opinion writings and, depending on the topic, they’ll use him in their writing and other little projects. He really is a part of the class.”

In her advice for next year’s students, Palsgaard warns that since Beans may want to jump, they need to be cautious and pay attention as they hold him.

“If you put him on your shoulders, he might want to jump, but we can’t let or he might hurt himself really bad. Sometimes, he does get very shy. [The students] have to be brave, too, because you have to clean all his potty out. We just dump the cage over the trash can.”

In her DonorsChoose post, Sembritzki listed different ways that pets can enrich the classroom:

  • Even kids with no exposure to animals or nature in their home environment can see, feel, touch and make connections to the wide world of animals.
  • Observing and caring for an animal instills a sense of responsibility and respect for life.
  • A pet brings increased sensitivity and awareness of the feelings and needs of others-both animals and humans.
  • Kids learn that all living things need more than just food and water for survival.
  • Students will see directly how their behavior and actions affect others.
  • Studies show that the presence of animals tends to lessen tension in the classroom.

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The reporter can be reached at 583-2427 or lbrown@selmaenterprise.com.

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