Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Introducing Rats as a Classroom Pet

How to Purchase and Introduce Rats to Your Classroom

 Being the new kid in class can be a hard, and difficult adjustment even if you are a rat. We got our rats March 27th. The date is burned into my 3rd graders' brains because to an 8 or 9 year old it was very a long journey from our decision to get rats as a classroom pet, to when they finally joined our class.

First, the students had to write persuasive letters convincing me to get a classroom pet. Then, we (I) had to do the research. Next, we needed a large cage, accessories, food, bedding, etc. for the rats. I didn't want to get any classroom pets if I couldn't provide a safe, healthy, and enriching environment for them. Since my classroom budget was spent, I gave Donor's Choose a shot. (You can check out what my project looked like at this link). Less than a week later, we had funding to get rats. Who knew so many people loved rats, and wanted to teach others about them?

Good Places to Purchase Pet Rats

Now our only problem was where to get the rats? I had done my research and knew that I wanted to buy my rats from a breeder, or adopt them from the local Humane Society. However there were no reputable breeders selling at the time, and no rescue rats to adopt. Luckily for me, my rat expert, Jessi Castaneda, from Animal Wonders, was teaching about animals in my classroom and had just had three litters of rat kits. She was going to give us two girls! Yeah! I was so excited, and so was my class until...they found out that we had to wait for 6 weeks to get our girls. Why? They couldn't understand why we couldn't just have the babies right then and there. It was a great teachable moment to remind my students that rats were mammals and needed to drink milk from their mother until they were old enough to move onto solid food. Plus, baby rats need time to learn to be a rat from their mother.  Soon we had some photos of potential babies.

Jessi was an amazing breeder to get rats from. She suggested that the criteria for our potential girls would be that they were healthy, plump, and that their mom's were good, nurturing, mother rats. Good mother rats have baby rats that are well adjusted and calm. Jessi handled the potential babies every day. This is an important thing to ask any breeder about your rats. Were they handled, and are they comfortable being held?

Types of Rats

The look of the rats didn't really matter to me, I just wanted them to be gentle and have a good-nature around my students. However, Jessi pointed out, that since we were trying to readjust people's attitudes about rats that choosing cute rats probablywouldn't hurt.

Dumbo Rat (Pip)
We had a few choices on what our rats would look like. Jesse had dumbo rats, top eared rats, rex rats, and hairless rats. Dumbo rats have ears that are lower, rounder, and larger on the sides of their heads. Some people claim that dumbo rats have a sweeter disposition than top eared rats because they are bred purely to be people's pets. Top eared rats, on the other hand, may have been bred to become feeders for snakes, and may not have received the handling or attention that a dumbo rat received. Breeders may have also given a little more thought into the parents of a dumbo rat. The parents are more likely to have been chosen because of their sweet and gentle nature.

Ear types, by the way, are purely aesthetic. They do not benefit or harm the rats. A litter of rats may have both top eared babies and dumbo eared babies. In fact, my rats, Pip and Squeak, are sisters. Pip is a dumbo rat and Squeak is a top eared rat. I also have to add that in my experience, which isn't vast, there isn't a difference in their disposition. Squeak (my top eared rat) is just as sweet and as cuddly as Pip (my dumbo rat).

Top eared rats have ears that stand up on the tops of their heads.This is the dominant type of ear that wild rats are born with. 

Top Eared Rat (Squeak)

Rex Rat
 Rex rats have curly fur and whiskers. Rex rats are unique and softer than standard coated rats. Their coats may change as they grow older, and may become a bit patchy in places. Female Rex rats may also because less curly as they age, but their whiskers will always be curly.

Jessi also had hairless rats, but she didn't think that my students, or their parents especially, were quite ready for a hairless rat yet.

Jessi showing us how to hold our rats.

On March 27, 2017 Jessi graciously brought the rats to my classroom. She also gave us an amazing lesson about keeping rats as a pet. She taught the students how to hold the rats, how to read their body
language, and how to keep them happy and healthy. She demonstrated to the students how to let the rats treadmill between your hands if they are feeling active when you are holding them, and how to avoid grabbing them from over the top of their bodies. To a rat, a large hand reaching in looks like a predator's claw descending. It is much better, and less stressful, for a rat to be scooped up from underneath his/her body. It is also very, very important to never pick a rat up by her tail.  You can cause serious damage to a rat's spine if you try and pick them up in this manner.

After the presentation we had to vote on which rats we wanted. We had a choice on four little girls: a dumbo eared, agouti rat with a standard coat, a top eared, gray rat with a standard coat, a top eared hooded rat, and a dumbo eared, agouti rat with a rex coat.

Our four choices

Of course the students wanted all four, but our rat cage just wasn't big enough for more than two rats. In the end, the students picked Pip, a dumbo eared, agouti colored rat, and her sister, Squeak, a top eared, hooded rat.  A hooded rat has a solid color on its head, and a stripe down its back.Squeak has a gray hood and a rather spotty stripe down her back.



Bonding With Your Rats in a Classroom Setting

Squeak peeking out of my hood
The first two days we had Pip and Squeak we didn't bother them in their cage. We just let them get used to their new environment, the smells, and the sounds of a 3rd grade classroom. I was the only one in the room that handled the rats in the very beginning. I really didn't want Pip or Squeak to think of a hand in their cage as a bad thing, so I tried to persuade them to come to me with treats. You can persuade rats to do lots of things with treats. Pip and Squeak love baby rice puffs, especially the sweet potato flavored. After lots of treats, Pip and Squeak were running to the cage door whenever I entered the room, and to my hands to grab a tasty treat.

When the students were out of the classroom, I would let the rats sit in my lap while I typed on my computer, or snuggle up in the hood of a sweatshirt I kept in class just for this purpose. I wanted them to get used to my smell, and also see that I was a person they could trust. You can actually get quite a good deal done with rats snuggled up in the hood of your sweatshirt.

After the first few days, I let two students at a time stay in during recess and play with the rats. The students would spend time letting the rats smell them, and climb on them when they felt like it. We also set up some enrichment environments for Pip and Squeak to explore. Soon Pip and Squeak became used to just about anyone handling them. Now they love to sit on student's shoulders, and hide behind their hair, or burrow into a hood or sweatshrit pocket.

I was really nervous about introducing the rats to my classroom. I worried that the rats wouldn't bond with us. I worried that a student would get bit or hurt by the rats. I worried that maybe a classroom wasn't a good environment for rats to live in. However, due to research, a great, educated breeder, and lots of patience and effort from my students, I think Pip and Squeak have found an enriching and loving home.

Here is a wonderful video put together by Animal Wonders on rats. If you enjoy learning about animals and their care, then please subscribe to their You Tube Channel.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Importance of Educational Friendships

This is patio seating at an airport. On our way back from NCCE.

“You can't stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.” 
― A.A. MilneWinnie-the-Pooh

Piglet Needs Pooh to Get Him Out on an Adventure

My friend and teaching colleague, Deanna, is the Pooh to my Piglet when it comes to educational opportunities. She's heard there's educational honey somewhere, and has decided that we are going to out to find it. She's not intimidated by the Heffalumps or the Woozles that could  stand in our way.She doesn't care that Rabbit or Eeyore has told her no, once, twice, or maybe many times. She isn't even bothered by the fact that we might walk around in circles for a long period of time on our way there. Twice she and I ended up on the Canadian border while trying to navigate to and from educational conferences, none of which were in Canada by the way, but that is another story.

Don't Just Look at the Honey Pot, Eat Some Honey!

Every teacher needs a colleague that gets him/her out of their comfort zone. We all need that extra push sometimes to feel brave enough to try something new, or ask for something that we know will benefit our classroom and our students. I need my friend Deanna for inspiration because my nature as a teacher is to bury myself in books and ideas. I study them, and I read about them, and I ask so many questions that the task can seem overwhelming. Instead of acting, I can often sit on my idea, and before I know it, that is all it ever is, an idea, that I never tried. Before Deanna started to work at my school, I often felt too timid to get out there and dip my paw/hoof in the actual honey pot. 

Deanna has a different approach as an educator. She grabs a hold of an idea, and simply says I'm doing it, and your coming with me.  She's so confident that I become convinced that not only should I go with her, but that I should, and can, become a part of the action. 

The first Googlefest that I attended, I became a presenter because of Deanna. I had never been to a Google training before, I didn't have any experience as a presenter, and I didn't have an idea for a presentation. However, because of Deanna's confidence, all of those things didn't matter. She didn't know exactly what she was going to present either, in fact a lot of the presenters were fine-tuning, or coming up with new ideas to add to their presentations the night before the conference. I learned that a person doesn't have to be an expert to teach other people something. Sure I wasn't a master of the Google Apps, but I did know more than many other teachers. I could use docs, slides, drawing and forms. I had created lessons and activities for my students, and used them in the classroom. I presented The Collaborative Classroom with Deanna, and while I don't think I blew any one's mind with my presentation, I did get to network, learn amazing activities from other presenters, and more importantly feel like I was a part of the educational community.

Don't Be Afraid to Ask For Things

Deanna has also taught me to not be afraid to ask for things. She convinced me to ask for an ipad when I was attending a tech conference.  In the registration application you could check whether you wanted your school to include an ipad or a chromebook in your registration fee. Being the polite, budget-minded teacher I was, I hadn't checked that option. I thought it was enough that the school was just letting me attend the conference. Why not just ask? Deanna prompted me. The worst they can do is say no. So I reluctanly followed her advice, and guess what? They didn't say no.  I got an ipad for my classroom.  That ipad made it possible for my students to create story trailers in my reading classes, write and perform commercials in English, bring poems to life ,  film examples of camera shots, create imovies, and so much more. My students wouldn't have gotten to do any of those things if I had stayed quiet and not asked for the ipad.

Sometimes teachers get upset because they didn't get a piece of technology for their classroom, or they didn't get to go to attend a conference that they really thought sounded amazing. However, many times those teachers never requested to go to the conference. They never wrote a letter about how they would use the technology in their classroom, or even talked to anyone about what they wanted. They are baffled by losing out on an opportunity that they never let anyone know that they wanted. Our administrators are not clairvoyants. If  you are really passionate about learning something, or getting an opportunity, or resources for your classroom, the very least we can do as teachers is ask.

Don't Give Up When You Fail, or You're Told No

Pooh Bear doesn't give up when his plans for honey fail. When Pooh falls out of the tree, he doesn't go home and cry, he finds another way towards his goal. He disguises himself as a little black rain cloud, borrows a balloon from Christopher Robin, and gives it another shot.

 Deanna taught me how to keep fighting for what you really want for your students and your school. She wanted our school to adopt Google Classroom when it was first introduced, but the administration didn't want to open up our domain to make it possible. So Deanna convinced me to buy a domain of our own, and go rogue with Google Classroom. That fall our middle school was up and using Google Classroom long before many other schools had even heard about it. 

When she wanted chromebooks in our classrooms she did the research, she looked for deals, she wrote letters, she gave presentations, she made phone calls, she got in some arguments, and she asked over and over and over again until it happened. Our school is currently 1 on 1 with chromebooks grades 3-5th grade.

3rd Graders working hard on their chromebooks.

As I write this I'm wondering a little bit why Pooh needs Piglet at all. Maybe he likes bouncing his ideas off of someone else, maybe at times it is good for Pooh to pause and hear Piglet's words of caution, or maybe its just more fun to go on adventure with someone else. Whatever the reason, I'm glad that I have a Pooh Bear to help get me motivated, stop me from being scared to try something new, and to go onto educational adventures with.

NCCE Conference

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Rats, the Perfect Classroom Pet?

                                                                    May 25, 2017

I know what you're thinking...rats are the perfect classroom pet, are you crazy? You might also be thinking ewww, or yuck, or they seem kind of cute, but the tails, no thanks. You might have a bunch of questions about rats like: Aren't they dirty? Don't they carry nasty diseases? Rats are mean, right? Should rats even be around kids? I have to be honest and tell you that I had a similar reaction when the idea of rats as a classroom pet was first suggested to me, but it turns out my preconceptions of rats were all wrong.

We had just finished reading I Wanna Iguana by Karen Kaufman Orloff.If you haven't read the book to your class, you should. It is funny, engaging, and has hilarious illustrations that the students adore. It also is an excellent example of how to write a persuasive letter using different forms of persuasion. The story is about a little boy who persuades his mom to let him have his friend's iguana as a pet through a series of letters. I had my students write me a persuasive letter last year persuading me to get a classroom pet.  

We didn't have a class pet at the time, and based on my students letters, we got two pets, a beta fish named Percy, and a black mystery snail named Lord Hades. They were excellent classroom pets. They were quiet, cheap, easy to take care of, and they didn't smell bad. Well, at least Percy didn't. Snails actually sort of smell bad when they live in a fish bowl, even when we dilligently cleaned the bowl once a week. The biggest problem with both Percy and Lord Hades was that they really didn't do much, the students couldn't really interact with them, and then they had both just died. Perfect I thought, we will write another round of letters and replace our dead pets.

Only I didn't anticipate the kindness and concern of my students. One of my 3rd grade boys was so worried about the loss of our fish and snail that he went out over the weekend and had his generous parents buy us replacements. Problem solved, I thought, but the rest of the class was not convinced. What other pets was I going to get? They had just written their letters, and now there was no need to get another fish or a snail. I couldn't reneage on my promise. I had told them if they wrote the letters I would get them a new class pet. Hmmm...I needed to do some research.

Luckily I had an animal expert coming into my classroom once a week. Animal Wonders, an amazing, exotic, animal rescue group was teaching my 3rd graders about animal classificiations, life cycles, adaptations, survival, and more by bringing in a variety of animals they had rescued into my classroom and teaching us all about them.  I asked Jesse Castaneda, who runs the program, her advice. She had plenty of experience with animals.  Animal Wonders takes care of  porcupines, foxes, a dwarf bunny, small snakes, and big snakes, raptors, parakeets, a cavy from South America, a blue tongued skink, and many more.  Surely Jesse would know what would be the best pet. Her answer, however, was not was I was expecting. I was thinking she'd suggest a cute bunny, tiny box turtles, or  a gerbil or hamster. Jesse said hands-down her number one choice for a classroom pet would be rats. Rats? I needed some convincing, and hear is what I found out.

Rats Aren't Dirty Animals

First of all rats aren't dirty at all, they are very clean animals.  They groom themselves much like a cat. In fact they groom themselves more than cats do everyday. I think it is kind of funny because rats must think that humans are pretty dirty creatures because every time we handle our classroom rats they go into major cleaning mode as soon as they get back in their cage. Apparently, the oil on our skin bothers them, and must be thoroughly washed away as soon as possible. If you have rats you will soon see how much time they spend cleaning themselves and each other. The side benefit of all of this cleaning is how adorable they look cleaning their faces and whiskers.

Rats can also be litter box trained. If you put a litter box in their cage, it is really easy to clean everything up. They also don't smell bad. I would describe their body smell to be similar to a cat.  My classroom does not have the pet smell I was scared that rats would bring. The only time a rat smells bad is when their cage hasn't been cleaned. This, according to Jesse my animal expert, is unlike cute, fluffy bunnies. Bunny urine is very potent and super strong. If you want your classroom to stink-get a bunny.

Pet Rats Don't Carry Nasty Diseases

Just like domesticated cats, dogs, horses, etc. are different than their wild bretheran domesticated rats are too. Rats have been domesticated for quite some time. Back in Victorian England a rat was considered the perfect pet for a young lady. So while you don't want to cuddle and kiss a wild rat that you find in a sewer, the pet rat you purchase from a pet store or a breeder isn't going to make you or your students sick. Turtles on the other hand carry salmonella. It will exist in turtle feces for their whole lives and continually be a part of their water and aquarium. Students should not handle pet turtles in the classroom.

Rats are Easy and Cheap
Rats don't cost a lot of money to buy. They range from anywhere to free to about $12.  Places like Craigslist, or your local humane society often carry rats. Large chains like Petsmart and Petco also sell rats. However, due to some breeder changes they don't sell rats in Montana any more. I got my rats from Jesse at Animal Wonders, but there are also lots of breeders in any area if you search them out.
Pip as a tiny kit. 

The intial cost of the cage might be a little expensive. You need a cage that has 2 full levels, 3 is better and is at least  24"x24", or 32"x18". A good cage will cost between around $60-200. I purchased mine by applying for a Donor's Choose grant, but I have seen lots of cages on Craigslist for around $50 to $80.  Rats eat a rodent lab block that contains all their nutrional needs and is low in cost. They also need a water bottle, I recommend a glass bottle so that your rats don't chew through it. Since rats like to burrow and need a hiding place to feel comfortable, you might want to purchase a soft place for them to cuddle like the bear hammock my rats have, or just buy scrap fleece at a craft store and cut it up and let them play with it and under it. Rats are rodents, which means their teeth are constantly growing. Rats need something to chew on.  You can buy wooden toys and chews for your rats, but they also love chewing cardboard.If you have an extra box lying around, or an empty Kleenex box, you have an instant rat toy, and your rats will love it. I buy most of my rat accessories, cages, and toys from Amazon. I would recommend reading the reviews of the products because they gave me great ideas, and gave me a good sense of what products would work best for rats and which ones wouldn't.

Rats are Intelligent and Social

This rat video shows amazing rat tricks. **These are not my rats. 

Rats can be trained to do all sorts of tricks. They come to their names when they are called. They will fetch a tiny ball, they can turn around in circles, or stand. I've even seen them deftly conquer small obstacle courses. In a way, they are like little dogs. 

Rats are also sociable. They enjoy cuddling and interacting with the students and each other.By the way, if you are going to get rats as a class pet or as any type of pet for that matter you must have at least two rats. Rats need companionship, and even though they enjoy human pettings and snuggles they require a rat buddy to play with, groom and socialize. 
Pip and Squeak

Rats also don't tend to bite. They are gentle and curious about a hand in their cage. I have found that our rats will sniff our hands, take food from our hands, and sometimes even lick our hands, but they won't bite them.  I have been bit by my pet cats and pet dogs, but never by my rats. That doesn't mean that a pet rat won't ever bite, but as a general rule they don't. Domestic rats have been bred to be used in experiments, or as companion pets. Therefore, a docile, friendly nature is a quality that is bred for in rats.

Classroom Engagement
The rats have garnered a ton of classroom engagement. Two students play and handle the rats each recess. Students clean the rats' cage and feed the rats. The rats have been the subject of many classroom poems and creative stories. For a STEAM activity, the students created enrichment mazes, boxes, and toys for the rats to interact with out of cardboard. 
The beginning of a three-level rat maze.

My students have also become rat ambassadors.  They teach students in other classes, other teachers, guests to our classroom, and their parents all about the misconceptions people have about rats.  I have watched my students teach countless guests in our classroom how to hold the rats, what kind of rats we have, what rats like and don't like, what kind of habitat they need, and even show them how their tails aren't hairless as most people think, and how they really don't feel icky at all. The best part is watching students teach their parents to give the rats a chance. Parents tend to be the most nervous around our pets, and I love hearing the students calm them down and show them how to be gentle and calm so that our rats aren't scared of them.

The rats perch on student's shoulders during Mystery Skypes, and cuddle in the hoodies of their sweatshirts whenever they get a chance. They are great reading companions for when my students read-to-self, and I have seen them put a smile on a student's face who is just having a rough day.

My students love our rats, and I do too. If you want a classroom pet that promotes student engagement, responsibilty, learning, and fun, then I  would highly recommend looking into rats. I have to admit they really are the perfect classroom pet.

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