The Last-Resort Move That Made My Students Smile
Frances Starn on the Story of Bringing a Bearded Dragon to Class
This piece is part of a series from teachers on the ways their classrooms have changed over the last year. Read others here.
It’s Tuesday night and I am boiling a large rock.
I am not a geologist, nor do I have particular interest in the quartz found across the Piedmont region of my native North Carolina. The explanation is quite simple: I’m teaching during a pandemic.
This time last year, I spent every day teaching my high school classes on Zoom. I had been so excited to decorate a classroom; I pictured a space full of color, noise, and laughter. Instead, I was working with the floor of my living room, the blank, black screens of students with their cameras off, and a lethargic chat box. Students once told me they were ready for a challenge with an eager smile while hunched shoulders said, “Please, not today.” The valuable communication of their body language was replaced with the electronic ping of a user entering the Zoom room, cutting through the dim quiet of my house.
Nine months later, we returned to the building for “hybrid” teaching—while some students attended in person, most chose to stay online. I was assigned my first classroom, a sunny room on the first floor next to the copy room, with two large windows looking out onto a grassy field. It was April; the pear trees bloomed with white flowers and the band practiced outside. I wanted my students to want to be there.
I immediately set to work making the room my own: I ripped down old math posters and painted the back wall an earthy light green. I put plants in the window. I hung the pirate Blackbeard’s flag. Then, I waited.I applied for a grant from Pets in the Classroom. They sent a coupon for half off a tiny reptile.
The in-person students came in nervously. There were only a few. “It’s so good to finally see you,” I told them. They taped their work to the walls and we sat together. It was a start, but the school year sputtered out unceremoniously and I said goodbye to students I never met. My first year of teaching was over.
This August, Target refilled its shelves with back-to-school plastics and my class rosters populated with students I now see every day, behind masks, in person. This year, I have decided that joy is at the center of my practice. In my lesson plans, the learning activities welcome fun and whimsy—I added more color, filled woven baskets with snacks, and plugged in an air freshener.
Back to the rock. I had decided to get a class pet: another life to communicate with, not through chat boxes or unmuted microphones, but with body language and soft movement. When I floated the idea to my students, I was set on fish: easy, relaxing.
“Fish are boring!” the teenagers cried.
“I guess… you’re right,” I replied. Without thinking, I asked, “What about a bearded dragon?”
The vote was unanimous, 86-0. I applied for a grant from Pets in the Classroom, an organization that helps teachers finance class pets. They sent a coupon for half off a tiny reptile, a free starter kit setup, and crickets.
The rock, sterilized and boiled free of contaminants, is in the enclosure of an orange and green baby bearded dragon. It’s the size of my palm. Kayla, a kind PetSmart employee, walked me through the basics of care. I asked how she would show young people who had never been around a reptile to care for it. “Be gentle,” she said, “and if it begins to move, don’t grip and squeeze—move your hands and create a bridge.”
I teach Civics; there are no obvious connections between the government and this tiny life we now hold. But teachers fill classrooms with more than just content. This pet creates a community, teaching the skill and necessity of caring for the ones around us.
We welcomed our bearded dragon with handmade signs. One reads, “Welcome! It’s Good to Finally See You!” The students whisper to it when I’m not looking. They come at lunch just to stare. I read their body language. Some stand back, interested but not yet prepared to be close. Others hold their palms open, confident and ready.
I’m not the best teacher, but I try to be gentle. As I feel my students moving, I’ll create bridges and try not to hold on too tight.