It’s typically considered rude to stick your tongue out at a student. But in Yanel Leroux’s science classroom at PS 112 in Dutch Kills, Queens, there’s an exception made for Flash, the garter snake that peers out from a hollowed rock inside his large tank.
“They love him,” says Leroux. “He helps us easily visualize things like scales, shedding, the food chain and animal habitats. And it gives the students a sense of responsibility to care for him.”
Leroux brought Flash to her classroom by applying for a grant from Pets in the Classroom, a program that gives financial support to pre-K through 9th-grade teachers for small animals to keep in their classrooms. Teachers can choose from among small mammals (such as hamsters and guinea pigs), reptiles and amphibians (such as turtles, frogs and snakes) and aquatic animals (such as fish and hermit crabs).
Pets in the Classroom provides teachers with one initial voucher or rebate to purchase the pet and necessary supplies and then a yearly $50 “sustaining” grant for upkeep.
Jennifer Immello, a pre-K teacher and the chapter leader at PS 112, learned about the grant in the summer of 2021 and encouraged other teachers at the school to apply.
“Having animals in the classroom helps children learn about the needs of living things,” she says.
In PS 112’s 3K classes, where the current unit of study is “Taking Care of Things,” students help care for the class betta fish — obtained through the same grant — and nurture caterpillars as they become butterflies.
Immello’s own pre-K classroom, which is home to four bright fluorescent fish, is also flourishing with plants — another type of living thing for students to grow and care for. To extend the theme, her students planted seeds in yogurt cups recycled from their daily breakfast, painted flowers in art class and transformed the dramatic play area into a flower shop.
The final unit of the yearlong pre-K curriculum revolves around transformation — the way living things grow and change. But the opportunity to interact with a classroom pet can also transform tentative students into confident ones.
A “Pet Corner” bulletin board in Leroux’s classroom features photos of proud students with Flash the snake draped around their shoulders.
“Even students who are nervous at first get comfortable with him,” says Leroux.