It's our 2001 homeschool graduation ceremony in Pittsburgh PA, and the first student speaker of the evening is addressing the crowd of about 400 family members and friends of the graduates. Dane talks about the many ways he feels he will be very ready for his upcoming year at Grove City College - but then he wonders about something pretty important. Will he actually be able to read a novel without his cat sitting on his lap purring contentedly? Will he really be able to focus on math when he doesn't have a cat sitting directly on the textbook, or at least with its tail placed strategically right on the problem Dane was working on right then?
The audience laughed along with Dane, as I did - but it got me thinking. Yes, pets are a pretty big part of homeschooling for many families. They often take part in all we do, just like the toddlers who try to look in the microscope being used by an older sister. They are there for moral support and comfort too - a warm friend on a cold morning or an enthusiastic companion for a walk in the woods. And for many homeschoolers, pets become even more - they can actually become part of the curriculum.
Math and Pets
I think of Dane's younger brother, Drew, who likes to make up original math word problems and share them with me during his portfolio evaluation meeting each spring. And what are these problems about? His pets, often enough. Drew imagines funny problems related how many kittens they'll have in five years if each year Miss Kitty has 3 female kittens, who all survive, and the next year they all have three female kitties again, and so on; to how quickly his cat Nighty will zip from the basement up to his bedroom up the stairs (a journey that usually takes 2 minutes) if Nighty finds seven cat treats along the way, which each slow him down for 15 seconds.
Peter, a 10-year-old homeschooler, once shared the following amusing problem with me, great for the kid who is just learning about beginning multiplication:
"For a spring project my sister Rowena hatched 11 chicks. Cupcake our dog had 7 puppies. Liza's fish had 3 baby fish that survived. For all the new arrivals this spring, how many legs were there?"
And of course most kids get a chuckle over the purposely distracting info about the fish - they obviously add in zero legs.
Writing About Pets
Then there are all the wonderful stories I've read by homeschoolers about their pets, written in many different formats. My daughter Hannah, as a rather sophisticated 13-year-old this past year, could still have great fun writing from the point of view of one of our cats telling about the recent time two cats accompanied Hannah and me on a long hike, only to get lost and very tired along the way. As we returned from our journey we found them halfway down the hill, waiting patiently if anxiously for us at a crossroad in the path. Hannah captured the personalities of each cat perfectly, imagining their worried conversations, their mindset, their solution to their dilemma, and everyone at Writing Club really enjoyed it. Hannah was also pleased to be able to help a younger writer living across the country start to enjoy writing by sharing several of her own pet stories, and suggesting this girl try writing something from the point of view of one of her pets - maybe the rabbit she'd told Hannah about in an email. Pets were an accessible topic for this girl to start with. Pets always have funny stories associated with them, and we all understand them well and like putting thoughts into their heads.
Pet writing is always one of the favorite themes in the children's writing section in the homeschooling newsletter we publish in Pennsylvania. Since the best writers write about what they really know about and understand, this really isn't any surprise - homeschoolers get quite a bit of time with their pets, after all!
Pets As a Career
Rebecca comes to our Writing Club monthly, and her writing often shares about her pets also: her dogs, her horses, her pigs, the new kittens born under the porch. She knows these animals and loves them, and is always ready with a tale about a slippery fall from a horse out on the trail or a saga of loading stubborn pigs into a truck. But she's gone beyond that. She's now looking very seriously into becoming a blacksmith who does horse-shoeing, and wrote her major research paper this year on all that is involved in this profession. She interviewed other blacksmiths, and even gave a detailed but humorous talk at a homeschool speech night about all she has learned. The highlight was when her dad galloped in dressed up as a horse part way through the presentation, so that Rebecca could demonstrate all that was involved in shoeing!
Other homeschoolers have moved into thinking about their life work from their pets too. Amy, a homeschool graduate from western PA, is now in training at a special new school in California training service dogs. She has raised and trained dogs for years, and started doing some of the early work with therapy dogs at nursing homes in her area. She did major research papers on this subject during her high school years, and just kept on expanding her interests and gaining more skills. Pets became her passion and her work.
Other homeschoolers take part in the many 4H activities surrounding pets and farm animals, from raising Seeing Eye puppies to raising a lamb on a special permit within the city limits of Pittsburgh. Two sisters I know, Rita and Lila, have raised dairy goats for years, and are avid members of several local goat clubs through 4H. They help new members learn about proper techniques for caring for their goats, and Lila even wrote her major paper this year in the format of a guidebook for new young goat owners. The girls have certainly shown terrific personal responsibility as they've cared for their animals over the years, even managing to save a premature goat by finding out just what should be done for it and staying up many cold nights to help it survive. All the books and experts said it probably couldn't be done - but that didn't stop them. Rita was able to qualify for the prestigious summer Pennsylvania Governor's School for Agricultural Sciences in part because of her long-term work with her own animals, and a local veterinarian has welcomed her to be his assistant on farm calls.
Got allergies to pet hair? Don't let that stop you from bringing pets into your homeschooling. One homeschooling family I know bought their asthmatic son a pet iguana, and the whole family became dedicated to learning about this fascinating reptile. Huge heated glass aquariums housed Iggy and a second iguana, and young Jered could tell me all about their care, their personalities, how they liked to be held, and more, and his portfolio of work was full of stories about these unique pets. Great science learning, and great memories for Jered for years. Who would have thought you could love an iquana that much?
What We've Learned from Pets
I think back on all the many times our pets have impacted our homeschooling. I remember how our boys spent a happy 45 minutes each day as a mid-morning break out milking our small herd of dairy goats back in their elementary years, and how they learned all about the important life processes from seeing goats kids and lambs and kittens getting born. The year we got to see a duckling working for hours hatching out of its egg showed that the feathered varieties really put in their own type of labor in the miracle of life also! The years we've raised tadpoles into tiny toads, or watched monarch caterpillars get fat on milkweed leaves and change into shining gold-studded chrysali and then emerge as damp, wrinkled butterflies who took three hours to decide to fly away, or when we saw the hundreds of teeny perfectly formed praying mantises crawl out of their eggcase (in our livingroom!) were all types of pet experiences too, and ones that would have been hard to duplicate in a school in the same way.
Or there's the time we kept a huge golden-spotted salamander successfully in a terrarium for a whole year, or the summer we watched as a huge spider rebuilt a beautiful orb web in our upstairs bathroom window each night. There were also the pet funerals and graveyards, the learning to care and to let go.
I remember the year, so many years ago now, when we created a family book called The Animals of Richman Farm, to give as holiday gifts to everyone we knew - and we even sent a copy to Alice and Martin Provensen, the authors of The Animals of Maple Hill Farm, who had in part inspired the book. How special to get a personal and very encouraging note back from Mr. Provensen, along with a quick sketch of his sheepdog. There is a sense of kinship with all the authors who've written about strong attachments to pets. Loving pets leads a child to many of the best books: Charlotte's Web, Rascal, Dr. Doolittle, Old Yeller, and so many more. Who doesn't know a homeschooler with a horse who's read every classic horse novel by Marguerite Henry?
There was also the Pet Periodical that Molly published for several years, which was totally edited by our pets, with headline articles about such important crises on the farm as "Strange White Substance Falls from Sky: Older Pets say more Oddities to Come," with a caption to a drawing of our cat Biggie saying, "Then comes the hard water that you can walk on top of . . ." Molly even got submissions from her friends' pets, like the piece headlined "Vicious Cat on the Loose - Frightened Dog Tells All," warning other pets about the strange black and white "cat" that suddenly sprayed a horrible smell all over the author, a dog named Timber. This little publication helped Molly learn all about layout design, organizing a newsletter, keeping track of subscriptions, being responsible, and more, all while having great fun. Little wonder she's now our layout designer for our homeschooling newsletter, and that she helps edit a student magazine in college!
Yes, our homeschool kids are lucky to have their pets as part of their homeschooling life. My three who've gone off to college have often really missed having a dog to pet while reading, or a cat to warm their feet - though Jacob, my computer scientist son, may not miss having a cat perched on top of his large monitor taking a warm nap! My daughter Molly has thought about getting a small fish tank for her dorm apartment, just to have a little creature around. My older son Jesse, who's now married and has a beautiful little daughter, is starting in on helping this new generation love pets too - some of Sarah's biggest seven-month old smiles go to her large and ever-friendly golden retriever, Kasey.
So, I hope Dane is able to make it through freshman year at Grove City College without Peaches or Nightie involved in his learning on a daily basis. It may indeed be one of the more major transitions he'll need to make - and one of the more special things about homeschooling.