Pets make for fun summer math lessons at Northern Elementary

Pets make for fun summer math lessons at Northern Elementary

LINCOLN - It's a weekday morning in August and the Northern Lincoln Elementary School playground is quiet. No one slides, no one swings, no one runs around playing tag.

But walk inside a nearby classroom, and it is quite a different story.

Six dogs - four golden retrievers, one Labradoodle and one tiny Papillion - are busy moving about the room, as some 15 students are focused on completing math problems. They may reach over to pet the dogs, but their attention stays on their work as the kids brush up on their math skills a few weeks before the start of school.

This is the Dog Days of Summer program, the brainchild of physical education teacher Deb Reddy and school librarian Susan Pepper, who started it four years ago.

They are joined this year by special education teacher Jessica Spizzirri and 2nd grade teacher Lori Allen, as well as Lincoln High School students Kathryn Packard and Kelsey Blass.

For six days over two weeks, the kids spend three hours at the school practicing math, literacy and good personal health habits all with the theme of the guests of honor, who are pets of the teachers involved.

Students read books about dogs, learn about caring for animals and complete math problems centered around canines. Last Thursday, the math lesson was also one about cooking as students had to whip up dog treats while learning about proper measurements of ingredients, like peanut butter.

"This is all ultimately about life skills," Pepper said, like cooking, respecting animals, and learning how to care for a dog's needs of food, water, hygiene and exercise, which in turn teaches students about their own needs.

These particular students, who are heading into grades 3 through 6, are recommended for the program throughout the school year by their teachers.

"We call it maintenance skills," Spizzirri said, or brushing up on facts and fluency that could be potentially lost over the summer.

But even though the agenda is heavy on learning, the kids seem eager to come each day and play math games with the dogs.

"If you ask them, they'll say this is the highlight of their summer," Pepper said.

Allen said when teachers ask who had fun at the end of the day, all the hands shoot up into the air.

"We sneak in a lot of math while we're having fun," she said.

Pepper explained that research shows petting dogs can calm people down and lower blood pressure, which can certainly help when asking kids to give up a few days of their summer vacation for word problems and fractions.

"The hook is the dogs," Reddy said. "They come because of the dogs."

But there are real academic results.

All students are tested on the first and last day of the program, and the scores prove the system is working, Reddy said.

"We see a big jump," she said. "There's always a little bit of slippage in the summer months. I think it's just working with the numbers. We connect math to everything. There's lots of different things to get them constantly thinking about math."

"Math Around the World," where students move around desks solving problems, is a crowd favorite.

"It's fun," said 5th-grader Kamila Correa.

Jack Ducharme, a 3rd-grader, said he liked learning about rounding to the closest 10, while 4th-grader Cheyenne Levesque said she enjoyed word problems. While mixing the dog treat ingredients, 3rd-grader Ociona Alves said she now better understands rounding up and down.

Reddy is sure to have a physical component every day, whether it is taking the dogs for walks or running them through an obstacle course with cones and jumps.

"We're promoting health and wellness," she said, with good behavior rewarded with prizes donated by the American Heart Association.

Allen, who is helping out with the program for the first time this year, said she was shocked at how little of a distraction the dogs prove to be.

"Even with all the dogs, look how engaged they are," she said.

The program is also teaching them about responsibility, Allen said.

Eight-year-old Isabella Lamoureux started the first day jumping on a table to get away from the dogs. Not even a week later, she pets one on the head as she takes her seat after completing a problem on the board.

"I was afraid at first, but now I'm fine," she said.

Students end the week with a lesson about dog safety and preventing bites.

"It's a win-win for the dogs and the kids," Reddy said. "I would highly recommend every school system to try this."

She said the feedback from parents and kids is "always tremendous."

Heading into 6th grade, 11-year-old Kyle Moison is the oldest participant in the program. He called it "the best math program ever," and said it has made understanding fractions easier.

"I think it's awesome for all ages," he said. "I like coming in to see the dogs' faces and the teachers' faces. It's more like having fun than actually doing math."