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Shaping kinder kids, Part II: Captivated audience

Teacher creates bookworms with dolphins and dogs

From Animal Sheltering magazine Fall 2017

Susan Kosko reads with her students and a special classroom guest.Second-graders at Crafton Elementary School raised money to help a young dolphin who was entangled in fishing line.

As animal welfare leaders continue to push the sheltering and rescue field into the future, finding new strategies to tackle the roots of animal homelessness and cruelty, it pays to keep in mind that kindness has roots as well.

Reaching children at early ages with messages of gentleness, empathy and compassion—for humans and other animals alike—is one of the critical means of watering those roots, shaping not only kinder citizens, but engaging future generations in the cause that’s central to so many of us. In this section, we profile some people who may be inspiring the animal advocates of the future, and hear a passionate argument for prioritizing humane education.

“It truly was magical how it all fell together,” Susan Kosko says about the 2011-12 school year, when she introduced her second-grade students to dolphins.

The idea had come the year before, when Kosko and her family took an eco-tour aboard the Dolphin Explorer in Florida. Kosko, who teaches reading at Crafton Elementary School in Pittsburgh, watched her young son and daughter fall under the spell of the dolphins, and she began to wonder what the charismatic creatures could do for struggling readers in her classroom. She later learned that the boat’s dolphin research team was launching an environmental studies program, using Skype videos to share their adventures with classrooms.

Kosko began using the videos of dolphins 1,200 miles away in lessons based on the book Dolphin Tale: The Junior Novel. Her students were as wide-eyed as her own kids, she says: “[They] wanted to run into the room to learn more—and one book led to another.”

When her students saw that a young dolphin named Seymour had become entangled in fishing line, they were eager to help with fundraising—and later watched Seymour’s rescue and release by a team of marine mammal experts.

Their enthusiasm was visible in other ways: Over the first year of the program, Kosko saw her students’ reading fluency increase more than 40 percent—the largest increase in the history of her program.

The results affirmed her long-held belief that learning needs to be fun, engaging and “attached to the real world.” The lessons in a standard curriculum are often too dry for young minds, she says, whereas animals never fail to captivate them.

For the past 15 years, she’s organized a Reading to Rover program in partnership with Animal Friends, a local shelter. Students who struggle with oral fluency read aloud to a nonjudgmental, furry audience. (Last school year, her class collected supplies and $800 in donations for the shelter.)

Kosko’s lesson plans are always evolving as she looks for new ways to connect kids to the natural world. In 2014, she partnered with the local Audubon Society to establish a schoolyard habitat garden where students learn about insects, birds and other local wildlife. Last year, she introduced her students to elephants and reading materials that describe the plight of the world’s largest land animal. “This is what school should be about, not just opening the book and doing the worksheets,” Kosko says.

Humane education and the environment are “at the core of everything [Kosko] does,” writes Jacie Maslyk, the former principal of Crafton and current assistant superintendent of the Hopewell Area School District. State and local assessments reflect the success of this approach, Maslyk points out: 90 percent of Kosko’s students achieve proficient scores in both reading and science.

Kosko has always loved teaching, but her role as an educator took on new meaning after she became a mother. “I started to see the world in a different way,” she says. “I want the world to be as good as it can be for their future.”

Read Shaping kinder kids, Part I: Humane Abe

Read Shaping kinder kids, Part III: Have you heard the Kind News?

Read Shaping kinder kids, Part IV: Life lessons

Heidi Colonna, a certified humane education specialist, is a writer based in Western Massachusetts. She is a former manager of education and training projects at The HSUS.

About the Author

Heidi P. Colonna, a certified humane education specialist, is a writer based in Western Massachusetts. She is a former manager of education and training projects at The Humane Society of the United States.