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The Mutt-i-grees Curriculum in Grades 9-12: Enriching the High School Classroom Experience

Schools across the country are using the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum to engage high school students and enhance learning in their classrooms. Teachers of almost any academic subject: English literature, social studies, art, technology, science, health, journalism, communications, and psychology – among others – can select relevant lessons, concepts, and activities that not only enhance social and emotional skills, but also engage students in the academic experience. The teacher interviews below, many of them taken from an article by Marsha Rabe, illustrate the flexibility of the Curriculum and highlight the various ways educators have used the lessons. You can find additional testimonials from educators implementing the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum in high school here:

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Terry Warwick has read John Steinbeck’s classic American novel “Of Mice and Men” 35 times. Unofficially, that probably qualifies as a world record. But Warwick, a member of the English department at the top-rated Benjamin N. Cardozo High School in Bayside, Queens, NY, isn’t interested in setting world records. After a 32-year career in high school classrooms, what interests her are students, language, and dogs, though not always in that order.

So when a copy of the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum for grades 9-12 came her way in the fall of 2012, she considered it tailor-made. Launched 2009, in the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum is an innovative PreK-Grade 12 program that builds on the natural affinity between children and animals, highlighting the special characteristics and charms of Mutt-i-grees, another word for shelter pets. The Curriculum, which forges what seems like a natural link between humane education and the emerging field of social and emotional learning (SEL), presents lessons that help children develop traits like resiliency, calmness, confidence, and above all, empathy. Developed by North Shore Animal League America’s Pet Savers Foundation in collaboration with the Yale University School of the 21st Century, the Curriculum is funded by a foundation created by Cesar Millan, the famous “Dog Whisperer.” Using an array of lessons, activities, and thought-provoking discussion points, the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum helps students see their connection to animals and to each other. To date, it has been implemented in thousands of across the country and Canada.

Warwick has always had a passion for needy animals. She now has three rescue dogs at home, and her children grew up learning from their companion animals how to be responsible, caring members of their family and community. “Mutt-i-grees is a great curriculum,” she says. “I stick it in everywhere. For instance, I teach ‘Of Mice and Men’ with the freshmen every year. And every year, the students respond strongly to the character named Candy and his dog, who is really his only friend. Their relationship illustrates the theme of loneliness that runs throughout the book. And the kids get it.”

Teens, says Warwick, live on an emotional roller coaster, their moods rising and plummeting from day to day. “The Curriculum emphasizes the idea of finding your feelings, and teenagers can feel very lonely as they go through this tumultuous transition,” she says. “That’s why pets are important. Dogs don’t care or judge. Kids can be unpopular at school, but the dog doesn’t care. They’re still popular with their dogs. Or they can have bad skin, be 50 pounds overweight, or have special academic needs—the dog doesn’t care. Unconditional love. Teens need it. Kids relate to animals—they enjoy these lessons because they empathize with social misfits, strays, and mutts. They’re drawn to animals that are different and, in the process, learn that it’s okay to be different themselves.”

Warwick also uses a short story called “Menagerie, A Child’s Fable,” by Charles Johnson, in her Mutt-i-grees lesson. A dark allegory about the messy nature of democracy, the story is set in a pet shop after the tyrannical shopkeeper fails to show up one day. With the animals left to their own devices, the shop’s micro-civilization begins quickly to collapse, with selfishness, power grabs, cruelty, and various other human frailties leading to a brutal, apocalyptic climax. According to Warwick, her students are especially taken with Berkeley, a German shepherd whom the text describes as “pious.”

“Suddenly this dog has a uniquely human trait, a personality,” says Warwick, a fact that invariably leads to an extended language lesson on the single word “pious.” What does it mean? What are its origins, its usage? What exactly is piety? Do dogs have human traits? Do humans have canine traits? How are we alike?

By exploring the differences and similarities of personality itself, Warwick helps her students see more clearly the human-animal bond. “It’s never too late to talk about animals with students,” Warwick adds, “even in high school. All you have to do is show a dog in a cage with big eyes and even the older boys go, ‘aaawwwwww.’”

At the high school level, the Curriculum’s distinctive virtue is its versatility, says Warwick. Teachers of any academic subject, from literature and social studies to art, science, and journalism – among others – can pick and choose from a long list of relevant lessons, concepts, and activities that enhance the academic experience while developing and reinforcing social and emotional skills. Lessons include team building, anti-bullying/empathy insights, resiliency, communication skills (verbal and non-verbal), and even an examination of the nearly lost art of saying, “I’m sorry.”

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Social studies teacher Diane Bines has watched Benjamin N. Cardozo High School change dramatically during her 23-year career teaching 9th and 12th graders. When she began, the student population was primarily Jewish, Italian, and Greek. Although those groups are still represented in the student body, Asian students now dominate the demographics, which also includes many African American and Hispanic students. In other words, the school is the epitome of diversity. It offers a rich mix of sophisticated extracurricular activities—70 clubs and 33 athletic teams—plus 19 advanced placement classes and honors classes in everything from macroeconomics to Spanish literature. Finally, the school boasts a near-100 percent graduation rate, sending about 80 percent of its college-bound students off to four-year colleges around the world. Benjamin N. Cardozo High School also provides academic opportunities and support for special needs students to help them reach their full potential.

For Bines, her school’s diversity provides a great jumping off point for discussing the history of population shifts and ethnic dynamics across continents and through millennia, topics she explores in her Global History class. With the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum, she discovered yet another perspective to share with students, namely the complex and fascinating role that dogs played in the very early stages of human development.

“As a homework assignment,” she says, “I asked my 9th graders to do an online search about the development of the relationship between early humans and canines. I told them to include three things they learned, two things that interested them, and one question they’d like to ask or pursue. The response was tremendous. It really opened their eyes to the long, ongoing interdependency between dogs and humans, both physical and emotional.”

One student wrote, “It is quite amazing what the evolution of canines can tell us about another animal: early humans. It can even be said that canines were our prehistoric soul mates.” Another commented on the trust that developed between the two species, noting “how close the dogs were to the humans and how the dogs actually increased the chances of survival for humans” by helping with hunting and herding and by providing valuable body heat on those cold “three dog nights.”

Students learned that mitochondrial DNA evidence indicates that the domestic dog is a subspecies of the gray wolf, with the genetic split between the two occurring around 100,000 years ago. During their shared evolution, humans and dogs demonstrated a unique symbiosis. In fact, anthropologists say that the domestication of animals represents a major shift in human life, and that humans are the only mammal that routinely adopts another species for support and companionship. Not surprisingly, Bines sees the story of the human/canine connection as a rich area of study for high school students. Referring to a Mutt-i-grees lesson called “Beyond Words” in the Finding Feelings section of the Curriculum, she describes how interspecies communication became an important discussion point in her classroom, starting with how early humans and their canine colleagues might have “conversed.”

“Early humans did not have language as we know it,” she says, “so human-to-human and human-to-dog communication relied on nonverbal forms, like body language, facial expressions, gestures, and postures. Dogs are still very tuned into our body language. The Mutt-i-grees Curriculum stresses the importance of being aware of body language in each other and in dogs, because misunderstandings can lead to problems.

“Another positive of the Curriculum,” she adds, “is its emphasis on creating understanding and empathy. It’s always a good thing when we can make kids empathetic to animals and to each other. And the idea of ‘mutts’ is also important. Too often, the word has a negative connotation. Some people want a breed dog the way they want a Louis Vuitton handbag. But dogs, like humans, are unique and valuable individuals, and you don’t have to be a specific breed to be special. In fact, if you look back in time at the movements of peoples around the world—at the intermingling and genetic combinations that took place over thousands of years—you see that genetic mixtures have created today’s humans.” The moral of the story? Maybe everyone is a mutt.

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Wendy Weiss, another member of Benjamin N. Cardozo High School’s English department, can tell you a thing or two about shelter dogs. Along with several other women, Weiss operates a small, nonprofit rescue group called that, despite miles of municipal red tape and the frustrations of bureaucracy, rescues dogs and cats from the New York City’s high-kill Animal Care and Control. Her organization specializes in animals that few other rescue groups will consider—one-eyed dogs, blind cats, deaf dogs, and abused pit bulls. Her passion for finding these animals loving, permanent homes blended perfectly with the Curriculum, and like her Mutt-i-grees colleagues at Benjamin N. Cardozo High School, Weiss showed sophistication and creativity when it came to finding links between dogs and academic subjects, including even Shakespeare.

“My seniors have to write a thesis paper on the college level, so I assigned Shakespeare’s Othello and asked them to write about the concept of reputation, and how a person’s reputation might or might not be in direct correlation to his actions.”

The loss of reputation is a powerful theme in Othello, touching everyone from the title character to Casio and Desdemona, with villainous Iago acting as the wily manipulator of both perception and reputation. What Weiss brought to the discussion, however, was yet another character, someone contemporary and notorious, someone the students could not have expected to meet in the midst of an Elizabethan drama: football quarterback Michael Vick, who spent 21 months in federal prison after being convicted of illegal interstate dog fighting. The dogs he tortured and killed were pit bulls.

“The kids all agreed that Vick ruined his own reputation,” she says,”that his actions were at fault. But then I started talking about pit bulls. At first they all said, ‘Oh, pit bulls are vicious and aggressive and they bite.’ So I told them about this breed’s history, how, in the 1920s, these dogs were known as ‘nanny dogs’ because of their gentleness and great behavior with babies and children. I told them about the Lil’ Rascals dog, Petey, and that pits were once the most popular and beloved dogs in the country. I explained that due to circumstances and mishandling, the pit bull’s reputation was tarnished, through no fault of their own. I showed them photos of Vick’s abused dogs on the Smart Board, and they were aghast. I then handed out an article on Vick. They took all this information, processed it, and wrote about Othello, Casio, Michael Vick, and pit bulls. They made connections, and their essays also satisfied the Common Core State Standards, like determining the meaning of the text, analyzing the text, and writing to support an argument. It all fell into place.”

Weiss’s own reputation on campus as an animal activist has helped educate students and rehabilitate not only dogs and cats but also the word ‘mutt’ itself. “The student newspaper interviewed me about my rescue work, so there was a lot of interest in the topic. I took advantage of that interest and asked my advance placement students what they think of when they hear the word ‘mutt,’ and that one question turned into a complex exploration of that single four-letter word, its connotations, denotations, and the fact that words have human bias built into them that, like everything else, can change with time.”

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Ask Ricki Garfield, a health education teacher, what goes on in her classroom and the answer is as direct and no-nonsense as she is: “Sex, drugs, and rock and roll,” she answers, but with one caveat. “I don't do a lot of rock and roll. Mostly classical music or European music —Andreas Vollenweider or Eros Ramazzotti—something surprising for the kids.”

As a health teacher, Garfield covers all the topics that make adolescence the difficult passage it so often is: smoking, drinking, safe sex, no sex, texting while driving, skip the junk food, parents, exercise, pick friends wisely, don’t get stressed about college, study hard—and on and on. But at the heart of her work, Garfield says, is one simple trait that makes all those hard questions a lot easier to answer, and that trait is self-esteem.

“If a kid’s mental health and self-esteem are strong, they’re in good shape. And that is what excites me about the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum,” she says. “Getting the kids to talk and think about pets is a slightly subversive way to get them to open up and talk about themselves. The animals become surrogates for the kids. It’s a little sneaky, but it works. My background is psychology, and I’ve never used animals as a means of reaching students before, but I’m over the moon about how this curriculum helps students let down their guard. I think I will use Mutt-i-grees mostly at the end of the semester, when the kids have developed trust and openness with each other.”

Garfield, who has taught 11th and 12th graders for eleven years, notes two areas of the Curriculum that seem most pertinent: “Tell Your Story,” in the Achieving Awareness unit, and the entire Finding Feelings section. “I think these lessons in particular would be really popular with health teachers across the county,” she says. “I mean, think about it: If you can get kids to tell their own stories in their own words, that gives them ownership and responsibility. They have to take a good look at themselves, assess who they are, and see that they are unique and that it's okay in this world to be different. Everybody is. Then follow that with the Finding Feelings material and you are really getting in there.”

A cancer survivor who grew up loving and caring for cats, Garfield has seen the positive effects of animal companionship in a variety of ways. She tells of one very high-achieving student who wrote in an essay that, when he failed to get an A or A+ on a test, he’d be in a rage at himself. But instead of going home and being angry, he’d “bring it down a notch” by lying on the floor and petting his dog, which made him feel calm and accepted. Another student said that after hearing about the dangers of second-hand smoke to all family members, including pets, the student “guilted” her father into quitting, primarily for the sake of her dog. “Kids grow up healthier, kinder, and gentler if they have a chance to experience relationships with animals,” says Garfield.

Describing herself as a “very emotional teacher,” Garfield says that the only approach that works consistently with teenagers is honesty. “Junior year is a scary semester for me,” she says. “We meet only one semester, five days a week, so I have to cover a lot of ground. And junior year is when kids usually become sexually active. And I truly believe that having an animal to put their love on can curtail early sexual activity. I am 100 percent positive of this. My students who have and love pets are not as desperate to have a boyfriend or a girlfriend. This is huge, because after junior year comes junior summer, when kids have a lot of free time on their hands. Thanks to Mutt-i-grees, I’m telling them, if you can’t have a pet of your own, volunteer at a shelter. Put your love and affection onto a being who really needs it—that unconditional love—and I guarantee that you’ll get it back tenfold.”

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It was the fall of Stacie’s senior year at Shirley High School in Clinton, AR, and no one—least of all Stacie—expected her to graduate. She was behind in her credits and faced troubles at home. A chronic truant, she was the proverbial handful: defiant in the classroom, contemptuous of authority, negative about everything, and prone to taking long naps in the middle of class. She embodied, in every respect, adolescence run amok.

Her teachers had tried everything. They’d moved her to an alternative learning classroom for students at high risk of failure; they’d offered counseling; and still, Stacie balked. Then one day, they handed her a book for first graders and enrolled her and her classmates in the school’s Reading Time Mutt-i-grees Club. A spin-off of the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum, the club assigns high school students to elementary schools where they read books about dogs to kids in grades K-1. Stacie loved it. The kids loved Stacie. And now, Stacie says, maybe—just maybe—she’d like to be a teacher herself.

“One hundred and eighty degrees” is how Valerie Lawson describes Stacie’s about-face. Lawson, a case manager for the Van Buren County School Based Mental Health Office in Clinton, is one of several educators in her school district who have been in the vanguard of the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum at all grade levels.

Stacie also decided to volunteer at the local animal shelter, reaping all the emotional and psychological rewards that come from caring for those in need. This experience, which complements the Curriculum’s Encouraging Empathy component, includes the notion of advocating on behalf of those who cannot speak up for themselves, an idea that clearly touched and motivated Stacie.

I’ll never forget the first time Stacie and her classmates visited the local shelter,” says Lawson. “Her face just lit up, like a kid on Christmas morning.” Because of Stacie’s enthusiasm, the class now volunteers at the shelter every other week. Stacie bakes treats for the dogs and helps organize shelter fundraising projects like yard sales. Her studies have improved and she is on track to graduate. Lawson says that volunteering showed Stacie that she can be a leader among her peers—that she can make a difference to others—that what she does matters. “And Mutt-i-grees,” says Lawson, “opened the door to all of it.”

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In 2001, when she was 15 years old, Antonia Mancini decided to volunteer at North Shore Animal League America. It changed her life. Today, as an English teacher and humane educator at Martin Van Buren High School in Queens, NY, Mancini is teaching a whole new generation of teenagers what it means to connect to shelter animals in personal, meaningful ways.

Mancini describes Van Buren as an urban high school with a low-income student population, adding that many of her students come from “tough backgrounds.” Opening their eyes to the plight—and delight—of shelter animals has been a profound and moving experience for Mancini and students alike.

“Shelter animals are a big part of my creative writing class,” she says. “I ask students to visit the League’s Help me Heal web page, which features animals that need special medical care or socialization. Each student chooses a pet and writes that animal’s ‘autobiography,’ employing the first person and telling the animal’s story in detail from the canine or feline perspective. I notice that very often the students give their animals tough backgrounds, sometimes a lot like their own.”

To get their facts straight, students visit veterinary sites to research the animal’s medical conditions, look into puppy and kitten mills, and read about backyard breeding, dog fighting, and other forms of animal abuse. They use their imaginations to consider what it is like to survive with two legs when you're supposed to have four, to negotiate alleys and forage for food when you’re blind, or to fall 10 stories out of a high-rise, and with the help of the League’s medical professionals, to survive, heal, and finally find a loving home.

The essays, she says, give each animal a voice—a past, a present, and a future. The young writers, in grades 10 through 12, learn about important narrative techniques, like diction, plot, character development, description, voice, continuity, grammar, and editing. But the lesson doesn’t stop there. Students also explore ideas like empathy, resilience, and compassion. By identifying with the animals whose lives they’re creating on the page, they enter the larger and more complex experience of life itself, sometimes in heartbreaking ways.

“I remember one student who was writing for a dog named Skittles. Sadly, Skittles died during a difficult surgery, and I had to tell the student. She was devastated. That’s how much she loved this dog she had never met.” Even when the lessons are difficult, Mancini maintains that they always broaden and enrich the student’s experience—and for the most part, that experience leads to compassion and appreciation for the ways in which companion animals touch our lives.

As for the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum, Mancini appreciates its flexibility and that the lessons adhere to the Common Core State Standards. Since beginning her career at Van Buren in 2010, Mancini has discovered various ways to expand the Curriculum’s lessons beyond her classroom. She recently founded the Van Buren Animal League Advocates Club, which organizes everything from fund-raisers for puppy mill rescues to projects raising awareness about pit bulls and other “bully” breeds. She also worked with a colleague at Van Buren, art teacher and Mural Club adviser Lisa Hitchcock, to oversee the painting of a large mural called “Our Journey Home.” Created by members of the Van Buren Mural Club, the 8’x12’ foot mural is divided into three panels, each representing one aspect of the League’s mission: rescue, nurture, adopt. In June 2012, the young artists joined the high school’s drum line to deliver the mural to League headquarters amid great fanfare. The mural now hangs in the League’s family waiting room.

But perhaps most meaningfully, Mancini was able to bring a dozen of her students to the League itself so they, too, could have the same potentially life-changing experience she enjoyed in 2001. “Thanks to the League’s intensive internship program, some of my students spent three days during break, five to six hours a day, doing hands-on rescue. They worked alongside League associates to learn about medical care, veterinary resources, and training. They discovered career options, from animal behavior to grooming. And best of all, they were able to observe and help with adoptions. Believe me, that was the highpoint. They were thrilled about helping make an adoption happen.”

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“Wear Your Heart on Your Wrist” is an activity in the first lesson of the Achieving Awareness section of the Grades 9-12 Mutt-i-grees Curriculum. It is adapted from Shakespeare’s famous advice, to “wear your heart on your sleeve,” which tells us to express our emotions freely and openly, for all to see. Natalie Horton, a lead Mutt-i-grees teacher in two school districts in Van Buren County, AR – where she is also a member of the School Based Mental Health staff – was prepared to follow the lesson plan instructions for the activity. She asked her 10th grade students to think of a phrase that shows their belief in a cause and write it on a bracelet, showing not only what they believe in and would stand up for, but also, using the bracelet to initiate conversations, find out other people’s perspective on the issue.

The students took the activity a step or two further. They researched how many pets reside in their local animal shelter, how many are adopted, and how many are euthanized; there is just no space to house them all. The students found out that about half of the pets were euthanized – a rate they wanted to reduce. They created beaded bracelets with four red beads (to reflect the number of pets waiting to be adopted), two white beads (to reflect the number of pets adopted) and two black beads (to reflect the number of pets euthanized). They used the bracelets they created to advocate for adoptions; or, in the students’ own words, to increase the number of white beads (adopted pets) and decrease the number of black ones (euthanized pets). Although the initial goal of the activity was to increase pet adoptions, Natalie believes that her students also learned a valuable lesson: to stand up for what they believe in. Natalie says: “This is is one of several reasons why I think the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum is just about the best program we have for bullying prevention.”

Natalie has taught the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum at all grade levels at her school districts in Shirley and South Side Bee Branch, which are among the national pilot sites for the Curriculum. She expected younger students to be interested in the Curriculum’s focus on shelter pets, but was pleasantly surprised to see that older students were also engaged by lessons from the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum. Natalie has used the Curriculum to teach 10th and 11th grade students in psychology and animal science and has also used Mutt-i-grees lessons in her oral communications classes. An entire oral communications class was recently involved in preparing a presentation to convince the local city government to change the operations of the local animal shelter from a low kill shelter to a no-kill facility. There were so many academic skills (for example, the ability to research and present an argument) and social and emotional skills (cooperation, decision making, perspective taking) involved in this whole class activity, noted Natalie, but mostly, the students learned that they can make a difference.

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Yuka Dawson teaches technology to students in 6th-12th grade and has pilot-tested the Grades 9-12 Mutt-i-grees Curriculum with students at MercyFirst, a residential school in Syosset, NY. As a technology teacher, Yuka is using the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum not only to enhance the students’ social and emotional skills, but also as a way to meet educational requirements. She taught her students about puppy mills and found out about pending legislation on the issue. They wrote business letters to New York’s Governor Cuomo asking for his support, and his office responded. Yuka has also used videos of dogs with disabilities to highlight lessons on resiliency and empathy.

Yuka’s students participated in the first Mutt-i-gree Summer Youth Internship Program at North Shore Animal League America during the summer of 2012. From Monday through Wednesday for five weeks, five MercyFirst students spent five hours with their mentor, a member of Animal League America’s staff. Each student was assigned a role based on his or her personal interests. “Our students love working with dogs,” says Yuka. “The dog program is a popular program and the projects I do in class seem to receive positive feedback from my students.” When asked why she thinks the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum works, Yuka explains that she loves its flexibility. She says, “I like the Curriculum because it gives you ideas. You can arrange it however you want to fit the subject area and the standards.”

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