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The Research Is In: Professional development draws large group of educators, with focus on implementation and ground-breaking research demonstrating the program’s enormous impact

As the school year headed toward an end, teachers, administrators and counselors were already preparing for the next year, learning all about the many exciting initiatives underway with the Mutt-i-grees® Curriculum.

On June 13-14, 2013, educators from several states gathered at the Roslyn Hotel to participate in a two-day Mutt-i-grees Training which featured discussions and breakout sessions on different implementation techniques, along with panel discussions by principals, administrators and counselors currently using the Curriculum in their schools.

Dr. Matia Finn-Stevenson, creator of the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum, was joined by North Shore Animal League America staff, Mutt-i-grees team members and National Peer Trainers as they shared success stories, creative implementation approaches, and new research supporting the remarkable success of the Curriculum in its first three years.

The first presenters were Animal League America’s Joanne Yohannan, Senior VP of Operations, and Devera Lynn, Senior VP of Communications and National Outreach for the Mutt-i-grees Program. Yohannan spoke about the impact that the Mutt-i-grees Movement and the Curriculum are having in creating a cultural shift in the way shelter pets are viewed, while Lynn Devera showed the winning videos in the Mutt-i-grees “America Adopts” PSA Contest and also the spectacular PSA created by actress Renée Felice Smith highlighting the Curriculum’s benefits.

Dr. Finn-Stevenson announced that the Curriculum was officially launching in high schools, with the Grades 9-12 program already piloted in several schools across the country. Orders have been flooding in, especially from schools that have already seen the Curriculum’s impact from Pre-K up through 8th grade.

“We started with the Pre-Kindergarten to Grade 3 program, which was an immediate success, and have proceeded to develop, field test and implement Grades 4-6 and Grades 7-8,” said Dr. Finn-Stevenson. “During the three-year period of program development, it has become clear that at all grade levels, the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum engages both students and teachers.”

The same level of enthusiasm happened when the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum was pilot tested for Grades 9-12. “Teens love it, and educators report that it is enriching the academic subjects they are required to teach,” said Dr. Finn-Stevenson. “It’s very exciting to witness this new phase.”

She also spoke about the fact that the Curriculum’s implementation has been extended beyond traditional classroom settings, with the “Mutt-i-grees in the Library” initiative taking off in the Tri-State region and beyond. The Curriculum has also been implemented in museums (see story, below).

“It’s been very rewarding that, every time we turn around, we see another creative use of the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum,” said Dr. Finn-Stevenson, who is also the director of the Yale School of the 21st Century and associate director of the Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy. “Although the original concept was focused exclusively on education, we’re finding that the lessons and structure of the Curriculum work very well in multiple settings and with many different types of youth-serving organizations.”

Stories From Early Adopters

Many of the educators who spoke were early adopters of the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum, and they shared powerful, touching stories about how the program has changed the culture of their schools; helped students of every level—whether gifted, special needs or anywhere in between—reach their full potential; and brought students, teachers and the community together.

“When North Shore Animal League responded to the tornadoes in Moore, OK, our M.U.T.T.S Club [Motivated, Understanding, Thoughtful Teenage Students] in Arkansas held a family movie night to raise money for the victims,” explained Deb Swink, a Mutt-i-grees National Peer Trainer, Senior Associate at Yale School of the 21st Century, and Special Education Director at Clinton School District in Van Buren County, AR. “The Curriculum lends itself to community service, and it’s helping turn kids into good, caring and responsible citizens.”

Judy Clay, Mutt-i-grees National Peer Trainer and Early Childhood Special Education Director at Arch Ford Education Cooperative in Plumerville, AR, talked about how the Curriculum promotes classroom unity, parental and community involvement, academic activities such as creative writing, and the development of social skills. She also said that the Curriculum is powerful in helping early educators teach social skills to young children.

“Many child care providers and teachers know how to help kids with their alphabet and other learning issues, but they aren’t taught how to teach kids to behave,” she said. “The Curriculum gives them those tools.”

Clay shared an especially poignant story about how a speech pathologist in her district used the Curriculum with one of her severely autistic students. “He had difficulty ‘reading’ other peoples’ body language, which made it very difficult for him to get along with other kids,” she said. “But the lessons about dogs helped him understand the concept of body language and feelings, and he was able to transfer those skills over to his peers.”

Irene Sumida, Executive Director at Fenton Avenue Charter Schools in Lake View Terrace, CA, talked about how Jeter—the Mutt-i-gree that a counselor at the school adopted from Animal League America after her first Curriculum training three years ago—has made a huge difference in her schools, and has been a support for all students, including children with autism and behavioral disorders. “Jeter is such a calming presence,” she said. “He helps the children learn to relate to each other and build warm friendships.”

Principal Tim Smith from South Side Bee Branch emphasized that the Curriculum enhances both academic performance and social skills.

Tim Smith, principal at Southside High School in Bee Branch, AK, was adamant in his belief that schools must not only focus on testing but also teach social and emotional learning. “It’s just as important as academics,” he said. “When schools implement programs like the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum, I guarantee you that test scores will rise.”

Smith also talked about the importance of children’s participation in activities outside the classroom. “We want every kid to be involved in some type of club,” he said. “If they are part of something, they want to stay in school.”

The students in his school’s M.U.T.T.’s Club experience profound academic and emotional growth, he added. “Because of the club, they’ve given speeches, organized walks, and been on radio stations, all with the goal of teaching people to learn about shelter pets and choose to adopt. It’s made them very responsible and caring.”

Dramatic Results Reported

Dr. Misty Ginicola and Dr. Finn-Stevenson presented new research that demonstrates the dramatic impact the Curriculum has had in schools that have been implementing the program for the past three years.

“All schools face significant behavioral and mental health challenges with their students,” said Dr. Ginicola, Mutt-i-grees Training and Evaluation Associate at Yale School of the 21st Century. “Research shows that if children have high social and emotional learning (SEL) skills, they have an improved attitude, classroom behavior and test scores. The Mutt-i-grees Curriculum leverages the natural bond children—and all humans—have with animals, and that’s one reason why it is so engaging and effective.”

Research supports the idea that dogs are therapeutic, both emotionally and physically. “They cheer us up, and actually lower cortisol, which are stress hormones,” said Dr. Ginicola. “By using shelter animals to teach skills, the Curriculum help kids actually feel empathy and compassion, not just hear about it.”

Teaching Real-Life Lessons in Elementary School

Arch Ford Early Education Program teachers Melanie Brindley and Melinda Smith discuss implementation techniques and best practices.

In two workshops that ran simultaneously, educators discussed the success and implementation of the Curriculum in Pre-K—Grade 6 and Grades 7—12.

Melanie Brindley and Melinda Smith from Arch Ford Education Cooperative’s Early Education Program spoke about their implementation of the Curriculum with preschoolers, and Barbara Aragon, Head Mutt-i-grees teacher at Fenton Avenue Elementary Charter School and Mutt-i-grees Peer Trainer, spoke about implementation with elementary school students, some of whom became mentors and joined teachers in teaching the Curriculum to younger students.

Melinda Smith, Melanie Brindley, Barbara Aragon (Fenton Avenue Charter School) and Jim Messina were excited to share stories about the Curriculum’s success.

Gloria Morgenstern, a parent-teacher coordinator at Ridgewood School in Queens, brought the Curriculum into her school as a component of the ESL program, using the Mutt-i-gree puppets and other fun “props” to impart lessons. One puppet only knew how to bark, she told the youngsters, while the other one could only howl. She asked them, how can they talk to each other and be friends?

“The kids really got it,” she said. “They came up with great ideas, like they could give each other a cookie, or smile at each other.”

Morgenstern uses the lessons to illustrate real-life solutions to situations that her students face. “We had a child come in from a foster home, and although we didn’t point that fact out, I did a lesson on foster dogs, telling the kids about how families take in these dogs in need of homes. Now, when they hear of a child who is in a foster family, they think it’s kind of cool.”

Theresa Braun, a counselor at East Northport Middle School, discussed how the Curriculum enabled her school to implement the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA), a bullying prevention program that New York State mandated in 2010. “After I went to the Curriculum conference last year, I thought, what better way to implement DASA than through dogs?” she said.

It was easy for her to convince her husband John Braun, a science teacher at East Northport who, like her, is an animal lover, to incorporate dog-related lessons in his classroom.

“I showed the students a picture of two dogs to illustrate the difference between observation and inference,” he explained. “Many of the kids jumped immediately to an inference that the dogs were fighting, while other kids had the opposite idea. It allowed me to explain what an observation is—such as, the dogs are outside and they are jumping—as opposed to an inference, such as they are happy or they’re fighting. It brought to life the idea of how people can perceive the same thing very differently.”

The discussion also led to conversations about how people tend to judge each other based on outward appearances, like clothing or looks. “I was able to talk about the fact that we don’t really know about someone just from how they look,” he said.

Students who never raised their hands were very engaged on the Mutt-i-grees days, he added. “There was a noticeably higher level of engagement.”

Students Become Animal Advocates

Natalie Horton is a Mutt-i-grees Peer Trainer and School Counselor in Van Buren County, AR, and works alongside Principal Smith, who brings his dog Nessie into the school. Southside was an early implementer of the Curriculum, and among the first to pilot the high school program.

“It was especially amazing to see how the quieter kids opened up,” she said. She also proudly shared the fact that the high school students in the Persuasive Speaking class conducted research on the local animal shelter, and determined that the best way to decrease euthanasia was to incorporate a behavioral training program. (To read the full story about their presentation, click here.)

“They spoke to vets, got statistics, and did a lot of research,” she said. “Then they presented their findings to a quorum judge in the county, and he was very impressed.” The students are now following up by fundraising for the shelter and also volunteering there, she added.

Natalie Horton, from South Side Bee Branch Schools in Arkansas, and John and Theresa Braun, from Northport-East Northport UFSD in New York, shared their experiences with the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum.

The luncheon speaker at Thursday’s conference was Dr. Gerald Tirozzi, author of the recently published book Stop the School Bus: Getting School Reform on the Right Track, and former Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education. Dr. Tirozzi discussed the effect that poverty has on students’ performance, and offered suggestions on how to improve many of the school reform initiatives that he believes are negatively impacting students.

A Life-Changing Experience

Most of the event’s attendees joined together the next day to visit North Shore Animal League’s campus, a few miles from the Roslyn event. One teacher expressed her appreciation for what she called “a life-changing experience.”

“I was so impressed with the organization of our meetings, the friendly staff at North Shore Animal League, the efficiency level of operation at the League, and the commitment of everyone involved in the Mutt-i-grees Program.”

Participants also attended workshop sessions at Animal League America, learning from Adam Eppes, Lacey Monroe and Yuka Dawson about the use of the Curriculum with at-risk students. Two high school students who are participating as interns at the League shared their experiences with the attendees, highlighting how much their work with animals has changed their lives.

“It made me feel good that I was helping these dogs find homes where they could be happy and where I know people are going to treat them well,” said Carlos, 18, who is in his second year as an intern. The program has given him real-life skills, which he plans to use one day working with dogs in law enforcement. “It’s taught me respect, trust and responsibility,” he said with pride.

The Curriculum isn’t just a life-changing experience for those who teach it in their classrooms. It’s also literally contributed to the saving of lives, according to Susie Daniels, a teacher at Clinton School District. Daniels said that her local Arkansas shelter has transformed from a high-kill one, with about half the animals being put down, to a low-kill shelter, with just a 20% euthanasia rate. “We attribute this to the awareness the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum has brought to our community about what is possible,” she said. “It’s been a real inspiration.”

Jackie Bacon, Principal at D. C. Moore Elementary School in New Haven, CT, also believes that everyone benefits by the Curriculum’s emphasis on volunteering and supporting shelters. “We’ve partnered with our local shelters, and it’s been a great experience for the students, as well for the animals,” she said.

“I encourage everyone who can to attend these Professional Development sessions on the Curriculum,” Bacon added. “I got great ideas, and I’m hoping to start a M.U.T.T.’s club in the high school because of what I learned here.”

More trainings are scheduled (click here to see a listing), and their value cannot be overstated. “There’s nothing like joining with others to learn best practices,” said Jim Messina, Mutt-i-grees Educational Programming Manager. “The strength of the Mutt-i-grees network is that we collaborate, learn from one another, and use our collective expertise to raise the curriculum to new heights on a regular basis.”

Mutt-i-grees® Curriculum: Not Just for the Classroom

Professional development is a key component on the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum. In a recent one-day orientation and training in May, held at North Shore Animal League America’s headquarters, the audience of teachers, dog trainers and museum youth specialists learned about the Curriculum from Norma Meek, a Mutt-i-grees National Peer Trainer and Senior Associate at Yale School of the 21st Century.

“The participants were eager to learn all they could about the research-based program and strategies and activities for implementation of the Curriculum,” said Meek. “I loved the sharing of information with this enthusiastic group.”

Lisa Mongiello, an Animal Science Teacher at Eastern Suffolk BOCES, came to the training to learn ways to expand her existing use of the program. “As a veterinary professional and educator, I honestly cannot have dreamed up a better way to tie both character education and humane education together,” she said. “The overall theme of the Curriculum really brings good values to the students; it improves their ability to interact with one another, and gives them ways to then support their communities.” She added, “I ordered the preview copy of the High School curriculum, and I was hooked!”

In fact, Mongiello and her high school students already are active in spreading the Curriculum’s message that shelter pets make wonderful companions. They took part in the national Mutt-i-grees “America Adopts” PSA Contest, and their video, which dispels many of the myths about shelter pets, won first place in the 6th—12th grade category.

Behind-the-Scenes Tour

Dod March, from Stepping Stones Museum for Children in Connecticut, told the attendees about how the Curriculum is being used in the museum’s youth education programs.

On the day of the training, in addition to the information-packed workshops, all the participants got an extensive tour of Animal League America, and for many it was the highlight of the day.

“My main purpose for attending was to learn more about the program and ways to improve our implementation of it at the children’s museum, but I was also happy to see the facility, because I mention Animal League America to my groups each week,” said Deirdre McKay, Museum Educator at Stepping Stones Museum for Children in Norwalk, CT. “I especially enjoyed meeting the veterinary director and getting the behind-the-scenes tour of the medical facilities and seeing the newborn kittens.”

McKay says the training gave her many ideas on how to enrich her museum program by using more elements such as the Dog Dialog videos and letters home to parents.

Dawn Spano, a passionate animal lover who volunteers for the Guide Dog Foundation, came to the training to get ideas on how to enrich her volunteer work. “I thought it was such a great course and enjoyed it immensely,” she said. “I am planning to use it to enhance my visits with my therapy dog to the many different places I go that have children, such as libraries and schools.”

To learn about upcoming Professional Development opportunities, please click here.

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