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Teacher of the Month: Shayna Wolf

This month’s featured teacher is Shayna Wolf, the School Counselor at Saint Aloysius Catholic School in New Canaan, CT.

Students at Saint Aloysius Catholic School in New Canaan, CT spend a lot of time around dogs. The school began using the Mutt-i-grees® Curriculum during the 2013-2014 school year, and it’s because of their School Counselor, Shayna Wolf and her adopted shelter dogs!

Shayna is about to finish her 3rd year as the counselor at St. Aloysius, but she’s had a life-long commitment to animals and children. Shayna worked as a veterinary technician for over ten years, and transitioned to helping people when she realized the connection between children and their affinity for animals. Working in a veterinary emergency / trauma center, Shayna witnessed firsthand how abuse and neglect can bring harm to an animal, and she began to see how the mental health of the owner can affect the life of the dogs and cats in their care.

Those experiences reinforced Shayna’s desire to bring animal and kids together, and in the process, she witnessed profound results. Before she learned about the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum, Shayna met a child, “with a dark past who communicated very little. When I brought two of my dogs to work, it was like someone waved a magic wand over him. I witnessed a complete transformation. This once-silent student came out of his shell and wanted to walk the dogs and interact. The dogs brought out something in him that no human could!”

Experiences like that motivated Shayna to work toward teaching children about reciprocity. Shayna wanted the children to realize that caring for an animal is a huge responsibility. She wanted to engage the students in conversations centered on the power of giving back to the animals what they give to us.

Shayna has primarily used the Mutt-i-grees® Curriculum at Saint Aloysius School with the 6th Grade class, which incorporated Mutt-i-grees into the school’s existing mentoring program where the classes have “buddy grades.” The 6th graders where matched in mentoring pairs with girls and boys in Kindergarten. The mentors worked with their partners to create puppets and role play different social and emotional interactions / situations that arise at school.

Shayna noted that the parents as a whole were supportive of Mutt-i-grees® since it was used in Science, where students learned about the connection between animal biology (anatomy, behavior, gene therapy, DNA, selective breeding) and their everyday lives. Shayna also incorporated Mutt-i-grees lessons into the 7th & 8th Grade classes.

“I hoped to get across empathy, compassion, and stepping outside yourself to help others, while emphasizing the importance / awesomeness of diversity in both the animals and the kids! I talked to the kids about how sameness would be boring, but different cultures bring so much to us and help us learn about one another! The kids were so engaged because it was different from traditional textbook / memorization ways of learning.”

Students who had social-emotional difficulties were eager to raise their hands and talk about their difficulties with their teachers and peers. Students shared their point of view and perspective on social-emotional issues. When the class talked about differences and assumptions about human / animal behavior, kids saw a connection in that dogs don’t judge differences. Students noticed that a 3-legged dog is still invited to play by other dogs at the park, and students who have just entered the school feel a little ostracized, and desire to be accepted for who they are.

One experience that really brought the Mutt-i-grees philosophy home was when the school’s 5th Grade teacher died while being treated for cancer. Shayna’s classroom visits with her dogs helped the kids feel special and opened them up to talking about death and the importance of having compassion. In memory of Mrs. Ryan, the fifth grade students created quilts for warmth to be given to patients in treatment for and suffering from cancer. The completed quilts were donated to the Bennett Cancer Center at Stamford Hospital. “It transformed the students from being nurtured to being the one who nurtured others.”

When we asked Shayna about what her favorite part of the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum is, she didn’t hesitate. “I like using the curriculum as a guideline and a place to start when you’re looking to make connections and being able to research resources. I had 45-minute periods to teach, so I began with the lesson plan and used outside resources to bring the lessons to another level and make the point of the lesson very clear. The adaptability and ability to use it as a foundation led to awesome conversations where kids impressed me with their experiences. In this first year, I tried to be conscious of not over-promising what would happen with Mutt-i-grees, and I worked on being comfortable with letting the kids steer the conversations in lessons and the projects in a direction that kept them engaged and enthusiastic.”

On Friday, June 13th, Shayna invited Brean Cunningham to visit the school. He is the co-director of “Dogs on the Inside” the film that tells the story of a partnership between a Massachusetts prison and a dog shelter that gives both rescue dogs and inmates a new lease on life. You can view the trailer to the film at http://www.dogsontheinside.com/.

It’s clear that Saint Aloysius School is lucky to have such an inspiring and dedicated member of their staff!

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