How an Instagram of four stuffed animals warmed the hearts of even my toughest 8th graders. Building a sense of community in my classroom is essential because when students feel like they belong, they learn! Strengthening relationships among the various cliques in middle school is hard, but possible.
Mix one quirky English teacher and a long New England winter, and you get CLASS PETS. I can’t pinpoint the moment the idea came to me, but I vividly remember my husband’s reaction as I started ordering stuffed animals from Amazon. “Stuffed animals, for your 8th graders?” But my students are rarely surprised by my antics, and I knew they would be on board.
It All Started with Flat Stanley
I remember when my son was in the 2nd grade, and we received Flat Stanley in the mail from my nephew in Florida. For those of you who don’t know Flat Stanley, it’s a children’s book about a boy who is flattened by a bulletin board, and finds being flat brings endless possibilities. Our assignment was to show Flat Stanley around our Rhode Island town and take pictures of his adventures. When Stanley returned to Florida, he had been on a hayride in a pumpkin patch and out to dinner at our favorite Chinese restaurant. I hoped this cute childhood project would translate to my 13-year-old students. My mind began to race with all the adventures our class pets could go on with my 105 students!
Social Media as the Hook
When it comes to social media, I’m what my students call “old school”. I use Facebook to keep in touch with family and childhood friends, but that’s about it. And as my students love to point out, only “old” people use Facebook. I knew Instagram would be the perfect place to share our photos, so I’d need to learn how to use it. Even though my knowledge of Instagram was sparse, I could take a good photo and use filters… so the pets had their first photo shoot.
Our Friends Needed Names
The students arrived Monday morning to the plush faces of the Class Pets. I explained that wherever they took the pets, if they sent me pictures of their adventures, I’d post them to our Instagram page. For safety reasons, the only rule was there couldn’t be any people in any of the pictures. But before the pets could leave school on their first adventures, they needed names. I sent the students a GOOGLE FORM (attached for you to make your own) with pictures of each pet and they began listing possible names. When the votes were tallied, these were the names selected.
Aidan was named after a favorite student on the team who was lovingly called The Goat. Flash was the perfect name for the sloth as we were studying irony, and Bubbles and Sprinkles rounded out the foursome. I didn’t know the ins and outs of Instagram; however, I stood in front of 105 young adults who did! They taught me how to swipe up, left, and right, as well as post Instagram Stories.
New England Sports Fans
My students began bringing the pets to all of their sporting events. They became mascots for every soccer, softball, basketball, and hockey team, and even their teammates from other schools began following the pets on Instagram. Each of the pets was invited to a Super Bowl Party and cheered on Tom Brady and The Patriots as they won their 6th Super Bowl.
Discovering Something New
The pets made the rounds participating in the students’ hobbies from playing chess to drama club to learning the violin, drums, and piano. They learned to play cards, cook, and do ballet. And on one especially cold night, Bubbles was given a sweater just his size. As the pets learned how to play Minecraft and Fortnite, the conversations among the different groups of gamers began. Which was better: PS4, XBOX or PC? Before I knew it, they were exchanging gamer tags to play together after school. These plush stuffed animals were helping to build a community between the various groups and cliques in ways I could not.
Showing Their Creativity
I knew my students were imaginative, but I wasn’t prepared for the student who was doing her homework on The American Revolution to have Bubbles battle the Red Coats. Bubbles was an immediate favorite as students used his tusk to play ping pong, fence, and sing along to “The Narwhal Song”.
Each week I saw the followers on Instagram grow as the pets made their way into the lives of my students. The pets attended birthday parties, movies, and the theater, but I was not expecting the students’ parents and siblings to follow as well. The Class Pets were building a community inside and outside the classroom. One morning a student left Flash in the car, and her mother brought him to her job as a financial planner… and sent me pictures to post. Another week I got an email from a parent asking if Flash could come home with her son that weekend because they had a lot of fun activities planned for St. Joseph’s Day. This little community far exceeded the walls of Room 210.
The pets traveled all over the country from vacations to Kentucky and Florida to soccer tournaments in New Hampshire and Cape Cod. They even accompanied the returning RI State Science Olympiad Team to nationals in Cornell, NY. So, it was not a surprise when one went missing, but it warmed my heart to see the students sharing an assortment of hashtags about Bubbles disappearance.
Come spring, a new friend came to town. He was Gothic in nature, and the students decided on the name Midnight. Thankfully, Bubbles was found under a student’s bed by their cleaning lady. What I thought would be a fun weekend activity began to work its way into my class. Students began grabbing the pets during a test or a particularly tough day. They would even face the pets towards the TV during a movie so they could watch too. I feared the pets might only appeal to the girls on my team, but it was the boys who showed the most heart. As the year came to a close, I had to decide what to do with the pets. Although I posted the pictures to my Instagram page, these were not my pets.
Finding New Homes
In the end, the pets were adopted by deserving students. The final Instagram post read:
The pets belong to the class of 2023, so it’s only right that they follow you to the high school. If you think you can give one of the pets a good home, send me a message with the pet you would like to adopt, and why you think you can give it a good home.
The applications were as sweet as their tender hearts. “I think my home would be a good home for Bubbles because she will always be busy with my little sister, and she will always be loved unconditionally.” Another application read, “I believe I could provide Flash a good home because I have many stuffed animals he can become friends with, and everyone in my house will enjoy Flash very much.”
Sense of Community
To say the students had fun with the Class Pets is an understatement. And as teachers know, kids learn better when they’re having fun. Middle school is a turbulent time for most teenagers, and they are craving a place where they belong. When students share their love of Dungeons and Dragons and old school New Kids on the Block, it’s because they feel comfortable being themselves. When students feel safe, they are more willing to take chances: raising their hands, sharing their ideas, reading a new book, writing a poem, DREAMING BIG. Community happens when you feel like people see you, hear you, and accept you for your unique ideas and quirky ways. I feel that in my classroom everyday, and so I know more silly and creative ideas lie ahead. Years from now, my students may not remember the correct use of a semicolon or how to correctly cite in MLA format, but as the old adage goes, they’ll remember how they felt in my classroom. And in my book, that’s a success!
Activities for Your Students and Class Pets
If you are incorporating Class Pets into your classroom, these 12 MONTHLY ACTIVITIES are for you. These engaging activities help the students express themselves in new and creative ways.
Due to the warm response of my blog post, I created a hashtag for teachers where we can share our favorite pet photos with fellow teachers around the world. When you post your photos on Instagram, use the #classpetconnections so we can see all the big and small adventures in which the pets embark. Happy Trails! I can’t wait to see the community of pets from across the globe.
Everything To Get you Started with Your Own Class Pets!
The Letter to Parents is completely editable so you can make it your own. You can decide how best you want the pictures sent to you be it school email or DM on Instagram . . . or both.
Naming the Pets is a Google Form that will make it easier for you to have the students name the pets. Simply swap the pictures and you are ready to go.
Request for Adoption is also a Google Form that will make it easier for you when the school year ends, and the pets are adopted by your students. Again, swap the picture and you are ready to go.
Building Community from the First Day of School
My BACK TO SCHOOL product helps you set the tone for your classroom with lessons on respect and goals. It is also filled with activities that will help the students get to know you, help you get to know the students, and more importantly, help the students get to know each other. THAT is how true community is built. Most are DIGITAL and EDITABLE so you can make them your own!
More Creative and Quirky Lessons
Below are more fun lessons for your middle school English classroom. My students love games and competitions. It’s amazing what they’ll do for a Jolly Rancher. For more ideas on building student engagement in your classroom, click HERE.