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Crazy critters teach valuable lessons at FES

Gavin Thoen studied the gargoyle gecko. It's one of the "critters" that are pets and teaching tools owned by first grade teacher Dawn Slinger. She has had pets in her classroom for more than 20 years. Only, the ones she has now are fur-free.

There are kids in Dawn Slinger's first grade class who may arguably be braver than their parents at times. Particularly, when it comes to handling snakes.

Because honestly, the kids in Slinger's class are around snakes - and toads, geckos, tortoises and other "critters," as she calls them - all day when they are at Farmington Elementary School. And on days when the critters come out, the kids are learning to handle them. Even the snakes.

Slinger has been teaching at FES for 25 years, and she's had animals in her classroom for at least 24 of those years. She used to have guinea pigs and hamsters, but a few of her students had asthma. So she turned to amphibians.

"I don't have any furry animals anymore, so that all the kids can handle them and not be allergic to them," Slinger said. "That's how I chose the animals I have in my classroom."

That means she's got two geckos, two tortoises, one corn snake, two ball pythons, three frogs, a fire belly toad, hermit crabs, a fire belly newt, and a 45-gallon fish tank all in her classroom.

Slinger uses the critters to teach students all kinds of subjects. They do observations of the animals, then she asks them to draw pictures, and to write descriptions of what they are seeing and learning.

"I have done a lot with the anti-bullying piece, too," she said. "They're very useful as far as teaching children to be respectful of things that are different from you. I can use the animals as a way to have them step into someone else's shoes, and just learn to be respectful and kind."

Behavioral issues don't come up too often in Slinger's class, because the kids want to be able to handle the animals. If they misbehave in class, they lose that privilege.

She doesn't send the critters home with students over the weekend, though. There are too many requirements, particularly with amphibians and snakes, that require their cages to be at certain temperatures and so on. For that matter, she doesn't take the animals home over the weekend, either, but on longer vacations, she does have to make arrangements to get into the classroom to feed them or clean their cages.

Students in Slinger's class are used to the critters by now. They work with the animals several times a week, and any that may have had apprehension in the past have let it go.

"They're very fascinated by these creatures because they're different. For kids who do not have pets, it gives them a chance to feel like they have an animal that is theirs to love," Slinger said. "The kids at this age, they're not afraid of anything, so they're open to new experiences. The parents might be (afraid), so the kids can help their parents in that way."

A native of Farmington, Slinger grew up picking up crawfish and snakes along the Vermillion River as a kid. In fact, those childhood experiences play into her current collection of critters.

"Some kids were mean to the creatures, and that really upset me, so now that's one of the things I try to teach my first graders. Even if it's icky or different, be respectful and leave it alone, or be respectful and not use them to tease other people. Hopefully, that makes a difference," she said.

Michelle Leonard

Michelle Leonard joined the Woodbury Bulletin staff in November, 2014, after 14 years covering news for the Bulletin's sister publication, the Farmington Rosemount Independent Town Pages.  Michelle earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Mass Communications: News-Editorial from Mankato State University in 1991. She is an active member of the American Legion Auxiliary Clifford Larson Unit 189 of Farmington, and served as the 2014-15 Third District President to the American Legion Auxiliary Department of Minnesota. Michelle is also the volunteer coordinator for the Minnesota Newspaper Museum which is open annually during the Minnesota State Fair. She has earned Minnesota Newspaper Association awards in Investigative Reporting, Local News Coverage, Feature Photography and Column Writing. 

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