By Susan Riddell
As Micah Deramus practices his presentation, he gently pets the hedgehog he’s holding while reciting his research. He starts at the top of the hedgehog’s head, working his hand backwards along the path of its quills.
“This is the safest way to pet them,” Deramus said. “Her quills are white because she’s an albino.”
He continues with more information:
“If they get frightened, they will curl up in a ball and their quills will come out.”
“They may eat any insect.”
“They are native to Africa, Europe and Asia.”
“Hedgehogs can get cancer.”
“If you have one as a pet, keep him in a cage, but make sure it’s big enough for him to run around.”
“You can feed them cooked meat, cat food or hedgehog food.”
Deramus is in 7th grade and attends Kennedy Metro Middle School (Jefferson County) and is one of many students who are involved in the school’s Reptile Roadshow, which consists of students learning about reptiles (and other animals), taking research and turning it into presentations at other district schools
Kennedy Metro, which is an alternative school, may seem an unlikely place for such a program, but Principal Donald Reid said the school is just as focused on helping students gain college and career ready skills as traditional programs.
“We want to give these students a positive, alternative experience, but we still want them continuing on to great things,” said Reid, who is in his eighth year at Kennedy Metro Middle. “We hang college banners in this building for a reason. I want our kids to know that’s something they can achieve.”
The Reptile Roadshow validates those concepts.
Science teacher Denise Ranney started bringing turtles, leopard geckos, ball pythons and hedgehogs into her classroom. Her students became so engaged with them, she extended the effort to include having them present their findings about the animals to other students.
“This shows the students responsibility, ownership and nurturing skills,” Ranney said.
Not long after, Reid suggested the students take the animals around to elementary schools in Jefferson County. The experience has helped Kennedy Metro students build leadership and public speaking skills, Reid said.
“They also have increased their knowledge of core content as it relates to scientific study of ecosystems and habitats,” he said. “They are gaining career skills in training and caring for the reptiles and other animals.”
Reid added that students are much more motivated to learn and behave better in the classroom. Completing assignments and showing this good behavior are requirements for roadshow participation.
“I’m very passionate about this program for all it does for our students,” Reid said. “It truly captivates, motivates and inspires them to strive for academic success.”
Formative assessment is used to gauge learning from this year-around project.
“The core content for both 6th and 7th grade covers ecosystems, communities and populations, so the (turtle) tank set up in my classroom gives the students hands-on experience,” Ranney said.
The students are required to follow strict sanitary and safety guidelines when handling the animals, Ranney said., including sanitary ones and proper handling of the reptiles, are strictly enforced in Ranney’s classroom, she added.
Ranney said she would love to add a chinchilla or a blue-tailed skink to the roadshow, but for now, she said it’s a thrill to watch the students thrive around the animals and overcome their fears in handling them. For some students, touching and holding the reptiles was a gradual process.
Instead of holding or petting them right away, a few would take small steps toward them: first they might clean a cage. Then, a student might sit near one while it was being held by another. Eventually, a hesitant student might work his or her way to petting the animal before eventually holding it.
Gaining this confidence took weeks for some and minutes for others.
“It’s nothing to step into the room unnoticed and see a student working quietly with a snake around his or her shoulder or with a bearded dragon on a desk,” Reid said.
“The bonds they make with them make it all worth it,” Ranney added.