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Posted by on Dec 30, 2013 | 0 comments

Balancing the Education Equation


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On Thursday December 19th  I read, discussed, drew and encouraged  4th 5th and 8th graders at Endeavor Charter School in Raleigh, NC to come up with stories about kindness. This was all part of the CritterKin “Be Kind” campaign to use a subject kids love (animals) as the basis for creating entertaining educational projects that translate classroom learning into practical, real life activities. In other words, Project Based Learning.

I’ve chronicled those two days – sharing both my lesson plans and the students’ amazing work – here in this blog and on the CritterKin “Try This” page. However, what I haven’t mentioned is that all three of the teachers who helped me plan and execute the CritterKin event had good news to share when I returned on Friday to work with the 6th graders. Apparently several parents had called the school to say their kids loved the activities, and one family was so moved by their son’s insistence that they needed to help homeless animals that they called their local shelter and made a donation.

This was music to my ears of course, because it’s hard to know how much of an impact you’ve had after just one visit. However, it also got me thinking about how vitally important it is for parents to support and enhance classroom learning and vice versa. Education doesn’t start and stop at the entrance to a school and children do not come to school as blank slates. Everything they experience outside school colors and informs their perceptions, reactions and ability to learn.

Hearing about the reactions of the Endeavor School parents made me realize how important it is to balance the educational equation by engaging with and enlisting the support of parents. The big question of course is how can we harness and convey the excitement and commitment that’s building among the #hashtag people to larger communities of influence? At CritterKin, we believe that the best way is one mutt at a time.

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Posted by on Dec 28, 2013 | 0 comments

Teach Like a Dog


Chester by Madison 400x252The single most important thing that dogs bring to the education roundtable is emotional integrity. By nature dogs are loving, curious, eager to please, and incapable of dishonesty. Their love is not based on how we look, what we know, or how we perform. In short, they are doorways to what we instinctively know is a genuine way of being in the world. This makes them great touchstones and mentors for kids – a way to introduce and allow them to practice emotional intelligence along with intellectual skills.

Here at CritterKin, we have been using the dogs’ stories and related themes as a springboard for project based learning – a way to give kids the chance to make what they learn in the classroom relevant to their daily lives. To give you an idea of what’s possible let me share my experiences with the 4th 5th and 6th graders at Endeavor Charter School in Raleigh, NC.

The CritterKin packed of mixed breed dogs is composed of 8 fun-loving pups and their slightly goofy leader, Ms. Jenaia. Like each of us, each dog is exploring certain issues and themes. Doxie is a compulsive digger who hasn’t found a way to channel his exuberance; Lance is a misunderstood pit bull who must cope with prejudice and bullying; and Mariah is a grump whose negative outlook on life causes her all kinds of problems. You get the idea.

The theme we chose to explore with the kids was “kindness.” The CritterKin dog associated with this theme is Ricky Bobby, a tiny seven-pound dachshund rescued from a puppy mill. The neglect Ricky suffered in that facility left his back legs paralyzed. However, thanks to the efforts of his rescuers, veterinarians, and the woman who adopted him, Ricky now has both a loving home and a custom built cart to get around in. His story is a perfect way to illustrate the power of kindness.

At Endeavor, I read Ricky’s story from “Meet the Mutts” aloud and encouraged the kids to repeat the sounds the dogs made. Since each class had 57 students, the walls of the room shook when the kids cheerfully repeated, “Wow, Wow, Wow!” “Not Good, Not Good, Not Good!” and “Yes, Yes, Yes!”

So loud did we become at one point that another teacher poked his head in to ask, “Everything okay here?”

“Yes! Yes! Yes!” we replied with gleeful abandon. The teacher grinned and closed the door.

Next on the agenda was a discussion of what happened in the story and its underlying messages. Kindness is not always easy for kids to understand. They’ve been told by adults to be nice, don’t talk back to your parents, don’t hit your baby brother, etc. but can rarely give practical examples of what it means to be kind. The trick to helping them understand was to use a story that was both concrete and translated readily to their lives. Ricky Bobby’s life in the puppy mill, where he felt lonely and misunderstood, was something the kids could relate to. “How many of you have ever felt sad and lonely?” I asked. Every hand was in the air.

“Was it kind not to take Ricky Bobby to the vet?” I asked the kids.

“Noooooo!” they replied in unison.

“So are your parents being kind when they take you to the doctor for a shot?”

“Yes….” They grudgingly admit.

“Do you think Ricky Bobby’s new person is kind to him?”


“How do you know? What does a dog need to be happy and healthy?” I asked. It was time to make the lesson practical as well as personal. I went to the white board and started a list.  Hands flew into the air and our list grew quickly.

Next, I handed out sheets of paper with pictures of  real dogs at the top. “These are real dogs waiting for their homes in the local animal shelter,” I told them. “Let’s learn how to draw them.”

Simple instructions on “how to draw a dog” followed. You can see the instructions:

Finally, I asked, “Why do you think I told the story from Ricky Bobby’s point of view?”  The kids got it right away.

“Because you wanted us to understand what he felt,” said one boy.

“He knows his story better than you,” said a 4th grader dressed in reindeer antlers.

“That’s right!” I agree. “So now I’d like you to tell me your dog’s story.” I read them a very simple example from a profile I wrote about an elderly beagle looking for a home: “Hello there, my name is Claire and I am the very best beagle ever. Do you know why? I am well trained, beautiful, and a full grown adult. That means I won’t chew your shoes or pee on your carpet. If you take me home, I promise to love you for the rest of my life.”

The kids got to work, and by the time the period ended they had two pieces of art – a drawing and a story – to share with their friends, families and all of us. The kids sent me off with hugs. Ten minutes later I signed out at the front desk, loaded my drawing materials into my trunk and sat grinning behind the wheel of my car. I’d just caught a glimpse of what kids can do if both their emotional and intellectual intelligence are nurtured simultaneously. And that, my friends is a good thing.                        ~ Jena Ball

To see a complete lesson plan, go to
I hope you will give it a try and write to me with your thoughts and suggestions at

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Posted by on Dec 27, 2013 | 0 comments

Teaching Goes to the Dogs

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As I sit here looking at the drawings, reading the stories, and nursing the cold the kids at Endeavor Charter School were kind enough to share with me last week, I am struck by a simple truth – I have as much to learn from kids as they have to learn from me.

In our culture that statement is counterintuitive. As teachers and adults we are paid to impart information and skills that will allow our kids to survive in that culture – a culture I might add that most of us freely admit is sorely lacking in compassion, empathy and respect.

Our current, assembly-line approach to education – a byproduct of the industrial revolution – judges children based on their ability to acquire and use particular kinds of information in very limited ways (think quality control). Standardized testing is then used to assess their progress. No real attempt is made to discover or encourage individual learning differences, interests or strengths.

This approach to education is a lot easier to administer than the one I am proposing. However, I would argue that we continue down this path at our own peril.  One has only to look at the many and daunting challenges facing our world today (pollution, poverty, political upheaval, etc.) to know that something needs to change. I believe that change lies in how and what we teach our kids.

Instead of grouping and assessing kids based on standardized tests, let’s look at each child as an individual. Let’s ask, “What interests, excites and makes you eager to learn? How can I help you acquire the basic skills you need to function in the world – which I believe must include the ability to understand, empathize and collaborate with a variety of people? And most important of all, how can I help you discover and develop your own unique vision – the one thing that you and you alone have to give?”

This approach to education requires a radical shift in how we see our roles as teachers. We must be willing to watch and listen to our kids – to let them teach us what and how they need to learn. This doesn’t mean abandoning the basics. Every child must learn to read, write, add, subtract, understand basic biology, etc.  The difference lies in how we teach these skills; how we make them relevant, meaningful, and practical. Kids who are both intellectually and emotionally prepared – who like, respect and value themselves and their classmates’ unique contributions – stand a decent chance of becoming the kind of caring, responsible adults we so desperately need.

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Posted by on Dec 22, 2013 | 0 comments

Drawing Their Way to Kindness

Finnick 800x666This month, as part of our “BE Kind” campaign, the CritterKin pack of mutts and Ms. Jenaia visited more than a dozen classrooms, shelters and bookstores. There, we read from “Meet the Mutts” and gave kids a hands on taste of kindness. The program is simple:

  • Read Ricky Bobby’s story, “I Wanna Go Fast” from “Meet the Mutts;”
  • Use real life photos and video to let the kids know that while Ricky’s story is fictional, his suffering and rescue are not;
  • Discuss what it means to be kind and what happens when people are not;
  • Bring actual photos of dogs from local shelters for the kids to see, draw, and tell stories about;
  • Discuss how they can make a difference in the lives of shelter dogs;
  • Make a “Be Kind” plan with the kids to help dogs get adopted; and
  • Execute plan in subsequent visits.

Depending on the age of the kids and the amount of time we had, the 7 steps above can take one to three sessions. The one thing that never fails to happen is that the kids get the message loud and clear: even one small act of kindness can make a difference. They leave feeling excited, empowered and ready to use what they’ve learned.

I guess we don’t have to tell you that none of this would have been possible without the enthusiastic support from and collaboration with some outstanding teachers, librarians and bookstore owners. We also want to thank the kids, whose willingness to jump into the stories, bark with the dogs, laugh with Ms. Jenaia and share their own stories about dogs made every class a blast. We learned as much as we taught, and that’s the real gift.

The picture above is by a 6th grader at Endeavor Charter School in Raleigh, NC.  As you can see, the kids had fun and showed us they have some pretty impressive drawing skills.  We’re including more below and will post more to Facebook, Twitter, and the schools’ Pinterest boards. See for more images.

Copyright 2014 by Jena Ball. All Rights Reserved.



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Posted by on Dec 21, 2013 | 0 comments

The Litmus Test

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On Friday, December 20th  at 11:27 a.m. the teacher who had arranged to have me read to her 6th grade class asked me a good question: “Why are you doing this?”

I remember the time because 11:30 marked the end of my allotted time with the kids. We’d gotten the reading and their drawings done with three minutes to spare. Woo hoo!

“Excuse me, what did you say?” I asked, pulling my attention from the 57 kids sprawled on the floor drawing the faces of shelter dogs .

I’m just wondering why you do this,” she said, gesturing towards the white board with our list of ways to “Be Kind” to shelter animals and my simple instructions for drawing a dog’s face. She is a smart, funny and creative teacher, so if she was asking she really wanted to know. “I mean, you’re a writer, right?” she clarified. “You don’t get paid to do this.”

“If you mean I don’t get paid money, that’s true” I replied. “But I think of spending time with the kids as a kind of litmus test. It’s one thing to write a kids book, but it’s another to have them like it.”

“Fair enough,” she smiled. “Thanks for sharing CritterKin. I think you passed the test.”

Back home, curled on the couch with my cat and a cup of Earl Grey tea, I gave more thought to her question. The longer, more complex answer has to do with the reasons CritterKin exists and what I’m beginning to think of as a monumental shift in how we see and approach education.

First of all, writing for and sharing with kids is my way of getting back to a part of myself I like and trust very much. As I said in a previous post, this part of me believes implicitly in magic and goes looking for it in all the “in between” places she can find. As an adult the “places” are different (I no longer fit comfortably beneath the camellia bushes), but no less compelling.

Second, in writing and illustrating CritterKin I’m tackling some topics and issues that have perplexed and plagued me since I first set foot in a classroom, and I’m doing it through play! Don’t get me wrong here. I know that play is hard work, and it’s all too easy to fall off the jungle gym and get the wind knocked out of you. However, play is also about possibilities, the challenge of self-discovery and the freedom to make mistakes – three things that were sorely lacking in my school years.

As I allow myself to slip into the shoes/paws of the CritterKin mutts, I abandon the maxims and rules, the self-conscious dos and don’ts that we impress upon ourselves. I am free to think, feel and express myself as dogs everywhere do with honesty, enthusiasm and shameless abandonment. This in turn frees me to look at the people in the dogs’ lives with honesty and amusement. In this way I hope to help us re-examine how we treat ourselves and others. That’s why each of the CritterKin mutts has a particular topic or theme to tackle. It’s why Ricky Bobby, a paralyzed puppy mill survivor, is the perfect CritterKin mutt to help kids explore the topic of kindness. It’s why Lance’s life, as a misunderstood pit bull, is an ideal way to take a look at  prejudice, stereotypes and bullying. You get the picture.

Bandana and Dog 300x250Am I saying that we should abandon all rules and let children just do whatever they please? Of course not.  Children need guidance, boundaries and rules as much as they need encouragement to explore. What I AM questioning is our cookie cutter approach to education and the assumptions we make about what and how children should learn. The best way I can think of to begin this discussion, is to have you watch and consider a recent TEDx talk given by 13-year-old Logan Laplante. Logan asks two very simple, but profound questions. “Why isn’t learning how to be happy and healthy a priority in education? What if we based education on the study and practice of being happy and healthy?”

Great questions Logan, and ones I think hold the key to this “monumental shift” I was talking about earlier. Just as I have learned to trust and take great delight in the process of writing and illustrating the CritterKin stories, I believe that all kids have the ability to discover and pursue interests that not only make them happy, but will allow them to make significant contributions as well. This won’t happen if we continue to tell them that their survival depends upon them following rules and studying for jobs they feel no real passion for. Nor will it happen if we don’t make discovering what makes them happy/excited/challenged/curious/energized/eager to learn a fundamental part of education. As Logan so rightly points out, happiness isn’t something that magically occurs once you’ve completed school, found a job and gotten married. It is a skill that needs to be cultivated and celebrated.

Recently, thanks to Marty Keltz, I have discovered the #hashtag people. In their tweets I hear echoes of what the CritterKin mutts are teaching me – trust yourself; don’t be afraid to explore; make mistakes and try again; resist the urge to make assumptions; do your best to understand and have compassion for others; work as a pack; explore project based learning that makes learning real; and most important of all, lead with your heart. Because it is the heart that really knows what you were born to do, the gift that you and only you have to share.

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