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By Joe Quirk
I'm not just talking about cutesy puppy stories. Biologist E. O. Wilson calls it biophilia, or love of life. Perhaps because animals naturally engage kids' curiosity and metaphoric thinking ("What are they thinking?" "What would I feel like if I were a mouse?" etc.), animal themes inspire every age group, from toddler to teen, from fiction to persuasive essays.
Suppose you want to teach the five-paragraph essay structure to 8-year-olds. They must produce an introductory paragraph, three supporting paragraphs, and a conclusion. Each paragraph must contain three details and a transitional sentence. How do you get them following this dry structure without boring them to tears? Offer this subject: "Which are better — cats or dogs?"
As passionate opinions emerge, start another round robin exercise, except this time create a nonfiction essay. Each child is allowed to make one point, and the next child is required to say, "But on the other hand...." and offer a contrary opinion, which motivates children to think through their knee-jerk reactions.
After getting them riled up, tell them they must stop talking and write essays to convince all the children they disagreed with. They'll be so busy organizing their arguments, they won't even realize they're learning the structure of a five-paragraph essay.
Are you faced with sophisticated 13-year olds who are too cool to get passionate? Read this paragraph aloud to them:
"Is animal testing ethical? Many of our medicines require testing on animal, which may cause animals to suffer. Which animals should be spared? Cute ones? Pigs aren't cute but intelligent like dogs. Smart ones? Bunnies are dumb but cute. The more closely related the animal is to humans, the better our predictions about how safe medicines are. So should we test on monkeys?"
Motivated to think through their assumptions about animal ethics are a good starting place to get teens to support their moral intuitions with clearly articulated arguments.
But most miraculous is the effect animal stories have on little kids. A 6-year-old who can't acknowledge his parents' divorce will write an affecting story about a bunny that feels abandoned but must learn to hop between Mommy's burrow and Daddy's burrow. Witnessing children work through their emotions with animal characters has taught me much about the deep purpose of story in building character.
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