By Margie Smith
Qitah Blue Moonbeam II is a solid blue Maine Coon cat. Better known simply as "Beamer", not only is he a Grand Premier in the Cat Fanciers' Association but he also earned his Delta Therapy Certification in January, 2003. This means he is an animal that can be trusted to be with people in public situations. In this case, Beamer goes to school, the Lincoln School in the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania School District. There, he stays in Mrs. Smith's classroom and helps teach the students good social skills.
Beamer began his school career when he was only 5 months old. When he first started going to the Lincoln School, he went two days a week. He handled that very well and indicated he wanted to go more often by climbing on Margie's pant leg and crying "Nooooooooooooo" when she would leave to go to school. He was then allowed to attend three days a week. Just before the Christmas holidays, Beamer decided he wasn't going to be left home anymore, so with the permission and clearance from the Harrisburg Administration, Beamer became a permanent staff member of the Lincoln School. He was even issued his own ID card and swipe badge!
Beamer was originally brought to school to help Mrs. Smith (Margie) teach the students to read and pay attention to body language. The students often would get themselves into physical disputes because they would ignore body language of their peers that would indicate to leave a situation or person alone. Margie and two of the other staff members noticed this during the 2001-2002 school year, but weren't sure what or how to help the students use this in their lives. Meanwhile, Margie's classroom pet (Goldie, the goldfish) died and she was looking for another type of pet - something warm and fuzzy. Beamer had been brought to school in June 2002, to cheer up Lincoln's principal, Mrs. Annetta Simington, since she had lost two of her elderly cats within three months. While the discussion of which animal to bring into the classroom was taking place, the special education supervisor (Margie teaches special education to learning disabled students) stopped in also. To the supervisor, Ellen Castagneto, it was obvious who should be the next classroom pet ... Beamer! There he was, stretched out on Mrs. Simington's desk, while staff members and students stopped in. As Beamer spread himself out on Mrs. Simington's desk, everyone would stop and pet him. Beamer had rolled on his back - feet in the air loving all the attention. That was the beginning of Beamer's school career.
During the summer, Beamer began being trained to be in public areas and to be handled by many different people as well as handle being in a crowd. Beamer already traveled a great deal, since he went to horse shows and camped with the Smith family. To become a certified therapy animal for the national therapy programs, Beamer needed to be at least a year old, plus retired from the show ring. Beamer had already begun a rather successful show career, so Smith's decided to continue showing Beamer until he achieved the title of Grand Premier. Margie immediately began to enter Beamer as a premier in CFA cat shows (by this time, Beamer was 10 months old)! However, with much mentoring, a lot of practices, advice from judges and other exhibitors, Beamer finally Granded! Now that he has accomplished that goal, As it turned out, the Delta Society was the only therapy program local to both Maryland and Pennsylvania and Margie didn't realize that the Delta Society did not require Pet Partners to be retired show animals. Oh, well! Beamer is now retired from the show ring and will put all his energy into the Lincoln School!
Beamer Learns the No Paws Classroom Policy
I've been going to school now for about five weeks. I really enjoy the mornings when the kids are working on their writing - especially when it is about me. Today, the writing prompt was about me sailing on the Chesapeake Bay, getting lost, and whether or not I could drink the brackish water. Well, I usually choose one of the kids' desks to lay on when they work on their writing. Or, sometimes, I'll just lay across the table when two or more are pair-sharing with their writing. Today, though, one of the boys seemed a little out of sorts, so I thought I would go lay on his desk and give him a helping paw.
I was right about him being out of sorts, he was off-task today and he couldn't sit still. Of course, he can't sit still most days anyway, but today he seemed to resemble more of a Mexican Jumping Bean than he did a fifth grade student. I decided to help him by holding his pencil for him. He did some writing, but it wasn't about the writing prompt. Matter of fact, it didn't make much sense at all. I tried to direct the pencil with my paw by pushing it towards the writing prompt, but he just ignored my nudges. Well, we weren't getting too far. I ended up doing most of his writing - which he said looked like "doodle" anyway. The teacher, my Mom, wouldn't like that, so he had to erase it. Then he started hopping around again. This time, Mom told him, if he didn't get to work, he would lose the privilege of having me on his desk for the morning. Oh no!! I began to get a little desperate for my friend. I put my paw on his paper and picked up his pencil in my mouth. Once again, Mom warned my little buddy about what he would lose if he didn't get started. Well, that was the beginning of what got me into trouble.
I guess I had better explain that this classroom has a "no hands, no feet, no paws" policy. That means that you can't touch others with your hands, feet or paws - for any reason. I wasn't thinking about that when I made my next move. You see, my friend decided he didn't want to lose me from his desk, so he pulled up his chair and bent his whole upper body and head over his work. When he did that, I couldn't see what he was writing. Now if you remember, what he was writing before didn't make sense, I thought it was my duty to make sure that he stayed with the writing prompt. But, I couldn't see - so I bopped him on the head with my paw, to let him know he needed to move his head. It seemed like a logical thing to do at the time, but boy did I get in trouble for it! Mom whisked me off that desk so fast my fur looked like a blue streak! I had to serve in-school suspension for the rest of the morning in my crate. I knew better than to protest, although the other students tried to reason with Mom. She said the classroom had a policy and that was that. So there I stayed until after lunch. Needless to say, I no longer use my paws to get the kids' attention!
Lessons Learned from Beamer
As the school year progressed, Mrs. Smith's class read books, magazine articles and researched the Internet to learn about cat language and body language. The result was by the end of the year, most of the students were paying attention to Beamer's body language, but they all had not generalized the body language of peers into their own lives. However, there was a lesson learned that was unexpected!
During the school year, the students first began playing with Beamer during "Beamer Time" where Beamer was the focal point. By the Christmas holiday season, the students had begun to split themselves into groups - some would play with Beamer while others played with educational games with other students. By mid-April, the students had migrated to playing mostly with educational games during the play therapy time with only two to three students playing with Beamer.
At the beginning of the school year, the students could not play with each other without getting into fights - both verbal and sometimes physical. Many of the educational games were abused, so Margie put away over half the games. By mid-April, the students had learned to play with each other, take care of the games and not get into fights.
How had this happened? Margie observed some of the play therapy sessions (daily, from 1:00 to 1:20 is known as Beamer Time) rather than interact with the students. In October, Margie observed that the students needed adult intervention to play with Beamer to keep the student behaviors under control, pet appropriate and to keep Beamer engaged with the students. By mid-December, Margie noted that the students were now playing with Beamer without much intervention from Margie. Also, other students (in particular - two students who did not have pets at home) had begun to play with Dominos and were doing so to get Beamer engaged with them. These students noted verbally, several times, that they had to keep their voices low otherwise Beamer would not play with them. Other students who would be playing with Beamer and with his toys, also had learned they needed to keep their bodies on Beamer's level (either on a table where they would sit, or lying on the carpet on the floor) and their voices had to be kept low and quiet. Many times, the students would yell at other students to keep their voices low - which defeated the purpose due to the volume of their voices!
By the end of March, the students had learned to keep their voices low - without yelling at each other. The students had also invited other classes to visit with Beamer during Beamer Time and would instruct the visiting students on how to keep Beamer comfortable and playful. The students in Margie's classroom continued these behaviors until the end of the school year. Margie also had observed, that by mid-April, the students upon entering the classroom would use quiet voices and non-threatening body language. As new students and staff entered the classroom, they were also instructed to keep a low voice and "quiet hands and bodies" to avoid scaring Beamer. Although this was not entirely what Margie and her colleagues had set as goals for the school year, it was still considered a few steps in the right direction. It was decided that Beamer would continue to be a classroom pet for the summer enrichment program as well as into the next school year - 2003 to 2004.
Margie Smith is a Special Education Teacher at Lincoln School, Harrisburg, PA.
Reprinted courtesy of Fanc-e-Mews
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This program is supported by
The Cat Fanciers' Association, Inc.
This program is supported by The Cat Fanciers' Association, Inc.