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Williwaw Librarian Uses Chicken Therapy to Teach

Williwaw students working with the chickens Williwaw Elementary teacher and librarian, Kay Waitman, is using animals in the classroom for teaching and therapy. What started as a favorite memory for her own children has turned into hands on learning, and what Waitman calls “chicken therapy.”

Waitman said it was inspiring to watch students with the most challenging behaviors work with the newly hatched chicks last year. “They were calm, quiet, and incredibly careful as they held the chicks. Sometimes, the chicks would even fall asleep in their hands.”

Waitman realized that for some of the students, the social and emotional learning that takes place is the most important piece for them. Students having a challenging day were able to visit, sit, and watch or talk to the chicks, she said.

Now a year, five chickens and a chicken coop later, Waitman, teachers, and students at Williwaw Elementary are learning about chickens and using their feathered friends as a spring board for other learning opportunities.

As the librarian, Waitman likes to incorporate the chickens into literacy and music. She said she likes to have the students read and write chicken poems and sing songs about chickens.

Waitman also likes to link the chickens to science, “We candled the eggs as they developed to see if the chick embryo was developing or not and studied the egg development timeline and the life-cycle of a chicken.”

Waitman said other staff have also utilized the Williwaw Chicks as a learning tool. The kindergarten class is collecting eggs to use when they make homemade pancakes. The music teacher is teaching the kindergartners chicken songs. A second-grade class is taking data on daylight and is comparing this to the daily egg count to determine if there is any correlation. If you walk the halls of Williwaw you will see a lot of student produced artwork of the chickens. 

Waitman can talk a lot about the benefits and curriculum that have come from the great chicken experiment but in the end, she said, it is about the students and how they are benefiting. That is evident when you talk to some of the students that help Waitman tend to the chickens daily.

Jurell crook enters data about the Williwaw chickens Students Jurrell Crook, Kay-Lynn Virden, and Jimmy Tali-Utai agree that helping with the chickens is fun. For the three of them lunch time is a quick bite to eat then time with the chickens.

Kay-lynn said they start by collecting the eggs, checking their food and water, and replacing their bedding. She said she enjoys helping take care of the chickens and has learned a lot. “I learned they have a pecking order,” she said. “But my favorite is learning about their different combs. I like their combs and I learned they are not all the same.”

Jurrell said his favorite part has been feeding them. Especially the chicken named Via. “She is my favorite because she is at the top of the pecking order.”

All three agree that feeding the chickens and just getting in the coop to work with them is fun, but for Jimmy it is the collecting of eggs. “My favorite part is checking their eggs and making sure they are not cracked.”

Waitman had an open-door policy last year when the chickens were growing in the incubator then moving to the brooder. It was popular with students and parents said Waitman. “I always had a room full of students and parents after school.”

Kay-Lynn was one of those students gathered around the eggs as they prepared to hatch. For her the experience was “amazing.” “I liked seeing a new generation of chickens being born.”

In all there are five chickens, Charlotte, Via, Rapunzel, Alice, and Raina. They got their names through a naming contest at the school. The chickens are Icelandic chickens and are known for their gentle temperament, cold-hardiness and independence, which makes them perfect for schools.

Waitman loves the Icelandic chickens because they all look different from each other. She said their colors range from white to light to dark brown to almost black. Some have single combs while others have rose combs or more decorative combs. “Their diversity is a reflection of the diversity we celebrate at our school.”

Waitman said, that like getting the idea from her children’s teacher, she hopes the Williwaw chickens can help other schools and families get ideas and start a chicken project as well. “As a school we want to be able to share,” said Waitman. “I hope to help form a school chicken keeping network, so we may share what we’ve learned along the way and learn from each other.”

Eggs in a basket  

Robert DeBerry/Anchorage School District