Jennie Warmouth, a second grade teacher at Spruce Elementary, Lynnwood, USA, has worked there for the past 21 years. Spruce, a few miles north of Seattle, is a highly diverse, Title-1 elementary school, featuring a 600-student population speaking 39 world languages. Over 45% of students qualify for free/reduced lunch and it is not unusual for Jennie’s students to be grappling with issues such as food insecurity, transnational family separation, undocumented citizenship, parental incarceration, domestic abuse, and even homelessness.
As a new teacher in the early 2000s, she noticed the mismatch between the standardized literacy curriculum and the lived experiences of her highly diverse first grade students. Wanting her instruction to center on the children’s perspectives, anchored in real-world authenticity, she had observed a universal interest in family pets. From this she pioneered an innovative reading and writing curricula teaching her young students how to apply their emerging literacy skills to write online adoption advertisements for “difficult to place” dogs and cats awaiting new families at the local animal shelter PAWS (Progressive Animal Welfare Society). Through this partnership, now in its 17th year, she teaches students to process the shelter’s veterinary records, behavioral notes, and ecological information to craft honest, entertaining, and hopeful descriptions for each pet with the final drafts published weekly on the shelter’s website. For most of her students, this is a first opportunity to improve the life condition of another being and around 800 children have participated in the project, with 600 difficult to place/special needs dogs and cats successfully re-homed as a result. Jennie even took this project abroad for a year as a Fulbright Teacher in Edinburgh, Scotland, later writing a children’s book about the experience called “Teacher Trade!” A sense of adventure and a taste for travel saw her also become a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow with National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions, voyaging to Arctic Svalbard to learn about polar bears and climate change, material from this recycled among her students to enhance their knowledge and global citizenship skills.
Graduates of her program return year after year – volunteering to mentor the next generation of “PAWS Writers”, who themselves have gone on to pursue advanced placement courses in high school. Alumni now in college have set their sights on helping professions including veterinary medicine, cognitive neuroscience, education, and creative writing. Some of her students have foregone birthday gits in lieu of collecting pet food and supplies to donate to the animal shelter, while others have gained the courage and knowledge to report incidences of both human and animal maltreatment observed within their communities.
The transformative nature of this work on children’s social and emotional development inspired Jennie to pursue a PhD in Human Development and Cognition with focus on the psychology of human-animal interaction and empathy development with the PAWS writing project serving as the focus of her doctoral dissertation. This detailed how child participants struggling with sensitive issues often considered “unspeakable” in public education classrooms found the courage to share their personal perspectives through the compassionate and collaborative writing process, able to process and transform some aspects of their own trauma as they simultaneously assisted in another’s healing.