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Special Dog "Guides"
Middle School Curriculum


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Students in Bryan, Texas, are raising a guide dog named Penny. Teachers at Sam Rayburn Middle School have turned this special community service project into lessons in geography, art, language, and more.

Community service is one of the thrusts of the curriculum at Sam Rayburn Middle School in Bryan, Texas. Teachers there work hard to get their students thinking about and involved in the community. But one special community service project at Rayburn has been especially motivating for students. The project began as an idea from art teacher Becky Alter.

Penny, at age 14 monthsPenny, at age 14 months.
(Photo courtesy of Becky Alter)

"If the students could raise $1,000, they could sponsor a guide dog puppy," Alter thought. "What a great way that would be to show the importance of community service and how it can help others!"

Alter's idea was the start of "Pennies for a Pup," a campaign that brought to school a little golden retriever guide dog puppy that the students voted to name---appropriately---"Penny!"

Penny will still be in school when the students return after summer break, but sometime this fall---if she is evaluated and accepted---Penny could be leaving Rayburn to enter another school: guide dog training school. After training, students hope Penny will be paired with a person who is visually impaired and in need of Penny's guidance.

(You must admit, being raised in the active surroundings of a Middle School has got to be great preparation for a puppy that might some day provide "eyes" for a blind person in a crazy and hectic world!)

PENNY IS A 'SCHOOLYARD DOG'

You might say that Penny is a "schoolyard dog." You'd be right! Penny's days are spent at Rayburn. But Penny was born in a school too!

Penny was born in Sue Nation's second-grade classroom in Austin, Texas. Nation is a breeder of golden retrievers. Each year she brings a pregnant retriever into her classroom for several weeks before the new puppies are born. Nation's students record the weight and measurements of the mother-to-be each day. They also write about mama in their journals. The kids are there when mother gives birth and, in the weeks ahead, they record in their journals daily observations of the puppies' development.

Meanwhile, about 90 miles away in Bryan, excitement was building. The students at Sam Rayburn were eagerly awaiting news of their puppy's birth.

Word arrived on February 20! Mother gave birth to nine little golden retriever puppies in Sue Nation's Bryker Woods Elementary School classroom. Nation's students would care for the little guys for almost two months, diligently feeding and measuring and writing in their journals.

When the puppies were 49 days old, they were tested for intelligence and personality. The puppy that scored the highest on those tests was selected to be the one that might one day become a guide dog for the blind. And, on April 15, that puppy---"Penny"---made her first appearance at Rayburn! Becky Alter, Penny's "puppy walker," closely followed the little golden on the other end of the leash.

It wasn't long before Penny became accustomed to the noisy hallways and the daily routine of middle school life. "The golden pup fit right in---and she fit right into the school's curriculum too!" Alter says.

PENNY WORKS HER WAY INTO THE CURRICULUM

Settled comfortably into Becky Alter's art classroom, Penny spends much of her day in her puppy playpen. But she isn't ignored! Students pet her and scratch her ears as they sharpen pencils. Students also learn and use all the puppy commands that will be important to Penny's future as a guide dog.

Alter welcomes and encourages other teachers at Sam Rayburn to work Penny into their lessons. The teachers have responded by connecting the golden girl to their plans in many ways:

  • Many students have helped get up and running on the Web a special Internet page all about Penny.

  • In speech and communications class, students write the questions and conduct the interviews that result in the Penny's Pals page on their Web site.

  • Students in the eighth grade English class are even learning to think like Penny! Those students act as Penny's ghostwriters. They've worked hard to develop a personality for Penny and to write in her voice. The students write the diary information that appears on Penny's Page and they respond to all the E-mail addressed to Penny!

  • The sixth grade geography class has gotten in on the act too. They track on a map the origins of E-mails that Penny receives from around the world!

  • Students with behavior problems or learning disabilities can earn the reward of special privileges with Penny. This helps students improve their behavior and complete their schoolwork.

  • The Life Skills class, students with multiple disabilities, assists with Penny's grooming. This activity teaches the students about the responsibilities of caring for a dog and it provides a fun exercise to improve their coordination and muscle development.

  • Back in Becky Alter's art class, students have learned how to prepare art for use on the Internet. The students design the postcards that are sent to update people on Penny's E-mail list about the pup's comings and goings---and growings!

But what will happen when it's time for Penny to leave Sam Rayburn? (Most puppies are ready to start guide dog training when they are about 18 months old.) That day will be a sad day---no doubt about it; but the students will say goodbye to Penny knowing they have played an important role in caring for and raising (not to mention the "raising" of the money that brought Penny to their school in the first place) a dog that will go on to benefit the community and one very special and lucky person.

Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World® Editor-in-Chief
Copyright © 1997 Education World

Related Sites

  • Guide Dogs for the Blind, Inc. A California nonprofit group provides information about their guide dog program, puppy raising, and more. Check out Learning About Blindness (stories of blind people who've had trouble gaining access to places with their dogs), Face-to-Face Personal Stories, and the page of frequently asked questions (FAQ).
  • Southeastern Guide Dogs, Inc. Simple explanations of the group's puppy and training programs, and of a program that enables people to "adopt" retiring guide dogs.

07/25/1997
Updated 02/12/2009