You could say that Perea Blackmon’s classroom is a zoo, but it’s not because the students misbehave. Blackmon’s class at the Langdon Education Campus in Northeast Washington is home to a hamster, a rabbit, two iguanas, four leopard geckos and several dozen Madagascar hissing cockroaches. But her third- and fourth-grade students are learning much more from the animals than from an occasional field trip to the zoo.
“You can do everything with them. You can do a science lesson, you can do a math lesson, you can do geography . . . or a writing assignment,” Blackmon said.
Teachers at Langdon, which is a STEM school (science, technology, engineering and math), were encouraged several years ago to have something living in their classrooms.
“I’m not good with plants,” Blackmon said. “But I love animals.”
The animals, whose cages fill most of the classroom’s back wall, didn’t arrive all at once. Blackmon said she started four years ago with Max, a gray rabbit who has the special privilege of hopping around the room as the kids do their work. Then came two of the colorful geckos, Fred and Fredericka. Blackmon said she was looking for something a bit more unusual after that, so she ordered the Madagascar cockroaches.
“We started with four, and do you see how many are back there?” she asked.
At least 50 were crawling around a terrarium and a second container. And an egg sack means there are baby cockroaches on the way.
The students admitted that they didn’t know nearly as much about these animals before they were in Blackmon’s class.
“I didn’t know that [the iguanas] would get so big,” said Layla Rasheed, 9, who was in Blackmon’s class last year. (Iggy and Isaiah have grown from six inches long to about 30 inches in two years, Blackmon said.)
“I didn’t know that roaches hiss,” said Rachel Tillery, 9, as Blackmon took several of the insects out for the students to handle.
“Some of them were scared to touch a bug, and now they’re like ‘wow,’ ” Blackmon said.
The kids also learn how to take care of the animals. At least once a week, a few students will clean the rabbit and hamster cages, Blackmon said. The reptiles are fed crickets but otherwise don’t need as much attention as their furry classmates. The roaches will eat anything, she said.
Blackmon bought most of the pets herself, but the most recent additions, two unnamed leopard geckos, were paid for by a program called Pets in the Classroom, which has helped about 15,000 classrooms get fish or small animals since 2009.
“About one-third opt for an aquarium; a third opt for a small animal — guinea pigs are by far the most popular; the final third are reptiles and amphibians,” said Steve King, who directs the program.
Blackmon and her students are thinking about adding to their menagerie, a great vocabulary word that means collection of animals. Gustavo Lopez, 8, said he favors a spider. Andy Saravia, 9, wants a turtle. Blackmon said she’s considering a chameleon.
One animal that won’t be making an appearance is a bird. Blackmon said that she had two birds many years ago and that they weren’t a good fit.
“Birds are very noisy. They are beautiful but noisy.”