Principals Perspective (January 2022) - Rabbi Matthew Bellas
Rabbi Matthew Bellas

The Many Dimensions of Experiential Learning:
The Lower School Chicken Coop

Over the years, we have found that the most impactful, memorable, and resonant learning happens when students are engaged with mind, body, heart, and soul. Experiential education often takes students out of the classroom and allows them to expand the horizons of their academic, social-emotional, spiritual, and physical growth. When we first decided to bring a Rent-a-Coop to the Lower School a few years ago, we knew that our youngest students would find our chicken guests to be fun and exciting, but we never expected the overwhelming diversity of learning goals that we could achieve for our students of all ages. As a dual curriculum Jewish day school, we know well the benefits of integrated and interdisciplinary learning, but have honestly been surprised by just how many different learning outcomes from across content areas are possible as a result of our on campus chicken experience. Here are some examples of science standards-aligned learning that takes place:

  • Seeing and supporting real-life examples of what living things need to live: food, water, and safety.
  • Linking animal anatomy with how animals survive (claws, beaks...etc.). 
  • Observing and discussing animal life cycle.
  • Connecting with human food sources (chicken and eggs) and integrating discussions of nutrition and agriculture.
  • Reflecting on the role that human beings play in caring for the world/nature that provides us with food.

In addition to these outcomes, incredible learning beyond the field of science and strict academics occurs:

  • In the area of Judaic studies, students are able to discuss the topic of kashrut as it pertains to chicken, eggs (why are chicken considered meat and eggs are considered pareve?), and other foods that we eat.
  • In math, students count the eggs that are laid by chickens and make calculations, estimations, and predictions for the future based on their observations.
  • Our students build their empathy skills by coming to understand the world through the eyes of the chickens: human beings are VERY big and frightening to them, so how do we approach and interact with them? What actions will cause the chickens to feel threatened? Which approaches will help them to feel safe?  
  • Children who may have some fear when it comes to animals are able to interact with a very calm and accommodating species that will help them overcome their feelings and give them an experience of success.   
  • Venturing into learning about predators and loss. Last year, a hawk impacted our chicken guests and while we supported our students through loss and sadness, we also were able to learn about the role that predators play in the larger ecosystem, what gifts they bring to the world, and that we must respect and protect them even if their way of survival results in feelings that are hard for us.  
  • Times of unfettered joy: whether it’s during planned activities or unexpected events (such as a “chicken escape” or watching chickens steal worms from each other) the children genuinely enjoy spending time with the chickens and these positive feelings occurring during the school day allow the students to be more engaged in and excited about learning in other subject areas.

Since we first brought our Rent-a-Coop to campus a few years ago, we have seen widespread growth of this opportunity for experiential learning throughout schools. In fact, we recently learned of a university Hillel bringing a coop to their location so that their students could engage in the same learning that we have been and are providing for ours. It is gratifying to know that we continue to be on the forefront of Science and STEM learning, not just in Jewish education, but in the entire field.

As a result of the benefits to learning that we have seen over time, we were interested in exploring the possibility of our chickens becoming more than just a seasonal addition to the school. After some research and partnership with a member of faculty who is able to support the endeavor, we are pleased to be able to share that our chickens Cheezy and Wheezy have been “adopted” by the CESJDS community and will be permanent residents at our school. We are excited not only to reinforce the learning that was already observed, but to see how we will be able to expand the value that this particular example of experiential learning brings to the Lower School for students, staff, and the wider community.