Experiential Learning Brings Literacy to Life


A young student experiencing the love of a rabbit.

When kids view writing as a chore, some resist at every turn. Add a horse, a sheep or a rabbit to the experiential process that writing is intended to be, and suddenly the floodgates of students’ minds expand and the words pour out. Such has been the case with many of Perkins students. Thanks to the combined efforts of Rein in a Dream instructor Heather Donovan and the ingenuity of the language arts teachers, the literacy program, with a hands-on experiential animal component, inspires students to write.

The program – known as Literacy Connections – currently runs one hour a week in six-week cycles through the language arts curriculum. “I am looking at the curriculum standards and supplementing them,” explained Heather. “The teachers have had lessons in conjunction with poetry, expository writing and comparing and contrasting with details. The students are also working on stating an opinion. We are working together to assure that all Massachusetts curriculum standards are being met while exploring new ways to get kids to open up.“


Rein in a Dream Instructor Heather Donovan explains how to hold a rabbit.

Perkins aims to continue a tradition of leadership and innovation in providing a range of educational programs.  By adding this unique approach to the language arts curriculum we are meeting two goals – we are helping students to become better writers by embracing the process, and we are fulfilling one of the goals of our mission by using all of the tools at our disposal to ensure student success. This unique hands-on approach could easily become commonplace here on campus as we continue to see student’s grow and learn in unique ways.

The process is simple. Heather presents the academic piece first, often using graphic organizers to walk through a paragraph at a time. Then, the students are introduced to the experiential piece of the lesson. “The students have led goats and sheep, created habitats for guineas and groomed horses,” Heather said.  “Then, just when we are about to finish we suggest that they go and write about those experiences.”

According to the teachers, writing is a huge stumbling block in the classroom and can at times cause behaviors to surface. “Teachers now report that all of the assignments are being completed,” Heather said. “The animals have given them something tangible and concrete to bring a story to life. Even if they are anxious the whole time because animals are not their thing, they now have an emotion to put to paper making storytelling possible.”

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The barn cat, Socks, is used to being photographed and felt no need to move.

Heather is the equivalent of a guest instructor with really cool friends. She also has a background in teaching making classroom management natural for her. The students receive an assignment every week and they bring the work back the following week. “When we first started no one wanted to share,” Heather said. “Now, many share willingly and the quality of the writing is improving not only from the editing and revising process, but because the students are writing at a higher level initially. My lessons are very formatted so they are easy to follow, but the concrete hands on piece is where the magic happens. The animals are the catalyst.”