November 28, 2012 11:16 AM
By GEORGE AUSTIN Editor SWANSEA — In the classroom at E.S. Brown School, fifth grade student Jennifer Velez was reading aloud the story "The Sometimes Friend" as she patted Marco, a pit bull mix dog that has been brought into class to help encourage students to work on their reading skills.
According to special education teacher teacher Marina Jackson, the dog seems to be having a positive impact on improving the reading of children.
"They get so excited and it's another opportunity for them to get to read and practice reading and their confidence is boosted big time," Ms. Jackson said of how the program with the dog has affected the students. "They think they are doing something big and they like to see his reaction."
The program at the school is being provided by Kerri Lopes who is part of a therapy dog team with Marco that comes from Dog B.O.N.E.S. (Building Opportunities for Nurturing and Emotional Support). The program is being run in the self contained classroom for children in grades three through five who have different needs. Ms. Lopes said the animal-assisted program is meant to be a way for children to work on their reading skills in a very non-judgemental environment by reading to the dog.
"If they make a mistake, Marco is not going to tell them they made a mistake," Ms. Lopes said. "There's no pressure."
While the children were reading to him last week, Marco mostly just was laying on a blanket, looking up at them as Ms. Lopes sat by his side. Ms. Lopes gave one of the children some treats to feed Marco after the student finished reading.
"He loves kids and I think he tends to know that when he's around kids, he needs to be calm, cool and collected and they'll really love him," Ms. Lopes said.
When the children say a certain color is the favorite of someone in the story they are reading, Ms. Lopes said she may tell the child at that point that the color is also the favorite of Marco and she said that encourages them.
"I think most kids like an animal of some sort and they just tend to open up to them more," Ms. Lopes said.
Marco has been a registered therapy dog for seven months and has been participating in the reading program at the Brown School for two months. Ms. Lopes is a volunteer for Dog B.O.N.E.S. which is based in Scituate.
Ms. Lopes said "Lemon the Duck" seems to be Marco's favorite book, as well as "Walter the Farting Dog."
Before Marco was adopted and trained to be a therapy dog, he was in a foster home with a 4-year-old boy. Ms. Lopes said the dog had been abandoned and was hit by a car. Marco has a severed spinal cord and gets around with a wheelchair.
Ms. Lopes said when children are put in non-judgemental situations, they tend to want to do more. The Brown School is the first school where Marco has done the reading program. On the first day of class, Ms. Lopes told the students about Marco's accident and how that shows why it is important to look both ways before crossing the street.
Ms. Lopes said the program does not seem to be any more effective on children who have pets at home, although if they do have animals at home, she said after the activity with Marco, she can tell them to read to their pet when they go home. Ms. Jackson said students who do not have pets at home seem to get more excited that the dog is in the classroom. There are 12 stud3nts involved with the reading program with the dog. Last week, Ms. Lopes gave bookmarks with a photograph of Marco on them them to Ms. Jackson to give to the students. Ms. Jackson said Marco is being used to help improve the speed of reading and expression for the children. She lets the students choose books to read to Marco. She said most of them choose books they've read before because they want to read well to Marco and said they take the books home to practice before reading to the dog. She said teachers use repeated readings, poetry and scripts to work on similar reading skills for fluency and comprehension in reading.
"This was another fun, different way," Ms. Jackson said. "It tricks them into it, almost. They love it, so they don't even think about it."
Ms. Jackson has been teaching for 10 years and this is the first time she has utilized a dog in her classroom. She found the idea for the dog in New Bedford where she lives when she came across flyers that were promoting a similar reading program in the city's libraries. She asked Brown School Principal Elizabeth White if she could bring such a program to the school and received the approval. She researched dog reading programs online and found Dog B.O.N.E.S.
"It's even nice just to see them excited about picking up a book," Ms. Jackson said. "There isn't as much hesitation. I even like seeing them talk to him, ' Did you like that book.' It's not judgemental."
Last week was the third visit to the Brown School for Marco and Ms. Lopes and they will be coming back to the school every other week. Ms. Jackson said the dog is quiet while the students are reading which allows for other activities to be done with students in the classroom at the same time. The dog does not seem to be a distraction to the other students who are not reading to him.
"We just have an extra visitor," Ms. Jackson said.
Ms. White said the reading activity with Marco has been "great."
"I think it's such a nice program to have," Ms. White said. "Anything that's going to engage these students in reading is a benefit. It's a win-win."
Ms. White said the students form a connection to the pet. After the first class that Ms. Lopes and Marco came to, Ms. White said one of the students asked to take a book home to read to his hamster.
"That's perfect because that's what we wanted to happen for them, to read more," Ms. White said.