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Each year, more than a million people visit the New England Aquarium in Boston. Outside, they see harbor seals playing in a large tank. Inside, sea lions cruise around an open-air pool. What many visitors may not know is that every day, these 10 seals and two sea lions go to school. Gabrielle Emanuel of the NPR Ed team, who spends most of her time reporting on human schools, wanted to see how this school measures up.
GABRIELLE EMANUEL, BYLINE: I catch Kathy Streeter between classes. We duck into a little concrete room where she stores toys - buckets, balls, frisbees. From there, she gives me the lowdown on her students.
KATHY STREETER: She has a hard time totally, totally focusing.
EMANUEL: And Sierra, who is the smart, eager student.
STREETER: It's like come on. Let's go. Let's move fast (laughter). You're taking too long, you know? (Laughter).
EMANUEL: With such different personalities, what's the classroom dynamic like?
STREETER: They get along really, really well.
EMANUEL: But Streeter rarely works with the whole class. Most of her lessons are taught one-on-one. Next up, she's teaching a guy named Chucky, short for Chacoda.
STREETER: How are you?
(SEA LION VOCALIZING)
STREETER: Chucky, hey.
(SEA LION VOCALIZING)
STREETER: Good. Good boy. Bubbles?
STREETER: Good boy.
EMANUEL: So this is definitely not a normal classroom. Tourists come and go all day.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: It's a sea lion.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Look, look, another - whoa.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: Oh, my God.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Whoa, that one's so big.
EMANUEL: Streeter's been an animal trainer since 1973. But she does something teachers do all the time - lesson planning. And her goals are not that different.
STREETER: Teaching concepts, not just teaching a pattern of response.
EMANUEL: Things can get pretty complex.
STREETER: Go to the large white cube and take it to the small black football.
EMANUEL: Sea lions can order objects from largest to smallest surface area within a quarter of an inch. They can play Tic-Tac-Toe and win.
STREETER: They can problem solve, and they'll stick with it.
EMANUEL: And they can get a little fussy, too, about things like sentence structure. Streeter knew one sea lion, Rocky, who was particularly passionate about grammar.
STREETER: So it really mattered to her. You know, what was going to be the direct and indirect object in this task?
EMANUEL: Most people with Streeter's job use the traditional approach, which entails using food as a reward.
STREETER: Completely, totally food-based. And I really want us to be able to interact with the animals without food.
EMANUEL: She developed her own approach. It worked so well - she's now in charge of the marine mammal team here at the New England Aquarium. Her co-workers quietly refer to her as a seal whisperer. And they tell me, she's one of the best teachers they've known.
STREETER: Good boy. Underwater? (Laughter) No dice, OK (laughter).
EMANUEL: As I watch her teach, I learned three main things. First, every animal has something that would be totally familiar in a human school. They all have IEPs - an individualized education program. In most schools, these are reserved for students with learning differences. Streeter finds that individually-tailored lessons are helpful for all her students.
STREETER: The training and the socialization and the play that we do is all very individually configured.
EMANUEL: Like, Cayenne works best when she's allowed to come and go during class. Zoe often has trouble transitioning between tasks. Sierra loves vocalizing during her classes, and she doesn't like being interrupted.
EMANUEL: Second, Streeter moves seamlessly between a traditional classroom approach, where the teacher leads, and a Montessori approach, where the student's interests guide the session.
STREETER: Because sometimes they'll offer something so cool, you know, like, why don't we do that instead?
EMANUEL: One northern fur seal, Kitovi, loved this little cat toy - a ribbon on a stick. She tossed it all around. So Streeter gradually raised it up, and Kitovi would leap for it. Now, she's awesome at jumping.
STREETER: Let's go.
EMANUEL: Third, Streeter uses each class as a chance to learn more about her students - a chance to peek inside the head of a marine mammal, seeing how they communicate and how they solve problems.
STREETER: I feel like they're teaching me as much as I'm teaching them.
EMANUEL: And I feel like the aquarium is teaching me about marine life and about good teaching. Gabrielle Emanuel, NPR News.
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