Every spring, our fourth grade hatches chicks. I always took my class to visit the chicks in someone else's class, but we never hatched our own until last year. Even then, my coteacher did most of the chickening. This year I was solo again, so this was really the first time that I was the official chicken mama. It all began like this, with a dozen eggs in our incubator, and twenty-one days of patience.
The incubation time is a pretty consistent three weeks, give or take a day or two on the end. Our babies were due on Wednesday, and by Tuesday afternoon the some of the classes already had begun to peck through. By Wednesday afternoon, lots of babies were arriving, but still not a peep (so to speak) from ours. My lovely colleague who organized the operation kept assuring me it wasn't too late and I wasn't a failure, but it was hard to believe.
And then, Thursday morning…
It turns out our babies just needed a little extra time! And suddenly it made perfect sense that our class got the babies that needed a little extra time. Hatching day turned out to be extremely stressful. It's hard work for those little guys to get out of the eggs, and everything is pretty gross and slimy, and I was very worried that they wouldn't all make it. By lunchtime, I couldn't wait to get out of the room, take a walk, and admit to myself that I was not cut out for this, I'm a teacher not a veterinarian, and I'm never doing this again.
After lunch, it became clear that one little guy wasn't going to make it out on his own, which isn't good. If they don't break out in a certain amount of time, they either dry up and can't move, or suffocate. The kids knew this, and by 6th period we were all pretty worried. "Ms. G., what are we going to do?" For awhile I assured them he just needed more time, and gave him little spritzes of water, but eventually their faces grew more deeply worried, and we all knew it was time to do something. (There is a whole new level of teacher responsibility when twelve concerned faces are watching you and expecting you to save one of their babies.) My amazing para was willing to try first, and she opened the incubator and carefully peeled off the egg shell, revealing the baby still entirely encased in the inner sac. Our little one continued working, but couldn't make it through the thick membrane. Our para scooped him out on a paper towel and brought him to the table, as the kids gathered around. "Do you want to watch?" I asked them. "It might be gross, I'm not sure what will happen." The great thing was, by this point in the day they'd seen other chicks get born, with varying degrees of grossness, and had a sense of the situation. A few who didn't want to watch had already gone off to busy themselves with something else, and the rest were in it. Ultimately, I used my pinky finger to open up the membrane, from the hole he had started, letting him out completely. He was utterly exhausted and did not look great, but we put him back in the incubator to get warm and dry...and in less than an hour, he was up and about, totally fine. (And our lead-chicken-teacher was very impressed that we'd performed a C-section all on our own!)
By the end of the day, we had five healthy little chicks getting warm and fluffy under the heat lamp, and the one little buddy who had been taken up to Ms. T's NICU was brought back to its siblings, fit as a fiddle. A little flock of six. None of the remaining eggs showed signs of hatching, which happens, and I was relieved at least that no one was struggling in them. Friday morning, our life began to look like this:
Yeah, the chicks really took over our life. I let the kids spend tons of time hanging out with our babies, and I had some guilt, because we'd fiiiiiinally finished testing and were ready to get back on track, and it was the end of May with still so much more to do…but I was so aware that we were only going to have these guys in our life for a very short time. They get big fast, and have to go live their best farm life. (These guys truly went to a family farm to live a happy life and not be eaten. Thank goodness.) So I let go, and we made the most of our time with them. Also, these are the things kids remember, right? These are the moments they'll carry with them, and this is such a unique experience. I'm glad we lived it up.
Of course, our flock hatched two days before Memorial Day Weekend, so I had to pack them up and take them home with me. And my roommate. And our weekend houseguest, who got this text message shortly before her trip: "Hey, do you have any allergies or other concerns about having chicks in the house?" Everyone did just fine, even though both my roommate and our guest quickly realized the truth: I had become a Chicken Person. I talked to them, I fed them and kept them clean, I worried about them a little but was mostly very comfortable with the whole situation. And on Saturday morning, while my friends were otherwise engaged, I discovered chick portraits.
At first I was just trying to take a photo to send to my paras, but from the top, it wasn't anything. Just a cardboard box with a light and a water bottle, and the tops of their little fluffy heads. So on a whim I sat down next to the box and lowered my phone in. And then the magic happened. I became a little obsessed. I think these are hilarious and amazing.
By the way, in the center left photo, I looked in the box because I heard them pecking the side of it. But when I lowered my phone in to take the picture, they stopped pecking. And looked at me. I am a hundred percent sure they were working on their escape and got caught in the act.
These are are some highlights from the rest of the week that we tended our flock.
It's endlessly wonderful to see how the kids are with each other when we're with the chicks. They're so gentle with the babies, handing one carefully to a friend, petting one in someone else's hands, and talking to one another the whole time, quiet and excited. The picture in the center is one of our 8th grade friends. He sat down on the floor when invited to do so, and then looked up at us and announced nervously, "I'm actually a little afraid of chickens." He just watched for a few minutes, and then my student in the LOVE shirt picked up one of the babies, and asked our friend if he'd like to touch the little guy. He did, tentatively, and very pleased with himself. No one ever has to touch or hold the chicks, and some are skittish at the beginning. Pretty much everyone warms up to them, though, and the kids help each other get there.
The kids were also incredible chick whisperers. When we first take them out of the box, I do Chick 101. We sit on the floor, crisscross, knee-to-knee so we make a little fence for them. I show them how to scoop up a chick, minding their little spindly legs, and hold them in their two hands, stroking them with their thumb. (The friend in the 4th photo above is showing perfect form.) And we don't lift them higher than our knees, so that if they fall they won't get hurt. At first, I supervised so closely, and gave a lot of reminders. But they didn't need that for long, and the chicks grew quickly from their newborn baby selves. And my kids were just so chill with them. In fact, one of the chicks was pretty assertive, and would strut around and peck its siblings' feet, and my sweetheart with the perfect form up there said, "Here, let me take that one, I'm going to calm him down." And...he did. He held him, and petted him, and spoke softly to him until he calmed down. Eventually the kids, especially the older ones, would lie down on the floor with them, chicks and humans alike totally relaxed.
The kids also might have been chicken hypnotists. Early on, someone tried to lie a chick on its back in the palm of her hand, because we'd read something about a trick to tell the chick's gender. She was able to turn the baby over, and he (or she, we could never figure it out) let her. And let her rub its belly. In a couple of days, most of the kids could get most of the chicks to lie on their backs and get their bellies rubbed. Never have chicks been given such a spa treatment. Our lead chicken teacher said she'd never seen anything like it. I think my kids are pretty magical.
In addition to my chick portraits and pictures of kids with chicks, I let the kids use my phone to take their own pictures. The result...a million chick selfies. Some with the kids, some posed to make it look like the chick took them. (Hilarious.) Oh, and a few chick photo shoots. At first I tried not to have us touch my phone while we were touching chicks (there are some real germ concerns), but by the end of the week I gave up and just kept cleaning it off with wipes. The results were well worth it.
I think the top right is my favorite. Or the bottom center.
It wasn't easy to say goodbye. We were so attached, and had so much fun. But by the time the chicks were a week and one day old, they were flapping all over the place, and the six of them were pretty crowded in their box, so it was clear that it was time for them to go live in a farm and not in our classroom. The last photos are us seeing them off and getting in some final snuggles.
Writing about practicing literacy and freedom with my small humans.