First Graders Travel the World Through Literature and Koalas

July 01, 2011

Ruthie McPherson's first-grade classroom oozes with color, creativity — and koalas. Every year the first-grade teacher at Buena Vista Adventist School in Auburn, Wash., selects a literature-based theme related to an animal: "Everyone otter read," "I toucan read" and "Alpaca book and read."

McPherson started her animal-related literature program in the 1980s, and every class since has had a different animal. At the end of the year, all of the animal paraphernalia, donated by parents or friends of the school, is raffled to students.

"The students identify themselves as kangaroos ('reading is a joey') or elephants ('reading is a ton of fun') or whatever the theme for the rest of their lives," says McPherson. "I have students who are now in college come back and tell me they still have their reading animals from first grade."

For this academic year, McPherson selected koalas for "koala-tee" reading time. She initially planned to feature koala sleepovers with reading and journaling assignments for her students.

As the school year began, church friends with a personal koala collection offered to take a koala with them to Russia. Since that first trip, two traveling koalas named Snuggles and Cuddles travel regularly with itineraries, passport stamps, journal entries and photo collections from nearly 90 trips to seven continents, 28 countries and 30 states.

Snuggles and Cuddles (and travel buddies) have gone to Japan with the mayor of Auburn, Wash.; recruited Korean students; explored Saudi Arabia; met the queen of Uganda; and visited destinations in the Philippines, Germany, India, Argentina, New Zealand, the South Pole and more — all with school community family and friends.

Next school year, first-grade students will learn about "reading and tails" with ring-tailed lemurs.