A new friend in the classroom

First-year teacher rewards students with class pet, Jesse the snake

Room 116 at Armatage Montessori School has adopted a class pet – Jesse, a 15-year-old ball python.

The snake belongs to the classroom’s teacher, Ralph Sievert, who goes by “Ralph” to the children. The 23-year-old teacher has had the snake since he was in 3rd grade.

While it might seem surprising, the 3rd and 4th graders in Sievert’s class welcome their new reptilian friend. They say Jesse is “really nice.”

A reserved animal, Jesse dips into her water bowl and slinks around the cage only when the students aren’t in the room – a sure sign that they “semi-earned” the privilege of getting the dark-colored leathery creature, Sievert said.

He made a deal with the students early on, promising that if they were quiet when they lined up to leave the room or as they sat in a circle for a morning class meeting, he’d bring in the reptile.

Even though the children still aren’t perfectly silent when Ralph jingles a shiny bell (which sends the message, “Quiet, listen up”), he decided they were showing plenty of progress.

How much to give and take is a big part of Ralph’s job as the year moves forward. Generally, he’s learned to be more flexible and not to worry too much about the disruption of students coming and going as they get pulled out throughout the day for various reasons.

Ralph is a first-year teacher in Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS), where young teachers are rare because of seniority rules. He and another teacher down the hall, Christian Houdek, were hired at Armatage because they’re in the process of obtaining Montessori certification.

They’re taking weekly classes in a Montessori program at St. Paul’s College of St. Catherine. While other teachers have time off, the pair has extra training sessions, observations of Montessori classrooms elsewhere, tests and homework to do. All told, it’ll take them three years to accomplish certification.

While Ralph’s spare time is limited (he can often be found cutting out phonics exercises and color-coded math cards during weekend football games), he said he’s pleased with how things are going so far.

Since the Journal’s first visit to his classroom in September, he’s found a rhythm and is “in the flow of things.

“I can’t believe how fast time is flying by. I never would’ve imagined it would be this quick,” he said.

On display

Right now, Jesse is shedding her skin, two 3rd-grade girls named Maja and Sarah explained. First, Jesse dives her nose into her water bowl to make herself slippery, so that shedding is easier.

They pointed out that if you stretch her out, she’s four feet long. She eats every few weeks and recently gobbled up several rats. “She sleeps a lot. She might be afraid of us,” said Maja.

“She doesn’t really know she’s in a cage sometimes,” Sarah chimed in.

Last week, the students got to touch the snake if they wanted to. “Its skin felt like plastic, like one of those “press n’ seal” things,” Maja said.

Overall, Jesse has turned out to be a good teaching tool.

Besides Jesse, the classroom has added two other new faces, bringing the classroom total to 26 students.

Sievert said he’s gotten better at tracking each student’s individual progress and making adjustments to suit their needs, which can get tedious.

Montessori allows for plenty of independent work time, which means that some children struggle to stay focused during those periods.

“But a lot of kids are starting to get tons more done. That’s encouraging,” he said. “Training them to handle it is hard.”

Meanwhile, he’s constantly refining the curriculum so that the district standards and Montessori methodology merge. In some cases, that might mean making it up as you go along and being creative, he said.

To challenge accelerated students, he’s introducing more difficult homework. In time, he’ll be able to refer to materials he’s self-created.

A gentle balance

Parent Kristofer D. Layon said he’s been impressed with Sievert’s teaching. Layon recounted a recent Saturday soccer game his daughter Sarah played. It was bitterly cold and not even Layon wanted to be there.

As he shivered, he noticed Sievert nearby. The teacher attended to show his support for the soccer players in his class and was going to stay for the following football game to watch another student.

“It was rather humbling,” Layon said. “Even I would have rather slept in that morning, or at least stayed indoors. How many teachers in their early 20s would go to a 3rd-and 4th-grade girls soccer game early on a cold Saturday morning?”

Another parent, John Loomans, also had high praise for Sievert.

“He truly enjoys his students, playing football with them at recess, chess during free time and sharing his passion for his ball python, Jesse. But walk into Ralph’s classroom and you will see students learning in a community,” Loomans said.


Anna Pratt can be reached at 436-4391 or [email protected].