Bringing Humane Education to Classrooms: An interview with Meena Alagappan, Esq.

Meena Alagappan is the Executive Director of Humane Education Advocates Reaching Teachers (HEART), a nonprofit public charity that is a full-service humane education provider in the NYC, Chicago, and Indianapolis areas. In addition to HEART’s work in these cities, HEART’s free humane education resources are downloaded by thousands of teachers across the U.S. and beyond.

IHE: Tell us about HEART. What do you offer teachers and schools? 

Meena: HEART has a comprehensive view of humane education that encompasses animal protection, social justice, and environmental ethics. Our mission is to help develop a generation of compassionate youth who create positive change for animals, people, and the natural world. We are fortunate to have a talented team of instructors who offer a wide range of humane education services. (The majority of them, by the way, are IHE graduates!)

We teach humane education programs to K-12 students in-school, after-school, and in summer camps. In order to reach a broad cross-section of the population, we have always worked primarily with public schools, focusing our efforts in under-resourced areas and not charging public schools for our services. To date, we have taught multi-lesson programs to over 50,000 students.

We also offer teacher trainings and consultations with schoolteachers to help them infuse humane education into their classrooms. Our major focus in recent years has been on developing standards-aligned lessons, activities, and toolkits for educators. During this pandemic, we have been hard at work creating home learning activities and engaging videos for students. We have all our educational resources available online in our free library. Very soon we will be releasing a new K-3 curriculum guide on farm animals too, so stay tuned! Finally, we engage in advocacy efforts to help increase awareness of the critical need for humane education and to promote compliance with state humane education laws.

IHE: What have been some of the outcomes from HEART’s work in classrooms? Can you share a couple stories?

Meena: I’d love to share some results from a few of the quantitative studies we have conducted on the impact of our programs. In one evaluation of more than 800 4th-8th grade NYC students participating in our 10-lesson program, we found many statistically significant results compared to the control groups. Our students’ knowledge increased on a range of issues, such as migrant and child labor conditions, the greenhouse effect, and the welfare of farm animals, just to name a few. 

Emotionally, they reported being more concerned about pollution and how people treat animals of all kinds. Behaviorally, they demonstrated the willingness to commit to humane actions by setting a good example, changing daily choices, joining clubs to protect animals and the environment, and writing companies and elected officials about issues of concern. This study was successfully used by New York State legislators to justify sponsorship of a humane education teacher training bill.

In another assessment of 300 upper elementary students HEART taught in NYC and Chicago, we found that our 10-lesson program positively affected the knowledge and attitudes of students regarding humane education topics and how they treated other people. Students in the intervention groups were also rated by their own schoolteachers as being significantly more prosocial than those in the control groups. This study was spearheaded by Dr. William Samuels and published in the academic journal Anthrozoos.

This year, for the first time, we evaluated the impact of our program on students taught by teachers we trained to implement our curriculum. In 2019, HEART developed the Kindness for All 7-lesson curriculum for children ages 3-5. In January of this year, our program managers trained 100 teachers of Los Angeles-based Head Start programs, which promote school readiness of children from low-income families by supporting the development of the whole child. While the pandemic prevented them all from completing the program before closures, based on 475 pre- and post- surveys that the teachers completed for each of their students who participated in the entire program, we found many statistically significant results. After engaging with the Kindness for All curriculum, students were able to verbally identify more emotions; reacted with more interest and curiosity, and less teasing, when learning about classmates’ differences such as race, ethnicity, or religion; displayed more concern for the feelings and needs of dogs and cats, and more respect toward wild animals; and exhibited helpful behavior toward their classmates and teachers more often in the week preceding when the teachers completed the surveys.

There is also so much anecdotal evidence demonstrating the power of humane education. In one 4th grade class, for example, a girl connected two lessons our instructor taught (over one month apart from each other) about child labor and puppy mills. The student said, “It seems like the children and the dogs are being taken advantage of in the same way; being forced to do something against their will, and treated badly, for someone else’s profit. I think that is wrong.” She had clearly been thinking about the issues she was exposed to in our program, and it was wonderful that she had the insight to show how these topics are interconnected. Humane education really does take root with reflection.

When we were offering a service learning program at a Bronx school, a 5th grade class, after learning about farm animal welfare, chose on their own to work on the relationship of factory farms to environmental issues, human health, and animal welfare. Students created a “Healthy Choices” menu for the school cafeteria, describing a particular issue relating to factory farming, its impact on our bodies and our environment, and generating a list of alternative choices that support a healthy diet and planet. They also created educational posters about their topics and a map of local, fresh, and organic greenmarkets that offer good alternatives to large-scale food production. It is always inspiring to see projects students undertake when they learn about the issues and are motivated to make a positive difference.

IHE: You’ve been leading a humane education organization for twenty years. Are you noticing changes in schools and classrooms that give you hope that humane education is taking root more deeply?

Meena: It’s hard to believe that HEART’s 20th anniversary is around the corner in 2021! I have been with the organization since 2005 and in the past 15 years there have been changes I’ve seen that have given me hope. That said, I think we still have a long way to go. What I have been noticing when schools do not integrate humane education is that it is rarely because of a lack of interest in humane education, but rather from a lack of awareness about humane education or how easily it can be blended into the curriculum. Many NY administrators and educators are also not aware, for example, of the NYS law mandating humane education instruction in public elementary schools.

I now find administrators very receptive to humane education when it is brought to their attention. In 2005, however, I remember it was challenging to get schools to open doors for us to implement and evaluate our 10-week program. Over the years there came to be more requests for our programs than we could accommodate.  

This is one of the reasons we have been doing less direct teaching in schools these days and more consulting with teachers, which allows us to reach a lot more teachers and students. Our signature Compassionate Communities Awards program takes a district-wide approach to integrating humane education. Schools compete for cash prizes awarded for the most effective projects positively impacting people, animals, and the environment within and beyond the school community. HEART’s educators provide valuable guidance throughout the year as they consult with all participating schools. We piloted this program in 2017-2018 in the Bronx in partnership with the NYC Mayor’s office, reaching 14,000 students from 21 schools. In 2019 we expanded the program to Long Island, reaching 6,000 students at 11 schools, and then to Brooklyn in partnership with Borough President Eric Adams, reaching 10,000 students at 15 schools. This was all done with the endorsement and cooperation of the superintendents, principals, and teachers. These are the types of developments that have given me hope that humane education has tremendous potential to be rooted in schools since so many are enthusiastically embracing it.

IHE: This is fabulous Meena! Just reading about all that HEART is achieving gives me hope, too!