With snakes and enthusiasm, teacher shows Millinocket students the world is their backyard

They are slithery, scaly and for thousands of years have been portrayed, in some cultures, as symbols of evil. But in Millinocket, snakes are getting a better rap. A veteran teacher is using them to teach students science and math — and to shed first impressions.

Doug Kranich, 56, keeps two boas in his classroom at Stearns Junior-Senior High School: The female, named Pebbles, is 8 feet long, and the male, named Bamm Bamm, is almost 6 feet long. Though Kranich, who has taught in Millinocket for 28 years, rarely takes them out of their cage, he said they are “very tame and very handleable.” The 18 other corn snakes, which are native to the Southeast, and milk snakes, which come from Central America, are used for the students’ research. There’s also a ball python. They are not dangerous and don’t require permits.

Stearns Junior-Senior High School science teacher Doug Kranich with Pebbles, one of two boa constrictors Kranich keeps in his seventh-grade classroom and uses to underscore lessons. (BDN photo by Nick Sambides Jr.)

The snakes are “as happy as can be. They thrive,” Kranich said. His students are responsible for caring for them, which involves feeding them meals of frozen mice. Kranich — who teaches seventh- and eighth-grade science, seventh-grade social studies and a herpetology lab for seventh-graders and high schoolers — incorporates the snakes into all kinds of lessons. Students aren’t required to handle them if they don’t want to, but they record what the snakes are fed and their weight. They use the data to learn how to calculate mean, median and mode, and they produce charts and graphs. Students are “quite willing and enthusiastic about it,” Kranich said.

The enthusiasm is, actually, the point. Students who are more engaged in school are better learners and have a greater chance of becoming happy, productive adults. And as Millinocket’s economy has declined with the loss of manufacturing jobs, enlivening learning is valuable. At the end of each year, Kranich’s students put together a presentation for their classmates and are required, in one slide, to reflect on the snakes project. He has collected these written reflections, and they often show students have “completely changed their attitude toward snakes in general and the idea of doing something like this in school,” he said.

Stearns Junior-Senior High School science teacher Doug Kranich with Pebbles, one of two boa constrictors Kranich keeps in his seventh-grade classroom. (BDN photos by Nick Sambides Jr.)

The idea for the snakes project originated about five years ago. It was the end of the school year, and the principal at the time, Jed Petsinger, was trying to encourage more innovation. He suggested an exploration lab — something different, hands-on and interesting — and asked Kranich to think of possibilities. So that summer, Kranich, who for years has bred snakes at his home in Millinocket and sold them around the country, did just that.

As is typical, his snakes laid eggs in June, and they started to hatch in late July. “While those eggs were hatching, the light went on,” he said. “What are the odds that the kids could actually raise these in the room? It sounded bizarre, scary, even crazy, but, you know, I gave it a shot.” Administrators supported him. The next principal, Kelley Weiss, encouraged the herpetology lab. And the current superintendent said the experience simply benefits kids. “He presents very lively, interactive classes,” said Ken Smith, superintendent of the Millinocket School Department. “He’s the kind of teacher that kids enjoy.”

Doug Kranich, a science teacher at Stearns Junior-Senior High School of Millinocket, holds one of the tiny Southeastern snakes seventh-graders in his science class will nurture as part of their lessons, on Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013. (BDN photo by Nick Sambides Jr.)

Kranich said he has also been encouraged to pursue activities he enjoys. During the last two weeks of January, for example, he flew to Peru to explore the jungle in the Amazon Basin and photograph amphibians and reptiles in their native habitat. He brought back pictures and stories to share with his students. As he explored the rainforest and other areas, like the zoo and open-air market in Iquitos, “I was always thinking … what can I share, what can I amaze kids with?”

He carries that interest in the wider world to his backyard in Millinocket, too. Part of his job is to teach kids to appreciate their surroundings, he said. He has taken them kayaking and cross-country skiing. They explore the woods. He wants, he said, “to give them a reason to love this area that they live in.” Part of that involves looking at their hometown the same way he’s teaching them to look at snakes — with new eyes.

Pebbles, one of two boa constrictors who helps Stearns Junior-Senior High School science teacher Doug Kranich administer his lessons to seventh-graders, as seen on Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013. (BDN photos by Nick Sambides Jr.)

Erin Rhoda

About Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is editor of Maine Focus, a journalism and community engagement initiative by the Bangor Daily News.