Skip to main content

Murray Journal

Snakes in a school: going beyond the curriculum at Longview Elementary

Oct 24, 2019 02:57PM ● By Julie Slama

After reciting a fact about ball pythons, Longview fourth-grader Collin Ballard holds Skeeter, the class pet.

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

“It turned around and gave me a stare.” 

However, Longview fourth-grader Tinzee Taylor wasn’t afraid.

“It felt cold and hard. It was light at first, but as I kept holding it, I could feel its vertebrae and it got heavier. It’s so cool,” she said.

That’s what Tinzee said about Skeeter a.k.a. Spiro, Fang, Mr. Snakers and Slither.

The ball python in the back of Longview teacher Mike Okumura’s classroom has gone by a lot of names.

“Each year, I let the kids name him so he’s gone by a lot of names,” he said.

Tinzee, and several of her classmates, recounted facts they learned about ball pythons — “they’re not constricting,” “they smell with their tongue,” “they are active at nighttime,”— before holding the one in their classroom.

Okumura has kept a snake in his classroom for years. It started when he was a teacher and director of Kiddie Keeper Child Develop Center back in 1985 and continued through his 15 years thus far at Murray School District.

“I started out with someone giving me a ball python and it just grew from there,” Okumura said. “Green iguanas, a tarantula, Tokay Gecko, box turtle and I even kept a black widow spider as a pet. All of these pets were low maintenance to keep. As a kid I always was more interested in insects but when I was at the daycare, it became an interest in reptiles.”

Although learning about ball pythons isn’t part of the state core curriculum, Okumura said he uses Skeeter to provide firsthand knowledge about learning how animals live, their classifications and differences amongst animals.

“We just learn more general information about snakes like they are reptiles, cold blooded, vertebrates and they are not slimy and have scales,” he said. 

They also have read about snakes, including a reading comprehension handout about pythons in the Everglades National Park, which “intrigued students since we have Skeeter here in our classroom.” 

One student, Noelle Thackeray, even took it upon herself to draw a picture and write a poem about snakes.

While ball pythons can grow up to as long as six feet, Okumura’s, which lives in an aquarium in the back of the classroom, is about four feet and probably weighs about five pounds. 

There are rules involved with the snake, which Okumura has permission to keep, including having notes from parents to be allowed to hold it and if a student chooses not to hold it, that’s OK.

“Students are learning that not all snakes are venomous nor are they all garden snakes they can just pick up. They’re also learning about behavior and environment,” he said.

Okumura’s snake is about eight years old. Ball pythons can live up to about 30 years, which means, more “fourth-graders will get to learn about Skeeter or whatever his name will be next.”

That seems to be just fine with Okumura’s students.

“He felt like bones when I held it,” Collin Ballard said. “This is awesome.”