Green Chimneys: Where Animals Teach Children

“Eight-year-old Xander DeLeon could not have been more surprised…There were camels, a gigantic wingless emu, peacocks, miniature horses and donkeys as well as every conceivable breed of farm animal housed in the barns, cages and outdoor enclosures that dotted the campus of what might be his new school.” R.  Schiffman, The New York Times

ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post with Answer Key

Xander right, and Catherine feed one of the farm’s pigs. Credti- D. Rios, NYT

Excerpt: Where Camels, Goats and Pigs Do the Teaching, By Richard Schiffman, The New York Times

“For his mother, Leslie DeLeon, that first visit to Green Chimneys, a school for special-needs children located on a former dairy farm outside in Putnam County, N.Y., seemed the answer to her prayers. He was like, ‘Oh, I can watch the chickens lay their eggs and sit on them,’ she recalled. ‘I was crying, because I knew that I had finally found the right place for my son.’

Before coming to Green Chimneys, Xander, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia, felt overwhelmed at school. He would throw tantrums and often simply walk out of class at the Manhattan charter school that he attended. By 10 a.m. most mornings, the school would call Ms. DeLeon, a public-school teacher in Washington Heights, to ask her to pick up her son.

Now at Green Chimneys, Xander is getting A’s and B’s. ‘The school staff tell him that he won’t be able to work on the farm if he doesn’t continue to do well in school,’ Ms. DeLeon said. The prospect of being separated from his beloved goats has motivated Xander in ways his traditional school never could.

The Green Chimneys School for Little Folk was opened in 1948 by an animal-loving educator and philanthropist named Samuel B. Ross Jr. He pioneered the idea that emotionally challenged children could gain confidence and become socially adept by caring for animals…Yet psychologists have been slow to translate these insights into effective strategies for helping people in a therapeutic setting… ‘When you have traditional training as a psychologist, you never think about doing anything outside of the office,’ Dr. Klee [director of clinical and medical services at Green Chimneys] said.

For a fearful child, Dr. Klee has found that interacting with an animal can be a first step to relating successfully with others. Perhaps surprisingly, this kind of interaction works even with the least outdoorsy city kids. Most come from New York suburbs, and around 10 percent are from the city itself.

From left, camels Phoenix and Sage. Credit D. Rios for The New York Times

Public schools seem to be at their capacity in their ability to help children with special needs. Demand for programs like Green Chimneys has never been greater, she said, especially in New York City, when limits on reimbursing privately run schools for such services was lifted by the de Blasio administration in 2014.

With a staff-to-student ratio of 4 to 1 on the main campus and a level of individualized care that few schools can offer, Green Chimneys has become a beacon for children who are unable to function in a traditional school environment.

Every year there are about 1,000 referrals to Green Chimneys; last year, only 95 new students were admitted. It is also expensive. Tuition is $50,000 a year for day students, and considerably more for those who board. The school is partly funded by the New York State Education Department, which has licensed it to serve students from kindergarten through high school.

Once they are admitted, most students are eligible for the ‘Learn and Earn’ program, where they are assigned chores on the farm, working with the animals or tending garden plots in exchange for a small stipend.

Xander’s job is to feed the goats and clean their pens. ‘This is Snowflake, my favorite’ he said pointing to a cream-colored Saanen goat that had come to the gate to greet him. Not every child flourishes at the school. Those with severe learning disabilities and behavioral problems may struggle, and the average stay (two and a half years) is not always long enough to affect permanent changes in children.”


ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post

NOTE: Lessons can also be used with native English speakers.

Level: Intermediate – Advanced

Language Skills: Reading, writing, and speaking. Vocabulary and grammar activities are included.

Time: Approximately 2 hours.

Materials: Student handout (from this lesson) and access to news article.

Objective: Students will read and discuss the article
with a focus on improving reading comprehension and improving oral skills. At the end of the lesson students will express their personal views on the topic through group work and writing.

I. Pre-Reading Activities

 Predictions: Analyzing headings and photos

Directions:  Have students  examine the titles of the post and of the actual article. After they examine the photos, ask students to create a list of  words and  ideas  that they think might be related to this article. 

II. While Reading Activities

Word Inference

Directions: Students are to infer the meanings of the words in bold taken from the article. They may use a dictionary, thesaurus, and Word Chart for assistance.

  1. DeLeon could not have been more surprised if he had walked up the gangplank into Noah’s ark.
  2. There were camels in pasture, a gigantic wingless emu, and shrieking peacocks on the dirt paths.
  3. Green Chimneys, a school for special-needs children.
  4. Xander has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia.
  5. He would throw tantrums and often simply walk out of class.
  6. Samuel B. Ross Jr. is a philanthropist who loves animals.
  7. Dr. Klee himself was skeptical that animals could be a part of therapy.
  8. Some students initially resisted the school.
  9. Many schools offer some kind of therapeutic program incorporating animals.
  10. Green Chimneys remains in the vanguard.

ELLteaching 2.0 vocabulary chart


Grammar Focus: Word -Recognition

Directions: Students choose the correct word to complete the sentences taken from the article. They are to choose from the options presented.

Dr. Morris and his/him team has/have been conducting research in/at Green Chimneys as part of/on an/a ongoing study into animal therapy. The researchers has/have installed cameras in/on the classrooms that record classes on/in a daily basis. They analyze the children’s/childrens behavior before and after they have been in/on the farm.

Reading Comprehension


Directions: Place students in groups and after they have read the entire article, have them complete the following sentences taken from the article. They can use the words and terms from the list provided, or provide their own terms. They are to find the meanings of any new vocabulary.

Animal-assisted ___ is no longer___to Green Chimneys. Several ___in New York state, like the Orchard School, run by the nonprofit ___in Yonkers, and The Charlton School for___ in Burnt Hills, near ___ offer some kind of ___program incorporating animals.

WORD LIST: therapeutic, Schenectady, girls, Andrus, schools, unique, therapy,

Post Reading Activities

Discussion Questions for Comprehension /Writing

Directions: Place students in groups and have them discuss the following questions/statements. Afterwards, have the groups share their thoughts as a class. To reinforce the ideas, students can write an essay on one of the topics mentioned.

  1. With your  group members list at least four  ways in which the Green Chimneys school helps children with special needs.
  2. Can you think of additonal ways the school could help special needs children?
  3. Have you ever visited a school like Green Chimney?  If yes, please describe your  experience.


Additional Activites

If possible have groups visit schools or areas where animals are available to the public.

Students can create  pictures, or collages, to show their understanding of  how schools such as Green Chimney operate.


1-Minute Free Writing Exercise

Directions: Allow students 1 minute to write down one new idea they’ve learned from the reading. Ask them to write down one thing they did not understand in the reading.  Review the responses as a class. Note: For the lower levels allow more time for this writing activity.