H is for Hawk: Exploring Humans and Animals through Literature

Rachana Agarwal recalls a time when she and her spouse went hiking in Maine and stumbled upon a female moose and calf. The pair stood right in the middle of the trail, blocking the passage forward. 
“Forewarned about protective mothers, we cautiously backed off and fled, only to realize that the female moose had begun chasing us,” Rachana said. “Terrified, we eventually hid behind some trees off the path, and saw the moose happily run off with no concern for us at all. We had foolishly assumed we were important enough for her to chase, when she clearly had more pressing matters to attend to!”

It seems quite fitting that only Rachana describes this story as “fun”. Rachana, who is in her fourth year at The Bush School serving as an Upper School English Teacher, has always held a special spot for animals. Growing up in Mumbai, India—and then moving to Boston, Massachusetts, where she lived for almost sixteen years—Rachana spent her time volunteering at animal shelters both in Mumbai and Boston. 

This fall, Rachana combined her love of words and literature, exploration of humans, and animals to teach a new course called, “Humans and Animals”. The primary aim of this course was to have Eleventh and Twelfth Grade students reevaluate the human attitude toward animals from a more sensitive and compassionate scope. 

“The course grew out of my childhood love for animals of all kinds,” Rachana said. “Also, as an anthropologist, I am partial to nonfiction. So, I was curious to explore with students the nature of human-animal bonds through real life accounts, quite different from the fictionalized representations one finds in fairy tales and the media.” 

Rachana said one of the main focal points for this course is the relationships between humans and animals, and diving into those topics through multiple lenses. An example she gave was the rise in pet adoptions during the pandemic. 

“I want students to be critical of an anthropocentric paradigm that spotlights the human species to the exclusion of others, which, I believe, is not only unethical, but ultimately detrimental to ourselves,” Rachana said. “Moreover, I am keen for them to discover the profound and intimate ways in which humans CAN connect and communicate with other species, and form relationships with them that are mutually advantageous and enriching. We need animals in more ways than we are aware or willing to acknowledge.”

The discovery of these relationships have resulted in “fun” guest speakers throughout this fall. Rachana said in preparation for the novel, Helen Macdonald’s, “H is for Hawk”, they examined animals that make unusual pets or subjects of literature. One of the distinguished guest speakers, as Rachana described, was Upper School English Teacher Jasmine Smith’s pet tarantula. Students were also treated to a presentation by Seattle-based professional falconer John Prucich in conjunction with “H is for Hawk.” Students also maintained an animal observation journal throughout the semester in which they were expected to record direct observations of animals— a beloved pet, a squirrel perched on the neighborhood tree, or a hummingbird flitting around the bird feeder—over a period of time. 

“I have gained a new understanding of how anthropocentric our society is,” Liv F. ’22 said. “Animals are tough to analyze, since they can't write or speak, but the books that Rachana has chosen take us into the mind of the animals, through the human narrator. I've learned skills regarding analysis of nonfiction works, since I've never worked with those before in an English class. This course encouraged me to consider animals on a deeper level than just their behaviors and anatomy. It made me reconsider our responsibility to protect animals from our more selfish nature.”

Teaching this unique course, in-person, and being back on campus after a period of remote and hybrid learning has been a tremendous relief and joy—two emotions her students notice and appreciate. 

“Rachana's passion is what makes her such a dynamic teacher,” Liv said. “I can really tell that she cares about the subject and genuinely wants to hear our thoughts on the books. She also shows that cares about her students, whether it is by being lenient with extensions or showing pet pictures at the beginning of each class.”

Rachana said this out-of-the-box course has been an inspiration for her other interests, as she wants to craft new courses that emphasize marginalized voices. She is currently planning a course on Literature and Disability and another on Voices from the Arab World.

And oh yes, Rachana’s favorite animal? 

“Dogs,” she said. “Especially my own dog, Gramsci, a wise, deeply affectionate, almost thirteen-year-old terrier mix.”