Animal Kingdom's Guide to the Good Life

During last year’s Interdisciplinary Institute, some Upper School students participated in a class called “The Animal Kingdom's Guide to the Good Life.” Taught by Grade 9 Dean and History Teacher Marian Smith and English Department Co-Chair and English Teacher Dr. Sheryl Forste-Grupp, the course focused on the philosophical and theological questions about the self-awareness and actions of animals and their relationship to human beings. The class traveled to the Philadelphia Zoo to observe animals and their behaviors and the Philadelphia Art Museum to observe how animals were depicted in art across the globe and millennia. The course concluded with the students creating their own posters in which they depicted animals illustrating a philosophical statement to encourage humans to live more mindfully, kindly or respectfully.
According to Shifa Sayeed ’25, she initially chose this class because it would provide trips to both the Philadelphia Zoo and the Philadelphia Art Museum. “However, reflecting on my full experience made me realize how much I really learned from these trips,” she said. “Specifically, before exploring the museum, I did not realize how much of a significant role animals played in paintings when conveying deep messages and how they varied among different parts of the world. Furthermore, it made me ponder further about why certain cultures tend to have a reoccurring theme of incorporating a certain type of animal.”
Shifa also enjoyed having the opportunity to visit the zoo. “From animal to animal, I was able to pick up on shared patterns they possessed, whether that be related to communication, comfort or simply fun. Putting myself in their shoes made me realize how similar we as humans are to animals, despite our distinct differences.”
Shifa’s inspirational poster states, “Make sounds nobody would expect,” which was sparked from her encounter of the sea otters at the zoo and the unexpected noises they made. “My intention behind this poster was to encourage viewers to be loud with their thoughts and opinions unapologetically, regardless of how everyone expects you to be.”
According to Avni Pande ’26, these trips enabled students to observe animal nature, whether on canvas or in a closure 10 feet away. “Taking what we learned from these trips, we started drafting quotes with the question, ‘If an animal could speak, what piece of advice would the animal give to humankind?’”
Avni’s poster stated, “To break from life, one must play,” which was surrounded by an otter swimming around in the ocean and showing its playful side with a beach ball.
The student posters have been printed and are hanging around the School to encourage others to take the wisdom of the animal kingdom and apply it to their own lives this year.