School News: Kentucky Derby Inspires Second Grade Hissing Cockroach Race

Fall 2022

This article appeared as "The Roach Race" in the Fall 2022 issue of Independent School.

Donning traditional Kentucky Derby bow ties and showy headwear, second graders at Francis Parker School of Louisville (KY) celebrate their own version of the annual state tradition every May, although their event features smaller competitors: hissing cockroaches.

The “Run for the Roaches,” now in its eighth year, is the brainchild of Joanne Brock, who had been celebrating the Kentucky Derby in her classroom for years. Fifteen years ago, Brock’s friend gifted her hissing cockroaches, and throughout the year, students would watch their molting, birthing, and behavior. One day, Brock decided to give the roaches a derby of their own.

“Our race makes real-life connections to the historical traditions in our commonwealth, but it is also absolutely silly. Kids find joy and wonder in everything, and celebrating this world-renowned event is very joyful. Beyond that, the kids are a lot less scared of insects, and they learn a lot about them.”

When they molt six times a year, the roaches have no shell and appear to be albino for 24 hours, a much-anticipated event. The students help raise the roaches, all of which are the offspring of the first few Brock brought into the classroom.

“Some years we might get too many babies, and then the kids are allowed to bring a family of four home as their own pets, with parental permission, of course,” she explains. “Since they are up to seven years in captivity, the kids come back and check on them throughout their time at our school as they pass through older grades. Having this connection, taking care of living creatures, and understanding our world are all important lessons in child development.”

As Derby Day approaches, the students also learn about other Kentucky traditions, and the Derby specifically, including how the race is organized, how the jockey silks are chosen, and other preparations for the event.

The second grade students spend the days leading up to the event making garb traditionally worn at the Derby for themselves and their other classroom pets. Then students throughout the school suggest names for the insects like, “Hissy Fit,” “Roachie the Riveter,” and “SpongeBob Roachpants,” and prepare them to race on a miniature toy car racetrack that used to belong to Brock’s children.

The other classroom pets, five guinea pigs, have their own derby hats and parade float, and the school livestreams the event to viewers throughout the school and to other schools. After the race, Brock’s students celebrate with snacks, take pictures in front of a Churchill Downs backdrop, and feed the racers fresh spinach and orange slices.

“Some roaches have participated in the race for several years and have gained notoriety, including one 7-year-old participant named Old Man Jenkins, who passed away immediately following this year’s race. “The kids were devastated. But they get to see the lifecycle of these insects—from birth through perhaps six moltings and then even their death—which is just a fact of life in science,” Brock says.

Second graders take turns gently guiding the roaches back on the track if they veer off onto the carpet during the annual “Run for the Roaches.”

Second graders take turns gently guiding the roaches back on the track if they veer off onto the carpet during the annual “Run for the Roaches.”

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