“The Last Great Race” takes place in Alaska each winter. Numerous strong and amazing men and women gear up their sleds and tether in their dogs in order to mush from Anchorage to Nome. The race was created in the 1973, in memory of the great race to bring back serum to Nome after diphtheria threatened to wipe them out and to commemorate the use of dog sleds throughout Alaska’s history. The official Iditarod website, www. Iditarod.com, states:
“The Iditarod Trail, now a National Historic Trail, had its beginnings as a mail and supply route from the coastal towns of Seward and Knik to the interior mining camps at Flat, Ophir, Ruby and beyond to the west coast communities of Unalakleet, Elim, Golovin, White Mountain and Nome. Mail and supplies went in. Gold came out. All via dog sled. Heroes were made, legends were born.
In 1925, part of the Iditarod Trail became a life saving highway for epidemic-stricken Nome. Diphtheria threatened and serum had to be brought in; again by intrepid dog mushers and their faithful hard-driving dogs.
The Iditarod is a commemoration of those yesterdays, a not-so-distant past that Alaskans honor and are proud of.”
I was first introduced to the Iditarod when my family moved to Alaska in 1976. Coming from a southern state, the event was unlike anything I had ever heard of. Not only was it new and exciting, the event was grounded in a completely new culture for me. With our first year in Alaska, my family bundled up and ventured out to see the start of the race as it began on 4th Ave in downtown Anchorage. I distinctly remember watching the dogs get so excited to be going. They were barking and jumping, and ready to run. There was no forcing these great athletes to go. As soon as the driver was ready, the dogs ran! They ran for the love of it and for the love of their driver.
I’ve come to respect this race a great deal and later learned about the Yukon Quest (an 1000 mile international race from Fairbanks, Alaska to Whitehorse, Canada). They are definitely unlike any other sport most fans/spectators cheer for in the lower 48 (also known as the 48 contiguous states). I know that there are many that may be against this type of race, calling it inhumane to the dogs. Yet, I have seen how these men and women care for, live for, respect, and love these canine athletes. The mushers will voluntarily withdraw from the race if it is in the best interest of their dogs. There are voluntary veterinarians all along the 1000+ mile trail inspecting the dogs and monitoring their health. There are also members of the Iditarod and Yukon Quest committees that watch closely, and who will not tolerate any mistreatment of the dogs. These races do not carry the same kind of cold-hearted competition that you may find in other sports.
Anyway, where I work now, students have had no experience with this culture or this sport. When I introduce it in winter, the students become quite interested. I believe, it is the unique qualities that this race holds that brings about new or renewed excitement about learning. For that, I am absolutely thrilled.
My school district pushes for the improvement of test scores, like school districts all over our country. I believe we do need to push higher and expect more of our students. So we work rigorously on our math and reading skills. Sometimes there is little-to-no room for anything else. But this kind of schooling can stop the love of learning for many students. Research has shown us that we must differentiate our teaching; we must teach to the different learning styles and levels. But when we are consistently pushing “fidelity to the curriculum” we can take out the fun of school. Research has also shown us that if there is not some sort of positive feeling about the lesson or the activity, a student will not learn it…forever.
With that in mind, I take a couple of weeks in February or March to teach students about the Iditarod or the Yukon Quest. I still keep in mind the required standards that our students are expected to meet as I create my lesson plans. I won’t ignore those just so that we can do something fun. Yet, there is so much we can do with this event to tie it to the standards. Students can learn about scientific observation as they experiment with different types of insulation materials that a musher might use in his/her gloves. There is a great deal of math that can be learned such as calculating miles per hour, time elapsed from one check point to another, poundage of food, temperature measurement, and problem solving. For Language Arts students can write a narrative pretending to be a volunteer, musher, dog, or newscaster. They can write a letter to mushers, volunteers, or organizers. Poetry may be written about the race, Aurora Borealis, or the power of the dogs. New vocabulary will be gained. Close reading and research opportunities are available as well conventions practice There are many books about the Iditarod or the history, such as: “Balto” by Natalie Standiford, “Iditarod Memories” by Jon Van Zylet, “Douggie” by Pam Flowers, and many more that can be used in book clubs, read alouds, and other comprehension activities. Readers Theater activities can be practiced and performed in order to improve reading fluency. The students may also learn about geography, history, art, music, physical education, character education, and more. In fact, with cooperation from Target stores, the Iditarod also has a “Teacher on the Trail” program in which a teacher is selected to spend time at the start of the race, at various checkpoints, and finally at Nome; all the while gathering more to use in future lessons, answering questions from students around the world, blogging, and even sharing with Alaskans various things that others far from Alaska have created.
But what about students I work with? I love to start with having students randomly selected a musher from the list of teams. For primary students, I might have one team selected for the whole class to follow. We then follows the status of the selected team/s, write about the dogs and the scenery, and learn about diagrams through images of huskies, sleds, or the dog team. We even play a game with our sight words that uses a sled dog theme. https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Sled-Race-Sight-Word-and-Math-Fact-Practice-Game-2362541 We work on poems and similes as well as engage in morning math problem solvers related to the race. Our reading selections are related as well. To finish, we might create a brochure or trifold with facts about the race. https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Sled-Dog-and-Races-Trifolds-Brochures-2402757 What excites me is the thrill that the students show each morning as we begin our Iditarod or Yukon Quest lessons. Older students can’t wait to get on the computer to check the day’s stats. If you purchase a site license to Iditarod.com you can follow the mushers via GPS. At the time of this posting, the Yukon Quest provides Live Tracking and takes donations. I love that! In addition, the students’ writing often improves immensely because they are engaged and enthusiastic. They want to know more. This kind of enthusiasm in class doesn’t regularly occur when I am solely teaching the adopted curriculum to its fidelity.
I’ve created several resources that offer a multitude of activities and lessons. Some are geared for primary students while others are more for intermediated grades. Two of those resources are linked above. I have larger units for each race that provide a plethora of learning opportunities and idea.
Now, I respect my administration and will continue to teach to my district’s adopted curriculum, but I would like to also continue to use the Iditarod and Yukon Quest lessons. They not only engage my students in a new way, but they share culture, and history that my students may otherwise have not experienced.
I am glad that I lived in Alaska and was introduced to Alaskans and their amazing, unique culture and traditions. It has truly enriched my life.