How schools use the Iditarod as an instructional tool
The world's most famous sled-dog race becomes a way to teach math, science, and history in classrooms around the world.
Out in the Alaska wilderness, defending Iditarod champion Lance Mackey is racing over the frozen Yukon River, dueling with four-time winner Jeff King for victory in this year's version of the world's most famous sled-dog race.Skip to next paragraph
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Here in the halls of Larson Elementary School, just up the road from the Iditarod headquarters, students are embarking on their own version of the adventure. Fifth-grade "mushers" with numbered bibs line up behind plastic sleds loaded with supplies. Looped with ropes and attached to the sleds are the "dogs" – a group of excited kindergartners. "Mommy! I'm the lead dog!" Blake Tilton, age 5, calls out to his mother.
Then the four teams are off, wending their way through the carpeted hallways, stopping at checkpoints where the "mushers" must answer questions about the Iditarod and Alaska history, feed goldfish crackers to their "dogs," and perform a variety of tasks, all timed. Many of the fifth-graders are dressed as Dr. Seuss characters, in keeping with a school reading celebration.
There is a method to all this madness. While most of the world thinks of the Iditarod as a grueling 1,100-mile race from Anchorage to Nome, teachers have come to see it as an instructional tool. Using Iditarod themes, students can learn basic skills without having to rely on rote memorization, dry mathematical tables, or tedious exercises. "It's cooperation, it's teamwork," says fifth-grade teacher Beckie Murphy, as she waits for the students to complete their loop. "There's a lot of role modeling that goes on with the younger kids."
Mix in a little bush pragmatism and you've got an education lesson, Alaska-style. "They're finding out how many booties a musher needs to buy and how much that costs," says Diane Johnson, the Iditarod's educational director. "They're learning those basic skills that No Child Left Behind says they must learn, and they're doing it in this unique way."
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Using sled dogs as a form of schooling isn't limited to a few fifth-graders. The lessons go on everywhere from preschools, where youngsters recite Iditarod tales in reading circles and pet dogs pull sleds around playgrounds, to universities, where the race is used as a statistical case study, to nursing homes, where therapists incorporate Iditarod themes into exercise sessions.
Yet the race probably has its most appeal as an educational tool for children. There's the sense of adventure, the dogs, the derring-do, the epic clash with the elements, all the mystique about Alaska. Just ask Jane Blaile. She's this year's "Iditarod teacher on the trail," chosen among applicants nationwide to travel to checkpoints along the race route, visit schools in the Alaska hinterlands, and report back on the Iditarod website about her observations.
Ms. Blaile, the 10th educator on the trail since the program started in 1999, teaches fifth grade at Christ Lutheran School in Phoenix. She showed up at the Anchorage headquarters for the race in sandals. She doesn't even ski, much less mush dogs. She was particularly appreciative that the race committee provides tundra-appropriate gear to all teachers on the trail.