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.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Dog-sled algebra: An Iditarod musher glides past Ruby Bluff along the Yukon River. Schools turn the race into a learning tool. Example: If two-thirds of the 96 starting mushers finish the race, how many mushers will finish in 2008? (No calculators or finger-counting allowed.)
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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.

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.

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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.

Yet she does harbor one vital trait for the job. "I like real-life adventure," she said in an interview before the race.

An avid biker and camper, Blaile is also passionate about the potential for using the dog-sled race as an outdoor classroom. She ticks off the subjects that can be taught using materials from the famous sporting event – history, geography, math, physical education, science, economics, art. "It just fits every subject area," she said. "There are thousands and thousands of lessons out there for teachers to use."

In her classes, she puts particular emphasis on math (if two-thirds of the starting mushers finish the race, how many mushers will finish in 2008?) and science (using the way dogs continue to run after mushers fall off sleds to illustrate Newtonian laws of physics).

As Blaile's lessons suggest, the use of the Iditarod as an instructional aid extends far beyond schools in Alaska. True, the race has become as much a part of the curriculum here as multiplication tables and Magna Carta. But in the Internet Age, hundreds of schools around the world use it, too. The day before this year's race, Ms. Johnson was getting calls at 4 a.m. from teachers on the East Coast fretting that they didn't know the musher start positions.

"It's nothing for me to get an e-mail from somebody in Australia, Spain, some kind of request in Alaska and South America all in the same day," says Johnson, who works most of the year out of her home in Aberdeen, S.D.

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An Iditarod map and recent news clippings embroider the wall of Kass Friend's first- and second-grade classroom at the Chugach Optional School, an elementary school in Anchorage. Students take time out during their daily schedule to check on mushers' progress.

"There were 96 racers and four dropped out. How many are still in the race?" Ms. Friend asks her students as they crowd around her computer to peer at the race standings. They are fascinated when Friend tells them that the race checkpoint of Ophir, site of an abandoned mining settlement, is a ghost town.

Some want to hit the trail themselves. "You just want to try it out and see what it would be like," says Garrett Nevells, a second-grader.

Friend tries to put less emphasis on the race winner and more on history and cultural lessons associated with the old mail-delivery trail. It was used in 1925 to ferry, by sled-dog relay, life-saving medicine to combat a diphtheria outbreak in Nome. "They're fascinated that a village doesn't have a store," she says.

Back at Larson Elementary School, the entire "Ikidarod" adventure takes less than an hour to complete – a fraction of the nine or 10 days that most winners need to reach Nome. The winning team poses for the celebratory photograph wearing necklaces of silk flowers. So do all the other fifth-grade mushers and kindergarten "dogs," including the team led by Alexis Abbott.

Her team grabbed the "Red Lantern," the prize for the last to finish, an award that symbolizes determination, just like the prize given to the real Iditarod's tail-end competitor.

One unintended similarity to the real Iditarod arose, too. As mushers in the race coped with a 40-degree heat wave that turned the trail to slush, Larson Elementary had its own weather woes. The school planned to hold the race on the soccer field, but wet weather forced it indoors – hence the carnival scene in the hallways.

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