Let’s Get to Nome!

The 2016 Iditarod is in the books!  71 out of 85 mushers reached the burled arch, and many of the mushers and volunteers are headed back home.  It has been an exciting race to watch, and I’m already looking forward to the 2017!

As the mushers neared Nome my students and I would watch them come in using the live feed from Iditarod.com.  The excitement of my students was overwhelming, and I am so thankful that the Iditarod is able to share these special moments with us.

When the mushers left White Mountain and/or Safety we would try to predict what time they would arrive in Nome using the GPS tracker average speed.  For example, we looked at Mary Helwig, 2016 Red Lantern winner, when she was outside of Safety.

IMG_3983The time is 5:44PM on March 19.  According to the GPS tracker Mary was at mile 931 and traveling at an average speed of 7.7MPH.  There were 975 miles in this year’s race, so Mary had 44 miles left in her race.  If Mary continued at a pace of 7.7 miles, and took a 1 hour rest once she reached the checkpoint of Safety, at what time would she reach Nome.

As a class we discussed how we could solve the problem, as there were several steps.  First, we multiplied 44 miles x 7.7MPH, which equals 338.8 minutes.  Then we divided 60 because there are 60 minutes in each hour.  We got 5 hours and 38.8 minutes.  Then we added in Mary’s 1 hour rest in Safety, to get 6 hours and 38.8 minutes (which we also rounded to 39).  Finally, we added 6 hours and 39 minutes to the start time of 5:44PM.  According to our calculations and estimation Mary should arrive in Nome at 12:23AM (or 00:23).

This can be simplified for younger students by rounding the miles per hour to a whole number and also walking through it as a whole class.  The handout includes the example used above, and you can print additional pages for students to complete their own predictions.

Predictions Handout

My students competed in their own version of the Iditarod yesterday on Chicago’s lakefront park, Northerly Island.  Students worked in teams of 5 to complete challenges “along the trail”.  Challenges included finding the latitude and longitude of musher hometowns, alphabetizing the checkpoints, paper airplane making, and more.  The day concluded with the awards banquet and a brief slideshow of my trip to the Iditarod.  It was a wonderful day, and a solid way for my students to showcase their academic and Iditarod knowledge to many of their parents.

As this Iditarod season comes to a close, I must say that it has been unforgettable.  Having the chance to meet many of the mushers and volunteers and to see the start of the race, and then bring that back to the classroom is priceless.  It is an experience that I will forever be grateful for.  I encourage you to attend a conference (either summer or winter) because it will truly be life changing.  You will form lifelong friendships, learn so much about the Iditarod and how to teach it, and you will experience Alaska in a most unique way!

“Once you have visited Alaska you never go all the way home.”

A Dream, A Reality, A Memory.

You are never too old to set another goal or dream another dream.

-C.S. Lewis

All of the Iditarod 2016 mushers at the Willow, AK Re-Start

As I watched the mushers prepare for the Iditarod in Willow, Alaska I watched countless expressions of excitement, happiness, and nervousness. After Mary Helwig (Bib 49) was set to start the race, I asked her as I had asked many mushers, “Are you nervous?” My experience with competitive sports throughout my life has never once calmed my nervous excitement prior to the start. Mary answered, “I’m a rookie, OF COURSE I’m nervous!” She went on to win the Red Lantern Award this year, after her house and kennel she bought ten months earlier burned into an ash pit. Mary may have thought her dreams were crushed, but came to create a memory that will last a lifetime.

In an interview with Iditarod Insider, Janine Seavey said, “This is just a race, this is just entertainment. Real life is what Martin and Kathy Buser are going through with Nikolai. No matter what, Mitch should be happy with what he does.” Her statement brings to life what all of the mushers are going through before, during, and after the race that impact accomplishment of their dreams. Just to compete in the Iditarod is a dream mushers throughout the world have. The Iditarod may be ‘just a race,’ but it teaches countless lessons, and honors time old traditions. Throughout the Iditarod, I met many Alaskans and learned so much about their beloved state and culture. My students in turn have analyzed and investigated comparisons of the Iditarod’s representation of Alaskan culture, various tools natives have used to live a sustenance lifestyle, and how going into middle school is a lot like being a Rookie Musher. This year, 16 Rookies were awarded the Finisher’s Belt Buckle, in turn becoming members of the Iditarod Official Finisher’s Club (IOFC). There were many other awards given out at the Nome Awards Banquet, but this may be the most coveted. After our meeting with the middle school counselor this week, next week my students will analyze traits of a Rookie Musher throughout the Iditarod that will benefit them in middle school.

Middle School Trait Wordsearch

As the festivities come to a close in Nome my students are wrapping up tracking their mushers. Instead of writing a letter to their musher at the beginning of the race, we will be writing one after (the mushers have a bit more time after). I have always used the Iditarod Education’s lesson plan to write to mushers. Musher Letter Writing Lesson It starts off with a post-race KWL, and has a great format for teachers.

With the 2016 Iditarod coming to an end, so is the 2015-2016 school year. I look forward to continuing to use Office 365 and blog with my current students going into middle school to enable them to track the Iditarod next year, follow their mushers throughout the summer, and working with the middle school teachers to integrate this into their curriculum next year. The 2017 Iditarod is sure to have many Rookie Mushers (and veterans!) come back with a top ten dream in their hearts.


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I continue to think about the Native Heritage Collection at the Alaska Native Medical Center and how art and artistic expression in this display reflect subsistence based cultures. I know that I have a lot to learn about Alaska’s native people, and I am really interested in gaining knowledge about this topic! In viewing the exhibit I learned that interior Alaska is inhabited by peoples of the Athabascan linguistic family. Artists would use materials that were readily available to them, such as wood, antler, birch bark, split willow, spruce, porcupine quills, and moose and caribou skins. The Eskimo cultures tend to be more located along the coasts of the Bering Sea and the Arctic Ocean. In these locations fur, skin, gut, and baleen are the traditional materials used for clothing, containers, and ceremonial objects, along with walrus ivory, whale bone, and driftwood. The art represents a synergistic relationship between spirit and environment. This concept of synergy was recently taught in our science class at school. Our students learned that synergy is working together so that the total effect is greater than the sum of the parts. Here is a simplified example to illustrate the point: There are apples high in a tree and two people individually are unable to reach the apples. If they work together and one climbs on the shoulders of the other, then the apples can be obtained. This is a simplified example of synergy.

wind chill.jpg            I learned a great deal at the three hour communications training session I attended along with the experience of working the overnight shift (midnight to 6 am) at the “Comms Headquarters” in the Lake Front Hotel. Reece, one of the managers of the department, kindly stayed up with our group into the early morning talking about many of the behind the scenes activities that need to take place for the department to run as smoothly as it does. I learned that “comms” transmits race information from the trail to Anchorage and vice versa. This information involves race updates, musher standings, press releases, and critical supply and equipment information.

There are a number of hubs along the trail – Anchorage, McGrath, Unalakleet, and Nome. Supplies and equipment are flown into these hubs and then distributed to surrounding checkpoints. Each hub is assigned a color. Anchorage is dark red. McGrath is dark blue. Unalakleet is orange, and Nome is black. Equipment and supplies sent to each hub are color coordinated to make identification and distribution much easier. At times, supplies and equipment are sent to incorrect locations. The comms crew needs to know the supplies and equipment that are expected at each checkpoint. In addition, they need to check and make sure that the supplies and equipment are there, and if missing, locate them and confirm that they are transported to the correct location by the time needed.

Furthermore, the comms crew, upon initial arrival at each checkpoint, is responsible for establishing the system of communication. The communications equipment used is older, and replacement parts are harder to locate. Volunteers need to be resourceful and be able to problem solve in remote locations, with limited supplies, and in very cold and uncomfortable weather conditions. Means of communication differ from checkpoint to checkpoint, as some checkpoints are in populated villages of 300 people, and others are in more isolated locations with populations of only a few people. Communications involve GCI Direct, Cellular Services, Rural Broadband Internet, GCI Wisp, DSL, GCI High Speed Cable Modem, and Local Voice Services. Finally, many different people, organizations, and groups are provided access to these communication systems at each checkpoint. These various entities must work together and establish schedules for using this limited system.

At times very important and sensitive information is transmitted to the Anchorage Headquarters that require immediate attention. In these situations the volunteers on duty immediately call one of the managers and apprise him/her of the situation. This may involve waking a manager up in the middle of the night to address properly and promptly the situation unfolding. During my overnight shift a number of phone calls were made to a manager.


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Since returning home I have received a number of questions about my experiences in Alaska. What did you learn? What experience did you enjoy the most? I enjoyed meeting many new people and appreciated the different opportunities afforded me. I was a presenter at the Iditarod Teachers’ Conference. I got to know the other two finalists and enjoyed their company as we went through the week together. I had many engaging conversations including talking with Gary from Saktoolik, Katie Mangelsdorf, author of Champion of Alaskan Huskies, and Gayla, the high school principal from Texas.  During the conference presentations I became even more enthusiastic about all of the new and creative lessons to use with students.  I rode with Trent Herbst in the Ceremonial Race Start and spent time getting to know him afterwards. I met William “Bill” Walker, the Governor of Alaska. I used the Iditarod blog to communicate both my experiences and lessons to use with students.  I became certified as a dog handler and helped guide the dog teams of both Jessie Royer and Dag Olsen to the starting line at the restart in Wasilla. I learned about the Communications Department and experienced the overnight shift. I visited the Native Heritage Collection at the Alaska Native Medical Center. I Skyped numerous times with my students back home and appreciated their enthusiasm for the lessons learned from the race. The list goes on and on and on … Being a part of the Iditarod excitement was an amazing experience and is one that I will not soon forget!


A Picture that Tells an Important Story


This is a cute picture of my dog, Hickory, watching the excitement of the Iditarod unfold live on the computer. Hickory is captivated by the sounds of dogs barking with enthusiasm as they approach the restart line of the race in Wasilla. My wife, Sarah, was also watching and enjoyed seeing me work as a dog handler for both Jessie Royer and Dag Olsen. Why is this picture the one that tells an important story for me? It is a personal picture which captures the excitement of the Iditarod, and it reflects an important way that information is transmitted to our audience.  Hickory is absolutely riveted by the live videos and sounds in front of him. One of the many responsibilities of Teacher on the Trail™ is to use technology to communicate the excitement of the race effectively to an audience. Technology allows for the Iditarod to appeal to a wide audience.

The Mountains are my Home.

Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting, so… get on your way! 

-Dr. Seuss

In the first days of August with the early morning sun on my back I started my climb up Pikes Peak, a 14,114 foot mountain in Manitou Springs, Colorado. I was awe struck with the beauty of the vast Rocky Mountains spread out in front of me, and the difficulty of the climb I had put myself up to. I finished the climb in about 6 hours, making it one of the proudest moments of my life. The Rocky Mountains stretch from Colorado up to the Alaska Range. This range boasts the highest mountain in North America, Mt. Denali, at an elevation of 20,308. While traveling throughout Alaska, I had my breath taken away again when I saw Mt. Denali while looking north of Lake Willow from the Iditarod re-start. Mushers also have a great expedition throughout the mountains from Finger Lake to Rainy Pass, climbing from an elevation of 337 feet to 3,160 feet. My students love looking at this map: Iditarod 2016 Checkpoints. Many mushers are extremely proud to even finish! There are many similarities and differences between the Alaska Range and Rocky Mountains. In our class we have been learning about the changes of Earth’s surface involving erosion and weathering (as well as working on the infer/compare and contrast skills in reading). This week we compared, contrasted, and made inferences about mountain ranges and why they have changed over time:

Changing Mountain Ranges

On my first day back from my first trip to Alaska I showed the fifth grade students the pictures I took on my trip.

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Words could not explain what I had experienced, but my enthusiasm about every picture kept them engaged for a long period of time. Taking them on a virtual field trip surrounding all of the events was extremely engaging, and brought the race to life. There are many lessons that can stem off of this such as writing new facts and opinions they learned, making a KWL (know, want to know, learned), or writing an Iditarod summary. I have done many virtual field trips before and realized how pictures truly speak louder than words. Since my return, this PowerPoint has brought the Iditarod to life for grades K-5 at my school:

Iditarod Virtual Field TripMyAKAdventure

We also read a book called My Wilderness: An Alaskan Adventure. Our focus question for this was: Infer how an adventure changes someone’s life. My students worked to create connections between this book and my Alaskan adventure, or an adventure that they have had in a place far from home. There have been many stories my students have heard from the Iditarod about adventures mushers have had along the trail-both good and bad. We discussed their adventure as well.

I had the opportunity of a lifetime when I was chosen as a finalist for Iditarod’s Teacher on the Trail™.  My travel to the Iditarod in Alaska was one that I will remember and pass on for countless years. I am extremely excited in the upcoming months to share my experience and ideas with teachers throughout the state of Colorado, and inspire them to integrate this amazing race into their classroom. Even though I am able to do this, it will fall far short of my individual Alaskan experience. I was able to watch Dallas Seavey run his dogs through the chutes at the Iditarod start, meet every musher running the 2016 Iditarod, and be inspired by the culture passed down through generations of Alaskan Natives. This was my Alaskan experience of a lifetime.

Life is not measured by the breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.

-Author Unknown

Shoot for the Moon…

How was Alaska?

I have been asked this question dozens of times since I arrived back home on early Tuesday morning.  I always answer joyfully, “It was amazing… truly a trip of a lifetime.”

Some people may say that I had the trip of a lifetime this past summer when I had the opportunity to attend the Iditarod Summer Teacher Conference, and then travel through the state for another 3.5 weeks.  And yes, don’t get me wrong, it was a phenomenal experience, but there was something different about this past trip to Alaska.  Last Sunday I fulfilled a dream of mine.  For years and years I have dreamed of being at the start of the Iditarod, and for that to come true was amazing, emotional, and something I will never forget.

I laid on the cold snow for nearly 2 hours just watching the dog teams run by.  Their grace and swiftness were beautiful and for those two hours I don’t think my smile ever left my face.  I was so in my element!  I was so foolishly happy.

When I thought about this feeling, I could not help but think about how I can help my students achieve their dreams and also have that feeling of pure joy.  A common theme during the conference was how the Iditarod is so much more than a sled dog race, and so much more than just teaching the kids about math and science.  It is also about showing students to reach for the stars and not let anyone tell them that they can’t.

During my trip I talked to two mushers who exemplified this idea of fulfilling theirDSC00792 dreams: Noah Pereira & Mary Helwig.  At the Musher Banquet I had a short conversation with Noah in which he told me that he first learned about mushing and the Iditarod back in 5th grade in upstate New York.  His teacher, like many of us, brought in a local musher to the classroom to talk about the sport.  Since then Noah was hooked and his dad and him spend many winters up in Alaska training dogs.  In 2013 Noah became the first non-Alaskan musher to ever win the Jr. Iditarod.  It is amazing to me that an 11 year old had a dream of one day running dogs, and worked hard to achieve that dream and is now more than halfway to the Burled Arch in Nome, AK.

Unlike Noah, Mary didn’t come to sled dogs until later in her life.  Mary grew up in southern California where dog sledding wasn’t on her radar.  Mary ended up in Alaska DSC00843after college, and eventually found herself exploring dog sledding at DeeDee Jonrowe’s kennel.  In 2013 Mary started her own team, and her new found dream of completing the Iditarod was becoming a reality.  However, tragedy struck Mary and her team this past summer.  Mary, like many others, lost everything in the Sockeye Fire which raged through Willow, AK for nearly a week in June 2015.  Much to my surprise, Mary was still at the sign-ups for the 2016 Iditarod with a smile on her face.  She had come so far with her dream, and she is determined to get to that finish line.  My students and I have been cheering Mary on since this past summer, and it was an honor to see her start in her first Iditarod.  Mary is an incredible role model and truly a person of determination and perseverance.

When I think back on both Noah and Mary, I think about the ways I can help my students think about and achieve their dreams.  I have created a little handout that can help inspire students to talk about their dreams and ways they can help themselves achieve it.  As someone who taught “school” in the basement of my parent’s house at age 5, it is never too soon to start dreaming!

Achieving Dreams Handout

On another note, something I have found interesting is the time change that occurred this weekend, and how that affects the times we see on the Iditarod website.  As past years have proven, an hour can make a big difference in a race, so it is important to understand the time change.  To help my students understand daylight savings time I had them watch a BrainPop video (Daylight Saving).  They also have a lot of other fun information about the time change if you click on “FYI”… I even learned something new!

To go along with this you can also talk to them about time zones, and you can investigate the different time zones each musher is from.  Once you have concluded the lesson(s) on time change and time zones, you can have a discussion with your students about how both of these things can affect a musher.  This discussion can be tied to science, or can they can write about it in language arts as an informational (informing about time change and why it occurs) or an opinion piece (how these factors affect the mushers during the race).

In conclusion, my time in Alaska was unforgettable, and I encourage anyone who is thinking about attending one of the conferences or applying for TOTT to go ahead and work towards that dream!  When I graduated from college and began my career I never imagined it would lead me to Alaska.  This experience has changed me, and for that I will be forever grateful.

One Picture, One Million Memories.

Educating the mind without educating the heart is not education at all.


teacher conference

If I asked you, I am sure you would have a story about a favorite teacher throughout your life. I have many. Mr. Hammer, my first grade teacher encouraged my love of reading and challenged me to think outside of the box with hands on activities. He always had a pinecone Christmas ornament activity where we used powder and glitter to make an ornament for our parents. My parents still have the ornament hanging on their tree every year. Or Mrs. Storres who got tears in her eyes when I told her that I was going to be a teacher. I still keep in touch with her, and before she retired in the winter I would give her the fish I won at the carnival and kept in my horse trough-one year finding out that one was a piranha (her class was able to witness a carnivorous fish). A teacher’s passion radiates to students and keeps learning exciting.

At this year’s Iditarod Winter Teacher Conference I met teachers from throughout the world. I was inspired by their love of education and passion for incorporating the Iditarod into their classrooms. In being asked to choose ONE picture from my time in Alaska, almost all of my 2,174 pictures flooded my mind. This one stuck out the most because it reminded me of why I became a teacher. The relationships built among the staff at a school, and smiles on my students’ faces when we laugh about a funny moment keep me excited to go to school everyday. I met many teachers this past week, all of them inspirational with an Iditarod story to share. Many of them had to take precious days off to come to the conference, only to make their classroom more engaging and hands on for their students. In meeting teachers from throughout the world my students will have pen pals from Norway, be able to Skype and communicate with a class from Shaktoolik, and be provided with innovative, advanced Iditarod lessons. I have never had a more inspirational event in my educational career.

This picture reminded me of the pictures that the mushers all take together before the Iditarod starts. In my teacher conference picture as well as the musher picture, everyone is laughing about memories they have together. Both show a love of the race and the detailed infrastructure put in place behind the scenes for the race to be a success. There are people from cultures throughout the world, all experiencing the same event from a varying perspective, all creating an Iditarod melting pot. I look forward to growing these relationships with my new Iditarod family and having many Idita-laughs for years to come.