HOW TO USE ALASKAN SLED DOG RACING TO ENGAGE YOUR STUDENTS IN LEARNING: INTERVIEWS FROM IDITAROD 2018

 
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My interest in the Iditarod started about eight years ago when I had a group of 6th grade ELA students who loved Gary Paulsen’s, Hatchet, so much that they wanted to learn everything they could about him.  When they learned that Gary Paulsen's love of dogs inspired him to move to Alaska, learn the Alaskan sport of dog mushing, and enter the Iditarod, twice, they decided they needed to know more about this “cool” sport!  We started following the race and learning about the mushers who currently race.  When I realized how engaged they were in following the updates and learning about mushers, I started creating teaching materials to go along with the event and using the Iditarod website to teach research skills in my library classes.  In a strange (or serendipitous) turn of events, I met someone from Alaska who happened to be friends with Joar Leifseth Ulsom (pronounced YOOR), a young musher new on the scene to Alaska at that time.  This new friend of mine, Marc, flies his bush plane along the Iditarod trail to bring supplies, Joar’s girlfriend, and support to Joar and his dogs.  I am now engaged to marry this bush pilot from Alaska and have had the honor of being invited to participate in this event as a dog handler for Joar and his girlfriend, Mille Porsild, who runs a nonprofit education program called Go North Adventure Learning, based in Willow, Alaska.

On March 2, 2018, I made my way from Louisiana to Anchorage, Alaska to team up again with Go North Adventure Learning and Beringia Racing, to experience first-hand the excitement of the Start of the Iditarod, the longest arctic sled dog race in the world.  While there, I had the opportunity to interview sled dog racers, known as mushers, Joar Leifseth Ulsom, Aliy Zirkle, and Jeff King.

In an interview with Norwegian musher, Joar Leifseth Ulsom, who holds the record as fastest rookie to have ever run the Iditarod and one of only two mushers to be in the top 7 five times in five years, he answers student questions about what it's like out on the trail.  NSU Middle Lab School eighth grader, Koda D. asks, "What does the Iditarod mean to you and does this particular race have any special impact on you?" Joar's answer: "It's been a childhood dream to run this race. There's a lot of history behind it. We've had a Norwegian champion, so there's a lot of history in it for me and a lot of pride for running it."  And then he speaks the kids' language when he finishes with, "It's the longest race there is, so that's super cool."

Eighth grader, Dalyn, wants to know, "How do you pick your lead dog?"  Joar replies, "They kind of pick it themselves. If I see a dog that wants to be up there in lead and learns the commands fast, he's in tune with me and he wants to do the right thing, then it's very easy."

Ann Marie, also an eighth grader, asks, "How many hours a day do you train with your dogs and is that year-round?"  Joar's answer: "It's pretty much year-round. We normally give [the dogs] the hottest part of the summer off, but by August first we start up full time again with training.  Then we get them back in shape and run for about an hour.  Before the race we are up to about eight, nine, ten hours a day. Sometimes we go for three or four days straight and stop three or four hours at a time and then go another six or seven hours.  We put on a lot of miles trying to simulate the race.  So, it's not much sleep and a lot of training."

While at the Downtown Anchorage Ceremonial Start on Saturday, March 3rd, I also ran into musher, Aliy Zirkle, who began racing the Iditarod in 2001 and has raced and finished every year since then.  I asked Aliy if she would give the kids watching back in Louisiana a little insight into what it's like to be here today.  This was Aliy's response: "Well, we're here at the start.  It's not snowing right now, but we hear there are blizzards out to the west.  I think the weather should be pretty good by the time we get there.  So it's 3-2-1 we're outta here. Let's go!"

 
Aliy Zirkle and Laurie Berry in Downtown Anchorage at the Iditarod Start 2018

Aliy Zirkle and Laurie Berry in Downtown Anchorage at the Iditarod Start 2018

 

At the Restart in Willow, Alaska where the race officially began on Sunday, March 4th, I caught up with musher and four-time Iditarod winner, Jeff King, to find out what new innovation he is implementing this year as a strategy to win the race.  His response: "[This year] my sled has exceptionally wide runners, almost twice as wide as anything you'll see here.  This year's soft snow, I think, will make this innovation be the time to try it.  I've thought about it for a lot of years and I'm hoping that the flotation of the wide runner will make it easier for my dogs to pull the sled."

How can you use Alaskan Sled Dog Racing to engage your students?

1. Watch the video

First, start by checking out my YouTube video of the interviews with each of these mushers.  While I am painfully aware of how amateur (I’m going to go with the word authentic) these videos are, you and your students will certainly feel like you are part of the Alaskan sled dog racing adventure with these inside the orange barricade musher interviews.  

2. Use the Iditarod Website

I usually start each spring with a lesson using the Iditarod.com website as a way for students to become familiar with this year’s mushers.  Once I pull up the website on the Smartboard and familiarize the students with how to navigate the website (for example, I teach them to start with clicking on the Race Center tab, then Musher Profiles and Race Archives), then I have them conduct their own research where they generate a claim {Who is most likely to win this year’s Iditarod - or at least end up in the top 10 and why?} and support their reasoning with evidence found on the website.  The other great resource on the website is the Education tab where you can find Insider Videos, the Official Map, Teacher on the Trail journals, and detailed lesson plans that include technology, modifications, and enrichment all ready to be printed and used without any extra preparation on your part.

3. Purchase the transcript and other education materials

I have also created a transcript of the video interviews you saw on YouTube along with a Research Simulation activity with an original article, questions in A/B format and a written response.  The kids love reading more about life on the trail and don’t even realize they are getting standardized testing practice in the process. Click here to check out these materials in my TeachersPayTeachers Store.

 
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4. Plus snag this FREE Alaskan Sled Dog Exit Ticket

I’ve also included a FREEBIE in my TeachersPayTeachers store just for you.  Download and print the Alaskan Sled Dog Exit Ticket to use in your classroom any way you’d like.  My students often still request these long after the last musher has made it through the Iditarod burled arch in Nome.

Left to right: Laurie Berry, Joar Leifseth Ulsom (Iditarod Race Winner 2018), Marc Millican (yep, that pilot I mentioned earlier), and friends, Pedro Garcia and Tom Kottre

Left to right: Laurie Berry, Joar Leifseth Ulsom (Iditarod Race Winner 2018), Marc Millican (yep, that pilot I mentioned earlier), and friends, Pedro Garcia and Tom Kottre

I hope these engaging lesson ideas will help your students feel like they are a part of the Alaskan sled dog racing adventure.  Let us know what activities you found most useful and if you designed other fun, engaging ways to use the website or the video and materials.  Post your responses and pictures to our Facebook page so you can help inspire other teachers.  I can’t wait to hear from you!

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