Giving a Hero His Due

I was recently sent a copy of a book to preview, and just today ordered a class set of them for my classroom for next year!

Dog Diaries #4: Togo by Kate Klimo is a fantastic story of Togo who, according to many historians, should get the mostdownload credit for the success of the 1925 Serum Run into Nome.  Balto was the lead dog who carried the serum into town, but Togo was the lead for the longest leg of the relay, almost double the length of any other team!  The story is told from Togo’s point of view, which honestly usually rubs me the wrong way, but this one is really well done!  Togo has a lot of spunk, energy, and determination.  I think the book will be great for talking about visualization with readers… it’s easy to see many of Togo’s pre-serum run antics in your mind!  The appendixes are full of extra information too.  I was thrilled to see that the appendix talks about the Iditarod without claiming the race commemorates the Serum Run!  Instead, it makes the connection between the two via the history of the trail, which to me is the perfect way to do it!  The book is recommended for grades two to five.  I think it will be a fairly easy read for my third graders, so perfect for the beginning of the year.

I’m thinking that I will pair this book with my unit on Stone Fox (LINK) next year.  I think there will be many good connections made between the two books.  Throw Mush! Sled Dogs of the Iditarod (LINK) in there as a non-fiction text and I think I will have the perfect little trilogy of sled dog stories to start my year and set the tone and ignite the passion for following the race!

If you have a couple of weeks of school left, grab Dog Diaries #4: Togo as a quick read aloud.  Or, grab a copy for yourself to preview for next year.  Later this summer, keep an eye on the Iditarod Education Portal. I will post my unit plans there for anyone who is interested!

What Makes a Hero?

Teachers at this year’s Winter Conference for Educators had the fortune to hear Shelley Gill share some of her amazing stories of Alaska, her 1978 Iditarod run, and her work as a humpback whale researcher in Prince William Sound.  Shelley is an engaging speaker, and I have always shared her book Kiana’s Iditarod with my students when we first start talking about the race.

Shelley recently published a new book, Alaska’s Dog Heroes:  True Stories of Remarkable Canines which I have been sharing with my students in small snippets since I’ve been back from the race.  This book is a collection of stories of dogs who have demonstrated their intelligence, loyalty, and heroism in the most demanding of environments – Alaska’s frontier.  There are lot of stories that could be used for a variety of character development lessons – these dogs possess all the qualities that I wish I could find in a best friend!

Of particular interest to my students are the stories of Tekla, Hotfoot, and Dugan – the lead dogs of Iditarod mushers Susan Butcher, Dick Wilmarth, and Libby Riddles!  I’ve been looking forward to next year (one of my strategies for saving my sanity at this time of year!) and have been thinking that featuring these three dogs and discussing what makes a good leader may be a great way to jump start character development lessons in the fall.  Having the students identify what makes great lead dog and then discussing the qualities that make a great leader, the foundation is set for further discussions and lessons of what they can do as leaders in the classroom.

Here’s a worksheet that you can use to compare these Iditarod heroes and to begin to look at their character traits:  Dog Heroes Worksheet

You can learn more about Shelley Gill here:  LINK

Animal Heroes Everywhere

Alaska races sled dogs.

In Maryland we race horses.

Alaska has stories about heroic dogs.

We have stories about heroic horses.

My school and I wanted to send greetings to the schools along the trail as a way to kind of let our schools meet each other and to show a connection between schools that are so far apart, and yet have so many commonalities.

My boys and I have been talking all year about the similarities and differences between Alaska and Maryland.  While there are obviously many, many differences, we did find several similarities.  Alaskans race sled dogs. There are different styles of racing dogs – sprint, marathon, etc.  There are many sled dog races throughout the state, the biggest one obviously being the Iditarod.  Here in Maryland, we race horses.  There are different styles of racing horses – speed, agility, steeplechase, sulky, etc.  There are many tracks and many races in Maryland, the biggest being the Preakness which is a part of the Triple Crown.  We have also learned the names and stories of many of the dog heroes of the Iditarod Trail.

Here at Gilman, we all know the story of one particular horse hero above all others.  We all know the story of Goliath, one of the brave horses who helped saved the city during the Great Baltimore Fire.  We all know the story, because one of our very own teachers, Claudia Friddell, researched and wrote a picture book telling Goliath’s story.

So, naturally, Goliath: Hero of the Great Baltimore Fire became the perfect good will wish to send down the Iditarod Trail.  This week, each of my third graders paired with one of Mrs. Friddell’s first graders to write a letter to accompany a book down the trail to a new school.

We hope the students will enjoy learning about one of our heroes as much as we have enjoyed learning about theirs!

Mushing Towards Understanding Non-Fiction Text Features

My students, maybe because they are boys, seem to gravitate towards non-fiction texts. They love to pour over the pictures and stats that fill their favorite non-fiction books.  But, I have noticed that they don’t always use all of the features in the book like captions and sidebars to their advantage as readers, and they certainly don’t carry those elements over into their own non-fiction writing.

The non-fiction book, Mush!  Sled Dogs of the Iditarod, published by Scholastic is a great book to use to introduce features of non-fiction texts to your students (and sneak a little Iditarod knowledge in too)!  I introduced this book to my boys after we had finished our first fiction novel and had analyzed the elements of a story.  I began by having the boys search through Mush with sticky notes in hand, marking everything they found that isn’t typically found in fiction novels.  After we discussed them, the boys made posters that explained the various features and why authors may choose to use these devices in their books.  The posters will serve as our anchor charts for this unit.

As we read the book, we focused on using those non-fiction text elements to pull out important details. We made bio cubes highlighting Dallas Seavey’s accomplishments, debated if mushers are as athletic as their dogs, identified characteristics of huskies, and compared and contrasted changes in race equipment over time.

Attached is the unit plan with five days of lessons (although, truth be told, the bio cubes took two days – one to plan and to create).  I’ve also posted one of my student’s responses to whether or not mushers are as athletic as their dogs here:  LINK  Don’t forget to send me your student’s writings!  I’d love to post as many as I can!

Mush Unit Plan

Cube Planning Sheet

Stone Fox

Students wearing the Aurora Borealis T-Shirts

Students wearing the Aurora Borealis T-Shirts

In order to keep students engaged the last week of school before the Holiday Break, I had them read Stone Fox by John Reynolds Gardiner.  This is a great book of friendship, family and the love between a boy and his dog.  All the things to keep students wanting to turn the page and go on to the next chapter are in this book.  My students are third graders, but it would be a good read aloud for 2nd graders and I know teachers thru middle school who have used it in their classroom.  (I don’t want to spoil the ending, but keep a tissue handy.)

I’d like to keep track of how many students we can get to read this book.  If you have already read it with your students (or when you read it in the future), please send me your name, grade level, number of students who read the book and your city & state at:

Full lesson plan with activity ideas are attached.  The attached Venn Diagram is for watching the movie Stone Fox after you have read the book.  It’s a great lesson in how much is changed when making movies.

Stone Fox

Stone Fox.2

Books to the Trail

 The Iditarod Books the Trail program has been running for several years now.  Schools in the lower 48 and others team up with sister schools along the race trail to deliver much needed books to these remote schools.  Recently the Anchorage Public Library has joined our efforts so that even more books can be enjoyed by school children without convenient access to such a broad spectrum of reading material.

On Monday, after camp, Diane Johnson and I visited the Anchorage Library to thank them for their efforts and learn more about a program they have developed called Ready to Read.  This program targets preschool children with the motto “The foundation for reading begins at birth!”

Ready to Read is based on the six basic skills needed to begin reading:  print awareness, print motivation, narrative skills, phonological awareness, letter knowledge and vocabulary.  To encourage the development of these skills the Anchorage Library has created hundreds of tubs of books containing 30-50 board and paperback picture books, a resource guide for the adult childcare provider on a six-week renewable loan.  In addition the program provides bags in which the children can take the books home to share with their families and “lapsit” bags that are thematically created including a music CD and a puppet.  That sounds like a perfect experience all ready to be delivered.

I was understandably excited when I arrived to see shelves and shelves filled with these tubs and tables covered with stacks of books being arranged in themes and it brought back wonderful memories when I spotted some of my favorites.

It will be my job this year on the trail to connect the Books on the Trail with the teachers they have been created for and get the word out there about the Ready to Read program.  Being an English teacher myself I am very excited to be a part of the connection.

If you and your school would like to part of this effort, contact Diane Johnson, Director of the Iditarod Education Department.

Read On,


Editor’s Note: Attention Teachers who are located in Alaska, you can get involved with the Ready to Read program. The Anchorage Public Library has a “Ready to Read Resource Center”at the Z.J. Loussac Public Library.  This is a statewide resource for anyone who works with infants and toddlers anywhere in Alaska. For additional information and to find out how to get a free reading tub to your community, click here.

Visit the Anchorage Public Library website at this link.

A First-Grader’s Alaska Story


Alaska is very very cold.

My grandma has ben there lots of times.

There are husky dogs there in Alaska.

You have to race on sleds.

The dogs pul the sleds so you can go.

There are 62 people on the sleds.

There are 992 dogs puling you.

Written by a 1st grader, typed here as written

This first grader took herself to the computer at home and wrote this story. She asked questions about the number of dogs and people and how to spell people. That’s it. I discovered the story in the printer tray. Engaged in the topic of the Iditarod and Alaska, this young writer produced the basis of a seven page picture book.

"You have to race on sleds."

Where could you take this story? Illustrate each sentence, publish the work, and now you have a published author. A thermometer showing cold temperatures on page one, sleds on page 4, and it would be fun to see how young authors illustrate 992 dogs pulling. Hold an authors’ reception complete with ice cream sandwiches, sno-cones, or milkshakes.

What national standards (NCTE) would this meet?

NL-ENG.K-12.4 Communication Skills

Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.

NL-ENG.K-12.5 Communication Strategies

Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.

NL-ENG.K-12.6 Applying Knowledge

Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.

Taking Care of the Iditarod Dogs, Writing, and Sequencing

Buddies at the 2010 vet check

The dogs of the Iditarod are athletes and get the kind of training and health care human professional athletes get. Volunteer vets man the race’s checkpoints to examine teams as they arrive throughout the race. These dogs have been cleared physically by a pre-race exam which includes bloodwork, EKG, and a physical exam. This article, Caring for Dogs of the Iditarod, details the care they receive before and during the race.

Three days before the race start, there is a final vet check opportunity at the Iditarod Headquarters in Wasilla, AK. All the dogs here have already cleared their labwork and EKG and receive the final physical exam on that day. Fans enjoy watching the vets and dogs, meeting mushers in person, taking photos, and interacting with the dogs.

This lesson about sequencing is written for first grade. It includes pictures from the 2010 final vet check for students to use in sequencing and writing a book. The article above gives teachers background information to familiarize them with healthcare for the dogs.

Not a primary grade teacher? Here are some more ideas for upper grades, including high school, for you.

 1) Make an Iditarod Trail game using this cube pattern. Put photos of the vet exam on cube faces. Number each photo. Use a trail map and advance a sled dog playing piece (or colored button or coin) along the trail’s checkpoints based on the roll of the cube.

2) Write a description of the vet check exam from the dog’s point of view.

3) Research physical exams for people and dogs. Compare and contrast these exams in a formal paper. Cite sources.

Mushing on,


Big-Enough Anna

This lesson was written with fifth grade standards, but easily moves up or down grade levels. Students use foldables to analyze the book. The book can be ordered from the author’s web site below.

This book is a biography for children. It’s by Pam Flowers, with Ann Dixon, and it’s about Pam’s 1993 2,500 mile trans-Arctic journey and an unlikely little dog who saved the expedition. Pam is the first woman to travel this trip, a trip which traced the1923-34 route of explorers Knud Rasmussen, Anarulunguaq, and Miteq. Anarulunguaq was a young Inuit woman of Greenland whose job was to drive the dog teams, interpret, cook, mend, sew, and help Rasmussen collect information about the culture and history of Inuit people in Canada and Alaska. In fact, Anna the dog is named for this young woman.

When Pam talked to us at the Iditarod Summer Camp, she told us the story of her journey and of Anna’s adventure. I was enthralled by the challenges Pam and her team faced and dealt with—the trust in each other to keep going where one led, whether it was the musher or the dog, and the determination to finish what they started.

Pam writes books and travels to present at schools. Visit her web site for more information. Pam also wrote an autobiographical accounting of the trip for older readers and adults titled Alone Across the Arctic.  Still an adventurer, Pam hiked the Appalachian Trail, approximately 5 million steps, with her black lab named Ellie. Look for a new book coming out about Ellie’s adventure.

Mushing on,


Fill Your Sled!

This sled is filled with book titles students read in one quarter.

Fill Your Sled! is the theme for my year as the Target® 2011 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™.  I plan to give you ideas, lessons, activities, photographs, and messages to fill your sled with for your classroom. The Iditarod is a teaching tool, and you can look forward to information that’s going to help you use the race to teach those skills students are learning. I teach middle school language arts, but you’ll find lessons and ideas for all ages and all subjects. You may find a lesson for one subject lends itself to a different subject like I did with a physical education lesson by Terrie Hanke, the Wells Fargo 2006 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™. We did the activity, then wrote a summary and evaluation of it.

And, you’re going to find that as you use this teaching tool, your classroom and personal sleds are going to fill with unexpectedly wonderful experiences and ideas. Share them with others during the year by sending them to Diane Johnson at

Start filling your sled with these three pieces of artwork. No need to worry about getting permission to use clip art! Created by Michele Turner, art teacher at my middle school, you may use them for educational purposes. Many thanks to Michele!

 I’ve used the sled dog as a group management tool in my sixth grade middle school classes. Each group gets a laminated paper with the sled dog on it. Inside the dog I wrote ON TASK. Under that, I wrote YES and NO, spaced apart from each other. As groups work, I move around the room, marking tally marks under the YES if the group is on task or NO if the group is off task. This maintains their focus or refocuses students without the teacher having to say a word. Mark with a Vis-à-Vis marker which wipes off easily.

Enlarge the dog or sled or team for bulletin boards or decorating the wall. My sixth graders fill a giant sled pulled by the dog with book titles they’ve read each quarter. The “books” they write on are small, laminated “books” which are cleaned and used for the next quarter of school. Your students could fill the sled with character traits, goals they set for themselves, or progress they make in any subject.  If your school still has an opaque projector (this is going far back in time!), use it to enlarge the artwork to gigantic proportions.

Here’s another classroom management idea. It’s important for students to have the correct materials for class with them and at hand. Make a written list of materials for your students, but instead of posting a “Materials” list for students to read and gather, post a list on your board called “Gear List” or, as I do, “Gear on Desk”. We talk at the first of the year about the importance of the mandatory gear a musher carries in the sled bag, why the musher must have these items and what might happen if an item is missing. See, page 7 for the mandatory items list. Students connect this mandatory gear to the mandatory gear they need to have on their desk when class begins. Writing the items on the list reduces or eliminates time spent retrieving them from desks, lockers, within the room, or in the students’ notebooks. This list also helps students learn the value of organizing their notebooks and materials so they are quickly prepared to begin work, just as mushers organize their sled bags to eliminate wasting race time or dog care time hunting for that item that they knew they had somewhere, if they could just find it!

Mushing on,




Literacy Lessons by Cathy Walters, Target® 2009 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™

Literacy Lessons by Cathy Walters, Target® 2009 Teacher on the Trail™

* These lessons support literacy goals. The lessons are brain based and often encourage students to move through music or be physically active.  The lessons can be easily integrated into curriculum content and although they are developed for ‘younger students’, the lessons are easily adaptable to other age levels.

Cathy’s lesson plans and articles require Acrobat Reader

Readers Theater

Grade Level: PK-Kindergarten: Readers Theater 1

First and Second Grade: Readers Theater 2

Language arts, reading, plays

Lesson Summary: Readers Theater is the reading of a text in a play-like fashion. This lesson includes 2 scripts.  The first script is geared towards pre-readers. The teacher reads the portion of the script that moves the story, and students respond with a refrain or simple lines that are repetitive and easy to learn. The second script is for written for first and second grade students. Although props and costumes can be involved in an elaborate Readers Theater, most involve the children simply reading the text with good fluency. By performing a Readers Theater, students are given an excellent reason to read, reread, and reread a text.

Worksheet: Pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten Script
Worksheet: First and Second Grade Script
Polar Bears

Grade level: PreKindergarten, Kindergarten, Reading, Social Studies

Lesson Summary: After reading Polar Bears by Gail Gibbons students will complete an ABC or 123 dot-to-dot of a polar bear. The teacher will read the Polar Bear Fact sheet and students will point to the corresponding physical feature on their completed dot-to-dot polar bear. After all the facts have been read, students watch the National Geographic Video. The teacher then introduces the polar bear song to the children.

Worksheet: ABC Dot-to-Dot
Worksheet: 123 Dot-to-Dot
Worksheet: Polar Bear Fact Sheet
Worksheet: Polar Bear Song Sheet
Alaska’s Arctic Animals

Grade Level: PreKindergarten/Kindergarten, Reading/Social Studies/Science

Lesson Summary: During the study of Alaska’s Arctic animals and where they live students will be able to tell the teacher one cold fact about each animal. A cold fact is anything that tells how these animals survive in such a harsh environment. Two facts, for example, that help the willow ptarmigan survive are that he turns white in the winter (his camouflage) and that he grows extra feathers in the winter, even on his feet (for warmth). This information is reviewed and reinforced by playing the Arctic Animal Memory Game and Arctic Animal Bingo.

Willow Ptarmigan – Master of Disguise

Grade level:  PreKindergarten – 5th Grade, Reading, science, art

Lesson Summary: After conducting the toothpick experiment and reading Gone Again Ptarmigan,  students will see in this art activity how important camouflage is to Alaska’s state bird, the willow ptarmigan and other Arctic animals. (Other Arctic animals that change their coats or feathers with the season are the Arctic fox, the short-tailed weasel (known as ermine in their winter coats),the snowy owl, and the snowshoe hare. Polar bears keep their camouflage all year long!)

Worksheet: Ptarmigan Stencil
Iditarod in Rhyme and Song

Grade Level:  Pre- Kindergarten and beyond Language Arts, Brain based learning, movement, music

Worksheet: Iditarod Song Sheet
Worksheet: Iditarod Song Chart
Worksheet: Iditarod, Iditarod, A Dog Sled Race Song Sheet
Literacy and Fluency Instruction

Grade Level:  Pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten, Reading Readiness

Lesson Summary: Students demonstrate understanding of an area that you are emphasizing in your instruction by circling or underlining on the “Five Little Huskies.” handout. For example, students can circle all the capital letters in the poem.

Worksheet: Five Little Huskies Poem
Sing to Read

Grade Level:  Pre-Kindergarten and beyond

Lesson Summary: Students will learn strategies to decode the word “Iditarod.” They will identify all letters by name and sound, place the letters in the correct order and orally read “Iditarod” as a sight word.

Worksheet: Iditer-cise Song Sheet
Worksheet: Iditarod Puzzle
Worksheet: Photo of Student in Action
Mush Art Lesson
Grade level:  Pre- Kindergarten and beyond Lesson summary:Students will observe Jon Van Zyle’s Iditarod art as well as some of his other work showing the beauty of Alaska. They will learn a song about Jon and then draw their own Mush! Art following a step-by-step format.

Worksheet: Jon Van Zyle Song Sheet
Worksheet: How to Draw a Husky
Worksheet: How to Draw a Musher and Sled
Where on the Globe is Alaska? (Language Arts, Geography)
Grade Level:  Pre-Kindergarten
Lesson Summary:Students will learn the location of Alaska on the globe and on a map, name bodies of water and countries to the north, south, east, and west of Alaska and learn one or two facts about the Arctic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, Canada, and Russia

Worksheet: Where on the Globe is Alaska? song sheet
Worksheet: Where on the Globe is Alaska? Song Chart
Memory Map (geography)
Grade Level:  Pre-Kindergarten and Beyond, Social Studies, Reading
Lesson Summary: Location recognition
Worksheet: Daily Map of Alaska to Label
Hike! (Classroom Management)
Worksheet: Husky Stencil
Worksheet: Musher and Sled Stencil
RACE Necklace – Character Education

Grade Level:  Pre-Kindergarten and Beyond, Reading, Listening Skills, Spelling, Character Education

Lesson Summary: Students string beads in the order the teacher’s directions indicate.

Character Education Lesson Suggestions

Respect and Responsibility – Character Education
Worksheet: Respect and Responsibility Song
Attitude – Character Education
Worksheet: Attitude Song

These lessons were first posted on the website August, September, and October 2008, by Cathy Walter, Target® 2009 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™, North Carolina

Visit this link to Cathy’s Idita-Tunes. Listen to the music.  View the lesson plans.