A Turkey on the Trail


Turkeys in disguise while training for the 2016 Iditarod

In honor of Thanksgiving this year, my class disguised paper turkeys as husky dogs and mushers preparing for the 2016 Iditarod.  They wrote about their plans for escape from the farm in first person narratives. This time-honored school tradition involves a lot of creativity, humor, and great writing.  What a perfect way to save a turkey from a horrible fate.  The farmer would not suspect a thing!

We brainstormed other ideas for our turkey disguises as well.  How about a moose on the trail?  Some of my students created polar bears, and snowflake disguises for their turkeys.  All of these creative ideas have a great tie-in to the study of Alaska and the Iditarod race.

If you are a teacher with an Iditarod Insider subscription, now is a great time to watch the musher videos preparing for the race.  This is a great source of inspiration for the writing project.

A Turkey on the Trail Narrative


Turkey in Disguise

The Turkey on the Trail Lesson Plan


Make your turkey digital by using an app like Chatterpix for Kids to create a voice-over for an image of their finished project.  Students can record themselves reading their plans of escape in 1st person that allows the beak of the turkey to move.  This can be shared with parents or embedded on a teacher website.

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The 2016 Winter Conference for Educators is an amazing week for teachers around the country to come together and learn best teaching practices surrounding the theme of the Iditarod.  Check out the Iditarod site for more information about this unique professional development opportunity.

I will be joined this year by a few talented teachers from my school, Eanes Elementary, here in Austin, Texas.  We will be sharing STEM and STEAM hands-on lessons based upon the Iditarod theme with conference attendees.  We hope to see you there!


A Snapshot of Jeff Schultz



A “snapshot” of Jeff Schultz biographies in the Iditarod classroom

We have been spending some time in class this last week learning about some of the people behind the scenes of the Iditarod that help bring The Last Great Race® to people around the world.


Jeff Schultz on the Iditarod Trail – photo courtesy Bob Jones

When my students see the amazing photographs of the mushers and their dog teams along the trail, they ask me who captures these incredible images for all of us to enjoy.  I shared with my students this week that Jeff Schultz, celebrating 35 years as the official Iditarod photographer this year, is the reason we can share in the Iditarod experience in such a special way.

Jeff’s photographs can not only be seen on the Iditarod site, they grace the covers of magazines, calendars, and books all over the world.

To teach my students about the life of Jeff Schultz and his work, I created a simple “biography snapshot” booklet complete with a camera cover and six pages with guiding statements or questions to write and illustrate.  We used Iditarod website articles about Jeff to learn fascinating details about his life.  This lesson was created to be completed with illustrations by our kindergarten buddy class.

Lesson Plan – A Snapshot of Jeff Schultz

Primary Grades – Gypsy’s Jeff Schultz Iditarod Research

Upper Grades – Jeff Schultz Iditarod Research

(View our Q&A at the end of this post or open and print the PDF below for your class research:

Jeff Schultz Q&A with the 2016 Iditarod Class – PDF

We used our biography research from the Iditarod site to write about Jeff Schultz, and then we visited our kindergarten buddy class and shared our information with them. We asked our buddies to illustrate the pages with us.  The results are a wonderful collaboration research project that can easily be adapted for primary or upper grades.

Biography Snapshot Camera Cover

Biography Snapshot Page #2

Biography Snapshot Page #3

Biography Snapshot Page #4

Biography Snapshot Page #5

Biography Snapshot Page #6

Biography Snapshot Page #7

Jeff Schultz


Jeff Schultz and Iditarod Memories

I am excited about my special time as Teacher on the Trail™ in March, and I am especially looking forward to seeing Jeff in action while I am there.  I was curious about some of the experiences from the trail from the teachers who have come before me, so I reached out to a few familiar faces to reflect upon a special, personal memory with Jeff Schultz with all of us.

Andrea “Finney” Aufder Heyde, 1999 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™


“Finney” 1999 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™ (2nd from left) at the Jr. Iditarod – photo by Jeff Schultz

Andrea Finney Aufder Heyde, or “Finney” for short, was the very first Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™ almost 18 years ago. Her courage and independent spirit started this special program, and I will be forever grateful.  She shared a special memory with me from that very first year with a picture of her taken by Jeff Schultz from the Jr. Iditarod.

“Some of the volunteers at Yentna Station! My first sighting of the Northern Lights was here when I was up with the young mushers!!”

Terrie Hanke, 2006 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™

“In 2006, as the Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™, I was assigned to fly with Jeff and his pilot, Danny Davidson. At any moment in time, Jeff might point at something and Danny would bank sharply to get Jeff in position for a shot. Danny’s plane was specially equipped with a flip up window for Jeff. So after banking sharply and getting into position, Jeff would flip that window up and click, click, click.  Sitting directly behind Jeff, I got the brunt of the frigid air at roughly 100 miles an hour. I learned very quickly that the only way to stay warm was to fly in full gear. Let’s face it, if Jeff was shooting something, so was I. The only difference was that I had a little Canon point and shoot while he was using a Canon with a mega zoom lens capable of showing whiskers on dogs at 800 feet.”

Photos (above) taken by Terrie Hanke. Read about Terrie’s article about Jeff Schultz on the Iditarod site.

Read Terrie’s full article about her time on the trail with Jeff Schultz here:

Jeff Schultz article

Martha Dobson, 2011 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™

“Two great memories of my 2011 year–getting to fly with Jeff for a day while he took photos for the race. Because I flew with him, I got to a number of checkpoints I wouldn’t have seen otherwise: Shageluk, Grayling, the primitive checkpoint of Eagle Island, and Kaltag. I also took one of my favorite photos during the race there in Shageluk, a four year old girl exchanging nose kisses with one of Paul’s dogs.  Another fun memory is getting to work with the Pee Team in Takotna. They invited me to help collect urine specimens, and Jeff took photos of that.

Linda Fenton, 2013 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™


Linda Fenton, 2013 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™  and Jeff Schultz – photo by Terrie Hanke

“I saw Jeff a lot on the trail.  He was tireless and focused on his work.  It was fun watching him find just the right spot for his shot.  The picture (above) was taken in Nome.  I was posting and Terrie was taking my picture.  He just sat down and joined me for the shot.”

Jen Reiter, 2014 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™

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Jen Reiter, 2014 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™ – photo by Jeff Schultz

“I was most struck by how much of a true team he and his people are.  It’s just another piece of the “team” mentality that gets this whole race down the trail: the volunteer team, the mushers and their dog teams, the judging team, the Insider Crew team, Jeff and his people.  There are lessons to be learned about teamwork in all facets of the race.

That and that I knew if I watched where he stood to take pictures, waited until he walked away and then stood in the same spot I could get some pretty good shots myself! 

At the Volunteer Potluck Supper after the race, he presented a slide show of close to 200 photos from the race.  They were amazing. But what was even more amazing was the story that he was able to tell about every single one.  It’s amazing how what seems to be such a simple picture can become so much more when you have the story behind it.

Jeff Schultz Q & A with the 2016 Iditarod Class:

IMG_0662Q: How many years have you been taking pictures for the Iditarod?  

A: I photographed my first Iditarod in 1981 and I’ve been the Iditarod’s official photographer since 1982

Q: In the Iditarod, do you go to every checkpoint?

A: I’ve been to every checkpoint. Each year I try to go to each one. Sometimes I miss one or three.

Q: Have you ever taken a picture under water?

A: no


Q: How did you get inspired to take photos of the Iditarod?

A: I met the “Father of the Iditarod” Joe Redington Sr. in 1979 and he got me interested in it.

Q: Why do you like to photograph the northern lights?

A: It’s a unique phenomenon that does not happen everywhere.  So it’s fun and a challenge to make photos of them. 


Q: Who inspired you to be a photographer?

A: I found that I had a God-given talent of composing photos and I was good at it.  My brother-in-law Reggie Miller encouraged me to follow my passion when I was 14.

IMG_0655Q: How many pets do you have?  Are dogs your favorite?

A: No pets, but dogs are my favorite 


Q: How many books about the Iditarod have you taken pictures for?

A: My photos have been published in 8 or so books on the Iditarod.

Q: What colors have you seen in the northern lights?

A: Red, purple, green and yellow


Q: When did you start taking professional pictures?

A: I was 14 when I got paid for my first assignment… taking photos at a 25th year wedding anniversary, but I became a full-time professional in 1982.

Q: Have you ever been in an airplane while filming the northern lights?

A: No, but that’d be cool.

IMG_0656Q: Have you ever gotten frostbite on the trail?  

A: No, by the grace of God.

Q: When you were a kid, did you follow the Iditarod?

A: No.  I had no idea what the Iditarod was until I met Joe Redington Sr. in 1979.


Q: Do you take pictures outside of Alaska?  Where? 

A: Not really.  Only when I’m on vacation and it’s just for fun then. 


Q: Have you ever been a musher in the Iditarod?  

A: no

IMG_0653Q: Do you live in Alaska?  How long have you lived there?

A: Yes, I live in Anchorage.  I’ve lived here since I was 18.  I moved up 3 months after graduating from High school.


Q: Who flies you around during the Iditarod?

A: Great volunteer pilots fly me. I typically have one dedicated pilot fly me.  Over my 35 years, I’ve had 3 main pilots… Dr. Von Mitton DDS, Sam Maxwell and most recently Danny Davidson.  Sometimes I get rides from other volunteer Iditarod air force pilots


Q: Do you open the door or window to take a picture during the race?  

A: 95% of the time I open the window to take photos. 

IMG_0643Q: How long do you seen the northern lights during the night?  And what is the longest time you have seen them in one night?  

A: I have seen them last only a few minutes sometimes, and I’ve seen them last for 6 or more hours. 

Q: Have you ever taken a photo of a shooting star?

A: Yes.  Sometimes, when making long exposures of the night sky, a shooting star will fly through the frame.  It’s only by luck that happens. 

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Join me and three exceptional Eanes Elementary School teachers at the 2016 Winter Conference for Educators

The 2016 Winter Conference for Educators is an amazing week for teachers around the country to come together and learn best teaching practices surrounding the theme of the Iditarod.  Check out the Iditarod site for more information about this unique professional development opportunity.

I will be joined this year by a few talented teachers from my school, Eanes Elementary, here in Austin, Texas.  We will be sharing STEM and STEAM hands-on lessons based upon the Iditarod theme with conference attendees.  We hope to see you there!

Testing Your Iditarod I.Q. With STEM


Checking our Iditarod quiz answers using STEM and circuits

The 2016 Iditarod class has been learning about informational text and graphic features in my language arts class.  We used the Scholastic book Mush! Sled Dogs of the Iditarod by Joe Funk and the Iditarod.com site to help us learn all about the history and fascinating trivia and facts of the Last Great Race on Earth®.

Each student put their STEM knowledge of circuitry to good use and created an “Iditaquiz” from their research to test the Iditarod knowledge of others.  Heavy duty aluminum foil, wires, a D cell battery, and a small light bulb were used to check the answers, called a “light-right.”


Creating and sharing our Iditarod knowledge

We have learned that even store-bought foil is a conductor of energy, and it will create a simple, closed circuit.  A hole is made in the paper, with aluminum foil underneath it, which then acts as the conductor.

Regular masking tape was used to cover each piece of foil that connected the correct answer to the question, which insulated the “circuit” from other foil pieces.

My students had great fun creating what they called, “fake-out” circuits to fool the quiz taker.

I created templates for my students to use to hand write the Iditaquiz tests, and we had true/false, multiple choice, or matching as options.  My class had great fun learning new and interesting facts about the Iditarod, testing their knowledge, and then creating quizzes for others.  The science of circuitry made it more interactive and engaging.  Print the templates below and begin to create your own “light-right” quizzes.

Test Your Iditarod I.Q. With STEM

Light Right Quiz – True False – With Lines

Light Right Quiz – True False – No Lines

Light Right Quiz – Multiple Choice – Word

Light Right Quiz – Multiple Choice

Light Right – Matching – Word

Light Right – Matching


Create and test your knowledge of the Iditarod with these templates

In our study of informational text features, like many teachers, we use sticky notes to write down interesting facts we find, or trivia information we want to use in our research.  There are many great apps that can turn your paper sticky notes into “digital” sticky notes on your computer or tablet.  Why is this helpful?  A digital sticky note saves money and paper in the classroom and can easily be shared between users in a free classroom set-up by the teacher.

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Google Chrome has an add-on app called “Sticky Notes” that allows you to add “digital” sticky notes onto your desktop computer as you research a site.  The “Post-It® Plus” app scans your notes, creates a computerized version of them on your tablet or device, and allows you to save them under different group titles.  These useful tools allow your students to research and save their information for expository writing, without having to keep up with little notes of paper.

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This week is our annual Eanes Elementary School STEM Day.  My class took research of the Iditarod Trail from Iditarod.com and is creating its own fantasy version of the trail on our playground.  We will use the rolling robot Sphero, nicknamed Snowball, to travel our course.  Students program the Sphero on any device and give it directions by directly programming it through coding skills.  This will involve ingenuity, creativity, patience, and passion.  Stay tuned!


Current Events in the Iditarod Classroom:

People often ask me how I integrate the Iditarod theme into my regular classroom curriculum and still meet my state standards and district and school expectations.  Well, the answer is that it is really easy to do!  This week we integrated a little of the Iditarod theme into the Dia de Los Muertos holiday.


The 2016 Iditarod class celebrates Day of the Dead with our ofrendas, or offering

Here in Texas, this special holiday came to us by way of Mexico long ago and is a popular and beloved time of reflection for many.  The Day of the Dead replaces the gore and silliness of Halloween and instead celebrates, with love, the lives of those we have lost.  Altars are created in homes, candles are lit, and treats from the Mexican bakery are set out to encourage the souls of loved ones to visit.  Decorative sugar skulls are popular with children of all ages over the three days of events, and they are a way to show that the holiday is a joyous time for celebration.

To help celebrate this special time, I sent care packages to a few of my friends who may be familiar to many Iditarod fans.  Linda Fenton, 2013 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™, and Erin Montgomery, 2015 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™ and her dog, Dixon, enjoyed their Day of the Dead gifts including sugar skulls and t-shirts.

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We usually celebrate this special day by creating dancing human sugar skulls with our names in symmetrical form in math class.  This holiday, however, we changed our creations to Day of the Dead dancing husky dogs.


Our symmetrical Day of the Dead husky dogs

I created templates for our Day of the Dead sugar skull husky dogs, and we used tissue paper and decorative art with markers to create the look of icing found on a real sugar skull from a bakery.  In math class, we created the symmetrical version of our names to make the rib cages of our dogs.  We then added the bones from my templates and glued them on black paper.  The results are fun, whimsical, and in keeping with the “spirit” of the day, with a little math thrown in for good measure.

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The Day of the Dead Dancing Husky Dog Lesson Plan

Husky Dog Head

Husky Dog Ears

Husky Dog Lower Legs

Husky Dog Upper Legs

Husky Dog Hip and Tail

My class was very fortunate to have the aunt of one of my students come share all of her memories from childhood in Mexico with my students.


Miss Denise sharing all of her family traditions with us for Dia de Los Muertos

Do you want to enrich your classroom holiday celebration with Dia de Los Muertos next year?  There are many wonderful children’s books available for the classroom teacher to enrich the understanding and meaning of the holiday.  I found that one book in particular, Day of the Dead Activity Book by Karl Jones, not only teaches about Dia de Los Muertos, but it also comes with a pull-out altar in the back, complete with sugar skull stickers.  Just punch it out, set it up, and you are ready to celebrate!


The 2016 Winter Conference for Educators is an amazing week for teachers around the country to come together and learn best teaching practices surrounding the theme of the Iditarod.  Check out the Iditarod site for more information about this unique professional development opportunity.


The Sphero and the Iditarod make a great STEM connection!

All Lit Up: Circuitry, Engineering, and The Last Great Race on Earth®


The city of Nome, Alaska, under the “northern lights” lit up by the 2016 Iditarod class

Our amazing 4th grade students at Eanes Elementary School spent several days designing and creating a “Circuit City” in each classroom for the culmination of our energy unit in science.  Of course, the 2016 Iditarod class created the city of Nome, Alaska, under the twinkling northern lights, with dedicated dog teams on their way to the finish line of The Last Great Race on Earth®.

“Circuit City” was a schoolwide event for our students to demonstrate how electricity travels in a closed path, creating an electrical circuit which then lights a simple bulb.  Making a circuit and creating light with wires, a battery, and light bulb is easy to do, but the effects are magical.

Our science standards for energy, force, and motion ask us to investigate the different forms of energy, including renewable resources such as solar power.


Let there be light!

We began our unit learning about electrical safety with a visit from Austin Energy.  Our local electric company has free community outreach programs for schools that show how energy is created and shared throughout our community.

Austin Energy brought in a toy pretend town called “Power Town” to our school and used electrical circuits to show how electricity is brought into every home in our city.  The program also highlighted electrical safety which was a wonderful and importantIMG_1371 introduction to our energy unit.  I would encourage any teacher to check their local power company for any free school programs available for this project.

At Eanes Elementary School, we are fortunate to have electrical kits from FOSS kits and Caddystack™ Electricity Kits to enrich our circuitry experiments in the safest way possible.

However, expensive science kits are not necessary to light a bulb with a simple circuit.  I gave my students batteries, wires, and a bulb and asked them to find a way to light it up.  This created many interesting “Ah-ha” moments as my students and their partners found a way to connect a simple circuit and create energy.  Then we pulled out our electrical kits which also included switches to “open” the circuit and turn off the energy. Aluminum foil or copper tape can easily be substituted for wire since they both conduct energy.  Experiment with other materials to find conductors and light the bulb.

Electric Experiments – How to Make a Circuit – PDF

Our science activity transitioned into a STEM activity with the design and creation of our fantasy village of Nome.  We decided to recreate the Iditarod at night, with the lights of our circuits, wires and bulbs, showcasing the race to the famous finish line.  A simple, donated shoebox from home was used as the basic building form for our creations.  Of course, our fantasy village of Nome had to have log cabins from popsicle sticks, miniature Arctic animals, gently falling snow, and warm and cozy wood burning fireplaces!

We decorated our Nome cabins with gift wrap paper for wallpaper, felt for carpet, and used doll furniture to outfit our rustic cabins or made furniture out of legos from home.  This STEM activity quickly turned into a STEAM integrated art activity, and every child in 4th grade was engaged and excited.  We pushed all our tables together, covered them in white butcher paper, dropped white poly-fill for snow and lit up our city with our homemade circuits.

We left a hole on the roof for our lights bulbs to shine through, and with our knowledge of circuitry, we lit up our houses one by one.  When we turned out the classroom lights, the results of our efforts took our breath away.  We had used science and engineering to recreate a very special place.  Now it was time to share!

Mush to Nome, Alaska!

We turned out the classroom lights, played the classic tune Hobo Jim’s Iditarod Trail Song, and invited every student in our school to tour our city and learn about energy and circuitry.

The other 4th grade classes enjoyed their own special tours.  Unique cities captured the imaginations of all of our students with themes that were personal and meaningful to that particular class.  It was an amazing day of sharing our creativity with not only our school, but central administration and our parents as well.

New York, New York!

Mrs. Victor’s class recreated the bright lights of New York City, including a bustling Central Park, a towering Statue of Liberty, Rockefeller Center complete with ice skaters, and the sights and sounds of the “Great White Way” of Broadway.  Students were serenaded by Frank Sinatra as tour guides shared the design and history of their creations.

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry

Harry Potter himself would have been proud to see how the famed school for wizards was recreated down to the last detail by Mrs. Brewer’s students.  Her room was transformed into the famed setting for J.K. Rowling’s series, complete with owls on the roof, warm, burning fires in the dorm rooms, and a little magic from the students.

The Modern Architectural Wonders of the World

Ms. Walters is passionate about history and art in her classroom, so her students focused on sharing the most amazing pieces of architecture in the world such as the Golden Gate Bridge.  The Empire State Building came complete with its own King Kong at the top.  Her students also became tour guides showcasing how the buildings and bridges were constructed as well as providing interesting facts about them.

Beware of Haunted House Lane!

Mrs. Bromlow’s class celebrated the arrival of fall and Halloween by recreating detailed, fun haunted houses.  Some houses were whimsical, some were gloriously creepy, but they all glowed with the eerie light of circuitry!  What a perfect way to celebrate the season.

Austin City Limits

Mrs. Hinkle represented our very own Austin, Texas, by allowing partners to work together and recreate their favorite places around our beloved town.  Students created “Hey Cupcake”, a favorite food truck for the delectable treats on Congress Avenue, complete with little toy food.  “Big Top Candy” was recreated in all its glory, including its famous local logo.  One group designed our very own Eanes Elementary School, the oldest running school in Texas, complete with toy desks and little plastic students ready to engage and learn.  Go Mustangs!

A digital personal invitation was sent to every class at Eanes Elementary School to come and visit our “cities” using the Emaze web-based presentation program.  Emaze.com has free professionally designed templates for teachers and students to use to create presentations to share on a site or in an email to others. Simply choose your template, drop in your photos, video, and text, and share it out.  Digital presentations created by students, are alternative formative assessments instead of a traditional paper and pencil test.

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Use the Emaze tools to create slides in your chosen template.  When completed the presentation will flow like a video with the click of the arrow keys on your keyboard.

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Circuit Symbols – PDF

Circuit City Parent Letter – PDF

All Lit Up Circuitry Lesson Plan

Iron Dog Racers


Our “iron dog” racers made it all the way to the finish line using Newton’s 3rd Law of Motion!


Erin Montgomery, 2015 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™ on her iron dog – photo courtesy Erin Montgomery

This week our Eanes Elementary School fourth graders have been continuing our research about energy, force, and motion in our science classes.  We learned about Newton’s Laws of Motion, and we decided to put our knowledge to the test.  In a wonderful STEM activity, our students created balloon racers using their science knowledge.  My class put an Iditarod twist on it and designed snow machines, “iron dogs,” using air from a balloon and a straw to move them.

Erin Montgomery, the 2015 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™, had an interesting post from the trail sharing about her first experience riding an iron dog on the trail.  This was great inspiration for our lesson.


Jeff Schultz on the Iditarod trail – photo credit: Bob Jones

I learned about the term “iron dog” while in Alaska, and my class had an interesting conversation about the term and why it would be used in the state where dog mushing is the official sport!  I saw many snow machines, or snowmobiles, in Alaska at the start of the Iditarod, and I found out that they are used throughout the race to carry people from place to place.

I remember distinctly seeing Jeff Schultz, the official Iditarod photographer, heading out on an iron dog ahead of the mushers at the 2014 Iditarod start in Willow.  It looked like great fun.


The Happy River Steps – photo credit: Loren Holmes, Alaska Dispatch News

Newton’s Third Law of Motion says that, “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.”  So what does this mean?  When we let go of our balloon racers, the air was released, and the iron dog moved in the opposite direction.  StudyJams online has a wonderful video about the laws of motion for your students to watch.

First, we spent a little time learning about potential and kinetic energy.  Basically, potential energy is stored energy such as pulling back on a bow and arrow, or sitting at the top of a roller coaster.  Kinetic energy is the release of that potential energy; energy on the move.  When I thought of these forces, I immediately thought about the infamous Happy River Steps of the Iditarod at Rainy Pass.

The steps start at the top of a steep incline, where potential energy is stored as the musher leads his/her team to the top.  As they descend the notorious Steps, the potential energy changes to kinetic energy, and they are quickly on the move.  I created some simple classroom posters highlighting the differences between the two for teachers to share:

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Potential Energy Poster

Kinetic Energy Poster

We spent time in class in our morning meetings sharing tips and ideas about our iron dog designs; more than one balloon, extra straws, an inclined plane in the front, big wheels, small wheels.  There are many, many strategies and variables for these innovations.  It is fantastic to see children designing, creating, and adapting for better results.

My STEM planning sheet is a great way for students to plan their designs.  This project was created at home, but can easily be made at school using recycled materials and art supplies.  We gave our students a rubric to follow for the designs, and a written paragraph was required as well.

STEM Design Sheet

Iron Dog Snowmobile Racers – Word

Iron Dog Racers Lesson Plan

We brought our iron dog racers to the cafeteria and set up our finish line.  There, we used Newton’s Third Law of Motion and raced our inventions.  When we blew up our balloons through the straw, we covered the straw and held it on the ground (potential energy) and then we released them (kinetic energy) and watched our STEM designs in action.  Smaller wheels and lighter loads seemed to go farther than others.

This is STEM, or STEAM, at its finest!  When students use their critical thinking skills to engage in the world in a creative way, it makes our classroom lessons so much more meaningful and memorable.  This is a perfect activity to achieve that goal.

hannah's example

A student drawn prototype of the iron dog!

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The Van Zyle Style

Coming soon we will celebrate the legendary Iditarod artist, Jon Van Zyle.  In 2016 Jon will create his 40th official Iditarod poster.  I was thrilled to get a glimpse of the painting at his home in June at the Summer Camp for Educators in Alaska.  My class had the honor of interviewing Jon, and we will highlight him in a future post!


The 2016 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™ with the future 2016 Iditarod poster- photo courtesy of Jon Van Zyle

Join us!

The Iditarod Winter Teacher Conference is March 1st – 4th!

Are you interested in taking on the challenge of being the next Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™?  The deadline for applications is December 1st!  See the links above for information, or click here for the application to download.

Follow me!  Click the “follow” button on the right to receive the Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™ posts all year.

The Northern Lights in a Bowl


Bringing the northern lights to Texas!

The 2016 Iditarod class has been learning about mixtures and solutions in our science class, and I wanted to try combining our demonstrations and experiments with our amazing connection to Alaska this year.

I decided to bring my fascination with the aurora borealis to class and combine it with some science magic, a good book, and a special art project.

Before we jumped into science, we realized we had some research to do, so we could fully appreciate and understand one of the great natural phenomenons on our planet.

Northern Lights A to Z cover

Photo courtesy of Sasquatch Books

First, we took a little time to learn about the lights and their different cultural legends and myths in our Reader’s Workshop class.  I went to my Sasquatch Books library, and I grabbed the lovely book Northern Lights: A to Z by Mindy Dwyer.

Mindy does a really creative job of teaching about the science and folklore of the lights in a beautifully illustrated alphabet book format.

We learned quite a bit about how native people around the Arctic Circle have incorporated this amazing natural phenomenon into their cultural folklore.


Reading about the northern lights in the northern lights nook!

My students were surprised to learn that the lights occur at both the North Pole and the South Pole!  In my earlier post I mentioned that they occur on other planets as well.  We talked about why the northern lights are so popular to see and photograph…more people live in the north on our planet to see them!  Next, we turned our attention to bringing the lights to our classroom, since Texas is very far away from the Arctic, indeed.

I am always looking for ways to make my lessons easy to share with my students and fellow teachers, but also a way to save them digitally, conserving paper.  Snapguide.com is a free web-based app that many home cooks and hobbyists use to share their creations with others in a global way.  I created my Snapguide below for our “northern lights in a bowl” project, and now it is available for anyone to use at home or in the classroom either in a whole group format or an independent learning station.

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I gathered our materials and simply used my phone to snap photos of each step in the process.  I then added text, and with very little effort, created my snapguide.  The image below shows what the guide looks like as it’s created, its steps rearranged, and prepared for publishing it live in the Snapguide library.

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We used milk with different types of fat content, with water as a control, to see the effect of food coloring and dish soap in the bowl.  The results were stunning!  How does it work?  The fat molecules and the food coloring create a surface tension that is broken by the addition of soap.  The currents of color create a visual masterpiece for just a few seconds.  Steve Spangler Science online does a fantastic job of explaining the process and the science behind it.  Click on the video below to watch my class investigate the magic:

We created a permanent northern lights display by recreating the experiment using glue instead of milk. When we broke the surface tension with the soap we had the same magical effect!

We let the glue and food coloring concoctions dry for a week, pulled off the bowls, and we had our very own northern lights suncatchers.


Pour the mixture in a thin layer so the water will evaporate quickly and dry your art.

Poke a hole at the top, pull a ribbon through, and hang them up in a window to see the colors catch the sun’s light.  This weeklong scientific demonstration was not for the faint of heart, but it was great fun, and we learned a lot in the process.

Want to give it a try?  Find my Snapguide online and follow my steps to create your own visual science masterpieces.

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The Northern Lights in a Bowl Lesson Plan

KWL Chart

Scientific Method Form

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Our Parrot mini-drones have arrived!  In November we will celebrate STEM day at Eanes Elementary school and use our engineering skills to test drive drones for our pretend Iditarod trail.  We will create different Iditarod courses, complete with blizzards, mountains, and the northern lights.  Finally, our students will use coding skills on a tablet to fly them safely to Nome.

Stay tuned!

Join us!

The Iditarod Winter Teacher Conference is March 1st – 4th!

Are you interested in taking on the challenge of being the next Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™?  The deadline for applications is December 1st!  See the links above for information.

Follow me!  Click the “follow” button on the right to receive the Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™ posts all year.

Parky Symmetry


Creating a symmetrical Alaskan parky in math class


The 2016 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™ with Matt Failor and his gear before the 2015 race.

What is a parky?  A parky is quite simply,  the northern term for a parka.   In the Aleutian Islands the word simply means “animal skin”.  They are longer coats with a hood, usually lined with fur.  Most are decorated with lovely fabrics and decorative trim.  I remember seeing many parkys in the winter in Alaska, and wanting to know more about how these beautiful, and warm, traditional coats were made.

In Alaska, one name resonates with traditional parky making, and by chance, it is very familiar!  Laura Wright (no relation) was a famous native parky maker, and her shop is still on 4th Avenue in downtown Anchorage.  Many people, including the famous Iditarod photographer Jeff Schultz, have smiled and asked me about the possible connection.  Perhaps one day I can have my own parky made there!

The last few years, I have been so fortunate to come to Alaska and attend two amazing Iditarod Educator Winter Conferences, and one Iditarod Summer Camp for Teachers, joined by dynamic educators from all over the country.  These opportunities have inspired me to have such tremendous respect not only for the mushers, but for the work and organization behind the scenes that help build it and make it happen, year after year.

I fondly remember being a finalist for the Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™ and traveling with the other conference attendees to Matt Failor’s home and kennel before the race start.  He was gracious, funny, personable and spent a great deal of time explaining his trail gear and sharing trail stories with us all.  Most mushers wear modern, synthetic parkas today.

He generously allowed us all to try on his official Iditarod parka or parky and gloves, or mitts, and it was great fun.  It enveloped me and my 5 foot tall frame!  I asked Matt about his oversized otter skin gloves and why they were attached with a long, braided cord.  His reply?  “Do you want to lose your mitts on the trail in a blizzard?”  Point taken, Matt!

Martha Dobson, the 2011 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™, gave me some fascinating information about how mittens, or mitts, are worn in the race.  She said, “Most mushers call them mitts.  The cord runs through the parky sleeves, each mitt hanging out from the wrist of the sleeves.  When the musher takes the mitts off, he/she flips the mitts on the cord behind his/her back so that the cord twists, holding the mitts in place behind him/her, hanging at waist level, out of the way until they are put back on.”

I was fascinated by it all, and I came away wondering how I could share this with my wonderful 4th grade students in the coming year: with a math lesson, of course!

I called up my stepbrother Richard, a fellow Texan and graphic designer, and asked him for help.  He graciously agreed and created a traditional parky image to not only use in my classroom but to share out with teachers all over!  The parky he created is symmetrical, perfect for a math lesson.

Symmetrical Parka

IMG_0915 Symmetrical Parka

It is my passion to have art integrated in all areas of the curriculum, and this lesson also brings together math standards, a good book, and a little science too!  This lesson has several steps involved to make it to the finished product.  I first spent some time talking to my students about the northern lights.  I wanted a watercolor aurora borealis background for our parkys, so we researched all about them.  I had fun sharing with my students about the nightly aurora borealis forecasts I found in the Anchorage Visitor Information Center.  This is very different from Texas weather!

In science class we are researching magnetism and energy, and this planetary phenomenon is the perfect example of both.  My students were amazed to learn that the lights occur on other planets as well as Earth!

We used 8 X 10 watercolor paper for our backgrounds, wet the paper, and painted the colors of the lights, including the famous eerie green that is so prevalent in this special Arctic light show.  We added the adjective “eerie” to our student dictionaries for future reference.

In our Reader’s Workshop we have been integrating our social studies standards with language arts.  In 4th grade in Texas, we begin to study Native Americans not only from our state but from all over North America.  We are currently reading the novel Naya Nuki: Shoshoni Girl Who Ran by Kenneth Thomasma, a piece of historical fiction about a little Shoshoni girl running away to find freedom.  She uses her knowledge of traditional ways to survive in the wilderness.  In the novel we have been learning more about the clothing of traditional native people: a perfect fit with this lesson in math.


Terrie Hanke wrote a post during the 2015 Iditarod with wonderful pictures of the Inupiaq parkys from the community of Unalakleet.  I found this post to be a great resource for this lesson.

I did reduce the size of the original image to fit on top of our 8 X 10 watercolors, but a teacher can keep it full-size for a bulletin board decoration.  We folded the parkys in half and held them up to the light to see the line of symmetry and check the congruent sides.  Then, we decorated them and set them aside for our next step.

We talked about the mukluks and mitts for our pictures.  “What is a mukluk?” my students wanted to know!  We love our cowboy boots in Texas, but my students had never seen anything like these!  Since we have been learning about our Native Americans of Texas and their clothing, it was the perfect time to compare and contrast with traditional Arctic native clothing.  I read two simple picture books to my class to help with this lesson, Mama, Do You Love Me? by Barbara M. Joose and Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith.  For primary grades, these lovely pictures books are a great way to see clothing differences between traditional dress of Alaska Native Cultures and Native Americans from the southwest.

I had the privilege of watching native dancers at the Alaskan Native Heritage Center this summer in Anchorage.  I was inspired watching these young people celebrate their culture and share it with us.  I was struck by their clothing, movement, and passion.

As a person of Cherokee descent, I felt connected to the rhythmic drumming, and I thought about how I could connect this in my classroom to our native heritage in Texas.  Below is a small portion of some of the wonderful dancing we observed at the ANHC:

This week I took my class to the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum to celebrate American Indian Heritage Day.  It was an outstanding spectacle of dancing and drumming from native people representing tribes from Texas and Oklahoma.  I could not help but compare and contrast what I had experienced here and at the ANHC this summer:

Of course the weather, animals, and geography were factors in how Alaska Native Cultures and Native American tribes lived, and hunted, and clothed themselves.  Traditional dress of people such as the Caddo of Texas included moccasins instead of fur skin boots.  Why?  They hunted buffalo, instead of reindeer and seal, and in the Texas heat warm, waterproof, fur lined boots were unnecessary!   They certainly didn’t need fur mitts!  My class brainstormed and discussed why, and we researched designs and patterns to create our own using our math skills.

How else does this relate to the Iditarod?  I shared a video with my class of the musher banquet in Anchorage two years ago when I came to the 2014 Iditarod Winter Conference for Educators with a group of teachers from Eanes Elementary.  On the stage every musher pulled their starting order number from a traditional mukluk.  I put together a little movie of a few mushers we were following and rooting for in 2014, and my students loved the fact that the mukluk was used in this special way.

We created symmetrical mitts and mukluks by folding our paper and creating congruent sides.  I have a very artistic and gifted class this year, so everyone put a great deal of pride and effort into their creations.  I decided to cut out the face of the image and put fun photographs of each student, but these can be drawn on instead.  When we finished, we had another wonderful art project for our classroom art gallery, and we learned a little bit more about the ways of native people from the past and present.  Bringing that all together with math and science skills made it a very special lesson for my students.  Click the links below for the lesson plan and graphic:

Parky Symmetry Lesson Plan

Symmetrical Parka

The 2016 Iditarod Class – Ready for the Trail!

Do you want see more lessons from the Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™?  Check out the Iditarod Education Portal on the Iditarod site.  There you can navigate lessons from all areas of curriculum and across grade levels.  This is a great resource for any teacher!

Are you interested in coming to Alaska for the 2016 Winter Conference for Educators?  Find information and resources on the Iditarod site about this wonderful event in March!

I hope to see you all there!