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. 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!

Benny’s Flag


Benny Benson’s original submission for the Alaska flag design competition. ASL-MS14-1, American Legion, Designs by School Children for Alaska’s Flag, Alaska State Library-Historical Collections. Photo courtesy Alaska State Library-Photo Collection


The Lone Star Flag of Texas

In Texas, we love our symbols.  The famous “Lone Star” is a symbol that is easily recognizable by just about anyone, young and old.  In our state social studies standards in fourth grade, we dig a little deeper into the symbolism and start to really understand our history and what those symbols we see and know so well really mean to us as Texans.  I am sure every teacher in elementary schools across the United States do the same thing.  We try and bring history alive for our students and help them appreciate the sacrifices that so many have made in the past for us today.

Six flags have flown over Texas: Spain, France, Mexico, The Republic of Texas, The United States of America, and The Confederate States of America.  The lone star on the flag was created after the hard-fought independence from Mexico.  It represents pride and independence.  I think those traits apply to any state, and certainly the people of Alaska.

Our State Symbols

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I spent some time with my class this week investigating the wonderful history of symbolism of each state and comparing it to our own.  I can’t find a larger and more interesting contrast than comparing the great state of Alaska to that of the Lone Star State.  I use the straightforward and simple website State Symbols USA as an easy and fascinating guide into learning and understanding various state symbols.

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Screenshot courtesy of State Symbols USA

The site is easy to navigate, and my students were fascinated by the unique features and symbols that each state holds dear.  Did you know that the official snack of Texas is chips and salsa?  Did you know the official Texas flying mammal is the bat?  Did you know that the official Alaska state sport is dog mushing?  My students giggled and yelled out, “Of course it is!”  What I appreciate about the site is the interesting information students can read and research when they simply click on the state name or symbol title.  This is fantastic for state research reports and a great way to learn about basic, but sometimes quirky, official symbols and icons of your state.  The bat, of course, is the only flying mammal in the world!

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Screenshot courtesy of State Symbols USA

The website also has a place for students to submit stories and information about their particular state.  I really enjoyed meeting my state standards in such a fun, innovative, and easy format.  My students learned some interesting facts about Alaska during their tour of the website, and it was simple to navigate and fun to use.

Benny’s Flag

We took some time on the website to look at all of the state flags in our nation.  They are as varied and unique as the states themselves, but my students could not quite understand the meaning and importance of the flag of Alaska.  Why was it blue? IMG_0796What do the stars represent?  So, one morning, I pulled them to my carpet for Reader’s Workshop, and I read the lovely picture book Benny’s Flag, written by Phyllis Krasilovsky and illustrated by Jim Fowler.

As I read the story, my students were captivated by the haunting illustrations that brought the simple text to life.  The author did a very thoughtful job of sharing the positive attitude and outlook of Benny Benson to the reader.

Benny was a young Aleut boy with a tragic past.  He was born in the remote Alaskan fishing village of Chignik, and due to heartbreaking circumstances, was raised in an orphanage during most of his childhood.  It was his positive outlook and spirit that really inspired my students.


Benny Benson holding the Alaska flag at the Jesse Lee Home, Seward, Alaska. ASL-P01-1921, Alaska State Library-Historical Collections. Photo courtesy MS14-1-1 Alaska State Library.

Before 1927, Alaska did not have a flag of its own.  Since 1867, when the United States purchased Alaska from Russia, Alaska had only flown the United States flag.  In 1926, territorial Governor George Parks decided to create a contest for children to design a special flag for the territory.  This flag would one day become the state flag and be a symbol for so many.

Benny dreamed of one day becoming a humble, Alaska fisherman, and his dreams helped inspire his design for the flag of Alaska we know today.  In May of 1927, Benny’s flag captivated the judging panel and was adopted as the official territorial flag.  What an honor and an uplifting experience for such a young person.  My students were captivated by this!  I must admit, I was tearful and deeply moved finishing the book, something my students become used to year to year!

Benny’s Flag left us wanting to know more.  So, I turned to the Alaska Historical Society which had a great deal of information and some photographs of Benny from this time period.  I reached out to the library in Juneau, and they graciously agreed to allow me to share these special photographs from the collection in this post.

I especially love what Benny wrote on his actual submission,

”The blue field is for the Alaska sky and the forget-me-not, an Alaska flower. The North Star is for the future of the state of Alaska, the most northerly in the Union. The dipper is for the Great Bear – symbolizing strength.”

Referring back to our time spent investigating the state symbols on the State Symbols USA site, it all made sense to my students now!  We talked about what an amazing opportunity it must have been to be a child and design a flag that would be admired by so many.  “Let’s design our own flags!” Lucas said.  We all agreed to jump into our fun project, and I asked my class if we should try and create our own version of the Alaska state flag. “No!  That would be disrespectful to Benny!”  So, a change of plans were in order!  We decided to create our own flags.

Fraction and Decimal Flags

In math class this week we spent some time reviewing fractions and decimals, so we decided to create mathematical flags using 100’s grid charts.  These would not be an Alaska flag (Benny would not approve), but a fanciful flag created for an unknown state or country from our imaginations.  First, we did some research about flags by studying international maritime flags and their meanings.  Nautical flags are geometric in nature and perfect for a mathematical design.  We referred back to our study of the state flags online, but for this math activity, we had to create a geometric square flag and then convert the colors into fractions and decimals.  The Fraction Flag online game allowed us, whole group, to review fractions and helped inspire our color choices and design for our independent work.


When we finished our designs, the students filled in a fraction/decimal sheet taking their numbers to the hundredths place for decimals.  Since we are learning about decimals to the thousandths place, we decided to create a special class flag from a 1,000’s grid.  We did the math, and I needed 10 of the 100’s grid charts to make 1,000 little squares.  I cut and taped together 10 charts, and we were ready to create!

Math Flag Challenge

When we finished, we created a chart for our fractions and decimals, and helped each other count the 1,000 colored squares on our flag!


Integrating art, history, and technology into my teaching takes learning to a deeper level for my students, and this lesson certainly had it all.  We learned a lot about Texas and Alaska, and we created something meaningful together.  Do you want to take on this math challenge?  Follow the lesson plan below:

Benny’s Flag

Fraction and Decimal worksheet

100’s grid chart


Our 1,000’s grid flag data!

And So It Begins…


Google Earth cameras

Google Earth cameras

At 10:00 a.m., Rob Cooke pulled his hook at the starting the line and the 2015 Iditarod was officially underway. Every 2-minutes mushers and their dogs began their long journey to Nome. The last team to leave Fairbanks was an unofficial team. Dean Osmar, 1984 Iditarod champion, is escorting a Google Earth representative along part of the trail. The Google Earth rep will drive a tag sled behind Dean along the trail.

Bright and early this morning mushers began pulling their dog trucks and filling the dog lot. Mushers began prepping their teams for the long journey across Alaska. Checking and double checking sleds to make sure everything is in place. Every musher and every dog does their own thing while they are waiting for their starting time. Some mushers just relax, sit and wait. Others spend time loving on their dogs. I even saw one musher, Matthew Failor, brushing his teeth. There are dogs that spend time relaxing in the truck or relaxing outside. Some dogs are taking last-minute naps before heading down the trail. Most dogs are energetically screaming, howling, and jumping up and down trying to pull the sled from the truck.

Alan Stevens leaving Fairbanks

Alan Stevens leaving Fairbanks

As their starting time neared, teams started hooking up and were directed to the chute. The announcer was introducing the mushers and giving a countdown; 1-minute, 30-seconds, 10 seconds, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, Go! Off they went to Nenana. Nenana is the first checkpoint on the trail, a 60-mile run, and about a 5-7 hour run. Nenana is an unusual checkpoint for the Iditarod. There are no checkpoints on the road system on the original trail. Due to lack of snow and poor trail conditions, the trail was moved to start in Fairbanks for the second time in 43 years. Since Nenana is on the road system, drop bags weren’t sent here. Instead, handlers were able to drive out and deliver supplies to the mushers. Another effect of being on the road system was more family and friends of the mushers made the trip to cheer them on.

Martin Buser was the first musher to arrive in Nenana at 3:03 p.m. He parked for about 20 minutes. Teams continued to arrive through the late evening. Some teams went through the checkpoint because they camped out or took long breaks along the way. Other teams took their break at the checkpoint. When teams started arriving in Nenana they reported to the checker and recorded their time in. Teams were then led to a spot to park their teams. Now began the process of doing their chores. Straw was put down for the dogs, booties were taken off, food was cooked for the dogs, and the vets made their rounds.

Dee Dee Jonrowe's dogs sleeping

Dee Dee Jonrowe’s dogs sleeping

Inside the checkpoint mushers found spots to dry their clothes and boots next to a warm and toasty fire. They also worked their way to the food table. A delicious spread of spaghetti, soup, hot dogs, fresh salads, chips, and drinks were available to mushers and volunteers. Along the walls of the community center were benches covered with a carpet material. After doing their chores and eating a warm meal, most mushers took advantage of a the benches and took a nap. About an hour or so before they plan to leave they will wake and head back outside to do more chores before they leave. They will need to put their cold weather gear back on, put booties on the dogs, and hook their dogs up. Oh yeah, most will be doing this in the dark with their headlamps.

Next checkpoint for the mushers is Manly Hot Springs.

Summing it All Up

We summed up our year of Iditarod fun the same way we started it… with the Quilt.  If you remember, our class hosted one of the Iditarod Travelling Quits.  You can read that original post here:  LINK

To summarize our experiences, we decided to create our own quilt square to be added to a new Iditarod Travelling Quilt.  First, each boy designed his own square. They included symbols, words, and pictures that showed what they thought the “message” behind the race is.  We also talked about the idea that our final quilt square would need to give information about where the square came from.

After we assembled our quilt, we spent some time looking at it and looking for similarities between the squares.  We figured if something appeared on many squares that must mean it’s important to us and should probably appear on our final square.

We came up with a game plan of what we wanted our final square to be.  We decided to divide it into two sections – one for Alaska and one for Maryland.  Each side features a map of the state colored like the state’s flag and is surrounded by symbols of things that the state is known.  For Maryland there is afootball to represent the Ravens, a baseball for the Orioles, a lacrosse stick to show our state team sport, and a steamed crab.  The Alaska side shows a gold pan, mail for the mail trail, a dog, and cross country skies.  Then there is a dog sled running the Iditarod across the bottom and horses running the Preakness across the top.  The center features the quote that the boy think best represents the race:  “Dream. Try. Win.” ~ John Baker.

The boys are excited to see their final design featured in a new quilt next year.  To get your class involved in the Travelling Iditarod Quilt Project, check out this site: LINK and contact Diane Johnson at djohnson@

Scaling Up the Trail

Several years ago, we realized that we were never getting to the Geometry Unit that inevitably occurred at the end of the math book and therefore at the end of the school year. We decided to break up the unit into pieces and teach it periodically throughout the year. Inspired by the book Mathematical Art-O- Facts: Activities to Introduce, Reinforce, or Assess Geometry & Measurement Skills by Catherine Johns Kuhns, we decided to accomplish this by using art to create monthly geometry projects. This allowed us to teach the geometry skills throughout the year in a hands-on way that require the students to use the new geometry skills immediately to create something.

When I returned to my school from my Alaskan adventure, the boys were returning from Spring Break and the time was prime for a hands-on Iditarod related geometry project. We spent a week enlarging Jon Van Zyle’s print A Nod to the Past to six times the original size! We had a wonderful discussion about the piece of art, the feelings it evoked, and the Iditarod memorabilia it featured. We worked as a full class to compete the project. While each boy was responsible for completing one square of the enlargement, the nature of the project was such that they naturally checked in with each other to see if their measurements were matching up. There were wonderful discussions and coaching between boys about how they were solving the problems. When it came time to color their masterpiece, leaders naturally rose to the top as they discussed shading and combining colors to achieve the desired results. It was nice to see the artistic boys have a chance to be the leaders. The finished product in the hallway is a show stopper and visitors often stop by to admire it and ask questions! Attached is a lesson plan to explain how we completed the project.

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Scaling Up the Trail Lesson Plan

Recycled Dogs

I once joked with a coworker that I could turn anything into an Iditarod related lesson, and today I found another example!

I had a chance to visit the Anchorage Museum, which is one of my favorite museums.  They have an amazing exhibit on the history of Alaska, a fantastic kids area, and the beautiful Smithsonian Arctic Studies gallery of Native Alaskan culture and artifacts.  They also have an area where they host changing exhibits.

This year, the changing exhibit is called Gyre:  The Plastic Ocean.  A gyre is a swirling vortex in the ocean.  There are gyres in each ocean.  The gyres are massive, slow moving, whirlpools that sweep garbage into them.  Discarded items can be pulled into gyres where they slowly are pulled in the whirlpool and are pushed towards the center where they form floating garbage piles in the ocean.  You can learn more about gyres here:

This is, of course, a problem for marine life who often misinterpret the waste as food or are caught up in the plastics especially.

The Gyre expedition and exhibition is the result of a team of scientists and artists who explored the coastlines of Alaska and collected plastics most likely deposited from the North Pacific Gyre.  The exhibit was a sobering reminder of what we are doing to our planet.

The artists who were included in the exhibit took different approaches to the project.  Some displayed found objects as they were, which was sobering.  Some made juxtapositions between the ugly trash and the beauty of the environment in which they were found.  And still others used the found materials to make something new.  Like this dog sled and team!

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Wouldn’t this make a neat art project?  Could you and your class create a life sized dog team from recycled materials?  And there’s a perfect tie in between plastics in our oceans and the Iditarod!