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!

Jr. Insider Crew

“We are so often caught up in our destination that we forget to appreciate the journey, especially the goodness of the people we meet on the way. Appreciation is a wonderful feeling, don't overlook it.”  - Unknown

“We are so often caught up in our destination that we forget to appreciate the journey, especially the goodness of the people we meet on the way. Appreciation is a wonderful feeling, don’t overlook it.” – Unknown

If you do not have an Iditarod Insider subscription yet, now is the time for you to subscribe. You and your class will have the opportunity to view videos, follow mushers through GPS tracking, watch live broadcasts, and view the live finish in Nome. Having an Insider subscription is not required for this lesson, but it will allow students to access an extensive amount of information. During the race my class will be taking on the role of the Jr. Insider Crew. This lesson keeps students involved in the race while producing quality writing, videos, and social media posts.

The Jr. Insider lesson will be continuous throughout the race. There are seven jobs for our Jr. Insider Crew to complete. Each day the groups will rotate to a new job. Every day we will begin by watching the featured video clip of the day on the Iditarod website. Each group will then be assigned their Jr. Insider job for the day which include; Blogger, Twitter, Video, Leaderboard, and Temperature. The students will then explore the website for updates on the race. In their groups they will be able to view video clips, check out the live GPS trackers, analyze the leaderboard, and read the various blogs on different race topics.

The Bloggers will be posting a blog updating our audience on the race. They will focus on the previous day’s news updates. They have the option of writing a story about a musher, a checkpoint, the leaders, the red lantern musher, or any topic they feel is newsworthy. Kidblog is a safe and easy blog site for your students to use in class. An excellent feature of this blog is that the teacher must approve the blog before it can actually go live.

If you don’t have access to any blog sites, create a homemade blog wall outside your classroom. Students can handwrite their blogs and post them to your “wall.” You could keep Post-it notes nearby for other students or teachers to comment on their posts.

The Twitter group will be posting live race updates in the form of tweets. The group must share at least six tweets using #iditarod15. They are able to post updates on the leaders and any important race news. If you are unable to use Twitter in your district, create a Twitter “wall” in your classroom. Make a wall in your classroom replicate that of a Twitter wall. Students can post their handwritten tweets to the “wall.”

There will be three groups creating video clips. One group will create a short video clip on the leaders of the race. Another group will create a video clip on the current checkpoint the leaders are going through. The third group will create a video clip on the mushers near the back of the standings. My students will edit their videos using WeVideo. In their video clips they will need to provide race information to our audience. An enhancement for your video clips could be to shoot your video in front of a “green screen” and edit the video to make it appear the students are actually reporting from the Iditarod trail.

The Leaderboard group is in charge of updating the leaderboard. They will need to update the place each musher is in, the checkpoint they have most recently checked through, and the number of dogs each musher is running. You can have your students create a leaderboard using Google Drive and then share the link to Twitter. Another option is to create a large leaderboard poster to hang in the classroom.

The Temperature group will be finding temperatures for different places along the trail. One location students will find is temperatures for the nearest checkpoint to the leader. Students will also find the temperature for the nearest checkpoint to the Red Lantern musher. Finally, they will find the temperature for the nearest checkpoint to our class musher, Cindy Abbott. The students will provide both Fahrenheit and Celsius for their temperatures. An option is to also include your hometown’s temperature to discuss the difference in temperatures.

This lesson is another way to keep your students engaged in the race while still working on their reading, writing, speaking, and technology skills. Even if you don’t have access to some of the social media from this lesson, there are different options for you to still complete this activity. Again, I highly recommend subscribing to Iditarod Insider. It will enhance this lesson as well as provide you with quality race coverage.

Jr. Insider Lesson Plan

Jr. Insider Activity Worksheet

“Jamaica, We Have a Dogsled Team!”

"It all has to do with the individual journey." - Ziggy Marley

“It all has to do with the individual journey.” – Ziggy Marley

The Iditarod has an impressive historic value that it brings to the state of Alaska. Not only does it have historic value, but it also shares rich culture among all the countries that participate in the race each year. Including the United States, there are 8 countries represented in this year’s Iditarod. One country not represented this year that has been represented in the past is Jamaica. Most people probably think this is strange due to the differences in climate, but to Jamaica, they are adding to their own culture and bringing their unique culture to Alaska.

My class just finished studying the Caribbean Islands, another great opportunity to tie in the Iditarod. This common core aligned lesson gives students the opportunity to determine how culture in Jamaica and Alaska are affected by having a Jamaican dogsled team. We started the lesson by reviewing the components of culture; language, religion, music, sports, etc. The focus for our lesson on culture is sports, so we listed the sports that the students know are a part of Jamaica. Two sports were missing from our list; bobsledding and dogsledding. The kids’ response was obvious; the climate is not fit for this type of sport. After discussing this, the students read an article and watched a video clip about Jamaica’s first bobsled team. After discussing what the students read and saw on the video, they were assigned a writing assignment to defend how they feel the first bobsled team affected the culture of Jamaica.

We discussed the writings the next day and the students were put into groups for the next part of the lesson. In their groups students read about Newton Marshall, the Jamaican musher. The next task involves the students displaying the information they learned about Newton. The groups will create an interactive image using a free web tool called Thinglink. Using Thinglink students are able to choose an image to represent a specific topic, Newton Marshall. They are then able to add additional images, videos, sounds, and web links to the image in the form of an icon on the image, making the main image interactive. Remember when using images from the Internet to remind your students of copyright infringement. An easy way to make sure your students are using free images is to use Google Images. There is a tab titled Search Tools, click this, then click on Usage Rights. This will allow you to choose labeled for reuse. Now you can use images and not break any copyright infringement laws.

When the groups are finished with their Thinglink, they will share their interactive image with me and with one other group in the class.  Thinglink allows students to share their image with a variety of social media sites, but  they can also just share the link with their teacher. Each group will view another group’s Thinklink about Newton Marshall. After viewing an image, the students will complete another writing about culture. Check out the student example below.

If your class does not have access to computers to work on Thinglink, think about creating an interactive image by hand. Students can draw a picture that represents Newton Marshall. Where an icon would be on Thinglink taking the audience to an image or video, have students create a flip book. When a viewer flips up a piece of construction paper, another drawing is presented. If you have students that work faster than others, have them create an additional Thinglink on the first Jamaican bobsled team.

Since my class just finished studying the Caribbean Islands, it was a perfect fit. However, it is not necessary to study the Caribbean Islands to complete this activity with your class. The students in my class loved the connection between the Iditarod and Jamaica as well as working with a new web tool. As the Iditarod nears, consider looking into the other countries that are involved in The Last Great Race.

Jamaica Lesson Plan

Cool Runnings Reading

Jamaica Culture Writing Part 1

Newton Marshall Reading

Newton Marshall Thinglink

Jamaica Culture Writing Part 2

Making Inferences with Quotes and Photos

“Memories are but a journey we take in our minds, but relive in our hearts.” - A. Grant

“Memories are but a journey we take in our minds, but relive in our hearts.” – A. Grant

This week’s Iditarod Trivia Tuesday posed questions about Jeff Schultz, official photographer of the Iditarod. Continuing with the theme of photography, this lesson will focus on interpreting quotes and inferring their meaning while using photography. To begin this Common Core aligned lesson you will have your students brainstorm quotes they remember or often quote from movies. After compiling a list of quotes, have your students make note of the quotes that they feel have a bigger meaning.

There are many famous quotes that can be interpreted many different ways. In fact, we can interpret quotes to fit our own life experiences, or even Iditarod experiences. The next step in this lesson is for your students to discover a quote that represents an Iditarod picture. Choose a picture ahead of time from Jeff Schultz’s 2014 Iditarod photo album to display on your board. Note: Due to copyright laws you cannot reproduce these images. In small groups, students will search for a quote on Brainy Quote that represents the  image. Once students find their quote they will complete the Making Inferences with Quotes and Photos Worksheet analyzing the quote they chose. The worksheet challenges students to infer the meaning of the quote by asking a series of questions. Does the quote remind you of something? How can you apply these words to your own life? How does this quote relate to the Iditarod? After sharing the quotes with the class, your class will have a list of quotes that represent Jeff Schultz’s image.

To culminate this lesson students will have the opportunity to snap their own photos. Allow your students a couple of days to find the perfect images.  Your students will be required to snap eight pictures, each picture representing a different letter of the word IDITAROD. Finally, using the web tool, Livebooklet, your students will create a flipbook of their images including a quote for each image. Your students should be able to defend their decision of each quote they chose. The final product will be shared with the teacher via email and can also be shared through social media.

If your students don’t have access to cameras, allow them to do a drawing of their picture. Encourage your students to be creative while shooting pictures. Maybe take a selfie with the item/place of the picture they are taking. Possibly have your outstanding photographers print their images out and display them in the library. Think about hosting a Photo Exhibit with all of the pictures and quotes that represent IDITAROD.

Click here to see an example IDITAROD flipbook.

Making Inferences with Quotes and Photos Lesson Plan

Making Inferences with Quotes and Photos Worksheet

IDITAROD Photography Instructions


Teaching “Theme” with Hobo Jim

“Without music, life is a journey through a dessert.” - Pat Conroy

“Without music, life is a journey through a dessert.” – Pat Conroy

Hobo Jim

Hobo Jim

No matter what age, grade, or skill level, analyzing the theme of a story or book is a difficult task. It requires students to make an inference. This higher order thinking skill can be quite challenging. A fellow teacher of mine noticed her Literacy students were having trouble grasping theme. She turned to something almost all kids enjoy, music. She determined that using T.V. show theme songs could help them master this skill. As we talked about this, my mind turned to the Iditarod. Could this be done using an Iditarod themed song? Well, of course, and the song would be I Did the Iditarod Trail by Hobo Jim.

This Common Core aligned lesson can be used with any grade level. To grab her student’s attention she played the theme song to the T.V. show Friends. It was pretty easy for the students to pick up on the theme of this song, friendship. However, when you look at the beginning of the lyrics with no music, it appears quite depressing. Adding the music, the tone of the singer, and the chorus, we can easily determine this song is about friendship.

Before actually listening to Hobo Jim’s song, students complete a close reading using the lyrics of the song. This concept is for the students to analyze the lyrics and identify the words and/or phrases that support the theme of the song. Students will use the Song Lyrics Analysis Worksheet during the close read. While analyzing the lyrics they will discuss the mood of the song and how it makes them feel. This will help determine the theme. What do you think this song is saying about life? Is there something to be learned? Or, is the writer of the song trying to teach you something? After determining what they feel the theme is, the students must defend their choice by highlighting the evidence in the song. Any words or phrases that support their choice should be highlighted. After a class discussion it’s finally time to listen to the song.

The next part of the lesson is individual practice for the students. Have your students choose a book they are currently reading or have recently finished. Students will determine the theme of their book and choose a song they feel could be the “theme song” for this book. To defend their choice, students must highlight the evidence in the lyrics of the song.

If your students are really creative, they can actually write their own theme song (parody). Have your students choose a song  whose music they like and rewrite the lyrics of the song. Your students can then use GarageBand or Audiotool to put the lyrics to the music.

To extend this lesson, make it cross curricular. Have your physical education class do a square dance routine listening to the song. Diane Johnson, Iditarod Education Director and 2000 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™, asked her P.E. teacher to devise square dance steps for I Did the Iditarod Trail and the students performed the dance. View the steps here. Involve the music class by having your students learn the song and perform it for an upcoming concert. Social studies students could map out the places Hobo Jim has performed. Math students might analyze the measurement of time in the song. Using the song, science students learn about the effects music has on the growth of plants.

Music is an excellent subject to incorporate into your lessons. Just chatting with my friend about the difficulty of understanding theme of a story, many lesson ideas incorporating music evolved. I love music, so incorporating it into my classroom is no problem. I hope you take the opportunity to bring the idea of song, especially Hobo Jim’s I Did the Iditarod Trail, into your classroom.

Teaching Theme with Music Lesson Plan

Song Lyrics Analysis Worksheet

Iditarod Square Dance Steps

Click here to learn more about Hobo Jim and purchase a CD.

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