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!

Finding Percentages with Cindy Abbott’s Budget



The 2015 Iditarod champion will win $70,000 and a brand new Dodge pickup truck. The amount of money mushers will spend on training, dogs, food, entry fees, supplies, or anything associated with sled dog racing easily surpasses that amount. It’s apparent that dog mushers don’t get into the sport for money. These athletes are in the sport for the love of the dogs and to preserve dog mushing.

Cindy Abbott shared her 2014-15 winter season budget with my class. The basic budget she shared with us is for supplies and expenses just for the races she has planned for the season and is not even half of the money she will spend on her dream of crossing under the burled arch in Nome. Cindy’s basic supply budget is over $35,000.

This budget is a perfect opportunity for students to work on figuring percentages. Students will begin the lesson by making an inference about how much money Cindy will spend this racing season. I imagine your students’ jaws will hit the floor when you give them the actual number. $35,000 is such a large number. Have your students make a list of supplies they think would be included in Cindy’s list.  Start off by giving them a few examples: dog booties, gloves for her, sled, etc. Let your students now look at her supply list, minus the dollar amount. After closely examining Cindy’s list, have your students categorize these supplies into five groups. An example of a category would be travel expenses. Next, give your students a budget of $36,000. Their task is to divide the $36,000 into the five categories. The concept is to get as close to Cindy’s numbers as possible. Using these numbers, students will create a circle graph to display their information. We use Google Drive at my school, so this is the tool we will use. Another option is to use Microsoft Word.

Now share Cindy’s exact numbers with the students. Have your students allocate the correct amount of money to each category they created earlier. The students will create another circle graph from the actual numbers. Putting the graphs next to each other, students are able to see what they predicted compared to Cindy’s actual numbers. On the worksheet assigned to the students are some additional percentage questions based on Cindy’s budget.

This Common Core aligned lesson challenges students to determine their own categories and allocate funds to those categories. This lesson also involves a real world topic and questions. An option to add to this is to compare this budget with the average salary of a member of your community. Another option is to have your students create a spreadsheet with the budget and average salary.  Create a monthly allowance for your bills at home and bills for sled dog racing.

Finding Percentages Lesson Plan

Finding Percentages Worksheet

Cindy’s Supply List

Cindy’s Budget (including money)

Celsius vs. Fahrenheit

"To travel is to take a journey into yourself." - Danny Kaye

“To travel is to take a journey into yourself.” – Danny Kaye

Ken Anderson getting hot water from the cooker in Takotna.

Ken Anderson getting hot water from the cooker in Takotna.

Tomorrow will be a scorching 35° outside! How often have you heard a meteorologist utter these words? 35° can sound scorching if you’re from Norway or Sweden, but here in the United States it is actually quite chilly. 35° Celsius is approximately 95° Fahrenheit. The United States still measures temperature in Fahrenheit while many other countries are using Celsius. If your students completed this week’s Iditarod Trivia Tuesday, they found out there are 13 mushers from countries other than the United States signed up for the 2015 Iditarod. Converting temperatures is a quick and easy lesson aligned with the Common Core.

To grab your students’ attention right off the bat, reveal tomorrow’s temperature to them in Celsius. This can easily transition into a discussion about how the U.S. uses Fahrenheit while many other countries use Celsius.  This can lead directly to students discovering which countries the 13 mushers from out of the USA call home.

In this lesson students will identify Iditarod mushers that are not from the United States while making real world temperature conversions such as, boiling water, freezing water, body temperature, etc. Students will also develop a week-long weather forecast for their hometown and a village on the Iditarod trail. The weather forecast must be accurate according to the weather app the students choose. While developing the forecast they must also convert the Fahrenheit temperature to Celsius.

Gas stove heating water for all mushers in Skwentna.

Gas stove heating water for all mushers in Skwentna.

The sixth grade students at Camanche Middle School, where I teach, report the weather daily at the beginning of the day. I am going to challenge them to start reporting the temperature in Celsius. This will require reporters to convert the temperatures and encourage the listeners to convert the temperatures. Good luck converting temperatures.

Temperature Conversion Lesson Plan

Temperature Conversion Worksheet

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

As the Trail Turns

Meanwhile Back at School:

Rule Number 6 deals with timing on the race:

Rule 6 — Race Timing: For elapsed time purposes, the race will be a common start event. Each

musher’s total elapsed time will be calculated using 2:00 p.m., Sunday March 2, 2014, as the starting

time. Teams will leave the start and the re-start in intervals of not less than two minutes, and the time

differential will be adjusted during the twenty-four (24) hour mandatory layover. No time will be kept

at the Saturday event.

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And, a lot of the data generated by the race deals with time – time on the trail, time in the checkpoints, required resting times, starting times, differential times, and so on.

So we are all about time, military time, and elapsed time these days in math class.  We started the week by reviewing telling time.  We talked a lot about how accurate the checkers have to be in recording the in and out times of the mushers because every minute counts!  I gave each student a sticky note to keep on their desk and periodically throughout the day I rang a bell and yelled out things like “Monica Zappa just checked in to Unakaleet.  What time is it?”  “Ken Anderson is pulling out of Safety.  What time is it?”  “Dallas Seavey just arrived at Shaktoolik.  What time is it? He wants to stay ten minutes.  What time is he leaving?”  The students recorded the answers on their sticky notes and later in the day we checked their results.

Something you will need to teach your students about time in order for them analyze the timing information they find on the Iditarod paperwork is military time.  The time is reported on the official reports in military time to avoid confusion.  Here is an assignment you can use for converting military time to conventional time:  Time on the Trail CW

We also delve into calculating elapsed time, which traditionally is a challenge for some of my third graders.  Here is an assignment for calculating elapsed time:  Passing Time at the Checkpoints Classwork

To wrap everything up, I challenge the students to calculate their musher’s average time on the trail for the first seven legs of the race. This requires them to convert military time to standard time, calculate the elapsed time, and find the average.  We compare our results and discuss whether this information is helpful in predicating the outcome of the race.  After the first seven legs it is really tough to tell what is going to happen!  As the Trail Turns Lesson Plan

And finally, here is a homework assignment to review elapsed time.  Ken Anderson Homework

What’s an Average Leg?

2013-03-03 20.38.15-1Meanwhile Back at School:  This week we have been exploring mean, median, mode, and range.  This skill have been removed from the elementary curriculum by the Common Core, but for me, it’s still a great way to review the basic operations and it’s pretty essential to understand some of the data that comes out of the Iditarod.

So, this week we have been analyzing data galore.  We have calculated the mean, median, mode, and range of the overall winnings of some of the top mushers, ages of the mushers, and numbers of Iditarods they have run.

Attached you will find our culminating activity for this section of the unit. The students will determine what an “average” leg on the Iditarod is.  Half of the class will find the average leg of the Northern Route, half will find the average leg on the Southern Route, and then they will compare their findings.  They will then use this information to determine which route they would rather run on.  My students are usually spit on this decision, but their reasoning is always fascinating to hear!

What’s An Average Leg Lesson Plan