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!

Building Character

“Character is a journey, not a destination.” William J. Clinton


As young mushers evolve into seasoned veterans, they build a lot of character along the way.

barbToday our group made a visit to Iditarod Headquarters in Wasilla. While there, we were able to listen to Barbara Redington speak. Barb is the wife of Raymie Redington, son of Joe Redington, Sr. (“Father of the Iditarod”). Barb spoke to us about the Jr. Iditarod. Barb has the honor of being a board member of the Jr. Iditarod and has also run the race.

The Jr. Iditarod started in 1977. Four young men came up with the idea and spoke with Joe Redington, Sr. about it, and he loved the idea. Prior to the Jr., races for young mushers were mostly sprint races lasting 10-15 miles. These guys wanted a longer race. The Jr. Iditarod is a 175-mile trail that starts on the Knik Lake and heads out to Yentna Station. In Yentna, the halfway point, the mushers have a mandatory 10-hour stop. After their rest, they head back to Knik Lake to finish. Many of the same rules that are used in the Iditarod are used in the Jr. For instance, no outside help can be used.

Lynden, a family construction and logistics company, has sponsored the race for years. The Lynden family used to be sponsors of Susan Butcher when she was racing. They provide sponsorship in many ways from taking pictures at the race, being a M.C. at the banquet, to providing scholarships to the mushers. Last year $28,000 in scholarships were awarded. The winning mushers, Conway Seavey, came in first and won a $6000 scholarship. The rest are split amongst top finishers. The city of Wasilla also chips in money towards expenses for the race and prizes for the mushers. The race cost about $10,000-15,000. At the banquet the scholarships are awarded to top finishers. On top of that, all mushers receive some prizes. This past year $15,000-17,000 in prizes were past out. There were prizes from hamburgers to a beaver hat. Libby Riddles, first woman Iditarod winner, makes a hat each year for the first female Jr. finisher. The winner of the Jr. also receives 2 round trip tickets to Nome to the Iditarod finishers banquet to receive his/her award.

jrpicThe Jr. board is very proud of the scholarships awarded to the mushers. The scholarships cannot be exchanged for cash. The mushers must use them at any learning facility. This can be a college, vocational school, etc. One musher used the scholarship to get her pilot’s license. Barb stressed how important it is for these young kids to further their education. She is happy to be able to give these young kids this opportunity.

jrpatch1To run the Jr. Iditarod you must be between the ages of 14-17. This race does a great job of promoting punctuality among the young kids. When they get to the halfway point, they really have to manage their time well so they are able to leave when scheduled. Remember, they are not just taking care of themselves; they are taking care of 10 dogs. They also promote sportsmanship. This year the sportsmanship award was given to Kevin Harper. Kevin was in 3rd place when leaving Yentna. All of a sudden he realized there were 2 white dogs behind him. Kevin found out they were Jimmy Lanier’s dogs by looking at the tags. Kevin grabbed the dogs and did a 180 with his dog team and sled, which is tremendously difficult. He headed back towards Yentna looking for Jimmy. He found him. Turns out Jimmy’s swing dogs chewed the gangline and the lead dogs got loose. After Kevin returned the dogs, he did another 180 and headed back towards the finish. Kevin finished the race in 3rd place and was awarded the sportsmanship award for helping Jimmy out on the trail. This was such a selfless act. Knowing he was in 3rd place, competing against others, Kevin went out of his way to help a fellow competitor out. That is the great part about mushing. The integrity they have on the trail.

Many of these veterans can attest to the fact that a lot of character is built out on this 175 miles worth of trail.

Visit the Jr. Iditarod website.

The Jr. Iditarod also has a FaceBook page – Junior Iditarod

"You have 175 mile trail to complete, but you have a life of trail ahead of you." Barb Redington

“You have 175 mile of trails to complete, but you have a life of trails ahead of you.” Barb Redington

Charles’ Last Run

"It is good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters in the end."

“It is good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters in the end.”


What do mushers do with their sled dog when he/she retires? Just as they had the best life before their journey through the Iditarod, they have the best life still, but more relaxing. Our best bud here at Vern’s, Charles, retired as a sled dog on March 1, 2014.

CharlesCharles is a 10-year old Alaskan Husky. Charles was not born at the Dream a Dream Dog Farm. Vern acquired him from Jeff King. Charles has quite the sled dog resume. Charles has finished many sled dog races in the state of Alaska. What is most impressive is he has finished five Iditarod races.

Unbeknownst to Charles, this season would be his last. Charles took his last pre-race truck ride down to 4th street in Anchorage. He jumped up and down anxiously in his harness, in lead, under the starting line in Anchorage for the last time. He heard the announcer call, “5, 4, 3, 2, 1….GO,” for the last time. He charged out of the starting chute one final time. This one last run for Charles was the Ceremonial start of the 2014 Iditarod. He led Cindy Abbott, her “Iditarider”, and his best friend Vern, down 4th street around Cordova and out to the Campbell Airstrip. He was unharnessed and unhooked one last time. He took one final post-race truck ride to the kennel.

When Charles was taken out of the truck after they arrived at the kennel he was not hooked up. Instead Vern said, “You are free!” Free to roam the kennel. Free to sit on any kennel he wants. Free to sleep anywhere he wants. Free to be “King of the Kennel.” Charles just stood there. He didn’t know what to do. His journey through the Iditarod had come to an end. Nobody asked him. I think if Vern had given Charles a choice, he would continue to work as a sled dog for the rest of his life. That is how much he loves it, and how much all sled dogs love their job.

CharlesWatching Charles around the yard now that he is retired is awesome. He comes right up to us wanting love and attention. He sticks his paw out as to say, “Pet me. Love me.” So, what do we do? We pet him. We love him. He struts around that yard as if he owns the place. He sits up top of Aspen’s house like it is his. It is, of course, exactly where his house used to sit. Charles still thinks he is a working sled dog. He will forever be an extraordinary lead dog.

Charles is now a pet. Most sled dogs become musher pets when they retire. Some dogs will sell their retired dogs to select homes that will take extra good care of their special friends. All sled dogs will miss their job tremendously. But, just as humans enjoy their retirement, sled dogs will enjoy the relaxing and love and attention they receive with retirement.

Teacher turned Dog Handler


“Life is an interesting journey, you never know where it will take you.”

My journey today was quite interesting, however, it was awesome.  This morning Terrie Hanke, author of the Eye on the Trail blog for the Iditarod, and I went to breakfast before beginning our shopping list for camp.  When we got back to Vern’s Dream a Dream Dog Farm we started helping Linda prepare sandwiches for the 9:00 tour group, no big deal.  After making sandwiches it was time to turn our attention to that shopping list….or not.  After about a minute upstairs Linda shouted up the steps, “Terrie, Erin, get out here and help harness up the dog teams!”  We looked at each other and headed down.  My thought was how in the heck am I going to do this.  I have harnessed a dog before, once.  That was exactly one year ago when Vern taught us at summer camp.  I quickly asked Terrie, “how do I do this again?”  Terrie is a seasoned veteran at harnessing dogs as she has her own sled dogs back home in Wisconsin.  She reminded me and off we went.

"Aspen, put your leg through there."

"Aspen, first put your head through here."

So, Linda, Serene, Cindy Abbott, and Terrie and I harnessed and hooked up two 16 dog teams.  Ten minutes of noise and controlled chaos was followed by complete silence and peace.  After the two teams took off, I took a deep breath and looked around and said to myself, “Wow!”  Terrie and I proceeded to high-five after a job well done.

We attempted to start that shopping list again while we waited.  As soon as the teams arrived back at the kennel we headed back down to water the dogs.  After earning their water and a fish snack, it was time to unhook and unharness the teams and take them back to their kennel.  Not quite as crazy, but this time muddy and wet.  During the dog ride the dogs splash through a mud pit.

Remember that shopping list?  We finally got to it.

This day provided me with a thrilling adventure and a great deal of thought.  So many different journeys taking place.  Serene, Vern’s handler, to her this is just a normal day.  She is working for Vern during the summer handling sled dogs.  Linda, Vern’s employee, again, to her this is just another day setting up and taking down for a tour.  The dogs, this is their summer Iditarod training schedule.  Cindy Abbott, she is here to sign up for the 2015 Iditarod and this is normal to her too.  For Terrie and me, this was an awesome new experience.

Animal Heroes Everywhere

Alaska races sled dogs.

In Maryland we race horses.

Alaska has stories about heroic dogs.

We have stories about heroic horses.

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

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

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

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

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

A is For Iditarod!

A is for Iditarod!

“What?” you ask.

A is for Iditarod.

Because the Iditarod awesomely takes place in Alaska and starts in Anchorage!

One of my favorite books to share with my students is A is for Musk Ox by Erin Cabatigan.  My third grade boys always roll their eyes when I tell them I am going to share an alphabet book with them – they are WAY too cool for that you know.

But, by the second page they are hooked!

This book is a funny way to show the kids how to play with language, use humor in writing, and teach them a lot about musk oxen!

We used the book as mentor text for our own version of the book A is for Iditarod.  The boys worked in groups to brainstorm ideas and then we combined their ideas together into one book.  We created illustrations, bound them, and then presented them to our kindergarten little buddies as a gift!  It’s a great way for my boys to get some practice reading orally and for the little buddies to learn a little more about our Iditarod obsession!

You can see a fippable copy of our book via Youplisher here: A is For Iditarod Book

Here is a copy of the brainstorming sheet my boys used: A is for Iditarod

Dog Yard Dilemma

This week we are focused on calculating area and perimeter… and what better tool to do that with then dog yards!

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This week the students are presented with a scenario where they have been sponsored by a local fencing company who offers them fencing for their dog yard.  Instead of traditional sled dog yards, the students will use the fencing material to advertise for their sponsors and create individual dog pens for their dogs.  In this three day unit, they will experiment with area and perimeter and discover how you can have many different yard shapes and still maintain the same area.  They will ultimately design their dream dog yard with spaces for all of their team dogs and possibly puppies and ill dogs as well.  The homework assignment seeks the students’ assistance in setting up the White Mountain checkpoint while testing their understanding of area and perimeter.

Dog Yard Dilemma Lesson Plan

How Big is That Yard Classwork

Dog Yard Dilemma Classwork

White Mountain Checkpoint Design Homework