Critter Connections: The Monarch and the Journey North


The 2016 Iditarod ambassador class prepares to be ambassadors for the monarch butterfly

Consider this post a personal invitation to join the 2016 Iditarod class on a symbolic journey north, with one of the most special creatures on Earth, the monarch butterfly.


A symbolic paper butterfly from a student in Mexico near the butterfly sanctuary that protects the monarch

The coming of fall has special symbolism here in Texas and for our friends in Mexico.  The end of October will bring a special holiday that symbolizes the cycle of life for all of us on the planet.  No, not Halloween!  Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, is a celebrated, spiritual event for many here.  The melding of cultures, Mexican and American, has brought many wonderful traditions to my state, and I look forward to this wonderful event each year.  The traditions honor the dead with lively celebrations, sugar skulls (calaveras), and lovingly made altars (ofrendas) to remember loved ones lost.  This coincides with the Catholic holiday of All Saint’s Day, but the indigenous people of Mexico combined it with their ancient beliefs that the spirits of loved ones would come and visit during Dia de los Muertos, on November 1st and 2nd each year.  As a class, we have begun wondering how other native groups celebrate and remember their loved ones.

I love it because it embraces life and death as part of the human experience for us all, and it is heavily tied to the beauty and fragility of nature with its connection to the great migration of the monarch butterfly.

As we learned in our study of the states, the monarch butterfly is the official butterfly of the state of Texas, and it is very special indeed.  Butterflies are one of the great pollinators of our planet along with many other creatures who perform this accidental, but vital, job for our planet. Did you know that one in three bites of food on our plates are a result of pollination?

My students started to compare and contrast the butterflies of Texas and Alaska, but it is only the monarch that travels over double the length of the Iditarod race from Mexico to Canada and back each year.  The Last Great Race is roughly 1,049 miles, about 975 actual miles.

In May, we hope you will join us as we circle back around after the monarch migration is complete, and compare and contrast them to the painted lady butterfly of Alaska.

Our Eanes Elementary 2nd graders will raise and release the painted lady butterflies, and we will use our research of the monarch to help us.  Why are we sharing this with you now?  The Iditarod class has partnered with two special organizations dedicated to conservation of this threatened species and the education of the value of pollinators to our world.

Screen Shot 2015-10-01 at 5.11.42 PMJourney North is an amazing web-based connection for students from Canada to Mexico.  They are thrilled to join the Iditarod class as we create and send symbolic paper butterflies to Mexico, and connect with classrooms digitally to learn more about this special event.  From their site:

“The 20th annual Symbolic Monarch Butterfly Migration is about to take place across North America. Over 60,000 students in the United States and Canada create symbolic butterflies and send them to Mexico for the winter. Children in Mexico who live beside the monarch’s winter sanctuaries protect the butterflies and send them north in the spring. Through the Symbolic Migration, children across North America are united by the monarch butterfly and celebrate its spectacular migration. They learn authentic lessons of ambassadorship, conservation, and international cooperation.”

The deadline for joining in the symbolic migration of the monarch is fast approaching.  Registration will close after October 9th!  I have participated in the symbolic migration in years past, and now, Journey North has a wonderful, free app that allows students on any device to track the great migration with wonderful interactive maps!  It could not be easier to engage your classroom with this wonderful, international project, and support conservation efforts.

To join us, and thousands of other classrooms, download the Journey North packet below and follow the directions to join digitally.

The Symbolic Migration Teacher Packet

Another wonderful conservation organization has joined us on our journey this year.  The Pollinator Partnership is an environmental organization that supports conservation efforts to ensure healthy ecosystems and food security for our planet.  My students were amazed when they realized what pollination does for us.  It is an essential process for all the fruits and vegetables we eat each day!

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The Pollinator Partnership offers beautiful posters for teachers showcasing the Earth’s pollinators including, bees, bats, beetles, wasps, lemurs, possums, and even geckos!  Of course, since the Mexican-free tail bat is the official flying mammal of Texas, my students love and appreciate the bat and its diversity.  Austin is the home of Bat Conservation International and the largest urban bat colony in the world, just ten minutes from my home!

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This Pollinator Partnership site includes planting guides for native plants based upon regional areas, volunteer opportunities, a school pollinator gardening kit to get you started, and a rich library of free, downloadable pamphlets for classroom use.

Protecting Monarchs Brochure

They also have a thought-provoking educational brochure that highlights healthy breakfast choices provided by the world’s pollinators.  Why is all this important?  The world’s pollinators are in steady decline from loss of habitat, and they need our help and support.  This digital study of the monarch is a special way for our students to connect with others and learn to appreciate these invaluable creatures.

Your Health Depends on Pollinators brochure


Our used and much loved poster from Pollinator Partnership!

Join us on our Journey North – Registration Deadline is October 9th!

Looking ahead in the weeks to come, the 2016 Iditarod class will be connecting circuits and batteries to “light up” the city of Nome in our classroom, capturing northern lights in a bowl with a little inspiration from photographer Jeff Schultz, and celebrating Iditarod artist Jon Van Zyle and his work.  Follow us!

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!

The Important Thing About Dogs


My fourth grade students, the 2016 Iditarod Class at Eanes Elementary School! We are excited to share!

The first day of school is always filled with nervous excitement for teachers.  What will we learn from each other?  How can we share our passion with others, outside of the four walls of our classroom?  This day was filled with special anticipation for me, as the 2016 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™ facing the unique responsibilities of this honor.

The first day of school for my class was filled with enthusiasm and an eagerness to share our passion about the Iditarod with the world.  On the second day of school, we started our first lesson.  As rookie musher, Gwenn Bogart, told me at the musher sign-up picnic in June, “It’s all about the dogs.”  So, that is where we began.

For nearly 20 years I have given a quick-write activity as a formative assessment the first week of school.  I use The Important Book, by Margaret Wise Brown, as a guide to create our own version in class.  This simple activity tells me a lot about my students and their writing, attention to details, vocabulary, and artistic talents.  It is a lovely assessment that we turn into a class book each year.  For this lesson, we wrote about our love of dogs.

The Important Things About Dogs

rough draft template

primary template

upper grade template

First, we brainstormed in Writer’s Workshop and thought of all the reasons that dogs make our lives special.  We worked together on our “Important Book” rough drafts, first sharing out ideas, then writing at our table groups.  I no longer use individual desks in my classroom, instead, we use different “community” learning spaces to help us work together on our projects all year.  Collaboration is the key to a 21st century learning space, and the sharing and learning that happens is remarkable.

Sharing our projects digitally is a very important part of our classroom throughout the year.  There are many computer web-based programs and apps that allow teachers to do what was once unthinkable; share and make connections globally, easily, and with little or no cost.

For this project I used a web-based program to create a digital version of our paper class book.  In this post I am highlighting three web-based, free photo editing programs that can allow you to create wonderful movies from video and photos.  Magisto, Windows Movie Maker, and Fantashow are some of my favorites.  They have wonderful themes and special effects to help teachers create and share student work digitally.

First, I used the school copy machine and scanned in each piece of writing, which then emailed it to me, creating a digital version.  A teacher can just as easily take a photo of student writing and create a JPEG image to download on their computer.  Then, I added it to my computer and recorded each student reading their special piece.  I simply added a song from iTunes that I purchased, and the result is a lovely digital version of The Important Book that I can now share out to the world. We hope you enjoy the results below, and feel inspired to create digital versions of your special projects throughout the year.

Introducing, in all their glory, the 2016 Iditarod class!  Expect to be amazed, laugh, and find joy each week this year from these 19 incredible fourth graders!  Join us on our special journey as we celebrate the beauty and unique features of Alaska and bring to the life the Last Great Race on Earth® for teachers and students around the world.  Follow us!

Trek to Matanuska


The 2015 Iditarod Summer Camp teachers trek the Matanuska Glacier

According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, a glacier is, “a large body of ice moving slowly down a slope or valley or spreading outward on a land surface.”  This definition hardly does justice to the splendor of these stunning frozen formations, as some of the teachers from the Iditarod Summer Camp found out firsthand on their trek over the Matanuska Glacier in June.

I fully expected to be one of the lucky people in the world to strap on my crampons and make the journey across Matanuska with them.  I had packed my new hiking boots, a waterproof jacket, taken a one-on-one camera class in Austin, and I was excited and prepared for bragging rights upon my return home from this once in a lifetime experience.  Sadly, it was not meant to be!  Breaking my wrist the third day of my Alaskan adventure as the 2016 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™ was never in my plans.  I knew that night that I would have to pack away my hiking boots for another day, another adventure.  I also realized very quickly after leaving the Mat-Su ER that night that, as the Beatles once sang, I needed “a little help from my friends.”  The teachers from the Iditarod Summer Camp became my “eyes” on their glacier trek.  Lorraine Crane, an inspiring PE teacher from California, shared her adventure to the Matanuska Glacier with me.

When I asked Lorraine about her journey she wrote, “the mysterious beauty and grandeur of the Matanuska Glacier is enthralling!  With each step comes the realization that this glacier is very much alive, cracking and moaning as we progressed over crevasses and past moulins, hiking ever higher. A chance to taste glacial melt from a waterfall, the purest water! The gorgeous Matanuska has at once saturated my being completely!”  I could not have put that any better!  Her photographs from the trip reveal the beauty of the glacier and the special opportunity it was for the teachers that day to spend time there.

The study of landforms is an essential state skill for science and social studies classes everywhere.  I love comparing and contrasting the Alaskan landscape to Texas.  For my students, the differences are obvious and always spark an interesting conversation!

A great resource for these observations is the National Park Service.  It is celebrating its centennial birthday this year, protecting our special places and unique wildlife across our country each and every day.  I also find great information about the Alaskan parks on Twitter or Facebook.  The photos and daily feeds make the study of our national parks timely and relevant in the classroom.  Park rangers across our country love to share their passion for these wild places with us.  Their dedication is inspiring.  The NPS site for Glacier Bay has wonderful multimedia resources for teachers including web cams and video presentations for the classroom.  Glacier Bay: Forever Wild is a video created by NPS that showcases the “beauty, majesty and wild nature” of the park.

Another great resource for researching information about the park system is USA Today magazine.  Each year they highlight our national parks in an extra news insert.  Teachers can download it for free, share it digitally with students, and use it to research and compare and contrast different landforms across our country.  Teachers can also buy paper copies for $4.95 and have them delivered to their classrooms.  In this issue, titled “National Treasures”, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve in Alaska is highlighted with great information and facts, a wonderful resource for any social studies or science class.

Click below to download the free digital “National Treasures” PDF


I love teaching my students all about glaciers.  They are a fascinating piece of Alaska to me, just like wild moose and the elusive northern lights.  For now, I can only read about glaciers until the Iditarod Summer Camp next June.  I really appreciated the opportunity to experience the Matanuska trek through the eyes of the teachers at camp.  They inspired me with their beautiful photography and excitement and joy from that day.  Hopefully, next summer, I will be joined by another group of adventurous teachers, and I will make the hike myself across Matanuska, another goal on my bucket list checked off!


A final view before the journey back to camp!

Making Connections in Nature – Bats, Moose, and Prickly Pear…Oh My!

“I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.” John Burroughs

How could one teacher be so lucky?  This summer I was fortunate enough to come face to face with two special animals in the wild that have been on my “bucket list” of nature connections for, really, most of my life.

It was well past midnight as we drove through the Palmer Hay Flats in Alaska in late June, and with summer solstice in full swing, my eyes were having a hard time adjusting to the changes in light.  I was very sleepy as my friend, Sara Lamont, longtime Iditarod coordinator, drove me into the backwoods she knows so well.  We were on the hunt to spot moose in the wild, a lifelong dream.  I remember the feeling of elation when we spotted our first mother and calf.  I felt adrenaline all over my body as we pulled up slowly to see them grazing.  The mother was protective right away and turned and glided through the tall grass with her calf beside her and disappeared into the woods almost without a sound.  It was the most remarkable moment.  There is nothing like witnessing an animal in its own natural world.  As a human being, you feel oddly out of place in those moments, and as John Burroughs once said, I had “my senses put in order.”  It was all the more magical because of the falling darkness that felt like a strange, eerie twilight.

Coming home to Texas, I had my second animal encounter with a visit to Bracken Cave, outside of Austin.  “Keep Austin Weird” is the theme for our city, and with no wonder!  We love our Mexican-free Tailed Bats that live under the Congress Avenue Bridge during the warm months of the year.  Each summer night, over a million bats emerge from their safe, cozy roosts and fill up our city sky.  Each bat can eat 100 insects a night, so they are a welcomed site for “Austinites”.  Bat Conservation International was founded here in Austin, and on this special night in July, I was fortunate to be given permission as a BCI member to see one of the greatest bat emergences on Earth.

It was well over 100 degrees in the Texas heat as we walked past prickly pear cactus to the entrance of Bracken Cave. I gasped as I first noticed the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pups flying wildly outside the cave entrance, while their mothers had patience until sundown to join them, roosting on the cave walls.  They flew with wild abandon, like impatient children, but as the mother bats  joined them, the most remarkable change happened.  The wild, chaotic flying started to form a giant mass of one counter-clockwise formation, getting bigger and faster as night fell.  The mass of 20 million bats began to pull away from the circle and spiral into formations in the sky.  Joining the bats were their predators.  Hawks flew in and out of the spiraling mass, clutching bats with their sharp talons, a snake slithered along the cave ridge, hoping for an easy meal, and a mother skunk brought her babies to the cave floor, searching for unfortunate pups who had fallen to the ground.  This was strangely not a disturbing sight; it was the cycle of nature right before our eyes, and all seemed right.


The 2016 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™ in a bat selfie!

“Cup your hands to your ears!” my sister nudged me.  I noticed others doing the same, and even though I felt a little silly, I went along.   When I put my hands to my ears they turned into a natural headphone.  I squealed with delight.  The gentle, beautiful sound of 40 million fluttering bat wings was like nothing I had ever heard before.  There are no words to describe it.  It affected my soul, and I know we all felt connected to these animals in a special way.

This special gathering at Bracken Cave is the largest concentration of mammals on Earth.  Think about that!  I feel so fortunate to have had this opportunity, and I wish to return each summer to experience it with my family and friends.

Did you know?  There are bats in Alaska!  The Little Brown Bat, the Long-legged Myotis, the California Myotis, the Silver-haired Bat, and the Keen’s Myotis all make their elusive way into the southern parts of Alaska, and they are all important, as insect eaters, to the ecosystem there.

As a teacher I am always looking for ways to make connections with my students and the world.  Returning from my moose and bat encounters, I wondered if there was a way to do that.  It turns out, there is!

Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 12.18.28 PMiNaturalist is an incredible web-based site and app that allows anyone, child, adult, serious scientist or teacher, to make connections with the flora and fauna of their local habitat, then share them with the world.

The iNaturalist site describes its objective like this:

“From hikers to hunters, birders to beach-combers, the world is filled with naturalists, and many of us record what we find. What if all those observations could be shared online? You might discover someone who finds beautiful wildflowers at your favorite birding spot, or learn about the birds you see on the way to work. If enough people recorded their observations, it would be like a living record of life on Earth that scientists and land managers could use to monitor changes in biodiversity, and that anyone could use to learn more about nature.”

I set up my free account, recorded my photos of the moose in Alaska and the Mexican-free Tailed pup in Texas, and the site added the google map and scientific information for me!  Now my observations are there for anyone in the world to see.  There is also a space to journal about your experiences, much like an old-fashioned science paper notebook.  This digital application has remarkable opportunities for the classroom.  My class will be comparing and contrasting the animals and plants of Alaska and Texas, and since my students are under 13 years of age, I will set up a teacher account.   We can then use our class account to begin documenting our local wildlife.  Perhaps we can connect with a school in Alaska and share observations?  The opportunities are endless.

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Now, these rare and special moments with nature can be shared with others, bringing us all closer, and inspire others to care about the world a little more.