Uniqueness of the Iditarod As a Teaching Tool

Picture a musher, racing across the frozen tundra.  The musher and dog team have been traveling for 8 days.  Hunched behind the hand rail of the sled, trying to watch the dogs and prevent wind resistance through the whirling and blinding snow, the musher’s original goal was to be in the top ten to come into Nome but now they just want to finish.  As the wind whips across the frozen Norton Sound, they realize that they are still in a competition between man, dogs and the elements.  There is no reason that they can’t finish this race to be proud of accomplishing a feat that only few have the honor of completing.  It is man versus environment.

Now picture a student, sitting in an 8th grade physical science class.  They have just finished learning about the different types of energy.  Everything the student has listened to seems foreign.  Comprehension of the written material is non-existent; he has a processing delay so everything is taking longer to understand.  The ability to write a complete sentence is non-existent.  After research, the teacher determines the best way to provide the opportunity for the student to demonstrate mastery is through hands-on activities.  It is student versus curriculum.

How are these two ideas related?  Each person has to overcome his or her obstacles in order for there to be success.  Each has a unique set of circumstances that they must problem-solve in order to be successful, whether it is finishing a race or understanding curriculum standards.

At this time of the year, many states are gearing up for their state tests.  Based on data-driven research, we have tested our students every month in all academic disciplines to prepare them for state testing.  The students are getting anxious with the thought of more testing.  Within the special education curriculum, we must teach the standards while following the student’s Individualized Education Plan.  My expectations for the students are high.  We need to be effective classroom managers, well organized, with a structured classroom that makes teaching and learning a well-guided system to knowledge discovery.  Students need to be fully involved with their work.  What better way to learn a standard than through the use of the Iditarod.

Harry Wong states that “Student success in the subject matter of the class will be the result of how well the teacher designs lessons and checks for mastery.”  Lesson development is allocating 100% to learning.  The effective teacher is one that communicates with their students the positive expectations and creates a classroom environment that meets those expectations and needs.  But, not all students learn in the same way.  We cannot have a cookie-cutter curriculum for all students.  Public Law 94-142-IDEA, No Child Left Behind and Individualized Education Plans state that we must provide “all students” with the ability to have a free public education in the least restrictive environment.  Through the use of differentiated instruction and multiple intelligences, we are able to reach more students and teach to their strengths.  Within the thematic based approach to standards based curriculum we are able to scaffold learning, individualize the learning and make instruction meet the needs of all students and their abilities.  Furthermore, it is important for the teacher to understand the student’s disability and be able to work with it.  Without this knowledge, the student will not be able to demonstrate mastery of a skill.  Once the teacher has an understanding of the disability, then the teacher has control of the learning and the student has the ability to learn.

The theme of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race™ as a teaching tool provides teachers in all disciplines the ability to create standards based curriculum. The Race provides real-life experiences infused into the academic and elective subjects.  Reading is found in all academic disciplines.  Studying the biographies of the mushers or reading non-fiction accounts of the trials and tribulations of living, and working in Alaska.  Math can incorporate some of the basic principles of distance, finances, and statistics.  Science is found in the life cycle of the tundra, earth and space science with aurora borealis, physics of playing with an Eskimo yo-yo.  Geography can work in conjunction with science for topography or stand alone with map reading or learning about the indigenous people.  History is infused throughout Alaska and the Iditarod.  Art influences from the indigenous peoples or Jon Van Zyle’s visions of the Iditarod and how Alaska has inspired him as an artist today.  Agriculture, home economics and music can be found in all areas of the Iditarod.

Dawn Owens

February 13, 2011

Varying Exceptionalities Teacher, Finalist for Target® 2012 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™

Source Citations:

Harry Wong, First Days of School