Behind the Scenes

Part of me lives at the Smithsonian now…

And my students’ artwork is there too…

Talk about being honored and proud!

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I recently had the honor of visiting the Smithsonian’s American History Museum and taking a “backstage” tour with Jane Rogers, curator of sports.  You may remember that I first met Jane two years ago when she attended the Winter Iditarod Conference for Teachers (LINK).  She was there to learn more about the race and to begin to collect artifacts for a possible exhibit about the sport of dog mushing and the Iditarod.  The race is such an integral part of Alaska’s history and culture; it’s not just a sporting event!

The whole journey started for Jane when someone donated Libby Riddle’s sled to the museum (LINK).  By setting out into a storm that held must mushers up in the checkpoint, Libby became the first woman to win the Iditarod.  She is still a presence at race time… she greeted team after team under the Burled Arch and provides specially made hats for the highest placing female Junior Iditarod mushers.

But one object doesn’t make an exhibit, and the sled needed to be put into context, so Jane set about learning about mushing and gathering other Iditarod items.  This is one of my favorite conversations to have with kids.  What if you needed to create a museum exhibit about the Iditarod but you could only include ten items?  What would you include?  From whom would you collect them?  What part of the Iditarod story would you tell?  It’s fascinating, because from speaking with Jane and visiting the Anchorage Museum with her, I’ve come to realize that the Smithsonian isn’t just about collecting “stuff.”  The stories that the “stuff” tells and represents are the key!  And as you know… the stories are what drew me to the race in the first place!

So, while I was on the trail this year, Jane asked me to help her acquire a few things to represent the race.  I headed down to the Smithsonian to donate the artifacts I had collected for the museum.  Here is the list of items if you want to challenge your kids to think about what part of the Iditarod story these items tell:

  1.  Used Drop Bags from Martin Buser and Jeff King
  2. A No Pebble Mine Flag carried on the trail by Monica Zappa
  3. An unused dog urine sample collecting bottle
  4. A program from the Junior Iditarod Banquet
  5. A program from the Iditarod Finishers’ Banquet
  6. An Iditarider badge

Now… here’s the really amazing part of the list:

  1.  My Iditarod Teacher on the Trail patch designed by three of my students
  2. My Iditarod Teacher on the Trail name badge with the pins I collected

Yes, you read that correctly… the Teacher on the Trail program is represented in the Smithsonian American History Museum!  Jane realized that education is such a huge part of the Iditarod story that it needed to be represented in the collection.  I am so honored to represent all of the amazing teachers who have realized the value of using the race and as you can imagine my kids are over the moon to know their art work is there!

So I took a day off from school and took the train down to DC with my bag of artifacts.  Jane met me in the lobby and took me up to the storage area and opened cabinet after cabinet after cabinet to let me see all of the Smithsonian goodies in storage.  The sports are in the Division of Culture and the Arts, so the storage room I got to poke around I was amazing….  I got to see skateboards and snowboards, Lance Armstrong’s bike, Olympic uniforms, tennis rackets, ice skates, trophies, professional wrestling costumes, sports balls of all sizes, and more.  The cool thing is that not just professional athletes are represented… part of the American sports story is the millions of kids who play sports too! So there are kids’ trophies in cases right next to trophies won by people like Tiger Woods.  This room was also where all of the TV and Movie memorabilia is stored as well!  So I got peeks at Fonzie’s leather coat, Klinger’s dresses, Batman’s masks, Edith Bunker’s chair, the typewriter from Murder She Wrote, Ginger Rogers’ gown, the Muppets, and so much more!  It was really amazing… like exploring America’s attic!

But, of course, I wanted to see the rest of what Jane had been gathering for the Iditarod collection.  What a treasure trove she has…. DeeDee Jonrowe’s Humanitarian Award, her pink parka, and the full set of dog tags from her team…  Lance Mackey donated his parka, hat, boots, and bibs…  Ken Anderson gave dog coats and booties…

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And there sits my little patch in the middle of all of it.


We Want You!

We Want You…


To be the next Iditarod Teacher on the Trail!

As my time starts to wind down, I want to take a minute to encourage anyone and everyone who has ever thought about applying to be the Teacher on the Trail to go for it!

It honestly has beenthe most rewarding professional experience of my life.  Going through the application process really made me analyze my teaching and think about the reasons behind why I do what I do in my classroom.  Being chosen as a finalist was amazing.  Being able to get behind the scenes of the race and experience it as a volunteer and insider made my teaching of the race so much richer.

To actually be chosen as the 2014 Teacher on the Trail was unbelievable.  To experience the race from as close as you can get without being on a sled was something you actually have to do to truly appreciate it.  My teaching and my life will never be the same again.  The friendships I’ve made, the self-confidence I’ve found, and the experiences I have had will never be forgotten.

And you could be the 2016 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail!  You could be getting the next Iditarod Teacher on the Trail Coat.  You could be hanging out with the Junior Iditarod racers on their half-way lay over. You could be riding in a sled at the Ceremonial Start.  You could be watching the teams arrive and depart in Takotna or Unalakleet or White Mountain or anywhere in between. You could be standing under the Burled Arch and welcoming them to Nome.

All you have to do to get the ball rolling is to apply.  You can find all the information you need here:  LINK

The Decision is Made!

I’m currently in the Millennium Hotel in downtown Anchorage.  The Millennium serves as the Race Headquarters during race time!  Things are starting to get busy here as hotel rooms are transformed into offices and work spaces for all race staff members and volunteers who will be working hard for the 2014 Iditarod.  There will be offices for communications, dropped dogs, phone rooms, Iditarod Air Force, volunteers, and more.  Everything that you can think of will be done right out of this hotel!  It’s pretty amazing to watch the transformation happen!

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The big news today is that the race is going to stay its regular course!  The Ceremonial Start will happen in Anchorage, the Re-Start in Willow, and we’ll follow the Northern Route as normal!  I know a lot of teachers are giving a sigh of relief that they don’t need to redo maps and charts!  Volunteers and fans are glad they don’t need to change their travel plans!  My weather app says we may get snow on Wednesday and Saturday, so cross your fingers that works out!

Tales from the Trail: The Weather Strikes Again!

I have made it to Anchorage!  I’m happy to report it is snowing!  I’m watching the Iron Dog start on TV, while updating the blog and preparing to go exploring.  The Iron Dog is the longest snowmobile race in the world. It travels 2,031 miles and will feature 38 two person teams this year. It uses a lot of the same trail as the Iditarod.  The racers are talking about how tough the training has been this year. They have run into the same problems as the mushers… the lack of snow!  You can check it out here:

JR LogoYesterday, while I was on my layover in Salt Lake City, I got an email from Lacey Hart, Race Marshall for the Junior Iditarod.  The Junior Iditarod will be moving due to lack of snow!

The start and finish will be at Martin Buser’s Kennel in Big Lake.  From what Lacey has said, making the decision was a fully thought out process that involved her and other race officials snow machining along the trail to checkout conditions. While part of the trail was useable, part of it definitely was not safe.

Lacey seems very confident that the new trail will be challenging, but definitely doable! She points out that the Junior Iditarod is an Iditarod qualifier, so it should be a little challenging!  The plan is to start at Martin Buser’s kennel and follow the river to Yentna and then return to the kennel the next morning.  The race is usually 150-160 miles and this year it will be closer to 130-140 miles.

She also sent her response to the last set of interview questions my students sent to her.  They were wondering if the race would have to move… and it turns out they were right!  You can read the interview here: Lacey Hart

We will find out tomorrow afternoon if the Iditarod start will move to Fairbanks….

Gearing Up for the Educator’s Conference

One of the things I’m looking forward to in Alaska is the Winter Conference for Educators. It’s an amazing opportunity to be surrounded by all things Iditarod for a full week!  It’s always rewarding to be surrounded by educators who value the same things you do!

In addition to the many presentations by and for educators, the conference always features amazing field trips!  There’s a chance to be at Iditarod Headquarters while the mushers bring their dogs in for vet checks, attend the pre-race banquet where the mushers draw their starting order, and visit Jon Van Zyle’s studio and kennel.   Not to mention, you are in the right place to extend your day and be front and center for the Ceremonial Start!

You can find more information about the conference here:  LINK

For all of you who are coming for the conference this year, I’m anxious to meet you!  Here’s my top ten list of things you should know!

10.  Bring some Sharpies for autographs.  Bring several.  Carry them everywhere.

9.  Camera batteries can freeze when you are outside at the start.  Two years ago at the restart I got pictures of every single musher – except the last one.  The batteries froze. Bring a spare and store it on an inside pocket.

8.  There is a post office in the mall on Third Avenue.  You will quickly fall in love with flat rate postage boxes for shipping stuff home.

7.  Pick up the Anchorage Daily News every day you are there.  There is always some type of Iditarod article being published. They quickly become the reading material of choice my room!

6.  Drop bags are usually available at the shop at the Headquarters.  They make awesome objects to collect autographs on.

5.  So do the Race Guides.  Get two.  One to write in and one to keep perfect.  Carry them with you always.

4.  If you are staying for the Ceremonial Start, make sure that at some point you follow Fourth Avenue down to the big bend. You can get some awesome shots as the mushers make the turn.  Sometimes you even get to see spills!

3.  Try a reindeer hot dog!  They are yummy and your students will be impressed with your daring!

2.  Bring an empty suitcase… you are going to need it to get home!

1.  Soak up every minute of your experience! The starting line of the Last Great Race is an amazing place to be!!

Tales (and Tails) from the Trail

MUSH on to a Great School Year!!

MUSH on to a Great School Year!!

Since my school year has officially begun, (I have been at inservice training the past two days),  I wanted to take a minute to tell you about my plans for the year and the blog, and let you know some ways that you can join me on this amazing journey by dogsled!

One of the things that has always intrigued me about the Iditarod are the stories. Everyone has a story to tell about their involvement in the race, and I could sit and listen to those stories for hours and hours and hours.

As an educator, I know the things that draw my kids in the most are stories.  Any time that I can begin a lesson with, “Hey!  Do you want to hear a story?” or “I have a story that goes with that,” I immediately have their attention.

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to attend a week long seminar with Lucy Calkins and the Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University.  Her work in getting students interested in writing by encouraging them to record and value their own stories had a huge impact on my teaching of writing.

And so… my theme for my year as ExxonMobil Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™ is going to be “Tales (and Tails) from the Trail.”  My goal is two-fold.  First, I hope to present to you lessons that are prefaced with a story to help get your kids intrigued.  So, when I give you a lesson about the Iditarod Trail as a mail route, the lesson will begin with a story about Joe Redington and why the mushers carry trail mail.  When I present a lesson about the Alaska Gold Rush and how it ties to the trail, the lesson will begin with a story about miners picking gold off the beaches of Nome.

Secondly, I’m trying to gather as many Trail stories as I can to share with you.  There is a link at the top of the page where I am collecting stories from mushers, volunteers, and others.  My plan is to use some of these stories in my Writing Workshop mini-lessons, and I hope you can find a use for them also!

You may notice that there is also a link for Student Stories!  This is where you come in!  I hope that as your students do some writing about the Iditarod, they will share it with me to be published here!  They could write stories, poems, plays… anything.  I’d love to read it all and publish as much of it as I can. There is a link at the left to email them to me.  Another great way to keep in touch with me is via Skype.  I’d love to talk with you and your class either before and/or during the race as much as I possibly can. You can email me for details about that also.

Along the way, we are going to be meeting, hearing stories from, and following a rookie musher as she begins her training and also a former handler for a high-profile racer.  I will be sharing lots of math lessons (the Iditarod IS my math curriculum from January to April) and showing lots of other ways the race is embedded in my classroom. Once February and March roll around, I will be bringing your the race directly from Alaska (how cool is that!?!?)!

I’m looking forward to jumping on the sled with you…. please let me know if there is anything I can do to help you with your journey down the trail.

Linda’s GPS Tracker

LindaDon’t worry!  Linda is NOT where the GPS Tracker shows that she is….   Unlike the GPS Trackers that mushers carry and are attached to their sleds, Linda’s GPS Tracker is in her backpack.  This means the tracker goes inside and outside, inside another building, and then outside again.  This makes the possibility of false readings on her Tracker a reality.

When Linda lands at a checkpoint, it is necessary for her to leave her backpack and GPS Tracker outside for about 10 minutes to get the proper reading.  As may also be the case, if Linda’s backpack wasn’t outside for 10 minutes before she got on a plane to fly to a different location, a false reading could also occur.

We are expecting a correct reading on Linda’s GPS Tracker soon.

Diane Johnson