Honoring Our Veterans (and the Iditarod Connection)

dsc00796At first thought you may think there is no connection between the Iditarod, a sled dog race in Alaska, and Veterans Day, a day that honors those who have served in our country. However, there quite a few connections.

In this lesson your students will explore how they can use the gifts and talents they have to honor our US veterans this Veterans Day. This lesson was inspired by musher, Rick Casillo who has dedicated his life to helping our war veterans.  Casillo has finished the Iditarod six times, but his kennel has more than just a goal of racing the Iditarod.  His kennel, Battle Dawgs, has the added goal of raising awareness of combat veterans.  The mission of Battle Dawgs is to help combat veterans and empower them through therapeutic and exciting experiences in Alaska’s beautiful landscape using the healing power of sled dogs.

286101_158128761036389_619532534_oCasillo invites veterans up to the kennel to participate in various camps and day trips.  One of the camps is the “Iditarod Camp” in which veterans have the opportunity to help Rick prepare for the race, attend the start of the Iditarod, and fly out to a checkpoint along the race.  Casillo’s wife, Jennifer, is a combat veteran herself and she is still active as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Alaska Air National Guard.


Two of my students after they completed writing down ways they can honor our veterans

Rick Casillo shares his talent and passion of mushing to help and honor the veterans of our country.  He gives of his time and makes certain that each veteran who visits his kennel feels loved and appreciated.  He helps them heal from the emotional toll of war, and allows them to experience Alaska and Iditarod in a most unique way.

Rick is an outstanding example of how each of us can use our gifts and talents to help and honor our country’s veterans.  Have your students take time to reflect on how they can give back to the veterans of your community.  Can you make them cards?  Share your gift of art? Share your gift of song? Perhaps read them a story you wrote.  How can you make a difference in a veteran’s life?

Veterans Day Reading Handouts

Veterans Day Writing Handouts

Veterans Day and Iditarod Connection Power Point

Veterans Day Iditarod Lesson Plan

Thank you to Rick and all who are involved in Battle Dawgs.  Your dedication to our US veterans is an inspiration to us all.  To learn more about Rick’s efforts, check out the Battle Dawgs website.

When doing this lesson with your students, you can also include information about the founder of the Iditarod, Joe Redington Sr, also being in the military.  Joe, along with many other past mushers, have bravely served our country.  To learn more about Joe Redington Sr., click here.


Other Iditarod Teacher News:

I am Skyping with classrooms across the country!  I have enjoyed taking my students on virtual field trips over the years, so I’m excited to work with you and your students to bring the Iditarod to life in your classroom.  To find more information and sign up for a time click here.  I will also be continuing the Iditarod Classroom Club with Skype which began last year with 2016 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™ Laura Wright.  To join in the fun, click here: Iditarod Classroom Club.


Skyping with the Duluth Teacher Conference on November 5

Join us in Chicago for a conference on  January 21!  Speakers include Iditarod finisher Charley Bejna (via Skype), local musher Pat Moon, and 2017 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail (along with a few other Teachers on the Trail).  Click here for more information.

You can also join us in ALASKA!  The 2017 Winter Conference will be held February 28-March 3 in Anchorage, AK with the theme of “Making Sense of Problems and Persevering Through Them”.  Don’t miss the opportunity to learn from strong educators, and from the mushers themselves.  For more information on this conference click here.

*Photo credits: Battle Dawgs and Rick Casillo

Iditarod Sportsmanship

In many parts of the country, including Chicago, fall is a season full of sports!  Hockey img_0343season is just beginning, college and professional football are well under way, and major league baseball is nearing the 2016 World Series, in which the students of Saint Andrew School are hoping to see their neighborhood team go all the way this year (Go Cubs!).  In all of these sports we see good and bad sportsmanship—we see players doing/saying things that are hurtful, but we also have players lifting one another up and being great role models for our students.

Dog mushing is full of sportsmanship, as well.  I have heard many stories of mushers helping one another out along the Iditarod trail—from catching another musher’s team, to lending out a sled to a musher in need.  However, my favorite story, one many of you probably know, is the story from the 2015 Iditarod when Brent Sass was disqualified for having a 2-way communication device with him on the trail.

Brent made an honest mistake and his heartbreak was seen by thousands of classrooms across the country.  While many were sad for Brent, I looked at the situation as a great teaching moment for my students.  That year, and every year since, my students and I discuss the sportsmanship and character traits that Brent exhibited during a rough point in his mushing career. Brent owned up to breaking the Iditarod rule, and he showed integrity and respect to his team, his fans, and to the Iditarod. blog-post-wall-display-page-001

I have created a lesson based around Brent’s disqualification from the 2015 race.  In the lesson students learn about the 2-way communication rule (which is different for the 2017 race), watch a video clip of Brent shortly after the incident, and discuss the 8-
traits of Iditarod that Brent exhibited.  The students then have to write an opinion piece answering the following questions: Should Brent Sass have been disqualified from the 2015 Iditarod for having an iPod Touch with him?  Why or why not?  Which of the 8 Traits of Iditarod do you think Brent possessed after he was disqualified?  Explain.  After my students complete the writing piece I have them post it on our classroom KidBlog site.  This is a great (and very safe) website for kids to upload their work to and to share with classmates, teachers, and parents.  I have also included a handout in which the writing piece can be written on, along with space for a picture.  These make great hallway displays!

oreo-writing-brent-sass-page-001For younger students, you can begin by discussing what happens when students break a classroom rule or a school rule.  Then, discuss how sometimes mushers make mistakes too, and talk about Brent’s mistake.  As a class, or small group, have students decide whether or not Brent should have been disqualified or not.  I have included a simple template for students to use to document their thinking.

As for older students, I think this lesson can go deeper.  I
suggest having them learn about Brent’s 2015 race, and have them research another athlete who also broke a rule in their sport.  Did the sports player demonstrate integrity and respect like Brent, or were they dishonest? Students can then compare and contrast the two situations or write an opinion piece about either the sport player or Brent Sass.

To Disqualify or Not Lesson Plan

8 Traits of Iditarod

Insider Video of Brent Sass

Rule 35 and 8 Traits of Iditarod Handout

Blog Post Wall Display Primary Grades

Blog Post Wall Display


Meeting Brent at the 2013 Midwest Conference

I love this lesson because it is more than just writing an opinion piece.  It is a lesson in
character.  It shows students the importance of being respectful even when things are going your way and that even superstars make mistakes.  It is my hope that your students enjoy the lesson as much as mine did.  And thank you to Brent for turning a rough situation into a wonderful lesson for students across the country.




Brent Sass beginning the 2016 Iditarod