Into the Wild with Musher Monica Zappa


Iditarod clay diorama – complete with a husky, the northern lights, and paw prints in the snow

What do mushers see on the trail?  In art classes, the Iditarod and the study of Alaska and the Arctic have been a special project this year.  The students at Eanes Elementary School researched the geographic landscape and animals found along the trail and created amazing clay dioramas to represent what they found.   The results are stunning!unnamed-8

The question about certain polar animals always comes up when learning about Alaska.  Many times, students, and even adults, make the mistake of thinking that penguins live at the North Pole.  

Erik Brooks, the artist and illustrator, has written the perfect book to solve this mystery!  Polar Opposites is a lovely children’s picture book about a polar bear and a penguin who are friends and pen pals.  It talks about their respective homes at the North and South Poles and really helps students learn the difference once and for all.  Our dioramas were penguin free, and with a little research, students had the opportunity to learn about other unique Arctic creatures and landforms.

For help and insight into this special project, I turned to Iditarod musher Monica Zappa.  Monica lives in the remote Caribou Hills of Kasilof, Alaska, and her passion for nature and conservation is well known and respected.  Monica shared a video of her morning salmon and turkey snack time at her kennel…but with a special visitor.  A bald eagle flies in each morning hoping for a treat, much to the delight of her beloved dog team.  Will the eagle snatch the treat away from Dweezil, her lead dog?  Watch and find out:



Although this is a typical morning for Monica, it certainly seems extraordinary to me!  Her video was wonderful inspiration for this unique and thoughtful project.  Our students worked closely with our art teachers, Erin McElroy and Caitlin Maher, to recreate their Alaskan landscape scenes with clay, art tools, paint, and a lot of love.  We learned a lot about what an Iditarod musher sees and experiences along the trail in the remote wilderness.

It is so easy to bring the study of the Iditarod into any classroom.  This is a beautiful project that integrates the Last Great Race on Earth® and the study of wild Alaska into an art and research project.  When we finished, our students displayed their dioramas in a touring gallery display.  The next step is to allow students to tell a story about their dioramas in a narrative form or an expository research project in Writer’s Workshop.  This would also be wonderful for a companion poem with each Arctic scene.  The possibilities are endless!

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Monica Zappa has had a very adventurous life, inspired by her parents who were both mushers.  It was her father’s dream to run the Iditarod, and now she is fulfilling that dream for him with her third Iditarod this year.  Monica has degrees in meteorology and geography, and when she is not mushing, her main occupation is commercial fishing.  She is passionate about protecting Alaska’s wild salmon and the pristine waters of Bristol Bay.  She is truly a conservation advocate for her state!

How’d They Do That?

Check out the steps below to easily create your own Arctic clay dioramas:


Find out more about Team Zappa on their website:

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Into the Wild – Arctic Diorama Lesson Plan

Want to know more about Monica Zappa and other 2016 Iditarod mushers and their teams?  The name says it all.  The ULTIMATE INSIDER ultimate-school-300x300 gives a school access to everything!  All of the benefits of the INSIDER VIDEO combined with the ability to “Track the Pack” with the GPS INSIDER!  Access to all of the commercial-free video.  Spotlight up to 5 of your favorite mushers and receive email alerts when they enter and leave a checkpoint.


  • GPS Tracker
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Follow my journey this year as 2016 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™. We have partnered with Skype as a virtual field trip experience, and I will be sending recorded video messages daily along the trail to classrooms around the world.  Sign up for a free Skype account first, and then join the “Iditarod Classroom Club” to follow along.  Remember, you must have a Skype account first, or you only be in my club for 24 hours as a guest!  Click the link below:

Iditarod Classroom Club

Summing it All Up

We summed up our year of Iditarod fun the same way we started it… with the Quilt.  If you remember, our class hosted one of the Iditarod Travelling Quits.  You can read that original post here:  LINK

To summarize our experiences, we decided to create our own quilt square to be added to a new Iditarod Travelling Quilt.  First, each boy designed his own square. They included symbols, words, and pictures that showed what they thought the “message” behind the race is.  We also talked about the idea that our final quilt square would need to give information about where the square came from.

After we assembled our quilt, we spent some time looking at it and looking for similarities between the squares.  We figured if something appeared on many squares that must mean it’s important to us and should probably appear on our final square.

We came up with a game plan of what we wanted our final square to be.  We decided to divide it into two sections – one for Alaska and one for Maryland.  Each side features a map of the state colored like the state’s flag and is surrounded by symbols of things that the state is known.  For Maryland there is afootball to represent the Ravens, a baseball for the Orioles, a lacrosse stick to show our state team sport, and a steamed crab.  The Alaska side shows a gold pan, mail for the mail trail, a dog, and cross country skies.  Then there is a dog sled running the Iditarod across the bottom and horses running the Preakness across the top.  The center features the quote that the boy think best represents the race:  “Dream. Try. Win.” ~ John Baker.

The boys are excited to see their final design featured in a new quilt next year.  To get your class involved in the Travelling Iditarod Quilt Project, check out this site: LINK and contact Diane Johnson at djohnson@

Scaling Up the Trail

Several years ago, we realized that we were never getting to the Geometry Unit that inevitably occurred at the end of the math book and therefore at the end of the school year. We decided to break up the unit into pieces and teach it periodically throughout the year. Inspired by the book Mathematical Art-O- Facts: Activities to Introduce, Reinforce, or Assess Geometry & Measurement Skills by Catherine Johns Kuhns, we decided to accomplish this by using art to create monthly geometry projects. This allowed us to teach the geometry skills throughout the year in a hands-on way that require the students to use the new geometry skills immediately to create something.

When I returned to my school from my Alaskan adventure, the boys were returning from Spring Break and the time was prime for a hands-on Iditarod related geometry project. We spent a week enlarging Jon Van Zyle’s print A Nod to the Past to six times the original size! We had a wonderful discussion about the piece of art, the feelings it evoked, and the Iditarod memorabilia it featured. We worked as a full class to compete the project. While each boy was responsible for completing one square of the enlargement, the nature of the project was such that they naturally checked in with each other to see if their measurements were matching up. There were wonderful discussions and coaching between boys about how they were solving the problems. When it came time to color their masterpiece, leaders naturally rose to the top as they discussed shading and combining colors to achieve the desired results. It was nice to see the artistic boys have a chance to be the leaders. The finished product in the hallway is a show stopper and visitors often stop by to admire it and ask questions! Attached is a lesson plan to explain how we completed the project.

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Scaling Up the Trail Lesson Plan

Recycled Dogs

I once joked with a coworker that I could turn anything into an Iditarod related lesson, and today I found another example!

I had a chance to visit the Anchorage Museum, which is one of my favorite museums.  They have an amazing exhibit on the history of Alaska, a fantastic kids area, and the beautiful Smithsonian Arctic Studies gallery of Native Alaskan culture and artifacts.  They also have an area where they host changing exhibits.

This year, the changing exhibit is called Gyre:  The Plastic Ocean.  A gyre is a swirling vortex in the ocean.  There are gyres in each ocean.  The gyres are massive, slow moving, whirlpools that sweep garbage into them.  Discarded items can be pulled into gyres where they slowly are pulled in the whirlpool and are pushed towards the center where they form floating garbage piles in the ocean.  You can learn more about gyres here:

This is, of course, a problem for marine life who often misinterpret the waste as food or are caught up in the plastics especially.

The Gyre expedition and exhibition is the result of a team of scientists and artists who explored the coastlines of Alaska and collected plastics most likely deposited from the North Pacific Gyre.  The exhibit was a sobering reminder of what we are doing to our planet.

The artists who were included in the exhibit took different approaches to the project.  Some displayed found objects as they were, which was sobering.  Some made juxtapositions between the ugly trash and the beauty of the environment in which they were found.  And still others used the found materials to make something new.  Like this dog sled and team!

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Wouldn’t this make a neat art project?  Could you and your class create a life sized dog team from recycled materials?  And there’s a perfect tie in between plastics in our oceans and the Iditarod!

The Sleeping Bag Patch

One thing that each Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™ is required to do is to create a patch for inclusion on the official Teacher on the Trail sleeping bag. You can learn more about this tradition and the sleeping bag here: LINK

I decided a long time ago, that this was going to be a wonderful way to get my school involved in my adventure, and I approached my student council to see if they would be willing to help me out with this project.  They readily agreed and decided that the best thing they could do would be to have a school wide contest to design the patch.  I explained that the patch needed to reflect my theme for the year, “Tales (and Tails) from the Trail” and that it should represent our school and show that we are located in Maryland.

The contest was announced and the boys ended up with over fifty designs to judge and choose from.

They finally settled on a design which was created by three students in my homeroom:


Next came the fun part.  We submitted the design to the company who would make the patch and they forwarded it to their graphic designers.  The graphic designers in turn provided us with the first version of the patch:

patch proof 1

The artists were not impressed.  They quickly sent back a list of corrections and received this version:

patch proof 2

Again, the artists had more edits.  They finally got back this version which seemed to satisfy them.  And just recently, we got the completed patches in the mail:

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I think it represents my adventure perfectly!  The open book is for the tales I will collect from the trail.  The left hand page shows the map and flag of my home state, Maryland.  The right hand page shows the map and flag of Alaska.  The crest in the middle is my school’s crest, and the two tails coming from its sides are the “tails” part of the motto.

I stitched it onto the sleeping bag today, and it will now and forever be a part of Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™ history!

Setting the Table

The students of 3A have a seat at the table at the Mushers’ Banquet!

Actually they have a seat ON the table….

Okay, actually, their artwork has a seat on the tables!

We have shipped our centerpieces to Alaska!


Every year, the Iditarod Education Department hosts a contest for school kids to design centerpieces for the Mushers’ Banquet. The banquet is held in Anchorage on the Thursday night before the race start. The main event of the banquet is the drawing that determines the starting order for the race.  The banquet is held in the convention center and upon entering, seems like a sea of round banquet tables!

Each table features several unique, original, and completely kid made centerpieces!  It’s such a treat to watch the mushers , fans, and guests carefully examine each creation and ooh and ahh over each!

For our project this year, we spent some time looking at both the science and artistry behind the Northern Lights.  Here are some great videos I found to share with your kids:  Northern Lights Videos

To create our Northern Lights backgrounds, the boys used a very wet watercolor application to a 4×6 watercolor postcard.  Before the paint dried, they quickly sprinkled Kosher salt over the paint and then let the watercolors dry.  Once everything was super dry, we brushed the salt off and were left with some really neat textures.  Then we used permanent Staz-On ink pads in black to stamp the sled dogs and in silver to stamp snowflakes on.  We mounted the artwork on a slightly larger piece of scrapbooking paper and added an easel to the back.

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I’m super excited to see all of this year’s designs!  This a great project to keep in mind for next year!  Designs are usually due in mid-November, winners are announced in December, and then the winning schools need to ship their centerpieces to Alaska around the end of January or beginning of February.  You can find the details on the Teacher Portal:

Cooling Down

Alaska is having super hot temperatures this summer.  Everyone keeps commenting about how hot it is and there is a big concern about possible wildfires.  As you can imagine, sled dogs would much rather have it be cold than hot…. so how do sled dogs cool off when it’s hot?  Well, in addition to their  natural adaptions, some have swimming pools!

The teachers and I were blessed to be able to visit Jon and Jona Van Zyle’s kennel, home, and art studio last evening.  In addition to being an Iditarod finisher, Jon is the official Iditarod Artist, a painter, and book illustrator.  Jona is an artist as well, specializing in amazing textile and beaded items.  We were fortunate enough to see some of the projects Jon has in progress including a new painting and a series of illustrations for a new picture book.

This is the third picture book he has done this year!  I asked him to explain that process a bit.  He says that a publisher will send him a manuscript.  He reads it over and if, while he is reading, he sees pictures in his mind, he will agree to do the project.  He prints out the manuscript and starts thinking about where the pages should be divided based on the pictures he is visualizing.  He divides the pages and then, perhaps, makes a note or two at that point.  The next step is to create a mock up of the way the book will look.  He makes rough sketches of the pictures and decides if the paintings will take up one page or two and where the text will be.  These sketches are really rough, with very little detail.  Jon explained that he does it this way because he really only wants to do each of his paintings one time, as he needs the ideas to be fresh as he paints.  The final paintings are then shipped off to the publisher.  I also tried to get a sneak peek or insight into what this year’s Iditarod poster and print will be… but I was not successful!

The Van Zyle’s home is essentially a work of art itself… Jon built it himself, and every nook and cranny is filled with keepsakes and treasures, each of which comes with its own story as you can imagine!

The kennel is essentially heaven on earth for the ten huskies living in the kennel.  They have a multilevel play area, beach umbrellas for shade, swimming pools to frolic in, and a large exercise wheel for when they feel like doing some training!  Not a bad place to try to beat the heat!

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