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.

Filling the Dog Yard!

One more idea for room set up as the summer starts to wind down….

I am calling my classroom the 3A Dog Yard these days…. for reasons that I am sure you can understand!  To get my students in the Iditarod Spirit from day one and as a way to get to know each other, we create these puppy glyphs on the first day of school.

Glyphs are a pictorial form of data collection.  You might be reminded of “hieroglyphic” and think about picture writing.  My kids are always interested in “real life” examples of glyphs – like dentists who record cavities on a a picture of teeth or a chiropractor who records aches on a skeletal picture.  The glyphs allow doctors to record and analyze data more quickly.

My hallway bulletin board greets my students looking like this:


The students create the puppy glyphs by answering questions about their interests and study habits and then cutting and pasting the pieces according to their answers. When they are finished, they get added to the bulletin board.

Following a discussion about how mushers and kennel owners sometimes name their litters in themes, we choose a litter theme, name the puppies and then create an information sheet about the puppies that gets bound together in a classroom book.  You can see our book about the Breakfast Cereal Litter from last year here:  http://www.youblisher.com/p/482033-Meet-the-Puppies/ 

Here are hints you might want to know:

1. I didn’t create the image for my bulletin board!  I borrowed it from the Mush with P.R.I.D.E. coloring book you can find here:  http://leppro.com/portfolio/pdfs/source/MusherBook.pdf

2.  The online version of our book was made with Youblisher:  http://www.youblisher.com/

kerpoof pic3. My friend, middle school science teacher Laurie Starkey, did the same project with her kids digitally using Kerpoof Studio:  http://www.kerpoof.com/

illustmaker pic4.  Older kids might enjoy making a digital musher avatar instead of a puppy.  Illustrator Maker has a lot of good choices. They could use types of headgear, items held, and even accessories as the responses to the questions:  http://illustmaker.abi-station.com/index_en.shtml

5,  You could also use these activities to show answers to a set of problems instead.  In that case, the design of the picture would be determined by the correct answers to the problems.  It could be a fun way to review a topic!

6.  Click here for the full lesson plan:  Filling the Puppy Yard 2.  Click here for the glyph pattern:  Puppy Glyph Patterns.

Hope your room setup is going well!  I am headed in on Wednesday to get mine started!

Trail Jobs

The countdown is on…

I don’t know about you, but I have seventeen days until I have to return to school to start my in-service training.  In some ways I’m really excited – it’s going to be an AMAZING year. In some ways, I wish I could hold on to summer just a little longer!

To continue my summer of “ways to turn your classroom into an Iditarod themed masterpiece,” I wanted to share my new classroom job board!


I had a version of this board last year with jobs that were Dog Yard Chores, but this year, I am tweaking it to make it more specific to the Iditarod Race and I’ve turned it into Trail Chores.  I have chosen 8 classroom jobs for this year.  With 16 kids, that means each student will have a job every other week. When they don’t have a job, they will be “Out on the Trail.”  Here are the jobs that I chose to use, the Iditarod job description, and my classroom job description.

Lead Dog – the dog that runs in the front of the team – line leader

Wheel Dog – the dog that runs closest to the sled in the team – line ender

Swing Dog – the dog that runs right behind the lead dogs in the team  – substitute (covers jobs as needed)

Go Fetch – okay, not technically an Iditarod job, but it’s really fun to call out “GO FETCH!” and have a kid jump up and do your bidding!  – this is my messenger/ errand runner

Handler – the handler helps the musher with training and race prep – in the classroom this is my right hand man – passes out materials, collects materials, etc.  (I think it’s going to be fun to just call out “Handle it!”)

Race Judge – the race judges are responsible for the enforcement of race rules and procedures – in the classroom this person is going to run the Homework Iditaopoly Game for me

Stats – the stats volunteers are responsible for updating the race data to the web – in the classroom they are responsible for updating the classroom for the next day (changing the calendar, erasing the board, updating the schedule)

Air Force – the Iditarod Air Force is responsible for (among other things) delivering supplies to to the various checkpoints – in the classroom this person will deliver the library books back to the library

Here are some other jobs I thought of if you need more ideas:  Comms – they get the information from the trail to the race headquarters – could do classroom newsletter or other communications jobs; Vet – could take students to the nurse when needed; Teacher on the Trail – could take classroom attendance; Sweeper – could do a room sweep at the end of the day to check for cleanliness.


I wanted the name tags for the job board to mimic the armbands that some race volunteers wear.  Here is a pdf that you can add your own students’ name to –

Iditarod Name Cards blank

Hopefully my students will take their jobs as seriously as the amazing Iditarod Race volunteers do!


I have been yearning for an Iditarod Monopoly game for several years now.

Then I started seeing all of the Homeworkopoly games on Pinterest… and I really wanted to combine that with the Iditarod Monopoly game.

I searched Ebay every couple of weeks or so… but they were always going for close to $100.

Then I saw one going for about $40.  In the description, the seller mentioned that the game pieces and cards were all sealed but that there was some writing on the board.

Well, that was okay, I really only wanted to see what was on the board and cards… a little writing wouldn’t be too bad.

When the game arrived, I was in for a surprise. The “writing” on the board is signatures from Doug Swingley, Jeff King, and Dee Dee Jonrowe!  Amazing right?

The idea behind Homeworkopoly is to encourage kids to complete and turn in their homework!  I just tweaked that idea so that it is Iditarod themed!  By playing the game the students will become familiar with the checkpoints on the race course.

DSC_0583-6468(rev 0)

Every Friday afternoon, students who have completed and turned in their assignments for the week will be able to take a turn.  When it is their turn they will roll the die, move the appropriate number of spaces, and deal with the space they land on.  The game could be played for the entire year or just a semester.

Here are the details:

  1.  To make the gameboard, just print the PDF, cut out the pieces, and assemble the board.   It could be mounted to a bulletin board or mounted to cardboard to use on a table.  The title can be printed, assembled, and mounted in the middle of the board.
  2. Print the Community Sled Dog Cards and cut them out.
  3. Make game tokens.  I plan to take pictures of my students with winter or kennel hats to make my pieces.
  4. You can decide what to do with the special spaces. My ideas are below, but feel free to make it your own!


  1. Players start in Anchorage (GO) and move clockwise around the board.
  2. When the kids land on any checkpoint space, their turn is finished for the week.
  3. Community Sled Bag:  Draw a Community Sled Bag card and follow the directions on the card (cards direct movement on the board –move forward, backwards, or to a specific space)
  4. Equipment Spaces (Snow Shoes, Dog Booties, Sled, Dog Kennel):  These spaces are a good place to award privileges.  For example, land on the Dog Kennel and get to keep a stuffed dog on your desk for the week.
  5. Race Trivia Stop:  Challenge the player to answer a trivia question about the race to win a small prize
  6. McGrath – Spirit of Alaska Award:  land here and win an Alaska sticker (the first musher to McGrath wins a Spirit Mask)
  7. Trail Route Splits:  This is where the trail splits between the Northern and Southern Route. The halfway prizes are awarded in the split.  Land here and earn a chocolate coin (the halfway prize for mushers is gold nuggets)
  8. Nome to GO! :  Each time the students pass GO they could earn a prize such as a homework pass or some other privilege.

Have fun with it!

Downloads here:  Community Sled Bag Card Backs   Iditaopoly Gameboard  Community Sled Bag Card Fronts a

Musher Assessment Form

Anjanette Steer starts her rookie run in 2012

Anjanette Steer starts her rookie run in 2012

In order to enter the Iditarod, a rookie musher must meet a set of qualifications that includes having completed a number qualifying races.  New this year, the mushers must also have a Musher Assessment Form completed for each of those qualifiers.  More details can be found here:  http://iditarod.com/resources/mushers/

Well… in my mind… a Musher Assessment Form = a Musher Report Card right?

In my classroom, at the end of each week (or more realistically every two weeks), my kids take home their Friday Folder of completed and graded assignments. My grade level team also likes to include a mini evaluation form with the folder just to touch base with the parents about how things are going in class.

Given that a lot of the character traits that the Iditarod Race Judges are looking for in their mushers are the same traits that I am looking for in my third- graders, I thought it might be fun to adapt the Musher Assessment Form into weekly self-assessment form for my students!

I think using this form with the students will give us a great opportunity to talk about the idea of preparedness.  Why does the Iditarod require qualifying races be completed prior to attempting the Iditarod?  Why would the judges be looking for specific character traits in the mushers?  Are those traits only useful for mushers or do they apply to “real-world” situations as well?

Find the form here:  Student Musher Assessment Form

Going to the Dogs!

If you are anything like me, even though you are on summer vacation, your mind is always going and going and going and you are always thinking of things to do to make your classroom more welcoming and more inviting for your students.

???????????????????It’s safe to say that in the last two years my classroom has officially gone to the dogs!  I have always used the Iditarod as a part of my teaching curriculum and toolbag, but two years ago I really let it take over my classroom and become my yearlong classroom theme.   I say two years ago, because that is the year that my life took a turn on the trail towards this amazing adventure I am embarking on.

Two years ago, my good friend and teaching partner Ellen Rizzuto, burst into my room one morning declaring, “I just heard the coolest thing and you are the only person crazy enough to do it with me!”

The crazy thing she had heard about was Wintergreen Lodge in Ely, Minnesota, where you could go for a long weekend and learn to dogsled.  Not just go for a ride, but really get your own team and learn how to mush!  I immediately countered that if we were going to do that, we should tie it into something educational and apply for a grant from our school.  That winter we spent Martin Luther King weekend at Wintergreen, and then attended the Iditarod Winter Conference for Educators and the start and restart of the 40th Iditarod.  It was a life changing experience, and has directly led me to where I am today.

As you can imagine, with all the excitement of that first trip, my trip to the race last year as a finalist, and then of course all that will be happening this year, my classroom revolves around the Iditarod.  I’ve found it to be an amazing classroom theme for my third grade boys… the race is full of action, adventure, dogs, wilderness, and competition… all things boys adore!  In using it as my classroom theme, it surrounds us all year long, not just at race time.  I can sneak in little tidbits of information when time allows and not have to let it dominate one portion of my curriculum.  (Although the race IS my math curriculum from January-April… but that is a post for another time).

So during the summer, I thought I would share with you some of the ways I use the Iditarod as my classroom theme. I hope that you will be able to find something that you can use – or “borrow and tweak” as 2013 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™ Linda Fenton would say!  Let me know if you do….I’d love to hear about it!

At the start of the year before adding student samples

At the start of the year before adding student samples

To that end, I thought the first idea I would share with you is the Advice from the Trail activity we do in my classroom.  When Ellen and I attended that first conference, I found myself writing down tidbits of advice and quotations that mushers, vets, volunteers, and presenters said.  I realized that many of the quotations, while obviously focused on the Iditarod, had applications in the “real-world” too.  Advice that I hoped my students would take to heart!

Every month I choose a quotation and post it on the Advice from the Trail bulletin board.  Throughout the month, we discuss the advice and what lessons we could take from it.  We try to apply it to what we are experiencing in the classroom.  We talk about how it applies to characters in books we are reading and our lives outside of school.  At the end of the month, the students write a reflection about the quote in their journals and then we start the whole process over with a new quote.

This activity, while obviously a good writing assignment, also allows me to sneak in some character development lessons.  An added bonus, which I didn’t originally anticipate, is that it allowed me to introduce several key and memorable mushers to the students.

Included in the lesson plan is a list of quotations that could be used for this project.  I keep adding to the list! Lesson Plan Here:  Advice From the Trail July