A real journey comes to life in the snow
by Amanda Lane
“The best journeys answer questions that in the beginning you didn’t even think to ask.” Jeff Johnson
Every school year is a journey. Our community of first and second graders learns and grows together a bit more as each day passes. This year, in addition to experiencing the journey of a typical school year, we chose to focus on “journeys” as our year-long social studies theme. As part of that theme, we have spent the past month engaged in a comprehensive study of the Iditarod sled dog race.
The Iditarod is a race that takes place each March in Alaska. Mushers and their dog teams embark on a 1,000 mile journey from Anchorage to Nome. We began by exploring the history of the race, the logistics of how it unfolds, and the many details that go into proper dog care along the way. After building a general knowledge base, each student chose a specific topic that they were interested in learning more about. Many students wanted to learn more about the dogs involved in the race. Some children chose to research the state of Alaska, while others were interested in the animals that live in that harsh climate. Several students wanted to know more about the climate and weather conditions that the mushers would face along the way. When choosing their topic, the students also wrote down several questions that would guide their research.
Through this engaging study, the children were exposed to the beginning steps of the in-depth research process. They learned how to read nonfiction texts, take notes in their own words, and check their information in multiple sources. After gathering a considerable amount of information, each child chose a creative way to display his or her knowledge. Some children created posters, some wrote books, and many designed games that would be both fun and informative.
Along the way, we also enjoyed tracking the race using the wonderfully comprehensive official Iditarod website. Each child chose a musher to follow for the duration of the race. Each morning, we checked the official race standings to see where our mushers were along the course. We kept track of their progress on a large race map in our hallway. We watched video clips of our mushers and learned about some of the adversity that they faced along their journeys. We even had the opportunity to watch several mushers cross the finish line in real time, with the help of the live video stream from Nome.
The race came to life when we staged our own “Ikidarod.” The children broke into teams of 4 or 5 students, with each team containing one “musher” and several “sled dogs.” Teams took part in a staggered start before racing through a variety of checkpoints on a marked course. Some checkpoints required the teams to complete necessary care tasks, such as feeding or booting the dogs. At other checkpoints, the teams had to use their intellect to unscramble Iditarod-themed words or solve an Iditarod-related math problem. The teams were cheered on by fellow students, teachers and families. The recently fallen snow provided the perfect canvas for the race, and the children crossed the finish line tired, but exhilarated. We hope that their participation in this unit, and this race, is a journey that they will never forget.