Carlisle second graders track the “Last Great Race on Earth”

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The Iditarod notebook of Roman Caggiano from Linda Vanaria’s second-grade class.

(Photo by Karina Coombs)

by Karina Coombs

The 41st running of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race began on March 2 with 66 mushers racing their dogs the 998-mile southern route from Anchorage to Nome. Over the course of ten days, nine racers have quit or “scratched” and one was withdrawn after losing a dog that was later found. Even those in lead positions—an order that seemed to change at each of the 27 checkpoints—saw their dog teams grow smaller, hoping they did not fall below the required six needed to finish. Tracking all of this have been Carlisle School’s second grade classes as part of their Alaska research and Iditarod curriculum that began mid-February and will continue to the end of this month.

Second-grade teacher Donna Clapp credits retired teacher and Carlisle native, Daryl Greenwood, with first introducing the Iditarod to the school. Described as a “dog lover,” Greenwood taught her first-grade students about the Iditarod for a number of years before the project moved to the second grade and was developed into a teaching unit.

Learning about a neighboring Iditarod curriculum in 1997, second-grade teachers from Carlisle attended workshops at Westford’s Abbot School where both groups exchanged and shared ideas for expanding the project. Westford was already introducing technology into their classrooms with grant funding specifically for their Iditarod unit. Hoping to do the same, Carlisle second-grade teachers and retired Technology Integration Specialist David Mayall applied for and were awarded a $40,000 federal grant in 1999 which allowed them to purchase a number of iMac laptops, and other peripherals for use in their classrooms (See “Teaching team garners $40K grant” 09/24/99).

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Arnav Shah from Linda Vanaria’s second-grade class checks on the progress of his two mushers and records it in his notebook. Each child has to select two mushers to follow, in the event one drops out.

(Photo by Karina Coombs)

Clapp explains that the Alaska and Iditarod curriculum addresses the following academic standards: reading; writing; speaking and listening; language; operations and algebraic thinking; technology (research, problem-solving and communicating and collaborating); history and science. All of this is done, however, in age-appropriate and exciting ways for the kids who are unaware of the concepts behind the project. Librarian Sandy Kelly begins the unit by delivering a cart of Alaska-themed library books and asking the students to investigate the state with the idea they are researching whether or not they should live there. She tells the students she “loves islands and palm trees” and asks them to find out if Alaska would meet her needs.

Within each class, students are then divided into groups to research specific areas within geography, history, weather and climate, and wildlife using books and researching online with the help of parent volunteers. The kids learn that there are a lot of islands and “there are rainforests in Alaska, but they are not tropical,” explains enthusiastic second-grade teacher Linda Vanaria. Each student writes a paragraph on her/his assigned topic and creates an illustration. Students make a voice recording of their paragraph, or a “voice thread,” and Technology Integration Specialist Cyd McCann scans the illustrations to create a multimedia presentation. “The Northern Lights are really cool and there was a dog relay to save Nome from Diphtheria,” writes student Arianna Quayle, explaining that her favorite part of the research was “learning a lot about one subject.”

For the Iditarod race segment of the unit, students are asked to select two mushers to track daily, in the event that one does not finish. Students use class computers to track the race at www.iditarod.com and record findings in their Iditarod notebooks. Each class also tracks the same set of four mushers, comprised of two experienced Iditarod racers and two rookies. One of these rookies is Cindy Abbott, an extreme sport enthusiast and cancer survivor from Irvine, California. Abbott’s current position, as of press time, shifts between second to last and the race’s “Red Lantern” position; a position that signifies coming in last in the race but also acknowledges having the perseverance to finish. Clapp explains to her students that in the Iditarod, racers are not just competing to win, but describes the competition as “a race against yourself, setting a goal and meeting it.”

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Donna Clapp’s second-grade class is tracking four mushers, two veterans and two rookies, one of whom is the “Red Lantern” musher and recognized for finishing in last place. (Photo by Karina Coombs)

Some students pick mushers based on past Iditarod performances. Says Arnav Shah, “I went to musher profiles [on the website]. Each of the mushers had over ten years of experience in the Iditarod. John Baker won first place five times out of 13 times. He was in top ten places all the times out of 13!” While other students choose mushers for more personal reasons. “I picked Mikhail [Telpin] because I wanted to pick someone who is Asian like me,” says Lucas Lee. “I picked Dallas [Seavey] because I liked his red hat and Jake [Berkowitz] had a cool sled dog race hat,” explains Roman Caggiano when asked about his musher selection. Seavey finished fourth and Berkowitz eighth.

The Alaska project will continue after the race ends with an Iditarod-themed reading contest (Iditaread) and math games. Clapp and Vanaria explain the curriculum will also continue to be incorporated into physical education, art and music classes. Asked about her favorite part of the project, Vanaria explains that she enjoys tracking the mushers with the kids; she is not alone in that sentiment.

“Tracking our mushers is really fun, especially when your friends have the same musher because then you can talk about it at school,” explains student Anna Ely. And that enthusiasm is not just reserved for the classroom. Parent Laura Quayle writes about a recent recess observation, “Several of the girls . . . were running around playing some type of sled dog/musher game. I thought it was really cute that the Iditarod research has spilled over into their imaginative play.”

Still others are enjoying the activity as a family. Shah explains, “We are tracking the Iditarod as a family. We never knew about the Iditarod prior to this project and now we are all so interested in knowing more about it.”

Editor’s note: Mitch Seavey, Dallas’ father, finished first.