Jim’s Blog Posts

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Day 1: Exploring Downtown Anchorage

Today we went downtown for the Fur Rondy sprint races, checked out the snow sculpture contest, and checked out some of the local shops.

My personal favorites were the Selfie Polar Bear and the Frozen 2 Olaf sculpture (because of my 2 girls back home). After walking around looking at these amazing sculptures, I thought it would be a fun way to incorporate this event into your math curriculum!

  • For graphing:
    • Have your class look at each of the snow sculptures.
    • Then have them vote on which they like the best!
    • Create a data table then a bar graph or line plot!
    • EXTENSION ACTIVITY – Use some kinetic sand to have your class create their own sculptures in groups and have them vote for their favorite!
  • For multiplication:
    • There were 20 sculptures in all; show ALL of the different ways they could be arranged in an array!
    • If there are 20 sculptures in all, and each team had 60 hours to create it, how long did it take to create all of the sculptures in all?
  • For Geometry:
    • Look at the Snoopy sculpture; how many right angles do you see?
    • Looking at all of the sculptures – identify as many 3D shapes as you can!
  • For measurement/volume:
    • Each block was 8′ x 8′ x 8′; what volume of snow is in each block?

Day 2: Taking it Slow(er)

Today started more slowly. I was able to FaceTime with my class and grade level back in Columbus and showed them all the snow we have here, and the lobby of our hotel which has lots of mounted Alaskan wildlife. In the afternoon, the 3 finalists had our interviews and afterwards, we decided to go for a walk outside.

We ended up walking down some side streets and even found a little trail that led to some amazing views of the surrounding mountains. It was perfect timing as the sun was setting. When we returned to the hotel, we then filled out our paperwork to work as volunteers for the Iditarod at the end of the week. I received my lanyard, ID card and volunteer hat. It’s getting closer to race time!

Day 3: Kicking off the Iditarod Summit: Don’t Let Perception Limit Potential…

Today started with a trip out to Camp Birchwood to meet with some of the teachers of A CHILL (Alaskan Care and Husbandry Instruction for Lifelong Learning) in Chugiak. We heard presentations from Diane Johnson, Terri Hanke, and Sara Lamont from the ITC education committee. Then we were able to hear from A CHILL member Kathy Turco and a wonderful Norwegian musher named Carson. They both had amazing stories about working with the native villages and using sled dogs as a tool in the curriculum, but also to motivate students and help improve ownership of their work and attendance.

The 3 finalists also gave our presentations about integrating the Iditarod into our classrooms. Teresa read “Douggie” and did an unplugged coding activity, and Bridget introduced using and Iditarod escape room! Both were very cool ideas and I found things from both of them that I want to use in my classroom in the future. My presentation focused on personalizing the race for students, STEM using a “Mush Madness” activity and Ozobots to help “Code the Iditarod Trail”. The summit attendees then got to try it themselves!

Once we got back to the hotel, the 3 us us enjoyed dinner in front of another amazing Alaskan sunset.

Day 4: Vet Checks, Team 17th Dog, and Mushing… What a Day!

I am going to struggle to find words for this day… We started with a beautiful drive out to Wasilla and Iditarod HQ for vet checks. We got to see a few mushers getting their dogs checked and filling out the required paperwork. The vets and vet techs were amazingly efficient and the mushers never had to wait very long. I was able to see some of the trophies given out during the race and met Togo inside of HQ. I even got a quick “hey” from Nic Petit and Martin Buser.

Following the vet checks we drove out to Matthew Failor’s 17th Dog Kennel. After FaceTiming with him in my classroom annually for the past 5 years, actually being at his place was surreal. I chatted with his brother, checked out his sled and gear 1st hand and then got to spend some time in the dog yard. Led Zeppelin, Cool Cat and Pink Floyd were some of my favorites, but even Espy and Heisman came out to say hi.

Following our trip to the 17th dog, we made our way back to Camp Birchwood. I was even able to get on a sled and go mushing! Again, surreal… Going through the wilderness with nothing but the falling snow from tree branches, the mountains all around and the only sounds are those of a sled… Simply amazing experience. We ended the night with Cathy Turco, members of A CHILL, and a sprint musher talking to us about some new versions of dog mushing I have never heard of including Skijoring. Finally, we were able to watch a viewing of “Attla” about the famous sprint racer and Cathy’s late partner, George Attla. It was a powerful way to end the day and her words to us really brought home the importance of what we are doing as teachers.

This is only a brief summary of the opportunities we are able to experience today, so I will leave you with lots of pictures; because a picture is worth 1000 words…

Day 5: The Circle of Life

We started today by visiting the Alaskan Native Medical Center in Anchorage. We were taken on a tour of the art, artifacts and displays of different native groups from around Alaska. The thing that had the biggest impact on me was also the largest piece there, a carved wood piece depicting the progression of life.

The first image represents a child learning to hunt, then that child gains knowledge. In the middle, they become an adult and learn to be a gatherer. The 4th image shows them becoming a parent before becoming an elder. It was really powerful due to the size, but also because of its location; a hospital. I thought it was so fitting to have this be the focal point as in this place babies are being brought into the world, but also people are sometimes spending their final days here. All stages of life are present in this building, much like people depicted in the carving.

We were able to see many more incredible pieces of art and culture of the native people on display here and I was blown away by the intricacies and use of all materials possible. There were containers made from moose hearts, a sewing kit made of bleached walrus gut, seal skin and hair, and figurines of walrus ivory and baleen. These pieces were truly remarkable.

We finished the day by attending the Musher Meet and Greet followed by the Iditarod Musher’s Banquet. It was so amazing to get to interact with all of the people that my students have been following and learning about for years. It truly is like a big mushing family and we even experienced the circle of life within that family today. The rookies who are new to the trail; just joining this family, and some that are letting go a little to make way for the next generation. One of the speeches even praised the Junior Iditarod mushers as the future of the sport, which they are, but drove home the point of keeping this sport and its traditions alive. It was another full day of amazing memories I will keep with me forever.

Day 6: Words of Wisdom

Today was filled with amazing quotes from numerous sources, all of which perfectly helped to define the day. We began the morning listening to a presentation by another teacher in our Summit Jenny Ittner from Georgia. She talked about some amazing things she does with her 5th grade students to promote LEAD Dogs in the classroom. I learned lots of great ideas to bring back to my classroom for next year. She provided the first quote of the day that I LOVED; “I don’t teach subjects, I teach children”.

We then had the fortunate opportunity to hear from author and naturalist and former Iditarod musher Shelly Gill. She talked about the Serum Run, the history of the Iditarod and the most powerful part was simply listening to her tell stories of the early races of the Iditarod like the one she ran in 1978. Next, she discussed the lineage of dogs and how it is still somewhat unclear how dogs became domesticated and the different breeds evolved. Simply fascinating… She even showed us some pictures of how people tried other animals to pull sleds, instead of dogs and left us with a great message from Joe Redington Sr. “What makes a good sled dog? A tight tug line”. Finally, she did a brief book signing before we headed to dog handling class.

This class was lead by former Iditarod musher Wayne Curtis and the ITC dog handling coordinators. They talked to us about our safety, the safety of the dogs and the expectations of dog handling volunteers. There were some more amazing stories from the trail shared and specifically things NOT to do. Then, we went outside to work with Wayne’s team of beautiful Siberian Huskies. We learned how to run with the dogs and also how to unharness them after training. It got me even more excited about the race TOMORROW.

The afternoon took us back inside to hear a presentation about the care of the dogs during the race from Iditarod Lead veterinarian Stu Nelson. He provided many interesting insights about the incredible amount of care these dogs receive, how the dogs are checked at each checkpoint and the obstacles the race is facing from outside groups. He provided another great quote from the day, which can be applied to life in general; “A team is only as fast as its slowest dog”. Iditarod CEO Rob Urbach echoed the sentiments made by Dr. Nelson with regards to outside pressures. I liked how he said that we need to start by better educating the public, and how part of that responsibility starts with teachers.

We then went to an art gallery that was doing a special showing of artwork by Iditarod artist Jon Van Zyle. We were able to see posters from previous year’s races and some of the other incredible artwork on display. I loved his work and meeting him made the experience even more special. When we returned to our hotel, we ended the day with comms training race communications coordinators Jennifer Dowling and Reese Roberts. We learned lots of important things about how the communications during the race operate and learned a lot about the logistical challenges of communicating with very remote checkpoints. One of the other comms helpers talked about “Musher Grams”, and how they can be sent to any musher at any checkpoint along the race; something I will definitely be doing with my class this year. However, Jennifer Dowling ended the evening with one interesting tidbit, and one quote that will become my personal goal for the rest of the weekend… 1. “Checkpoints run on Mayo, Coffee and Tang.” 2. “Don’t be a dropped (retuned) volunteer.”

Day 7: Here We Go!

It is race day! We woke up early to be downtown for check-in at 7:30. We got there before most of the crowds and were able to really take it all in… we were at the start of the Iditarod! After our dog handling review, we received our armbands and we walked around for a bit to figure out where all of the mushers were located. Then went to got our first dog handling assignment.

After waiting a bit, we were assigned to Anna Berington! I got to run with Ratchet, and gladly so, as he was much more calm than some of his friends. It was so cool to see the twins’ set-up and prepare. It was also a bit like being back in Massachusetts, because most of their support/handlers were from there! After running with Anna, I then went straight to Matthew Failor‘s team. He didn’t need any handlers, but after talking to me Wednesday at his kennel, he did have a spot for me acting as a break for the team holding back the sled. It was awesome to see him there again and help him out. After meeting again to possibly get another assignment, the 3 of us got selected to help Kaci Murringer‘s team! I thought it was so incredible that we got to help BOTH teams from Team 17th Dog.

Once the mushers were all on their way to Campbell Air Strip, we walked around downtown for a bit and looked in some stores. I love seeing all of the pieces made by some of the local Native Alaskan people. Then came time to do a little more running; the 3 of us all competed in the 4th “herd” of the “Running with the Reindeer”. I will probably never get to “Run with the Bulls” in Pamplona, Spain, but this might be the next best thing. It was an absolute blast AND it raised over $200,000 for Toys for Tots.

We ended the day at the Alaska Zoo. There, we saw numerous animals including a lynx, a wolverine, a few musk ox, and a bald eagle. While there I learned a bit about animal anatomy and the relationship to other animals that are similar to them. I even got to see my favorite animal, a snow leopard. I know I’m beginning to sound like a broken record, but it WAS another amazing day.

Day 8: Game On!

This morning started with a bus ride back out to Willow for the restart of the race. We heard that there was going to be a LOT of snow today, but I had no idea how much was going to be there. Apparently the weather thought it was “game on” too; I actually had to help a musher push his truck into a parking spot! So, it took a little longer than expected to get there, but made the whole experience so much more memorable. It was snowing like crazy, but made for a perfect snowy start for the race, just like it should be.

We were assigned to help as dog handler for Wade Marrs, and right away we noticed some differences in preparations due to the snow. In the picture below, you can see Wade Marrs and his handlers putting on what look like doggie leg warmers. These are important for his lead dogs to help break the trail in the deeper snow. Other dogs had some protection on their stomachs to help keep their bellies less exposed to deeper snow. This year’s race will be really different simply due to the weather conditions.

After working with Stump Jump Kennels, we were assigned to bib #39, musher Tom Frode Johansen. This was a very different experience than any of the other times I had been handling. Since he is a rookie this year, he did not have the handler support or booster support like the other mushers I worked with. It was a really great experience, as he told us to just hang out and “get to know the dogs”. We spent a lot of time at his truck doing just that. He gave us more responsibility and I did feel more connected to his team because of it. Again, another amazing experience.

When we were done, we were able to just take in the moment from the starting line. The snow was falling, the last few mushers were leaving, and we were wrapping up our Iditarod experience on the race course. It’s hard to believe that 8 days ago we started this adventure, and now it’s almost done. As one of our A CHILL presenters stated a few days ago; when you get to the finish of the Iditarod trail, you are not relieved that you made it, you are disappointed the adventure is over. Now I can totally relate…

Day 9: Returning Home: It’s Not Goodbye, It’s Until Next Time…

Spending the last few hours of our time in Alaska, makes me start to reflect about my time in this amazing place. I am sad to leave after looking forward to this opportunity for so long, but I am also looking forward to my family and support back home. I think this feeling helps me relate to some of the dogs that get returned from the race. There is such anticipation and build up, that when it’s over, it is very bittersweet. Seeing some of the returned dogs behind our hotel today, helped inspire me for this post. These athletes train so hard all year, that when their race is done, I’m sure there is some disappointment. These dogs love to run, it’s what they are born and bred to do. And when the get returned, I am so glad that they are taken such good care of. On a personal note, I was sad to see one of Matthew Failor’s dogs here, who I saw just a few days ago at his kennel. But I know he will be excited to get back home, just like I am.

This trip was kind of like my “Iditarod”. Such anticipation and excitement leading up to it, that now that it’s over, I have very mixed feelings about it. However, I know it’s not over, in the sense that the relationships I have made here will stick with me forever. The other two finalists and myself now share this common bond that cannot be taken away. There are so many memories we have made and inside jokes we now share that it’s going to be hard to not see them each day. The other teachers that I have met at this conference are all passionate people who love this sport and love sharing it with future generations. The organizers of this incredible event are devoted and inspirational people who come back year after year to make sure it maintains it’s elite stature in the dog racing community of the world. The volunteers for this event are the backbone, and without them, this race would not function properly. These are people who donate their own time and money to support an event and sport they are passionate about. Lastly, the people of these communities are some of the kindest and most welcoming people I have had the pleasure of meeting.

So I truly hope that for all of the relationships I have made over the past 10 days, it truly is not goodbye, but rather “until next time”…

Day 10: Reflections of the Adventure; Every Picture Tells a Story

For this final entry, I chose one picture from all of the ones I took during my time in Alaska. This is no small task considering the large number of pictures taken. The one I decided to focus on is seen below. It might not be one that is expected, but let me explain the reasons for my selection…

The relationships formed during the 10 days in Alaska, are ones that I will never forget. These people right here helped make this an experience of a lifetime. We are all educators from different places and stages of life. Some are in their very first year of teaching; wide-eyed and ready to take on anything. Some have come out of retirement to continue to work with the next generation of learners as substitute teachers. Others, like myself, are in the middle of their teaching careers and looking for more ways to connect our students back home to the Iditarod and the breathtaking frontier of Alaska.

There are additional relationships that I hope to foster now that the travel aspect of the journey has come to a close. I hope to reach out to members of the A CHILL community to learn even more from them about the use of sled dogs in their classroom, and how I could possibly apply the same thing in my community. I have begun new relationships with the mushers of this great race, and will hold memories of my time with them very close. Whether it’s Alan Eischens looking at the map of the Iditarod and explaining the trip and various checkpoints through his eyes to us; dog handling with Tom Frode Johansen and having him encourage us handlers to spend time with his team “and really get to know them” or talking with Deke Naaktgeboren in the hotel restaurant and listening to his family give him words of support just hours before the race. It was truly incredible.

I will also be nurturing relationships that I had started prior to the trip. Having the opportunity of going to meet Matthew Failor and Kaci Murringer at Team 17th Dog kennel after FaceTiming with him for 5 years with my students in Ohio, was absolutely surreal. I spent time in the dog yard with his athletes; I was able to meet some is his family and fiancee Liz for the first time. But being able to talk to him about every day things and him showing a true interest in the things I was doing in the classroom was unparalleled.

I also felt the backdrop of a native Alaskan piece of artwork was particularly fitting for our group picture. The carving depicts the “Circle of Life”. The first image represents a native child learning to hunt, then that child gains knowledge (in the form of white shells). In the middle, they become an adult and learn to be a gatherer. The 4th image shows them becoming a parent before becoming an elder in the end. I also felt it represented some of our current stages in our “circle of teaching” as well.

The final reason I chose this picture was due to the location of the carving; a hospital. With the current state of our country and world reeling from the impact of the COVID-19 virus, I thought a native Alaskan carving would bring their role in this crisis to light. These communities are potentially at great risk. The native populations have previously been hit hard by various foreign diseases; I applaud the efforts made by the ITC and local officials to divert the racers and visitors away from checkpoint villages like Shaktoolik to try to reduce the impact. This is the largest native Alaskan hospital in the state, and if this virus does spread to these native communities, the impact could be significant throughout Alaska.

During times like these I feel it is important to come together as one larger community, and for this reason, developing better relationships is the foundation of making this possible. As Henry Ford once said, “Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.” Here’s to ALL of us working together.

In closing, thank you to the ITC EDU committee for selecting me to be a part of this one-of-a-kind journey. It truly was incredible and one that I will never forget. And thank you all for following my posts, I hope you have enjoyed it as much as I have.

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