Bringing Lessons to Life: Alaskan Musher Visits Meadows Elementary School

When Diane Kimsey shared her plans to teach about dog sledding to her fourth grade class on Facebook, she had no idea a few months later she would have an Alaskan musher standing in her classroom.

Kimsey and her 22 Meadows Elementary students began their dog sled experience by reading Stone Fox by John Gardiner, a short children's book describing dog sledding and survival. After noticing that her students were very interested in learning more, Kimsey reached out to the Facebook community for suggestions on furthering their studies. Luckily, Facebook put her in touch with Debbie Menendez, a volunteer coordinator for the internationally recognized Alaskan Iditarod dog sled race. Mendez directed her to the Iditarod dog sled race website, where she found exciting resources and lesson plan materials to share with her eager students. 

Through the website's resources her students were able to track Iditarod mushers in real time. 

Kimsey explained,“We could see when they were resting, when they were eating and when they were actually racing. We watched them move on the map and created a wall-sized map, and the kids moved their sleds on the map two different times during the day." 

Kimsey was able to incorporate math, geography, culture, writing and graphing into lesson plans through dog sledding. 

“We did a ton of math. We knew the speed that the mushers were traveling and the distance of the trail. The kids got really good at figuring out how long and at what time the mushers would arrive at the next check point. They could even get it to the second," Kimsey recalled. 

The class also learned about the complex geography and culture of the Alaskan Iditarod landscape.

Kimsey said,“They learned a lot about geography and how Iditarod is basically three drastically different environments. They learned a lot about the villages along the race trails and the traditions that happen at each of the different villages.”

The students were inspired to write the mushers individual letters that they received while racing on the trails. 

"The kids wrote some of the most magnificent papers that I have ever read in all my years of teaching about their mushers," Kimsey bragged.  

One of the Alaskan Iditarod mushers, Alan Eischens, received a student's letter and was so moved that he was determined to meet the class. 

Kimsey recalled, “Alan was taken by the letter that he received and his wife happens to be from Kansas City, and they came to visit family, so Alan said ‘we’re going'. I told the class we had a musher coming, but I didn’t tell them which one. They had it narrowed down to four mushers, so when they saw him walk in they were excited and knew exactly who it was." 

Eischens answered countless questions from the 22 fourth graders, fueling their curiosity and interest to learn more. He brought some of his racing gear for the students to see and hold. 

“It’s so rich, and they get first-hand experience and learning. You get to hear stories and things that don’t make the books," said Kimsey.

Since Eischens' visit, Kimsey was able to invite another musher, Steve Watkins, to her classroom to talk with the kids. Watkins was even able to bring a retired racing dog for the kids to meet. 

By creating this experience for her students, they were able to learn true life skills in addition to the academic curriculum. 

Kimsey explained, "They’ve learned the life skills of endurance, perseverance and stamina. Both men and women compete, but they’ve learned a lot about brotherhood. The mushers are competing to win, but they are also making sure that everyone survives out there on the trail and if someone is injured to help them. They’ve learned about racing to win but also about racing to participate. Even though that’s not what I set out for them to learn.”

Kimsey was able to make learning come to life for her students. 

“It’s going beyond the textbook and making something come to real life for the kids. It’s been incredible. It shows how social media can be a fabulous thing to reach out and see what’s out there," said Kimsey.