Classroom Community Restart!

Students in my library are part of a dog sled devoted learning community! Photo Credit: J. Westirch

Educators devote an enormous amount of effort into creating a positive, supportive classroom community. The beginning of the year is dedicated to establishing norms and expectations so that every student feels included and supported. Integrated into the curriculum is identity work, emotional regulation strategies, lessons on collaboration, respect, and consideration, and reminders to make responsible decisions in all these areas. It is no small feat, BUT by February students have become so familiar with each other, their quirks and idiosyncrasies, that things begin to crumble. The Iditarod has a RE-START- and your classroom can, too. 

The Iditarod is a unique sporting event in many ways, but one of the most significant is that it takes place across 1,000 miles of remote Alaskan landscape. Portions of the race are literally inaccessible – unless you have a snowmachine, dogsled, or airplane. Unlike football, soccer, baseball – go ahead, name your sport – where you can sit down and watch a full televised competition, the Iditarod lasts 8-14 days. And other sporting events that are multi-day, like the Tour de France are much more easily documented. This factor is a significant contribution to the need for the Ceremonial Start in downtown Anchorage….it is the one time most people will actually get to see the dog teams in action!

The Ceremonial Start is a celebration of all things Iditarod! Photo Credit: J. Westrich

What is the Ceremonial Start? Early on the first Saturday in March the mushers racing the Iditarod gather in downtown Anchorage, Alaska to show off their teams and get pumped for the race to come. I tell my students it feels like a festival or parade. There is food, music, crowds, and snow! The night before the Ceremonial Start they bring in enough snow to fill the entire street on 4th Avenue, making it dogsled friendly. Under the enormous START banner, teams – carrying an Iditarider and often pulling a second drag sled to slow them down – take off every two minutes as the cheering fans line the street, and make their way 11 miles to the Campbell Airstrip. You can watch them at the starting line, taking the turn onto Cordova St., or bask in the view from the upper floors of the 4th Avenue parking garage. Any way you look at it, the Ceremonial Start is an amazing way to kick off this race.  

It is like September in a classroom. Everyone is pumped, ready to figure things out together, and tackle challenges. It is also the time when students are trying to find their place and get a sense of their peers and the teacher. As a teacher you may feel like an Iditarider, being pulled along by this group of eager new learners. Often this is when you need to slow the class down, take the time to learn expectations before charging forward. The Ceremonial Start gives mushers a chance to see how their team performs in unusual conditions, and to make adjustments before things get serious and the real race begins.   

The Restart is all focus…


…and determination to run a great race! Photo Credit:. J. Westrich

The following day is the Willow RE-START. This is all business. Teams are ready to get to the serious work of tackling challenging situations, grueling miles, rough weather, and unexpected hazards. Just like your class in February. It is a long-haul to Nome, and it is long-haul for your class to get to spring break. By the RE-START the mushers know everything about each of their dogs, all their strengths and weaknesses. By February you know this about each of your students. In both situations it is time to move past the celebration and ceremony and get down to the hard work of racing/learning.  

That’s not to say that the RE-START doesn’t have pageantry to mark the occasion. It definitely does. Officially recognizing a classroom restart marks a shift in the classroom dynamic to re-center learning. For the complete Restart Lesson click HERE.

A view of the Ceremonial Start from above. Photo Credit: J. Westrich

Personally I love both of the Iditarod “starts.” They serve different purposes, but are each incredibly valuable to the sport. Last year, the Ceremonial Start of the 50th running of the Iditarod took place on a day of record snow in Anchorage. It was like being in a snow-globe filled with barking dogs, excited spectators, and a reindeer hot-dog or two! It was new, exciting, and I was full of enthusiasm just like I am the first few weeks of school in September. The RE-START was more focused. I had the great honor to volunteer as a dog-handler for Iditarod veteran musher Deke Naaktgeboren. This day was about doing a job, completing the task at hand to the best of my ability, and putting my training into action. Basically, just like another day of teaching in February.

Heading out on the Iditarod Trail and the Alaskan interior at the Restart. Photo Credit; J. Westrich

Library Learnings: The book Nanette’s Baguette by Mo Willems is a great reminder that even when we make mistakes we can always “re-set” and try again. I also love the book Unstoppable by Adam Rex to remind us that we all have unique talents and can be better when we work together – and the animals in this story can all be found in Alaska!