Classroom Connections: Togo vs. Balto Opinion Writing

Visiting Balto at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History

Visiting Togo at Iditarod Headquarters

For this lesson, students will take a look at what mushing was like before the Iditarod ever existed. Togo and Balto played integral roles in the delivery of a lifesaving serum to the isolated town of Nome during the winter of 1925. Known as the “Great Race of Mercy” or “The Great Serum Run”, students will learn about the character traits of each of these heroic dogs and then write an opinion paper defending their stance on which dog they think was more important. Included are some great read alouds about each dog to provide the background information necessary for formulating an opinion. Students will learn how to write a multi-paragraph essay using both multiple character traits and evidence from the text to back up their stance. For those that use Lucy Calkins, this is the project I do for the “Opinion Writing” unit. I use those rubrics and checklists provided for the class to use. Here is a more detailed description of the lesson: 


Start by reading aloud the story of Balto. I prefer to use the book Balto and the Great Race by Elizabeth Cody Kimmel. It’s a little longer, but does a great job painting the picture of the entire Serum Run, and not just Balto’s portion of it. In 3rd grade, we focus on the character traits of both dogs. I keep a running list of character traits on a separate sheet of chart paper that the students and I add to as we read the story. Throughout the process, we also write down page numbers where these traits are demonstrated (in case we need to refer back to them later). If we find more than one place where a specific trait is shown, we add the new page number as well. Then we read the story of Togo and complete the same process. The version of Togo I prefer is Togo by Robert J. Blake. It’s shorter, but does a great job talking about the entire life of Togo, and does not simply go over all of the same information they just learned while reading Balto.


After reading both stories, the students each choose which dog they believe was more important. By this point, we have had class discussions on the critical roles each dog played in the relay, so students have to choose who they believe was MORE important. They then fill out the graphic organizer (provided) by adding a character trait on the top line, with examples from the stories underneath. Students often refer back to the chart paper lists that we created together during the read alouds. During the writing process, each of these character traits will become its own paragraph. 

One of my teammate’s Character Trait chart

Next, the students begin working on their introductions. We talk about giving the audience  some background information and basically a short “retelling” of what the Serum Run was, and why it happened. The students and I create a “thesis statement” together with the phrase; “I think that Balto/Togo was more important during the Serum Run because he was…” and everyone uses it as their final sentence. The number of character traits and paragraphs in the thesis statement depends on grade level and teacher expectation. 

Each student then writes one paragraph for each trait selected. We make sure to have the topic sentence of each paragraph be structurally similar. Students are expected to then tell why that is an important trait, and list as many examples from the story when the dogs showed those traits.

We keep the conclusion fairly simple by restating the thesis statement, and adding another sentence or two. During the writing process, I try to conference with each student and assist them through the entire writing process. However, this can also be done with a peer, depending on time restraints and grade/ability levels of the students. 

When their writing is complete, students move onto the final step which will be used to display their work. Each student designs their own dog head (and paws) to “hold up” their writing. Each portion of the dog head is included here for printing/reproducing purposes. The final products create an incredible hallway display to showcase the students’ hard work, and they always enjoy it!


Teachers: Check out the full lesson plan and templates here: Togo_Balto