Classroom Culture: Stories to Unite Your Class

When a class “gels,” it’s a beautiful thing.  Students work together willingly and support one another.  They get along, and they tolerate one another’s differences.  One thing you can do to really move this process along is build a shared culture of stories.  For me, that’s sled dog stories.

Beautiful Ukulele, from Martin Buser’s Happy Trails Kennel. Photo: K. Newmyer

The first sled dog book I bought was Douggie: The Playful Pup Who Became a Sled Dog Hero by Pam Flowers. I found it at Denali National Park when my family visited in the summer of 2018.  It felt like a splurge–but this story called to me. Little did I know the power this book would also have for my students over the years. 

At first, I read it to teach our Core Values of Character, Trustworthiness, Respect, Responsibility, Fairness, Caring, and Citizenship.  My students and I noticed how Pam always showed Caring to Douggie.  We talked about how even when someone is showing Responsibility, they might still make mistakes and need forgiveness. 

I added Pam Flowers’ book Big Enough Anna, then her lovely memoir about Sojo, which is written from Sojo’s point of view.  I started adding more books about famous sled dogs like Granite, who led Susan Butcher’s team. A student gifted me Blair Braverman’s book Dogs on the Trail which has such wonderful descriptions of her dogs including Pepé and Grinch.  I filled my rail with sled dog books. I shared them aloud and let students explore on their own. 

Then magic happened.  I would say something about character–for example, “that really showed Caring, good job!” Another student would respond, “like Anna!” Another time, I mentioned the importance of being Trustworthy, and students would answer, “Douggie learned to be Trustworthy!” Every time this happened, a little current of connectivity flowed through the class. 

We learned about interpersonal relationships when we saw how Sojo stood up to Roald, who constantly barked in her ear. We developed compassion when we read about Susan Butcher’s dog Granite.  This year I’ve been telling my students about Iditarod dogs like Eddie, a gentle giant on Jason Mackey’s team, and Ukulele, one of Martin Buser’s dogs who just loved to be loved on (that’s her in my Teacher on the Trail™ photo).  I really enjoy reading musher’s descriptions of their dogs on social media, and thinking about how every Iditarod story can teach the core values we want students to absorb.

I love reading to my classes! Photo: Students ZR and NB

In addition to the many amazing sled dog and hero dog books, Kelly Villar features a “Sled Dog of the Month” in every other issue of the Mush On! Iditarod Education Department newsletter.  This month, she writes about Rizo, a dog on the team of Kristy and Anna Berington. The Beringtons say, “On top of an incredible race career, Rizo gives the sweetest kisses and has the most recognizable voice in the kennel with her gargled little howl.” 

A shared culture of sled dog books and stories provides glue to help fuse a class together. The dogs become role models, and eventually they become like members of the class. I hope you will make these wonderful books and stories a part of your classroom culture in an intentional way.  You never know what magic might happen.

What are your favorite dog stories to promote character learning with students? Email me at