Iditarod Identity

Visiting Iditarod Headquarters this summer to prepare for the school year ahead. Photo credit: J. Westrich

As I contemplate the beginning of the year I am reminded of all the things I need to incorporate into my curriculum – like SEL and the CR-SE Framework. Yes, I just threw out another acronym, but don’t panic just yet. Like SEL, (see previous post Iditarod Gives All the Feels) the CR-SE Framework enhances the learning that is already happening in our classrooms. Each month I’ll have a post connecting Iditarod to the pillars of CR-SE which can be incorporated into instruction relatively easily.

“You keep saying CR-SE?  What does that stand for?  What does it mean?  Why is there more for me to add to my curriculum?” I know what you are thinking, so let me break it down. CR-SE, Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Education Framework, was adopted by New York State and founded on 4 pillars: welcoming and affirming environment, high expectations and rigorous instruction, inclusive curriculum and assessment, ongoing professional development. Simple, right?  This sounds like the classroom we’d all like to have.  CR-SE provides a context to help classrooms be a place students find themselves represented and reflected, an intellectually challenging environment that fosters independent learning, and space for learners to consider diverse perspectives and engage with knowledge, empathy, and respect. Inherent in CR-SE is the opportunity for teachers to keep learning, improving, and adapting.

Here is a lesson idea that will hit all four pillars AND introduce Iditarod to your students.  In the fall, as we are building our classroom culture, we have the opportunity to include student voice and value their family identity from the beginning. 

The Westrich Family is always chasing new dog sled experiences. 2012 at Ganandogan Winter Festival…

Sledding on frozen Lake Placid, NY in 2013…

Meeting 2013 Jr. Iditarod Champion Noah Pereira in early 2014, before his two Iditarod finishes.

I am assuming if you are here you love Iditarod and have your own story of how you came to the race. Start by sharing with students that Iditarod journey. Personally, I give a brief explanation of the race, and focus on the family story that surrounds our involvement and love of Iditarod.  I might say something like this:

“One of the things that is special to my family is a race called the Iditarod. It is a 1000 mile dogsled race across Alaska and happens every year in early March. My whole family watches the start together and we each pick a musher to follow, hoping that our team will win.  The race takes anywhere from 8-15 days, so we talk about what happens each day of the race at dinner.  One of our favorite things to do is listen to Hobo Jim, a musician who wrote songs about the Iditarod.  We wear T-shirts from the race. This year I was able to go to the start of the Iditarod with my daughter and see it in person. It was so cool to see the mushers and hear the dogs barking excitedly. This race is a special tradition and my family has made lots of memories together because of Iditarod.”

Then I ask students to close their eyes and think about a special event or activity that matters to their family.  Depending on the grade level you can guide them with suggestions: sports(teams) they follow, holiday celebrations, activities like gardening, chess, knitting, or special meals they prepare together. 

Iditarod is part of our family identity – 3 generations enjoy a visit to Turning Heads Kennel on our vacation. Photo credit: J. Westrich

Now comes the fun part! You can go as deep as time permits. A simple wrap-up: make a list on chart paper of each students’ answer and post it in the classroom (with Iditarod listed at the top, of course!). Boom! You have a classroom visual showing that your students welcome all ideas, it highlights their critical thinking, celebrates inclusivity and diversity in the classroom, and gives you some new things to learn. (Lucha Libre wrestling was a new one for me!)

Enjoying a reindeer dog while overlooking the snowy Ceremonial Start of the 2022 Iditarod! Photo credit: J. Westrich

I like to remind my students that culture includes belief systems, stories, food, clothing, music, art, and language, — the things that bind a group together.  For my reflection on Iditarod that includes stories like Granite by Susan Butcher, a reindeer hotdog, mukluks and parkas, Hobo Jim songs, paintings by Jon VanZyle, photographs by Jeff Schultz, and terms like musher, checkpoint, and dog booties.

To go deeper I suggest a writing exercise to produce a piece similar to my Iditarod introduction, including student reflection on the pieces of culture that are essential to their activity. You’ll have a written assessment piece to provide starting point data for the school year. Want more? Add a presentation component or an illustration piece to create wall art or a class book.  Students are tasked with explaining their passions, and realizing that not everyone participates in the same activities.  The take-away: there is value in everyone’s personal interests, even if they differ from your own.  The bonus is that now you have some amazing information about your students home culture and values – which means you can reach out and bring some of the wealth into the classroom. Phone calls home can include invitations to parents to come in and share their knowledge! A student shares their family loves to garden – invite their adults in during science to share expertise on planting and nurturing seeds. The possibilities are endless, the connections meaningful, the student experience valued, and the Iditarod is front and center as the motivating tool behind great Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Education lesson.

Library Learnings:  I love sharing my passions through literature with read-alouds like Granite by Susan Butcher or Big-Enough Anna by Pam Flowers.  Then I challenge students to find at least one book in our school library that connects to their interest or family celebration.  This helps them see themselves reflected in the library collection and provides a sense of belonging in the library. Reach out to partner with your school librarian and collaborate on this resource finding mission to enhance the identity project!