I’ll “Mush” Vicariously Through Books, Video, and the Official Websites

I wrote the attached article for our state (South Carolina) Association of School Librarian’s professional journal, Media Center Messenger. I love following the Iditarod every year and every two or three years we do an Idita-READ event to inspire kids to read. I also attached the letter to parents and reading log that I’ve used for the students. Gary Paulsen’s books first got me interested in the event, and I’ve been hooked ever since. Don’t know if this article will be helpful/useful for the Idita-READ section of the website, but I thought I’d send it to you just in case. Many teachers and librarians in SC contacted me to let me know it was helpful to them after it was published. Someday I dream of being the “Teacher on the Trail,” but until then, I’ll “mush” vicariously through books, video and the official website.

Betsy Long

School Librarian, Doby’s Mill Elementary School, Lugoff, SC


A Reading Motivation Program

By: Betsy Long, Doby’s Mill Elementary School

All my life, I have been a dog lover. Yes, I was one of those little girls who read every dog-eared, gnawed-on book at 636.7 and frequently pestered my librarian to pleeeease get some new dog books. Since reading Gary Paulsen’s Winterdance, about his own experiences in twice completing the Iditarod, I have been fascinated with “the last great race on Earth” The thrill, the adventure, & the danger captivate me and fill me with awe & admiration. A few of years ago, in celebration of the race, which spans approximately10-17 days in early March, I started giving daily Iditarod updates on the morning news show, teaching the kids about the1150+ mile race, sharing facts about the mushers, Alaska, and the dogs. There are dozens of great children’s books that can be used to illustrate these ideas. A few that I have used are: Akiak: A Tale from the Iditarod, by Robert Blake, Dogteam, by Gary Paulsen, the non-fiction selection, Dogs of the Iditarod, by Jeff Schultz, and of course, Balto, the historical-fiction tale of the 1925 delivery by sled dogs of lifesaving diphtheria serum to Nome.

Last year, I ramped it up a bit, giving each teacher detailed and enlarged maps of the trail so they could follow along with my reporting in the classroom. I created book and informational displays about the race in the Media Center, and I invited classes in for lessons integrating research skills, reading, writing, math, science, and social studies through the Iditarod. We researched arctic animals, learned about Alaska and the Inuit, calculated distance using the trail map, and utilized the official Iditarod website (www.iditarod.com), which is full of wonderful information & stunning photography & video. I also hosted a guest musher from South Carolina. That’s right! The Palmetto State (Chapin, to be exact) is home to Chapin Burgess, a sled dog racer who plans to run the Iditarod sometime in the near future. He was an outstanding speaker who mesmerized my students with his fascinating presentation and beautiful dogs, of which he brought six!

I cannot take credit, however, for coming up with the idea to organize a reading incentive program or devising teaching opportunities that parallel the race. Several schools across the nation coordinate related events. Using the search terms Iditarod + lesson plans reveal scores of lesson possibilities on the Internet. I recently stumbled across a homeschooling group on the Internet (WorldWide IDEA) that has a very interesting and organized Idita-READ program. The Official Iditarod website has an entire section just for educators, offering lesson plans and other educational opportunities, one of which includes being the “Teacher on the Trail,” an educator that rides along with a musher during the race! After reading about several schools’ Iditarod reading programs, I tailored one that worked for my school setting. Perhaps it will inspire you to try something similar this year…

For our Idita-READ, I challenged all students in grades PK-5 to record all minutes that they spent voluntarily reading. They could count time spent reading independently or time that someone read to them. The two classes who read the most number of minutes earned an invitation to the State Read-In in Columbia. We ran the contest for a two week period. I sent home an explanatory letter and a reading log for each week and I tracked each class’ progress on a prominent bulletin board. Since the Iditarod is over 1150 miles long, I set each class’ goal at 1150 minutes. I secretly hoped (and dropped hints to the effect on the morning news show) that each class could easily read at least 2500 minutes if each child read just 20 minutes a day for the entire period. I was absolutely thrilled to watch nearly every class in my school pass the 2500 mark by the end of the contest. Even better, I finally had a successful reading incentive program that didn’t involve reading certain books at a certain level or taking computerized tests! For this program, the kids could literally read ANYTHING they desired—imagine that!

The students, teachers, and parents really enjoyed participating in the program, and several of my classes (enthused by their teachers) were truly competitive in the process. I ended up taking a second grade and a fifth grade class (who read over 8000 minutes between them) to the State Read-In, and we had an outstanding time! On the way home, we stopped for lunch at a local park and enjoyed a nature walk before heading back to school just in time for dismissal. It was an awesome way to celebrate the students’ reading accomplishments, and the only expenditure for the library was the cost of the bus, which I paid for with book fair money. As a testament to the program’s success, I’ve had kids asking about the 2008 Idita-READ since this school year began, and the countdown is about to begin. As soon I submit our book award votes, I’ll start making plans for this year’s event. I hope some of you will join me. Mush!

Click here to view the letter to parents.