Jr. Iditarod Trail: Authentic Learning Experiences

As much as people tell you about something, you can’t really understand and absorb it until you experience it personally.  My experiences today with the Jr. Iditarod reminded me of how important this concept is in teaching. 

Madeleine Knolmayer mushes into the woods. Photo: K. Newmyer

The air was electric with excitement this morning at Knik Lake, the start of the Jr. Iditarod. Dog trucks, teams of dogs, sleds, mushers, families, supporters, race officials and fans came together to create an air of anticipation. I got to help pass out GPS trackers to the mushers. I was there when the Jr. Iditarod participants came together in a huddle by the starting line.  I heard the barking of dogs, the whine of drone cameras, and the excited conversation.  


A snowy start to the 2024 Jr. Iditarod. Photo: K. Newmyer

Later, at the Eagle Quest checkpoint, I saw the teams come in one by one. The dogs threaded a tight S-curve as they reached the sign-in point. A couple of times a dog handler had to guide the dogs through the curve and keep them from getting tangled on the sidelines. You could see the dogs working to figure out the combination of unfamiliar pathways, musher commands, and the stimuli of people cheering.  I got to see the confident looks on the dogs’ faces as they figured it out. 

But the realization of being right in the middle of the experience came when I was on a snowmachine traveling with photographer Whitney McLaren to the midpoint at Yentna. Jr. Iditarod mushers take a ten-hour layover here before returning to Knik Lake. We were traveling along the riverbed and as I was gazing at the scenery, a dog team appeared in my field of vision.  I had a moment of realization: this is what it’s like! Out in the wilderness, snow covering everything, with just a sled, musher, and their dogs.  The dogs trotted along happily and determinedly, tongues flapping. Their paws made a soft thudding sound on the snow, while the harnesses jingled faintly. The sled runners made a soft whooshing sound on the snow.  

Encountering Jr. musher, Keira Irish #17, on the trail. Photo: K. Newmyer

As we passed them by, I thought about how I could never have understood the experiences of the teens who compete in the Jr. Iditarod unless I had put myself in this situation. I really understood the remote wilderness, the trail marked with orange stakes–the fairy tale forests, the pink and purple sunset.  I was learning by traveling the same trail. 

As teachers, it is really important that we provide authentic learning experiences for students as much as possible.  I am a huge proponent of getting students outside, bringing objects and artifacts for them to study (like sled dog booties used on the trail!), and providing real science and math experiences where the outcome is not necessarily pre-determined. 

Here are some examples my experiences of the Jr. Iditarod bring to mind. If your students are studying animal adaptations, let them have real fossils and bones to examine. Create working models of the water cycle, erosion, and other geological phenomena. Let students plant seeds, work in a garden, and of course, interact with live animals that you bring into your classroom. Let students study engineering and aerospace problems and apply them to the math and science concepts you are teaching. 

Language arts can be equally authentic. Have students write about their own experiences or problems they see in the world around them. Practice descriptive writing by taking them to different places around your campus or near your school and let them observe and listen.  Have students listen and write down actual conversations they hear to practice writing dialogue. Provide memoirs and other authentic author voices for students to learn from.  Let students write letters to real people–like the Musher Letter Writing Program. 

In addition to what you yourself can do in the classroom, invite others into your space to help teach your students. Host a career day and invite parents and community members to talk about their jobs and careers. Give older students a chance to learn from adult mentors, and younger students to learn from older students. It goes without saying: take your students on authentic learning trips as much as possible.

The more you do this, the more you can provide rich learning experiences beyond the four walls of your classroom and beyond your building. I hope I can do justice to the experiences I’m having at the Jr. Iditarod by sharing photos, videos, stories, and artifacts with my students. I hope to ignite curiosity and an emotional connection to the content even though I can’t bring students on a field trip to Alaska! Traveling through the same landscape that Jr. Iditarod mushers get to experience, seeing the dogs problem-solve trail conundrums, and watching these intrepid teens pursue their goal helped me have my own sublime moment of learning. It couldn’t have happened without being there.

What new authentic experiences can you bring to your students? Email me at emailtheteacher@iditarod.com.