We All Get What We Need in Equal Measure

Deke Naaktgeboren comes to the finish line with 12 dogs, all of whom had what they needed to get to Nome. Photo Credit: J.Westrich

Iditarod dog teams provide a perfect opportunity to discuss the difference between equality and equity with our students.  Dog Teams consist of diverse personalities all working toward a goal.  Much like a dog team, the classroom is a group made up of individuals, all of whom need different supports to be their very best.  Some supports everyone gets.  In the Iditarod world, pre-race physicals are required for all dogs.  Some supports are specific based on the needs of each dog – who a dog likes to run with, where a dog likes to run in the team, or getting a massage for sore muscles.

Nic Petit’s dogs lounge on cushions before the race. Photo Credit: J.Westrich

A dog from Matt Hall’s team sports extra gear to keep the muscles warm. Photo Credit: J.Westrich

One of Brent Sass’s dogs gets a mini-pedicure before the start. Photo Credit: J.Westrich

Equality can be defined as everyone getting the same – amount of candy, recess time, or teacher attention. It is the cry of elementary children and siblings everywhere, “That’s not fair!”  By which they mean that they want everyone to get the same sticker or for Mom to measure the slices of chocolate cake! In theory this exacting fairness sounds pretty great, except that equality doesn’t always take into consideration the diverse needs of individuals – student or dog. 

Every sled dog is unique! Photo Credit: J.Westrich

Equity is the concept of everyone getting what they need because we all start from different places; it is acknowledging diversity and working towards the end goal where everyone is successful. I saw this in action again and again during the 2023 Iditarod as mushers adjust, accommodate, and adapt their plans to support every member of their dog team. During my ride at the Ceremonial Start with musher Hunter Keefe I was surprised to hear him talking to the dogs during the run. He called them out by name to encourage, correct, or just connect with them. He was paying attention to each individual dog, giving them the verbal support they needed to stay on track. Was it equal? Did he just run down the line giving the same praise to each of the dogs? No, that would have been insincere and unnecessary. Some dogs were more skittish with the crowds and needed an encouraging word; while others, distracted by the noise and cheering, benefitted from clear directions. Each dog got the encouragement they needed to succeed in that situation.

The view from the sled as musher Hunter Keefe gave individual nods of encouragement to his team! Photo Credit: J.Westrich

Classroom teachers differentiate all day long to make sure each student, regardless of their starting point, can learn and grow. An Iditarod musher adapts their plan to the needs of their dogs (more rest, more snacks, rotating positions) and a teacher adapts their instruction to meet the needs of their students. The challenge is helping students to understand this fact, especially when they feel slighted or overlooked. Connecting equality and equity to the Iditarod can provide students with context for these concepts. The next time something “isn’t fair” students will be able to identify and understand that their peers have diverse needs on the trail to achieving their learning goals!

Denali Sled Dogs run in sun…

…or snow.  Photo Credits: J. Westrich

Library Learnings: What is the concept of equality in math?  It means measurements that are exactly the same. This summer, during a visit to the Denali National Park kennels, a park Ranger used the temperature -40 as the general marker for the type of conditions the dogs tolerate in winter.  Why -40? You’ll notice I didn’t designate Fahrenheit or Celsius – that is because -40 is the same at both scales of measurement. The Ranger said it is easiest to use this measure because both US and foreign visitors can comprehend the chilly temperature without the need to do conversions. Consider discussing the accuracy of temperature conversions – does it need to be exact?  I usually double the Celsius and add 30 to get an estimated Fahrenheit temp. This is enough to let me know if I need a sweatshirt. Math lessons that focus on more accurate conversions from standard to metric system measurements can integrate the Iditarod by measuring the length of the race in kilometers, the weight of dog food in kilograms, or the amount of water needed in liters all of which need to be specific to ensure the race runs smoothly for mushers and dogs!  I like The Metric System by David A. Adler as a read-aloud to introduce this topic at the elementary level!