“What are They Wearing?” Bring the Iditarod to Life with a Living Museum

What would it be like for your students to become a musher for a day? Or to transform into the race marshal, a pilot, or dog handler? How would they feel to wear what Iditarod volunteers wear, to speak as they do, and to inhabit their experiences? 

This lesson, “Iditarod Living Museum,” is a close second to the impossibility of switching bodies!  Maybe you have done a Living Museum in your school or celebrated a similar occasion like Book Character Dress-Up Day, a Halloween Parade, or themed dress-up days for Red Ribbon Week. I confess I do love dress-up days!  In my elementary school we really get into the spirit on “Crazy Hair Day” or “Team Santa vs. Team Grinch Day.” Smiles are everywhere!

Last year when my grade level did Living Museum, a traditional end-of-year unit and an activity that everyone looks forward to, I thought how fun and informative it would be do an all-Iditarod one.  Students can investigate mushers, handlers, the volunteer workers of the Iditarod–everyone who helps make the race happen. 

This Iditarod Living Museum lesson gets students practicing and refining skills you have no doubt been teaching all year: research techniques, note-taking, determining key details, crafting citations, and constructing informational paragraphs with an engaging style. Further, the lesson will help you feel comfortable guiding students to write speeches they will present in character. I give suggestions and examples for how to create a poster or magazine cover. I share my tips for how to have a great Living Museum event in your classroom, grade level, or campus. 

The costumes are really the best part! I had always watched from the sidelines when students started to talk animatedly about what they would wear for their costumes. Then the students would bring in the pieces, and excitement grew. Students have the best creativity! Sometimes the student looks so much like the character they are studying, it’s uncanny! Last year, I borrowed a parka with a fur ruff, grabbed a headlamp out of my camping box, and dressed as Libby Riddles. Libby Riddles was the first woman to win the Iditarod in 1985. I wanted to recreate her iconic Iditarod winner’s photo with the garland-draped lead dogs. Here is my photo of my Libby Riddles persona!  In her winning photo she wore a blue parka, and of course, her dogs were real athletes and heroes. Still, it was incredibly fun. Students and colleagues asked me why I was wearing a parka in Texas in May. (I wondered that myself.) What a great opportunity to talk about Libby Riddles, her amazing lead dogs Dugan and Axle, and how her accomplishment helped change people’s minds at that time about what female athletes were capable of.

Impersonating Libby Riddles for our 5th grade Living Museum. Photo: K. Newmyer

Not only did I dress as Libby Riddles, but she was also my character model while teaching all the components of the lesson. When I dove into her story, I learned what it was like for her that night on the trail. There was a howling, bitter snowstorm. The finish line in Nome was within reach. Riddles’ bond with her dogs and their trust of her allowed Riddles to persevere through the storm and leave the competition behind. I shared with students how important it is to imagine themselves in their person’s situation. I modeled how to share the sights, sounds, and feelings of their own subject’s experiences in Living Museum speeches.

I have included a sample writing template for upper elementary or intermediate, as well as examples of family communication and the magazine cover. If the entire process feels too complex or lengthy for the time and energy you have, I encourage you to do as much as you think your students can do.  Right now is a great time as the 2024 Iditarod approaches! By going deeper into the amazing people who make the race happen, I hope you can create a lasting connection between your students and the Iditarod. 

Access the lesson here. I’d love to see photos or hear feedback about how your Iditarod Living Museum went.  Email me at emailtheteacher@iditarod.com.