Writing Down the Miles

Iditarod 2024 is a wrap. I’m seated on the late evening “banquet flight” with volunteers, mushers, their families, and the Nome-Beltz High School boys basketball team on their way to the state tournament. It’s a 737 packed to the wingtips with stories, memories, tears, laughter, triumph, new friendships and quite a few Iditarod trophies and souvenirs. It’s all too much to process quickly. It will take me quite a while to unpack these lifelong impacts.

Sunset behind the burled arch. Photo: K. Newmyer

One of the ways I know I’m going to unpack my memories and share how this experience changed my life is through writing. It’s my favorite subject to teach. I’ve always dreamed of being a travel writer, and this trip gave me the opportunity to write about my experiences for a very special audience. But now that I have so many memories, I hardly know where to start. There wasn’t enough time to write anything down because I was so busy experiencing it. I’m having a bit of writer’s block.

A dog resting in Unlalakleet. Photo: K. Newmyer

Many elementary teachers I’ve talked to say it’s hard for them to teach writing, or they prefer teaching something else. In my experience, students think writing is hard and they don’t want to do it. Writing is when some of my students shut down the most. Something about all the skills—shaping letters, making them permanent on the page, letting themselves be vulnerable, wondering if people will criticize it—I’m feeling that way myself at the moment.

A steeple in Unalakleet. Photo: K. Newmyer

Start by having conversations. Students love to talk about what they’re interested in. Let students talk your ear off, let them bring you their urgent news. My not-so-subtle suggestion, after listening, is to say, what a great story that would make–you should write it down! Organize structured small group conversations to get kids talking more comfortably. Elizabeth Martin, one of the best elementary writing gurus out there, has kids talk about their topic for two minutes to a partner. If they can fill those two minutes with their ideas, then it’s probably going to make a great story. I’ll bet every musher on this plane, or anywhere, can talk for two hours about their dogs and their experiences on the Iditarod trail.

All the mushers signed Bib #1, the honorary number. Photo: K. Newmyer

The next step is for students to start organizing their ideas. I like to use a variety of graphic organizers for this. Teach students to choose one they like and own their process. I like bubble maps, I-charts, lists, outlines, Five Ws, the Idea Rake, and story mountains. Students should be able to share with you why they chose a particular organizer and how it helps them organize their thinking. It’s similar to the many ways mushers packed their sleds. Certain items are required, but all have a different way of managing the load. I’ve started to organize my writing by the checkpoints I visited—Yentna, Skwentna, McGrath, Takotna, Galena, Unalakleet, Safety, and Nome, the checkpoints I flew over—Ophir, Cripple, Nulato, and Kaltag, and the adventures I had in Anchorage and Nome, the bookends of the race.

“Nome National Forest” on the Bering Sea Ice. Photo: K. Newmyer

When it comes to the actual writing, you’ll have early finishers who don’t include much detail, students who spend the majority of their time thinking, those who write pages, and some who struggle to articulate one sentence. I use a system where kids can earn pillows or comfy chairs to read in during Independent Reading. I’m going to try this for writing too. Maybe dim the lights, bring in some headlamps, some trail snacks…now I’m starting to picture a quiet checkpoint in the late evening when everyone is quiet and working on their own activity. Evening Checkpoint Journaling.

A student gave me this notebook and I decorated it for my trip. Photo: K. Newmyer

When it comes to revising and editing, most students don’t see the necessity. It’s vital—this is where they get to have fun! I like to print their drafts so they see their writing differently. My kids are quick to point out my mistakes, so I model reacting with gratitude and a bit of exaggerated silliness. When students have to fix theirs, it won’t feel like criticism, but fun and silly. Besides, then they get to add amazing words, dialogue, foreshadowing, and other elements! Anna Berington’s speech at the banquet had this lighthearted tone. She described people asking her, why was this Iditarod hard—did you break your sled? Get sick? Encounter brutal temperatures or wind? She kept saying, no, that’s not it, that was a different year. Finally she answered, it’s because her twin sister, Kristy, wasn’t on the trail with her.  Through continual reworking, students can get to the heart of what they want to say. (Wouldn’t her story make a great picture book?)

Nic Petit leaving Safety. Photo: K. Newmyer

Set aside time every day for writing, even if it’s for ten minutes and for a silly purpose. Many people said to me before I went on the trail: you’ll get out of it what you put into it. The same goes for teaching writing. Have fun, try new things, be patient with students, and praise them for any little bit of growth. Celebrate and share with families!  My story might start: “Once upon a time, I got to go on the Iditarod Trail.”

Share with me your best writing teacher tips and tricks. Email me at emailtheteacher@iditarod.com.