Students follow Iditarod to learn real-life lessons

The students have developed a healthy respect for local musher Steves
By Pat Ratliff | Mar 14, 2013
Photo by: Craig Degginger Fifth grade students from Meridian Park Elementary are involved in "Iditarod Project." The project follows the 2013 Iditarod and local musher Jan Steves.

Meridian Park Elementary School has a novel school project going on. The 5th graders in room 501 and 502, plus their teachers Hannah Peterson and Stephanie Smolen, are all greatly involved in what they call the “Iditarod Project.”  The project follows the 2013 Iditarod and local musher Jan Steves.

Peterson says the idea started as the classes were reading winter survival stories in small book clubs of four to six students.

“Three of the books we are enjoying have dog-sledding in them,” Peterson said. “My students started asking questions about dog-sledding, which led me to some research and the discovery that the 2013 Iditarod was starting on March 2.

“When I saw we had a local musher, Jan Steves, I knew we had to follow the race!”

Peterson then invited Mrs. Smolen's class next door to join them for their 2013 Iditarod adventure.

But the teachers didn’t just allow the students to follow the race during class time, they used the class project to teach the students as they followed the race.

“Each student researched a different musher and created a short biography about that person,” Peterson said. “We all researched Jan Steves and decided we would all root for her.

“We are using a large map to mark the mushers' locations each day. All the students in our school walk by the map and can follow the race as well.

“In addition, students are keeping a log with more detailed statistics about their mushers (time in/out of checkpoints, number of dogs in/out, position in the race, mandatory rests, etc.) We also spend a little time reading news articles and looking at musher blogs each day.

It’s easy to see how the students can use this project to learn real-time skills from subjects they learn at school.

Peterson said the students are learning to read statistics and make math-based predictions, tracking and averaging speed of dog-sled teams, how weather patterns affect the mushers and dogs, mapping and geography, skills and tools needed to survive extreme cold climates, how dogs are trained to work as a team, problem-solving strategies for winning a long-distance race, and what it takes to reach a goal and live a dream.

“We are also thoroughly enjoying the books we are reading,” Peterson said. “Especially ‘Woodsong’ by popular children's author Gary Paulsen.”  Paulsen completed the Iditarod himself in 1983.

The students have developed a healthy respect for local musher Steves.

“She is someone who is racing to fulfill a personal goal and dream,” Peterson said. “She started mushing later in life and has worked hard to get to the Iditarod.

“We all have dreams we want to reach in life, and need role models to teach us that with some hard work, we can do anything.”

The Meridian Park students all have high hopes for Steves this year.

"I hope Jan Steves places higher than she did last year because I think she is an amazing musher," Sofia Boetes said.

Nahom Mehari has even higher hopes for Steves: "To be in the top 20 mushers because she is from Edmonds. We hope she gets luckier than 2012. Go Jan Steves!"

"I know Jan is relatively new and a rookie, but I would like her to get a higher place than the Red Lantern award," Alex Arevalo said.

Other students are worried about what obstacles Steves will face on the trail.

"They might face deep snow, thin ice, and rookies might face longtime pros," Tesfa Shenkute said.

Austin Ariss thinks she’ll be up against "sub-zero temperatures, getting sick, and really fast mushers."

Some are concentrating more on what it takes to be a musher.

"I think it takes a lot of work because you have to train your dogs, and you have to race in the freezing weather," Mari Okumoto said.

"You need to be brave, strong and healthy to be a musher," Tesfa Shenkute said.

"For one, you have to be brave,” Alex Arevalo said. “You also must have the will to go on. I also think a musher needs to have good gear and know his dogs."

Many of the students would like to be a musher themselves.

"Yes, the reward is huge, and I am very competitive," Nahom Mehari said.

Sofia Boetes agrees: "I would want to be a musher because I think it would be a good experience to be in the Iditarod or any dog sled race."

As for the dogs, the students pretty much agree on what a good sled dog would be like.

"I think a sled dog should be big, strong, have good stamina and be well-fed to be on an Iditarod dog-sled team,” Tesfa Shenkute said.

Austin Ariss knows a winning dog combination too: "Strength, heart and a love for running."

And Alex Arevalo has a few more qualifications:  "Dependable, strong and listen to the musher and lead dog."

A good lesson for us all, at times.

Mrs. Peterson's class wishing Jan Steves "good luck" the day before the race started. The Iditarod map is behind them! (Photo by: Hannah Peterson)
Students pointing to their musher locations by Craig Degginger: (From left to right: Mari Okumoto, Sofia Boetes, Nahom Mehari, Tesfa Shenkute (hiding in the back), Austin Ariss and Alex Arevalo. (Photo by: Craig Degginger)
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