Linda Fenton has been teaching her elementary students at Waupaca Learning Center about the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race for 11 years.
Next year, she will participate in the event as the 2013 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail.
"It’s a dream come true," Fenton said.
The Iditarod is a grueling sled dog race from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska, that takes place annually in March. Because there are two different routes used for even- and odd-numbered years, the Iditarod’s actual distance varies. The official distance is 1,049 miles in honor of Alaska being the 49th state. It takes nine to 15 days to finish the course.
Mushers must travel over frozen tundra, through pine forests, up rugged mountains and down steep, icy slopes. Over the 35 years since the Iditarod began, racers and their dog teams have at times endured blizzards, brutal winds and temperatures below minus 100 degrees. Although the race has checkpoints in several small villages, much of the course passes through wilderness.
During the 2013 race, Fenton will fly from checkpoint to checkpoint, blogging and posting photos and video over the Internet, sharing her observations with students and teachers in classrooms around the world. She will also visit classrooms in the villages along the trail.
Launched in 1993, the Iditarod Teacher on the Trail program selects one teacher annually to cover the race.
"I like to teach about the Iditarod because the kids are so excited about it and I can engage them across the curriculum," Fenton said. "Students use research skills, technology skills, math, science, reading, map skills, writing and drawing."
Using the Iditarod, Fenton teaches students how to estimate the distances between checkpoints, how to read military time, Alaskan history and geography. Students make bio cards of each of the mushers and follow their progress during the race.
John Reynolds Gardner’s book, Stone Fox, is among the books the third-graders read as part of the Iditarod curriculum.
"This book has everything kids love – a boy and his dog working really hard and trying to save a family farm," Fenton said.
She noted that former students who are now teens have asked her if the mushers they followed years ago are still racing.
"I can still see that excitement when they’re out of the classroom," Fenton said. "It’s not only the kids, but the parents who get involved, too."
This past March, Fenton made her first trip to Alaska as a finalist for the Iditarod Teacher on the Trail. She saw first hand the place and the race about which she had been teaching for a decade.
"Alaska is amazing. The mountains are beautiful and there are moose who roam into downtown," Fenton said. "They had a ton of snow and that was nice to see since we didn’t have any snow in Wisconsin."
Fenton described the application process as rigorous and said she had to send in five, three-ring binders with information about her teaching experience and her Iditarod curriculum plans. She also needed her principal and the district administrator to sign off on her participation in the program.
Fenton will officially begin her responsibilities as the Iditarod Teacher on the Trail at the 2012 Summer Camp for Teachers June 23 to July 2 in Willow, Alaska. She will also be a presenter at the 2013 Winter Conference for Educators, Feb. 26 to March 1, 2013, in Anchorage.
Beginning in June and throughout the next year, she will be creating a curriculum and developing an online journal.
"I will be taking a leave of absence for that long of a time," Fenton said, "but it will be worth it."
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