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Iditarod Turns Kids' Brains To Mushing

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Alaska's Iditarod sled-dog race has begun, and Herb Brambley, Target's "Teacher on the Trail" is there to share firsthand insights and experiences with students and teachers. Included: See what you can do to get ready for the race and to make the most of it in the classroom.

"Most teachers who use the Iditarod in their classroom don't teach the Iditarod as an individual topic, but rather they give their students an overall view of the race -- which is motivating in itself -- and then use it to motivate their students in many different content areas," Herb Brambley, Target's Teacher on the Trail explains. "That is the great thing about using the Iditarod and also the great thing about the Iditarod Education Department. The Iditarod dogs motivate kids. Kids love dogs. Real live dogs motivate them even more."

In fact, it was a Siberian husky that inspired Brambley himself to get involved with the Alaskan race and to use it as a teaching tool with his students at Southern Fulton Elementary School in Warfordsburg, Pennsylvania.

"I bought a Siberian husky as a pet about three years ago," Brambley recalled. "When he was about four months old, we had a snow day and I went out to the garage and built him a little sled and started teaching him to pull. He seemed to enjoy it so much and looked like he knew exactly what he was doing. I just had to continue. I gradually added weight to the sled; then built a bigger sled."

Meanwhile, Brambley's wife, a librarian, brought home a book: The Cruelest Miles: The Heroic Story of Dogs and Men in a Race Against an Epidemic by Gay Salisbury and Laney Salisbury. Brambley admits that he isn't typically a devoted reader, but he couldn't put that book down. It intrigued him.

"I started looking around on the Internet and found the lessons on the official Iditarod site," he told Education World. "There were lessons for every grade level and every content area. I started using the Iditarod in my classroom to teach math, reading, and social studies. At that time, I was teaching second grade. It was amazing how using the Iditarod as a theme in my classroom motivated students. I believe you can motivate kids to learn just about anything using sled dogs and the Iditarod."

At home, Brambley's canine family grew to three. He got a dog sled for Christmas and moved into a new teaching position, environmental education and technology. Environmental education is his focus and passion, and his classroom is 140 acres of school property. Brambley took an opportunity to attend a teacher conference and work with the sled dogs, and experience Alaska firsthand. That experience introduced him to the Teacher on the Trail program. This year, when the race begins on March 6, he will serve as the eyes and ears of kids and teachers across the country.

"I am most looking forward to meeting the students and teachers as I travel across the interior of Alaska," reports Brambley. "I have made many great friends in Alaska the last three times I visited. The people in Alaska have been very hospitable. I hope to share my life and my experiences with the teachers and students in a way that encourages them to work toward achieving their dreams."

One of the most compelling aspects of lessons about the Iditarod race is that many are multidisciplinary in nature. By employing those activities, teachers can address several standards and multiple content areas at once. Brambley has used the Iditarod to teach environmental education and technology skills to second graders with great success.

"If I had to choose a favorite activity, it would be an activity I created using Google Earth. The lesson is called Are We There Yet and can be viewed at the Target Teacher on the Trail Blog," he shared. "Every teacher teaches from his or her own knowledge base and perspective. Thats why its best that teachers explore the lessons on the Teacher section of Iditarod.com, so they can pick and choose the ones they think will work best in their own classrooms."

Brambley advises teachers to start small and expand their use of the Iditarod as a teaching tool over time. Its a solid plan, but in reality, he knows that student interest often drives what he terms a "dog sled of knowledge," and the study takes on a life of its own. Soon the teacher's Iditarod unit has grown by unexpected leaps and bounds.

"We have gotten so far away from the interest of the students and using teachable moments since high stakes testing has come into play," Brambly observes. "Everything is so focused on getting a certain score on the test that were forgetting the true needs of the students and were rushing from one standard to the next to get them all in before the test date."

For the more adventurous educator, Brambley also recommends an Iditarod summer or winter teacher's conference. Those experiences allow teachers to network and provide many helpful teaching ideas.

"I believe that becoming a self-educator is the most important thing we can teach our students," he added. "We spend such a short time of our life in school, but we spend a lifetime learning. Learning how to teach yourself is the single most important thing you can learn in school. The amount of information thats available to us doubles every two years. Therefore, in today's high-tech workplace, even more important than memorizing dates and poetry, we need to know where to retrieve information and how to interpret it correctly in order to make efficient use of it."

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