Searching for that perfect winter getaway? How about weeks of outdoor travel in temperatures that would make penguins shiver? For Oregon teacher Cassandra Wilson, a trip to the Iditarod sled dog race in Alaska was her time in paradise. As the 2003 Teacher on the Trail, Wilson followed the race with the Iditarod Air Force, stayed at checkpoints along the way, and sent journal entries and lesson plans to students all over the world using the Internet. Wilson talked with Education World before her trek began about what she hoped to teach -- and learn -- while on the trip. Included: Wilson talked about Iditarod-related lessons.
As a little girl, Cassandra Wilson was fascinated by stories about Arctic life and people; a visit to Alaska as an adult only served to feed that fascination. After some research, Wilson was certain the annual Iditarod sled dog race would provide a sled-ful of ideas she could use to teach skills such as math and teamwork to her students at Applegate Elementary School in Portland, Oregon. As the 2003 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail, Wilson was able to share her Iditarod lessons and experiences with students and teachers around the world.
Wilson applied for the Iditarod trip because she loved challenges; she already had had her share of adventures. Before becoming a teacher, Wilson told Education World, "I raised a daughter, climbed a few mountains, and learned to fly." Wilson talked with Education World before the March 1, 2003, start of the race.
Education World: How did you first become interested in the Iditarod?
Cassandra Wilson:When my students were reading the book Stone Fox, by John Reynolds Gardiner, I looked up information about sled dogs on the Internet, and found a site about the Iditarod and mushersit popped into my head that those were great things I could use in my classroom. I also went to teacher workshops on the Iditarod in Alaska, and met mushers. I was there for the start and re-start of the 2001 race. (The first start is ceremonial.) I saw teamwork, compassion, and goal setting among the mushers, and I knew I wanted more teamwork in my classroom. Those were all good things to teach kids.
EW:Who or what inspired you to apply for the program?
Wilson: I fell in love with Alaska after attending the 2001 Iditarod teachers' workshop. I told my husband I would like to live there; he suggested we spend a summer there. Then I found out about the application process for the 2003 Teacher on the Trail. I wanted a challenge and I like having goals. Also, I used the Iditarod for my master's project. The Teacher on the Trail application includes creating lesson plans, and the Iditarod opens up to everything: math, science, reading, writing, social studies, drama.
There were three finalists for Teacher on the Trail. I was overwhelmed that I was chosen.
EW: Why do you think it's important for a teacher to experience the Iditarod?
Wilson:The basis of the Iditarod is that there is a goal -- although there are a lot of different stops along the way. When kids are struggling with something, I tell them sled dogs don't just pop up to Nome. The Iditarod organizers make a big deal about anyone who finishes -- if you finish, you are a hero. I tell my kids it doesn't matter how long it takes them to get a concept, they are going to get it. In the Iditarod, the last one who finishes gets the red lantern -- it's very positive. There's a feeling that you can make it, and it doesn't matter how long it takes you to get there.
EW: What are you hoping students will learn from your experience?
Wilson: I hope they'll learn about setting goals and reaching those goals. This race really helps kids understand there are standards they have to reach -- like the state standards. (In fact, since starting to work on the Iditarod, my class's test scores have increased.) The students are more interested in reading about the outdoors, so their reading is enriched. We do math lines, and follow the mushers. They each write a musher biography and present it to the class. (We're learning about 24 mushers this year.) I keep developing more activities every year.
EW: How do you think this experience will make you a better teacher?
Wilson: When you bring life experiences into the classroom, kids immediately are engaged. When I'm talking about angles, I refer back to my flying days. Life experiences are important for teachers as well as for students.
EW: What types of lessons or activities are you developing in conjunction with the trip?
Wilson: Some math projects have to do with measurements and temperatures. I'll be journaling (posting journal entries) and a lesson plan on the Iditarod Web site every day. I have a large variety of lesson plans; 16 are already completed and I'm sure I'll be developing more on the trail. Some will be quick activities that teachers can do that day; others will be two- to- three- week units. I've also been invited to speak about the trip at a teachers' conference in June.
EW: Has your community (principal, parents, other teachers, etc.) been supportive of your participation? If so, in what ways have people supported you?
Wilson:Students at my school, Applegate Elementary School, Sitton Elementary School in North Portland, and Chinook Elementary School in Vancouver, Washington, held penny drives to help cover some of my expenses. Other schools in the Portland area are helping out with penny drives also. I'm taking a month's leave without pay. Wells Fargo Bank sponsors the trip, but there are incidental expenses, like renting a car, and paying for a hotel room in Nome at the end of the race. Someone told me that after sleeping in a sleeping bag in tents and roadhouses during the race, I'll want to spend a night in a hotel at the end.
The state's secretary -- he said it was wonderful idea -- wrote me a support letter. My principal, Abby Myers, has been enthusiastic. She has been behind me 100 percent -- when I was chosen as 2003 Teacher on the Trail, she was very enthusiastic.
EW:How did you prepare for the trip?
Wilson:I walked, and ordered snow gear good for temperatures to 40 degrees below zero. I was worried about my disposable contacts freezing -- so I bought glasses. Each of the kids at our school made post cards with their photos and information about Oregon, which I'll bring with me. I'm also bringing books about Oregon to share with people in Alaska.
EW: What are you most looking forward to about the trip?
Wilson: Since I was a kid, I have been intrigued by people who live in the Arctic. I read about the Eskimos and Inuit, and I'm going out to the bush to see how people live in harsh conditions; what they do for fun, how they get around, and what life is like. I want to share that with my students.
EW: What are you least looking forward to?
Wilson: Outhouses along the trail. It will be real interesting to be in them in cold weather with all that clothing on.
EW: After this, do you have any other expeditions planned?
Wilson: I've been told about several adventures -- such as being part of a crew on a clipper ship. That would be my next adventure. But I'm also planning to get everything together after the Iditarod and go to conferences, school districts, and so on, to teach people how to teach thematically, using the Iditarod as an example. I'd also like to teach in Alaska -- maybe move there.
This e-interview with Cassandra Wilson is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.
Photo courtesy of Cassandra Wilson.
Article by Ellen R. Delisio
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