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Teacher Uses Iditarod, Sled Dog To Reach Students

The Associated Press

KOKOMO, Ind. (AP) — From the treacherous Iditarod Trail race spanning nearly 1,000 miles across Alaska's frigid terrain, Lincoln School teacher Donita Walters gleans math, geology and nutrition lessons.

Walters, who has been teaching at Kokomo School Corp.'s alternative middle school for six years, doesn't know exactly when she fell in love with the dog sled race, but she finds ways to incorporate it into her classroom whenever possible.

Her students love it too.

"I have a difficult group to engage," said Walters, who teaches eighth grade at the alternative school. "A lot of times when we can get outside the box and into real life, that helps. When a teacher's excited, the kids are more excited about it."

Part of the excitement stems from Kenai, Walter's Siberian husky who has accompanied her to class several times a week for the past five years. Pooch Palace, Pet Supplies Plus and Noah's Ark Animal Clinic keep Kenai in tip-top shape for the classroom.

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"He is the softer side of education," Walters told the Kokomo Tribune ( ). "We work with at-risk kiddos, and he can calm a kiddo down who's going 60 miles an hour. Educationally, behaviorally, we have better days when he's here."

Tom Hale, director of alternative education at McKinley and Lincoln schools, has seen the positive difference Walters' Iditarod lesson make to her students.

"Through Mrs. Walters' knowledge of the Iditarod, the Lincoln students gain a greater appreciation for the mushers, as well as the dogs. Our students learn about the sacrifices necessary for the mushers and the dogs to complete the Iditarod," Hale said. "Kenai brings a calmness to Donita's classroom. Kenai is a good learning experience since the students share the responsibilities of caring for Kenai. Each year when summer rolls around, the students tell me how much they will miss Kenai during break."

Walters has been teaching lessons based on the Iditarod race since 2009. She further delved into the subject at a nine-day Iditarod Education Conference held in Alaska at the end of February, which she said turned out to be a "life-changing experience."

"It was a gift for me to get to experience this. I've wanted to get up there for years for the conference," she said. "I had no idea the educational portion was so big until I was in this big room with like-minded educators from all over the U.S. It was very rewarding."

While at the conference, Walters networked with other educators, shared lesson plans and picked up tips for using the race to teach STEM-related skills, especially. She also got to meet 65 mushers before they headed out on the trail March 1, which was a personal treat for her and, by extension, her students.

"(The mushers) are all huge supporters of using the race in the classroom," said Walters, who compiled a binder with information on all the mushers and had them autograph their profiles to bring back for her students. "I think (the students) feel a connection because they've all adopted a musher."

Walters' classroom is covered in Iditarod posters and even features a wooden sled her students built a couple years ago with a stuffed musher and dog.

This year, her Iditarod-related lessons included math story problems related to the number of miles the mushers travel each day and how many dogs drop out of the race along the way; a geology lesson on different types of ice formations, which was modeled with icicles forming outside the school as well as being part of the Iditarod racing conditions; and nutrition lessons on caloric intake and how much the dogs have to eat every day to run the race.

She also has students each adopt a musher and look up different things about them, like their educational backgrounds and how far they live from the Iditarod Trail.

"They don't realize that in these discoveries, there's math and language and life," Walters said.

At the conference, she got ideas for a map-reading unit based on the trail to use next year. Walters even turned a mishap that led to a broken hand into a lesson for her students; she's having them complete a creative writing assignment making up different explanations for how she broke her hand at the conference.

"You just have to put on that smile," she said.


Information from: Kokomo Tribune,

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