The J.J. Jones Intermediate School’s fifth Mini Iditarod Dog Sled Race seems to have inspired a “dogged” determination among third-grade students for a lifelong journey into a bigger world. Jones Reading Specialist Cindy Wilson said the after-school enrichment program was made possible by a grant obtained by the Surry County School System for the 21st Century Community Learning Center.
“Some of the students this program serves will probably not get many opportunities to travel outside from Surry County and some have never sat down for a meal at a restaurant,” said Wilson. She said staffers quickly found out the iditarod was a subject they could study across the curriculum using mathematics, language arts, science and social studies.
The idea for the race began after Wilson’s brother, Phil Tillotson, who now lives in Atlanta, Ga., became hooked on the iditarod as he traveled to Alaska for 17 years as part of his business. Tillotson attended the race’s opening ceremony in Anchorage and sent emails and newspaper article to Wilson’s students to give them a sense of what was happening. Wilson said Tillotson sent autographed pictures of the mushers, signed sled dog booties and also encouraged mushers to sent letters to the class.
A sort of gold rush fever set in from brother to sister and her students. Wilson found out other school’s had staged iditarods of their own. Tillotson’s next project was to build a sled for Wilson’s class to use and plans for the mini-iditarod held on the school’s walking trail became reality.
“I got so excited when he built us a sled,” said Wilson. “It stays in the classroom during the rest of the school year and students have put pillows in it so they can sit in the sled and read.”
She said getting the sled to Mount Airy was an adventure in itself. Tillotson built the sled at his home in Atlanta and was concerned how to get the life-size replica shipped. Wilson said a couple working for WLA Trucking volunteered to pick up the sled and bring it back in their refrigerated truck as they returned to Mount Airy.
She said 20 students researched and made signs for areas along their iditarod as they took turns being race officials, mushers and sled dogs. Some events this year included Simon Says with musher’s commands and a warm clothes relay race. Students at another checkpoint used stethoscopes to monitor the dogs’ health, just like in the race.
“One of the most popular races we had this year was a pooper scooper relay,” said Wilson. “We used unwrapped Hershey Kisses scattered in the grass which they had to scoop up with spoons. Later we got to eat some of the candy that was still wrapped.”
Wilson said students had to visit the checkpoints including White Mountain and Nome where the race’s finish line is located. Participants at the Eagle Island checkpoint put straw on the ground for the dogs to rest on. Participants ate Goldfish crackers because sled dogs are fed pieces of fish during the iditarod.
“Each kid got to do a job they wanted to do,” said Wilson. “Some got to be a dog and pull the sled numerous times. I think it was fantastic they shared jobs and learned to work together. This falls in line with many of the principles we use from Stephen and Sean Covey’s work on the Seven Habits of Happy Kids. To make this race happen, they must learn to set priorities and plan ahead, for instance. Later we matched the seven habits with race pictures.”
She said student interest in Alaska continues long after the mini iditarod is over and used the race’s website this year to allow students to pick a musher and follow his team’s progress with the GPS trackers on their sleds. Wilson said students were saddened this year when they found out about the death of a 5-year-old sled dog named Dorado.
The dog had been removed from an active team and left at one of the checkpoints because of concerns for its health. Authorities reported the dog was left outside that night during a violent storm and asphyxiated under a snow drift. Wilson said she used positive news about a dog which had gotten loose from a Jamaican musher. The dog had an identification chip and was later found in good condition on the trail by college students. It had traveled 400 miles back towards Nome and was reunited with her owner.
Wilson said students also are reminded of the history behind the iditarod which commemorates sled dogs being used to deliver life-saving vaccine for diphtheria to residents of Nome. She said every year volunteers bring back Alaska memorabilia to her. She said she hopes one enduring lesson for the students is they have to work together as a team and even though they don’t always get exactly what they want they can still reach a goal.
“This year we held a musher banquet for awards and each participant received a certificate,” said Wilson “You’d thought I had given them a high school diploma by their reaction.”
Reach David Broyles at firstname.lastname@example.org or 719-1952.