From left, Emma VanMeter, Katlyn Popplewell and Hayleigh Livingston watch as Jessie Royer crosses the finish line in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race Wednesday afternoon. Royer, who placed third, was the first musher the students got to see cross the finish line in Maggie Hamilton’s fifth-grade class. (Krystal Shetler / Times-Mail)
From left, Emma VanMeter, Katlyn Popplewell and Hayleigh Livingston watch as Jessie Royer crosses the finish line in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race Wednesday afternoon. Royer, who placed third, was the first musher the students got to see cross the finish line in Maggie Hamilton’s fifth-grade class. (Krystal Shetler / Times-Mail)
MITCHELL — Some 3,500 miles away from Nome, Alaska, on a 72-degree day with nary a snowflake in sight, students watched intently as Jessie Royer slid across the snowy finish line pulled by a team of 11 dogs. Cheers went up for the third-place finisher of the famed Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

Burris Elementary School doesn’t seem like a place where students might be interested in the treacherous, 998-mile race from Anchorage to Nome each spring. And, prior to last year, they weren’t. In fact, only one or two students in Maggie Hamilton’s fifth-grade class had ever even heard of the sled dog race before meeting their teacher — a Colorado native who has been fascinated by the race since she was a girl.

“I’m a little passionate about it, so the kids latch on to that excitement,” Hamilton said Wednesday as a live feed of the finish line was projected in her classroom. “It’s 998 miles of awesomeness from Anchorage to Nome. ... It’s amazing to see how many students love it. ... They find it all interesting because, living in Indiana, it’s so different for them.”

Last year, in her first year at Burris, Hamilton decided to bring her love of the Iditarod to the classroom. Using her own money, Hamilton purchased Iditarod Insider access, which allowed her students to follow mushers throughout the race with live video feed and GPS tracking. After Hamilton found success with a curriculum that pushed her students to use their math and geography skills, Burris principal Jessica Jones urged her to seek grant funding for insider access that would be available to the entire school. The Lawrence County Community Foundation funded Hamilton’s idea with its Great Grant initiative, which recently provided $6,000 in funding to local teachers for classroom enhancement projects.

“Mrs. Hamilton did a mini-lesson for our teachers at the end of January on the Iditarod and how to use the digital site and curriculum she received through the Great Grant funding,” Jones said. “We decided, as a school, that each teacher would randomly draw a musher to follow for the race, and Mrs. Hamilton has provided updates each morning and afternoon. Mrs. Hamilton’s training inspired many other Burris teachers to use the curriculum and have their students pick an individual musher to follow and track throughout the race. Students have been talking all throughout the day about their mushers, reporting on the different checkpoints their mushers have made it to and hardships that had happened to their mushers throughout the race. Many teachers keep the live feed of checkpoints projected so the class can check in when mushers reached the checkpoints. We are continuing to follow the mushers as some of the ones our homerooms drew are still out there racing.

“It has been an amazing, school-wide project that has created a Burris buzz and excitement in our teachers and students. We greatly appreciate the extra time Mrs. Hamilton put in to getting the grant and training our teachers for this great race.”

In Hamilton’s class, the students have been researching their mushers, charting distances and speeds and comparing and contrasting those numbers. They’ve learned about geography and touched on the life skills the mushers need to endure such a tough race.

“They’re constantly looking at numbers, and I love it,” Hamilton said of her students. “We’re doing a lot with it in our class, but other classes are all doing a bunch of different things. It was up to each teacher on how much they wanted to do. ... We’re a tight-knit school, but this has brought everyone together in a totally different way because we’re all learning the same thing together. That doesn’t always happen between third, fourth and fifth grades.”

Third-grade teacher Lindsey Seitzinger was among those who opted to use the Iditarod in her classroom. Her students have been working on realistic fiction writing, mostly focusing on organizing clear beginnings, middles and ends. Seitzinger had them use the Iditarod for inspiration.

“They have written a story based on the Iditarod with at least three events that happen to their racer over the course of the story (injury, lost dog, wild animal encounter, etc.),” Seitzinger said. “They’ve used the Iditarod website to research actual names of cities on the course, realistic issues that arise during the race, etc. The finished project is either a traditional story format in Google docs or a Google slides project. They get to choose.

“We’ve checked in on our musher at least twice a day. We’ve done a few Iditarod-themed math notebook problems. ... The class has enjoyed it.”

The first Iditarod finishers began crossing the finish line at 3:41 a.m. Wednesday in Alaska, which was 7:41 a.m. in Indiana. Unfortunately, because school hadn’t started yet, the students didn’t get to see the first- and second-place finishers come in. However, the countdown began as Royer inched closer to Nome. Using her speed and distance out, all available through the insider access online, the students began counting down, knowing she’d cross right about 1:30 p.m. EST.

As she crossed, shouts of joy rang out in Hamilton’s classroom. The students laughed at one of Royer’s dogs because it just laid down at the finish line after a long, grueling 10 days of racing through the Alaskan wilderness.

“I think it’s actually quite interesting,” said Alli Foddrill, one of Hamilton’s students. Foddrill was following racer Kristy Berington who was expected to finish the race today. “I like how you get to see how far they get, and how much money they win. It was interesting to see how far she could go, if she was resting and how fast she was going. ... It was all just really interesting to me.”

Her classmate Bryson Zeeks welcomed the break from school work, even though he was using his math, geography and research skills the entire time he learned about the race.

“It’s something to do at school other than work,” he said, “because it doesn’t seem like work. It’s funny to see how excited (the dogs) get when they leave and how good they listen to their owner. It’s fun seeing the live feed; it’s always up in our room.”

Hamilton said adding the Iditarod to the curriculum at this time of year helps with the lull that falls between winter and spring break.

“This is a hard time of year for students; it’s hard to keep them focused,” Hamilton said.

Each year, a teacher is chosen to ride with one of the mushers in the Iditarod. That individual draws up lesson plans and reports to students along the way. One of these days, Hamilton hopes to be that teacher.

“For me, I think it’s the neatest thing in the whole wide world,” she said. “I love that we’ve made this into a school-wide thing, and I’ve been so excited to see what the other teachers are doing. Sometimes we’re so busy as educators, we don’t get the time to do the neat stuff like this. Getting the grant allowed us to tie the Iditarod into our lessons and make learning fun for all of us.”

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