Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Plan now to avoid winter blues!

For any who followed my blog nine months ago, you might remember that I had a hard time getting back into a good rhythm with our homeschooling after the Christmas break. I was burned out and discouraged, and at times it rubbed off on my kids. We did recover, and the damage was minimal, but I learned a few lessons from the experience. One is that it is good to plan ahead for a winter slump. Just as it is wise to save our pennies for a rainy day, start saving some ideas now to pull out when you wish you had never heard of the word "homeschool." I did not do that planning last year, but by God's grace, a couple of special projects fell into my lap, and one in particular rekindled our love for learning and added some much-needed spark to our homeschooling.

Mush! The Blue House Academy Iditarod Project - Part I

I first heard about using the Iditarod dog sled race as a unit study from The Old Schoolhouse magazine (Winter 2007-2008). It contained a great article with many resources and suggestions, and that issue can still be purchased here (print copy) and here (digital copy). Unit studies kind of intimidate me, but this time I was very interested. We once had a Siberian Husky and before I became a mom I spent many days having her pull me on cross country skies (an unknown sport called skijoring). She ran away several years ago, but the kids still talk about her all the time and are naturally drawn to anything related to huskies.

Of course, it always takes me months to read a TOS issue, so Alaska was welcoming spring flowers by the time I read the article, and an Iditarod study would have to wait for another year. I almost forgot all about it until fellow homeschool mom, Donna, posted about her Iditarod study at Go Alongs (she's now blogging and digital scrapbooking at Tootlebugz). Donna is much more creative than me, even making her own notebook pages. Plus, she truly made it into a unit study, covering all subjects, whereas I mostly used it as something fun and extra.

Our study consisted primarily of three parts:

1. Reading

2. Creating a map of the Iditarod Trail

3. Picking a musher and following the race online

Today I'm going to share our literature selections and will cover the other two parts over the next week. The TOS article has some reading suggestions, but I also relied on an incredible list at the official Iditarod website. Their list broken down into fiction and non-fiction books for adults, children and young adults, plus a special section for teacher resources. Each book is assigned an approximate grade level. We found several books we just adored and a couple will probably find their way under the Christmas tree this year.

Last year we started rating all the books we read on a five star scale, with five stars being the highest rating (although Anna had to give The Lord of the Rings books six stars to show that they are in a class by themselves). In our system, for a picture book to earn five stars it must have beautiful illustrations, and each of these books are among the most beautifully illustrated we've read in all our studies. So here are the five star books we read for our Iditarod study:

Born to Pull by Bob Cary

This book is your Dog Mushing 101 course. It tells you everything you need to know about the sport in an engaging manner.

Togo by Robert Blake

Most people familiar with the Iditarod have heard of the famous husky, Balto, but this dog's tale is just as worthy. This is one I'd like to add to our personal library.

Big-Enough Anna by Pam Flowers

We had to read this one because of the dog's name! This story is about the author's own 2,500 mile journey across the top of North America.

Akiak by Robert Blake

Do not miss this one! Akiak will have you jumping up cheering at the end of the book. I'm sure my kids will be cheering when they have their own copy come Christmas.

Welcome to the Ice House by Jane Yolen

We actually just read this book last week, but I thought it would make an excellent addition to an Iditarod study. The pictures make you feel like you're taking a nature walk in the Arctic.

In our rating system four-stars are pretty good too, and we had several fall into that category. Also, when Anna reads a book independently, she gets to rate it herself and I think sometimes her line between four and five stars is a little blurry. So here are our four-star books:

Mush! by Patricia Seibert

Black Star, Bright Dawn by Scott O'Dell (IR - Anna)

Storm Run by Libby Riddles

The Mystery on Alaska's Iditarod Trail by Carol Marsh (IR - Anna)

The Call of the Wild (The Whole Story Series) by Jack London (IR - Anna)

The Bravest Dog Ever: The True Story of Balto by Natalie Standiford

The only book we read that didn't receive four or five stars was Stone Fox by John Reynolds, which Anna gave just two stars, mostly because the dog dies at the end, but she said even without the sad ending she didn't enjoy it as much as the other books. I think others would disagree with her review, however.

We didn't watch any movies with our Iditarod study, but Iron Will is a great choice (my kids have seen it many times over the years). Eight Below is also a great movie, but way too sad for our family. Anna especially is still extremely sensitive over the loss of our own husky, and when she and I saw Eight Below in the theater we were both in tears the whole time. If you don't have quite the emotional connection, I think the movie is wonderful. You can read a review here.

Stay tuned for part two: creating an Iditarod trail map.

winter photo from


  1. This looks like a great unit, but it makes me cold. The real reason I came over is to tell you that I nominated you for Best Cyber Buddy in the Homeschool Blog Awards. I hope you win!

  2. Please don't hype the Iditarod to kids. For the dogs, the Iditarod is a bottomless pit of suffering. Six dogs died in the 2009 Iditarod, including two dogs on Dr. Lou Packer's team who froze to death in the brutally cold winds. What happens to the dogs during the race includes death, paralysis, frostbite (where it hurts the most!), bleeding ulcers, bloody diarrhea, lung damage, pneumonia, ruptured discs, viral diseases, broken bones, torn muscles and tendons and sprains. At least 142 dogs have died in the race. No one knows how many dogs die after this tortuous ordeal or during training.

    On average, 52 percent of the dogs who start the race do not make it across the finish line. According to a report published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, of those who do finish, 81 percent have lung damage. A report published in the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine said that 61 percent of the dogs who complete the Iditarod have ulcers versus zero percent pre-race.

    Iditarod dog kennels are puppy mills. Mushers breed large numbers of dogs and routinely kill unwanted ones, including puppies. Many dogs who are permanently disabled in the Iditarod, or who are unwanted for any reason, including those who have outlived their usefulness, are killed with a shot to the head, dragged, drowned or clubbed to death. "Dogs are clubbed with baseball bats and if they don't pull are dragged to death in harnesses......" wrote former Iditarod dog handler Mike Cranford in an article for Alaska's Bush Blade Newspaper.

    Dog beatings and whippings are common. During the 2007 Iditarod, eyewitnesses reported that musher Ramy Brooks kicked, punched and beat his dogs with a ski pole and a chain. Jim Welch says in his book Speed Mushing Manual, "Nagging a dog team is cruel and ineffective...A training device such as a whip is not cruel at all but is effective." "It is a common training device in use among dog mushers..."

    Jon Saraceno wrote in his March 3, 2000 column in USA Today, "He [Colonel Tom Classen] confirmed dog beatings and far worse. Like starving dogs to maintain their most advantageous racing weight. Skinning them to make mittens.. Or dragging them to their death."

    During the race, veterinarians do not give the dogs physical exams at every checkpoint. Mushers speed through many checkpoints, so the dogs get the briefest visual checks, if that. Instead of pulling sick dogs from the race, veterinarians frequently give them massive doses of antibiotics to keep them running.

    Most Iditarod dogs are forced to live at the end of a chain when they aren't hauling people around. It has been reported that dogs who don't make the main team are never taken off-chain. Chained dogs have been attacked by wolves, bears and other animals. Old and arthritic dogs suffer terrible pain in the blistering cold.

    The Iditarod, with all the evils associated with it, has become a synonym for exploitation. The race imposes torture no dog should be forced to endure.

    Margery Glickman
    Sled Dog Action Coalition,