Indiana teacher brings world to the Iditarod Trail

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Andrea Aufder Heyde of Indiana set out 10 years ago to prove that having a teacher on board for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race would be a lightning rod to attract students to learn.

What she also created, inadvertently, was a free worldwide public relations campaign for the race, and effort that has brought hundreds of teachers to Alaska and resulted in sales of thousands of dollars worth of Iditarod merchandise.

Teachers all over the world use the Iditarod as a teaching tool, thanks to free online lesson plans and related merchandise for sale from the Iditarod Trail Committee.

The educators purchase thousands of dollars worth of Iditarod materials, including bookmarks, pencils, stickers, mugs, paw print rubber stamps and note pads, videos, books, maps, clothing and teacher curriculum books.

“I had parents buying their kids Iditarod shirts because of me, and hats and stuffed animals,” Aufder Heyde said. “They were always buying stuffed animals from the store. The Teacher on the Trail program generates a lot of purchases from the store. They use the store year-round.”

During the past decade, hundreds of teachers have come to Alaska for Iditarod teacher conferences, including the summer camp for teachers at Dream a Dream Dog Farm, owned and operated by Iditarod veteran Vern Halter. Other teachers have brought their students to Alaska on Iditarod-related field trips.

“The program has grown and grown,” said Aufder Heyde. “When I started, I thought I would just connect with my classroom and my school. Never in my mind did I think it would be this big.”

iditarodteacherWells Fargo Bank was the first sponsor of the teacher on the trail program, a sponsorship since taken over by Target.

Most folks familiar with the ITC’s Teacher on the Trail program know Aufder Heyde, better known in Iditarod circles as “Finney,” as the first teacher on the trail in 1999. What they don’t know is that Aufder Heyde came up with the idea and was using it in her own classroom at Roger Elementary School in Bloomington, Ind., two years before she approached the Iditarod with her idea.

“It was all Finney’s idea,” said Iditarod veteran Lynda Plettner of Big Lake. “She came up with her own everything, and all they had to do was to move her up and down the trail. And then it became a program because it was a great thing, a great idea.”

“I believed in the educational value of using the Iditarod in the classroom,” Aufder Heyde said in an interview during the restart of Iditarod 2009 at Willow March 8. “People could feel that passion and they believed in me.”

It was 1997 when a new program called CLASS, Connecting Learning Assures Successful Students, was introduced in Indiana. The program offered a comprehensive curriculum model geared to transform schools into better learning environments.

“The whole crux was to teach children to goal set and to achieve goals by using life skills,” Aufder Heyde said. “It was like a light bulb went on. I was teaching Iditarod, and the mushers and dogs had to learn life skills to achieve their goal.”

Aufder Heyde began telling Iditarod stories to her students, playing Hobo Jim’s song about the Iditarod Trail, having students make little sleds out of toothpicks and pipe cleaners, and building a big igloo out of gallon jugs.

Then there was a contest with other second graders to guess how many gallon jugs it took to build an igloo. There was an art project where the kids made musher shirts with their names on them.

For science projects, students made paper mache glaciers. They put their hands in gloves coated with Crisco into icy water to learn how extra fat wards off cold.

The next year, Aufder Heyde e-mailed Don Bowers, a teacher, pilot, author and Iditarod musher, who has since passed away, with an idea about a program to teach the students goal setting and life skills.

“I said Iditarod fits that to a tee,” she said. “I want to come up, get out on the trail and send messages back to the school.”

“Great idea, Finney,” Bowers wrote back. “I support it, but you have to talk to the ITC.”

Aufder Heyde contacted ITC and was told they would think about it.

She started talking about her idea in Bloomington, drawing enthusiasm from teachers, principals, parents and students, all of who wrote letters of support. Then came a letter from Lois Harter, then education director for ITC, saying she could come up, but would have to pay all of her own expenses.

Knowing the venture would cost about $10,000 in gear, travel and other expenses, Aufder Heyde went to service clubs like Kiwanis and others in Bloomington, who helped raise the funds.

Ronald McDonald House Charities became a major sponsor. There were billboards all over town saying “Good Luck Finney.” When it came time to leave, there was a big sendoff.

Aufder Heyde, now on the selection committee for the Teacher on the Trail, was back in Alaska for several days for the start of the 2009 Iditarod and to participate in several teacher-related events. At every Iditarod event, she was greeted by old friends, including chief veterinarian Stuart Nelson Jr. and Iditarod veteran Ryan Redington.

Aufder Heyde interviewed Redington in a live televised session a decade ago as the winner of the Junior Iditarod. The one-hour session was conducted with distance-learning technology through Indiana University and in cooperation with Alaska’s General Communications Inc. The effort allowed students in Indiana to see Aufder Heyde and Redington and ask questions about the Iditarod.

“The race really does help kids develop the kinds of skills to make positive life decisions,” said Diane Johnson, the ITC’s education director. Johnson was teaching school in Aberdeen, S.D., when she applied online in the fall of 1999, and was selected to be the second teacher on the trail.

Johnson said her job now entails working with thousands of teachers, from preschool through the university level, as well as folks in rehabilitation centers and communities in all 50 states, and representatives from countries located on most of the world’s continents.

Along with all the free lesson plans they can download online, educators have the option to purchase more lesson plans, as well as a range of Iditarod items.

“I think every teacher buys stuff,” Johnson said. “We produce materials for teachers to purchase that are assigned to national standards for lesson plans, but you can download more lessons than you can use in five years from our Web site.”

Source: The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

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