As mushers race to Nome, a Chicago educator will teach on the trail

Annie Kelley is the Teacher on the Trail for the 2017 Iditarod (Photo: Wesley Early, Alaska Public Media)

The Iditarod trail won’t be full of just mushers: a teacher will be following along as part of a yearly program.

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For two years, Annie Kelley, of St. Andrew’s School in Chicago has been preparing for a new type of lesson plan.

“My job is to fly out on the trail in little planes and report back to classrooms across the country that are using the Iditarod as a teaching tool,” Kelley explained.

Kelley found out she was a finalist for the Teacher on the Trail program in January of last year. And just as mushers have extensive planning on the Iditarod with years of training and work, so too, does Kelley. Between an application process that required letters of recommendation and long term lesson planning, she said the experience has been constant.

“So since I was selected as Teacher on the Trail, I’ve been keeping a website, and that has tons of lessons that I’ve been doing with my kids in Chicago and I share it with teachers across the country,” Kelley said. “I’ve been presenting at a couple conferences, and getting my cold gear weather clothes ready. Chicago did not prepare me well this year. It was a very mild, mild winter there.”

For Kelley, getting ready for the weather means more than a hat and gloves. She listed all the clothes she plans on wearing:

“I think four layers on the bottom, topped with some heavy duty LL Bean snowpants. Boots that go down to -100, and there’ll be feet warmers in those boots. Probably four layers on top with a parka that was well tested at the Junior Iditarod. A giant hat and like four pairs of gloves, and I’ll probably only be wearing two at each time, but I’ve got lots of gloves. And hand and feet warmers will be used at all times.”

While this is the first and probably only time Kelley will be Teacher on the Trail, she said back in Chicago, she loves incorporating the Iditarod into lesson plans for her fourth graders.

“So my lessons, a lot of them revolve around language arts. We write letters to the mushers – so writing friendly letters,” Kelley said. “And a lot of times they write back, which is really fun. My favorite is one year, one of the rookie mushers handwrote a letter to my students, front-back side of a sheet of loose-leaf and it was just so cool that he took the time to do that.”

While Kelley will be reporting to her students on all of the mushers, she said she has a couple favorites.

“You know, I have a few favorites,” Kelley said. “Charley Bejna is a musher from Chicago, and he’s come into my classroom and it’s been really awesome. And Ally Zirkle – girl power – I’m excited to see her come in at the finish. So those are two that I’m rooting for.”

And Kelley’s students are just excited as she is for the opportunity.

“They’ve been hearing about for about two years now, this whole process. The biggest thing is ‘Just keep warm, Ms. Kelley.’ is all they tell me and be safe,” Kelley said. “I had one student write me a card and it said: ‘If you’re afraid of heights and small, little planes, don’t worry. You’re the Teacher on the Trail. You’re not scared of anything.'”

The last great race formally started today and Ms. Kelley will be reporting to teachers across the country every step of the way on the Iditarod website.