Vacation lessons learned include how to track Alaskan mushers and ‘brain-based instruction’ in Vegas
DOVER — Summer camp has long been a staple of the American landscape, but it’s not just for students anymore. Several teachers from Holy Cross School in Dover spent part of the summer far from Kent County in efforts to make classroom experiences for their students that much better.
Two fourth-grade teachers, Stephanie Seeney and Cathi Bolton, spent 10 days in June in Alaska for the Iditarod Teacher Summer Camp, fulfilling a dream Seeney had harbored for several years. She had incorporated the Iditarod – the annual thousand-mile dog-sled race – into her math curriculum for a while, and finally had the opportunity to go learn about the race first-hand, as well as meet many of the people involved.
Iditarod math, science
“I’ve been asking about this for years,” she said. “Finally, the opportunity was there, and the grant money was there, and we were able to go. It was phenomenal.”
One of the ways Seeney uses the race to teach math and science is to have students adopt a musher, then go home each day and track how far that person has gone and how long it has taken, check temperatures, determine what is necessary to take care of their dogs, and see whether any dogs had been dropped and why.
One of the math lessons involves having the children assume responsibility for taking care of a team as if they were mushers. They are given a budget and have to buy food and equipment, and pay for shipping. Amazon Prime is not an option in the middle of snow-covered Alaska.
Bolton added a language-arts piece to the curriculum a few years ago. Students now write to the mushers and talk about the character traits they have to possess.
“It’s a lesson you can get them excited about and incorporate the math and science into a topic that’s exciting for them,” Bolton said.
Going to Alaska brought the experience home in a way that is not possible when you’re following from a continent away, Bolton said.
“It kind of immerses you in the Alaskan culture, and you learn that the whole Iditarod, the idea of it, years ago during the snow, that’s how they would move around,” she said.
“They began the race to help keep the heritage, the tradition, continuing and not to lose that tradition.”
Seeney said about 10 teachers from around the country attended. One of them was selected to work on the Iditarod trails with the mushers. While she was not the one chosen, she was thrilled to hear the speakers and meet several mushers, including Cindy Abbott.
They were able to hike on a glacier with other teachers and learn about the science of glaciers. There was no snow, but dogs were able to drag them in a Jeep. Seeney and Bolton stayed at a dog farm and helped with chores. Bolton plans on doing an Iditarod lesson with chore charts for her students.
One of the unique things about being in Alaska around the summer solstice was that the sun never really set for a few days.
“It was hard to sleep the first couple nights. Where we were was in a big camp. We were on foam mattresses, and they didn’t have a blackout curtain. Thank God we brought our masks to wear or we wouldn’t have gotten any sleep,” Seeney said, adding that she would move to Alaska if given the opportunity.
“It’s absolutely beautiful,” Bolton added. “We went and there was a lot of daylight. At that point we were up at 1:30 a.m. to watch the sun.”
Lessons in Las Vegas
Far from Alaska, five pre-kindergarten and kindergarten teachers spent part of their summer at a conference in Nevada. And in this case, what happened in Vegas will not stay in Vegas.
The group — Kay Girton, Amanda Hauss, Melissa Fisher, Suzanne McGowan and Patty Wegemer — joined some 5,000 educators from around the country to discover “ideas to use in your classroom, ways to use materials that you already have to make it more useful, to meet with other teachers and share ideas,” Girton said.
The conference used to be held in Baltimore, and Holy Cross teachers attended regularly, but Girton noted that the number of attendees increased markedly with the move to Las Vegas. She was thrilled to hear from authors she admires, such as Dan St. Romain, an educational and behavior consultant. St. Romain is particularly instructive in what his website calls “brain-based instruction.”
“Understanding some of that psychology behind the brain helps you understand how to teach your kids and how to reach your children,” Girton said. “You understand how to engage them in what you’re teaching and make it more effective. It takes going to some of these presenters to understand that more, to step away from the classroom and be able to engage in some of that.”
One of the things St. Romain emphasized, Girton said, was to get young students physically engaged. Kindergarten students can’t sit still for long periods of time, so St. Romain recommends having them get up and moving every seven minutes or so.
Girton, who has been at Holy Cross for eight years, said the conference was rejuvenating. Some of that came from going someplace new and meeting teachers from all over the country.
“Even though it was the middle of July, I would have liked to have come back the next week and started it in my classroom because I tried to be so careful in how I wrote my notes … because you do come away that inspired. I can’t wait to try some of that stuff with my students,” she said.