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Fifth-grade teacher is off to the (Alaska dog) races


If only Margaret Kiracofe could have made a field trip out of it, she would have. But even though she couldn't take all 25 of her fifth-grade students with her, she couldn't pass up the chance to fly to Alaska herself for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

She's there today, watching mushers yell commands such as "gee" and "haw" to their dog teams as they pass checkpoints on the 1,049-mile course. The race began yesterday in downtown Anchorage and will end as the teams reach the finish line in

Nome, starting in about 10 days.

"Your teacher gets to do all the cool stuff, and you're stuck here doing work with a substitute you hardly know," said Sarah Shaw, one of Mrs. Kiracofe's students at Westminster Elementary School.

The students don't begrudge her the trip, they said. They know she has been dreaming of this chance since 1988, when she started incorporating the race into her classroom lessons.

"Last night, I got to go dog-sledding," Mrs. Kiracofe, 45, said in a telephone interview from Anchorage Thursday. "It was incredible. I didn't want to get off. Take me to Nome.

"It was pitch black outside, and it was cold, but not bitter cold," she said. "The snowflakes were blowing on your face and all you could hear were the runners of the sled on the snow and the musher giving orders to the dogs."

"She just loves it," said Rachael Baker, who with her classmates has been studying the race in all subject areas and completing work packets Mrs. Kiracofe left for them. When Mrs. Kiracofe comes back Tuesday or Wednesday, depending on how bad her jet lag is, the class will spend two more weeks on the Iditarod theme.

Mrs. Kiracofe has much to tell them: about the veterinarian from Chestertown whom she met on the plane and who is one of the volunteers who inspect dogs at the checkpoints; about children's author Robert Blake, who is at the race to look for book material; and about the moose.

"Moose just wander all over the place here," she said. "Moose can be a problem when you're dog-sledding."

The students are eager to describe how moose can attack dog teams and mushers. They know that Susan Butcher, a former Iditarod winner, was once the victim of a moose attack.

Between them, the 25 students know just about everything a fifth-grader could know about the Iditarod without actually going.

Knowing someone who's there makes the work more exciting, said Angie Fiore. "We wouldn't have learned as much," she said.

"It'd be just like another social studies unit," said Bruce Chappell.

Mrs. Kiracofe has a history of taking her lessons beyond her classroom walls. In 1992, she let what first seemed like one student's crazy idea turn into reality: a field trip on a whale-watching cruise off Cape May, N.J., for her fourth-grade -- class.

"If she gets it in her head, get out of her way," said Rolland Kiracofe, her husband and an assistant principal at North Carroll Middle School.

Mrs. Kiracofe read about the Iditarod when it began in the 1970s as a race to commemorate a 1925 trek to get diphtheria serum to Nome after an outbreak there.

When she got a flier in the mail about a program for up to 25 teachers to learn firsthand about the Iditarod and exchange lesson plans, she got excited but thought there was no way she could go.

But Mr. Kiracofe filled out the application, faxed it just in time and, at Christmas, put the acceptance letter into her stocking.

In the case of the whale watch and the Iditarod, Mrs. Kiracofe incorporates the theme into every subject area, an approach that educators call "integrated learning," among other terms.

For example, the students have incorporated math and geography into their study of the size of Alaska and what combination of the lower 48 might be able to fit inside the 49th state.

To hone their writing skills, they must pretend they came in third in the Iditarod and write to an uncle to tell him of the experience.

And, for a more complex assignment, they had to use what they learned about racing dogs and put together an imaginary dog team, justifying why each dog was in a certain position. For example, the lead dogs are the brains of the team, and the ones closest to the sled must be the strongest.

Carrie Serio said she and her classmates followed daily weather reports for Anchorage and Baltimore and charted them on a graph. To their surprise, she said, they found only an average 20-degree difference.

"We thought it would be real cold," she said. "We've had dayhere that were just as cold [as Anchorage]."

While Carrie goes about her business in class, in band and at home, she wonders what Mrs. Kiracofe is doing up north.

"This morning I was thinking, 'What time is it there? Is she still awake?' " Carrie said.

This class is especially close to Mrs. Kiracofe, since they've had her two years in a row, for fourth and fifth grades.

"She kind of forgets we belong to other people," said Brandon Logue.

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