Teacher uses Iditarod, sled dog to reach students

KOKOMO, Ind. (AP) – From the treacherous Iditarod Trail race spanning nearly 1,000 miles across Alaska’s frigid terrain, Lincoln School teacher Donita Walters gleans math, geology and nutrition lessons.

Walters, who has been teaching at Kokomo School Corp.’s alternative middle school for six years, doesn’t know exactly when she fell in love with the dog sled race, but she finds ways to incorporate it into her classroom whenever possible.

Her students love it too.

“I have a difficult group to engage,” said Walters, who teaches eighth grade at the alternative school. “A lot of times when we can get outside the box and into real life, that helps. When a teacher’s excited, the kids are more excited about it.”

Part of the excitement stems from Kenai, Walter’s Siberian husky who has accompanied her to class several times a week for the past five years. Pooch Palace, Pet Supplies Plus and Noah’s Ark Animal Clinic keep Kenai in tip-top shape for the classroom.

“He is the softer side of education,” Walters told the Kokomo Tribune. “We work with at-risk kiddos, and he can calm a kiddo down who’s going 60 miles an hour. Educationally, behaviorally, we have better days when he’s here.”

Tom Hale, director of alternative education at McKinley and Lincoln schools, has seen the positive difference Walters’ Iditarod lesson make to her students.

“Through Mrs. Walters’ knowledge of the Iditarod, the Lincoln students gain a greater appreciation for the mushers, as well as the dogs. Our students learn about the sacrifices necessary for the mushers and the dogs to complete the Iditarod,” Hale said. “Kenai brings a calmness to Donita’s classroom. Kenai is a good learning experience since the students share the responsibilities of caring for Kenai. Each year when summer rolls around, the students tell me how much they will miss Kenai during break.”

Walters has been teaching lessons based on the Iditarod race since 2009. She further delved into the subject at a nine-day Iditarod Education Conference held in Alaska at the end of February, which she said turned out to be a “life-changing experience.”