Meet Tonya Wessman, first- and second-grade teacher at Rogers Adventist School in College Place, Washington, and recipient of the 2007 Don Keele Award. With the money she received, Tonya attended the 2008 Iditarod's Winter Conference for Educators in Anchorage, Alaska. Here she learned how to connect the Iditarod race to the states' cultural and educational standards and to get firsthand information and pictures of the Iditarod for the mini-unit curriculum she uses in her classroom.
During the four-day workshop in March, educators went on multiple field trips including visiting the race dog kennels, interviewing mushers, touring veterinarian clinics, visiting the studios of the race's official artists, attending book conferences from race authors, and attending Teacher on the Trail (a presentation showing how to combine curriculum planning with race elements in classrooms). The workshop culminated with Tonya attending the Musher's Banquet and opening ceremonies, taking a sled ride and helping with several of the 16-member dog teams at the start of the race.
Tonya applied for the Keele Award because she has followed the Alaskan Iditarod for some 10 years after being introduced to the race by a student. She says the race offers character-building traits that children can relate to including: caring for animals, sportsmanship, teamwork, responsibility, and doing one's personal best. In addition, the race also offers practical skills such as math development, map skills, time-use and strategy. Tonya's goal was to meet the mushers and bring back real-life materials. Besides bringing back a plethora of experiences, race pictorial books and memorabilia for her 21 students, she created a Read to Nome program where students create their own race and check off map points with books.
Attending the race was a dream come true for this Alaskan-born educator. She says, "the Keele awards make it possible for teachers, like myself, to do the extras we likely otherwise would not spend the money on, and then share them with our students."