- Associated Press - Sunday, February 23, 2014

FAIRBANKS, Alaska (AP) - Seventh- and eighth-grade students at Effie Kokrine Charter School have found a way to combine learning and fun while also incorporating Alaska Native culture and one of the most popular sports in the North.

The students, led by Effie Kokrine teacher Cassie Thacker, spend two hours each week learning about dog mushing both in and out of the classroom. They use dog mushing to learn about all sorts of subjects - from history and geography to math and physical education.

The class counts as a social studies credit, but the Thacker said she goes over other subjects with students. They learn how to read maps during the Yukon Quest and use math to talk about different race checkpoints. For the start of the Iditarod, they are learning about how the race began and about the original race to Nome.

And of course, the outdoor component gives the students plenty of opportunities to get moving and exercise. At one point, to learn about the logistics of pulling the sled, students lined up along the gangline in each of the dog positions and attempted to pull one of their fellow classmates down Dead Man’s Slough, which sits right behind the school.

“I think this is one of the coolest things I’ve ever been a part of,” Thacker said. “Outside has filtered into the classroom.”

This is the second year of the program’s existence. Last year, Thacker and 4-H director Kendra Calhoun came up with the idea for the program, and with the help of several local mushers, made it happen. Two of those mushers, Jessie Holmes and Mason Little, continue to volunteer with Thacker’s students each week during the second half of the year.

Students begin week one at the simplest levels of mushing, learning how to approach a dog and some of the basic methods of taking care of the animals. They progress each week from there, learning about the equipment involved with mushing, the technique and eventually riding on the sled with the mushers.

When the program culminates at the end of the winter, students have the chance to demonstrate their ability to drive a four-dog team.

To be admitted to the mushing program, students must demonstrate strong academic performance and must maintain it to stay in the program. For many of the students, the class is their first real exposure to mushing. For some of them, Thacker said, it’s their first up-close exposure to dogs.

Some of the eighth-grade students in Thacker’s class took the class during its first year and are now repeating the program as student-helpers, working in leadership roles with the seventh-grade class.

“The first year was fun because we were being taught and we learned a lot of new stuff about dog mushing,” said eighth-grader Jessy Brockmeyer. “This year, we’re teaching to seventh-grade.”

Brockmeyer and his fellow students said they love the class because it’s fun and it gives them the opportunity to get outside and play with dogs.

Yukon Quest musher Hugh Neff visited the class Wednesday, speaking with them about his own mentality with mushing and his performance in the 2014 Quest, in which he finished in second place. Neff won the Quest in 2012.

Thacker said she hopes to continue the program in future years and possibly even expand. She and her students had reached out to the community and received sponsorship from several companies - Cold Spot Feeds, Aurora Animal Clinic and Sportsmedicine Fairbanks.

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