Alaska- Frontiers Winter Issue 112
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Trail Teachers Set a New Course

A group of teachers act out a poem for the rest of the group as a part of the workshop’s tree-related poetry activity. Photo by Luise Woelflein

Fifteen teachers along the Iditarod National Historic Trail from Seward to Nome are setting a new course for K-12 education in Alaska. They are the first class of the accredited year-long Iditarod Trail to Every Classroom or iTREC! teacher-training initiative co-sponsored by the BLM Anchorage Field Office, Chugach National Forest and Iditarod Historic Trail Alliance, Alaska Geographic, Iditarod Trail Committee, and National Park Service.

The iTREC! initiative uses a place-based, service learning approach modeled after the “Forest for Every Classroom” and the Appalachian Trail “Trail to Every Classroom” programs. iTREC! helps teachers connect their students to the natural and cultural heritage of their place along the Iditarod National Historic Trail. It also engages students in projects that help their communities. The program brings students outside of their classrooms and into the outdoors, fosters an understanding of their local landscape and community, and inspires them to become long-term stewards of our natural and cultural resources.

Damon Hampel, in the federal Student Temporary Employment Program, holds a carton of natural items as teachers try to figure out which categories they fit into. Photo by Luise WoelfleinAt the first iTREC! summer institute in Girdwood from Aug. 1-5, 2010, teachers received intensive training on place-based service learning and curriculum development. Through hands-on sessions, they learned a variety of activities they could do later with their students. They also met with iTREC! partners to brainstorm potential service project ideas and support needs. Unlike most professional development opportunities, iTREC! teachers use their knowledge and experience with their students and communities to develop their own curriculum. They began implementing their curriculum in their classrooms when school began in the fall. These first iTREC! teachers are already engaging some 1,000 students in the approach.

iTREC! is “such a stark change from normal teacher training…” teacher Molly Hickox from Girdwood K-8 School said. “We all really felt like there was a huge team of people supporting us and expecting us to do great things.”

The teachers are already realizing that expectation. At a second session in Seward from Nov. 5-7, the iTREC! teachers gathered to report on their projects. Their classes had adopted trees, improved trails, begun monitoring streams, replaced invasive species with indigenous plants, and documented historic buildings. One class is planning to create public service announcements to increase awareness of the Iditarod National Historic Trail this summer, while another is creating a worm farm to manufacture soil for a community garden.

Luise Woelflein, BLM’s iTREC! coordinator, explains that the value for the children involved in the iTREC! program is that they learn curricula content in a meaningful context—a context that deepens their connection to their own community and to something larger (the Trail and other communities along it)—and gives them the opportunity to see the value of what they can contribute. “These kids have to do something to improve their community; they just become vested in what they’re doing.”

iTREC!’s inaugural class will attend their final workshop in Nome on April 15-16. Next summer, the iTREC! partnership will host a new group of teachers from more schools along the Iditarod National Historic Trail.

For this first group of trailblazing teachers, iTREC! has transformed their teaching approach. They see enthusiasm for place-based service learning growing in their schools and communities.

“It is really thrilling to be in on the very beginning of something that is sure to have a tremendous positive impact on many teachers, students, and community members,” says fifth grade teacher Barbara Johnson from Tanaina Elementary School in Wasilla. “I feel as if we are a small snowball rolling down a giant mountain, gaining more and more momentum along the way.” 

For more information on iTREC! or to apply for upcoming school years, contact Luise Woelflein

— Jennifer Noe,

Last updated: 01-28-2011