Teacher inspired by dogsledding in Alaska

What does language arts have to do with comparing and contrasting towns in Alaska and Cabarrus County?

Where do a Siberian husky's eye color, floppy ears and bushy tail fit in with a science class?

And does plotting the daily temperatures of Mount Pleasant, Anchorage and Nome on a cinderblock wall really constitute mathematics?

With four trips under her parka, Mount Pleasant Middle School teacher Martha Dobson can tie just about anything into the Iditarod, the world renowned annual Alaskan dogsled race.

Her ability to develop lesson plans across the curriculum involving one of Alaska's greatest traditions is one of the reasons Dobson was selected last month as the nation's 2011 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail.

Next March, teachers and students around the world will log onto Dobson's lesson plans as she reports from the checkpoints of the grueling 1,000-mile competition, dubbed "The Last Great Race." As part of her Teacher on the Trail responsibilities, Dobson will begin filing additional Iditarod-themed lesson plans online starting next month.

The 51-year old teacher admitted that, on the surface, she would seem an unlikely candidate to have such a strong connection to the romantic Alaskan sport. A longtime Girl Scout volunteer, Dobson insisted, however, that she has a competitive, adventurous side.

Her Iditarod infatuation began eight years ago, when she introduced her language arts students to "Woodsong," an autobiographical book about musher and author Gary Paulsen's Iditarod adventures.

A couple of years later, one of her teaching teammates, Ann Short, told Dobson that Paulsen would be speaking in Anchorage the day before the start of the 2005 Iditarod.

While packing, Dobson tried to remember everything she knew about smart camping and hiking and applied it to the subzero temperatures she would have to endure. Then she took what she thought would be a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Alaska, accompanied by Short.

Dobson won a bid to ride on one of the sleds on a ceremonial trip away from the race's starting point. She was hooked.

Since then, she has returned to Alaska five times, including twice to attend Iditarod summer teacher conferences. And she learned of the Teacher on the Trail program.

Dobson first applied for the prestigious educational opportunity in 2008 and finished fifth among 11 candidates. She tried again in 2009 and placed fourth. She said she struggled with whether to try a third time.

"(I thought) 'Can I put myself out there again and take the risk of feeling the emotions if I did not get to be a finalist again?'" she said. "Then you look and say the race teaches perseverance. You think you have important things to teach and share about the race. And your family (agrees) and your colleagues do, so go for it."

Dobson has progressively developed a greater appreciation for everything Iditarod and Alaska. A few years ago she adopted a Siberian husky from a Cabarrus animal shelter and named it Morgan, for Iditarod musher (dogsled driver) Phil Morgan.

Her classroom is decorated with Iditarod paraphernalia, including small posters, a calendar and photographs. One photo is autographed by musher Hugh Neff. Dobson invited Neff to speak to her school's sixth-graders during his East Coast tour last month.

Dobson has the blessing of her fellow team teachers and the school administration, and her students have appreciation for what she is doing.

"I think it would be fun to be the Teacher on the Trail and work on the Iditarod," said sixth-grader Bradley Arrowood. "I think I'll remember it for a lifetime, that she was the first one to teach me about the Iditarod."

Last week, Dobson was incorporating a lesson on making Akutaq, or "Eskimo Ice Cream" into her language arts class. Surrounded by 16 students, she mixed shortening, sugar and blueberries and let them try a spoonful.

It was received with mixed reactions. Apparently it looked like "mush."