Sled dogs visit J.E. Harrison to help bring story to life
Cecilia Mancuso cupped her hands around her face in excitement as the longhaired white Siberian Husky, with its wide eyes and pointy ears, let out a “howl.”
“This is the best thing ever,” said Mancuso, 12, a seventh-grader at J.E. Harrison Middle School.
“I love everything about this, the kisses, the hugs. Ah,” she gushed as she took a “selfie” with the dog outside her school.
Holly, Sprite, Casey and Bang — four Siberian Huskies ranging in age from 9 to 14 years old and members of North Hills-based Best-In-Snow micro kennel — visited J.E. Harrison Middle School from Nov. 17 to 19, along with their owners, Dan Rehak and Heather Walls, to share with students the behind the scenes of sled dog racing. Both Bang and Sprite have finished the prestigious Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, an annual long distance competition, as lead dogs.
The lesson was meant to help bring the pages of Jack London's “Call of the Wild” to life for seventh-graders in the Baldwin-Whitehall School District reading the book in their English Language Arts classes, said science department chairman Michael Kaleta.
“Now for the kids, when they're reading the pages in the book, they're hopefully going to have this connection,” he said.
The students learned about current and past sled dog racing trends and how to harness the animals and their rigs. They learned about the Alaskan history and climate and clothing used for sled dog racing, like Beaver gloves and Fox fur hats.
Each class adopted one of the dogs and learned about its history in hopes of connecting the students with the animals, Kaleta said.
“At the end of it all they're going to understand more about Alaska and the Iditarod. They're going to understand what it means to build a sled and what a dog sled looks like, they're going to know about the equipment that's used and why it's necessary,” Kaleta said. “But more importantly, they got to meet four actual sled dogs that are just incredible animals.”
The lessons took place inside the Mission Ops room, a new classroom space opened at Harrison this year, meant to “bridge the gap from the regular classroom to an experience,” Kaleta said. The room is at the entrance of the school's IKS Highlander full-scale classroom simulator which is meant to take students inside virtual experiences to work together to complete tasks.
“It's the idea that there's more out there,” Kaleta said. Things on the pages of a book can turn to real life experiences, he said.
The school connected with Best-In-Snow through the Pennsylvania Sled Dog Club. The four dogs that visited Harrison have raced in New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York and across the country.
The sport is weather dependent, because it requires the right amount of snow, so some races are done on dry ground, Walls said. The first race in the snow for the dogs won't take place until January.
For the owners, talking to the students is important, too, they said.
There are those that critique the sport and this gives them a chance to educate people on what sled dog racing really is, Walls said.
Students who have been reading “Call of the Wild” for about three weeks have been “lighting up” in class as they hear about the dogs, said teacher Heather Himes.
“It's like the pages are coming to life,” said seventh-grader Jenna Amato, 12.
Stephanie Hacke is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5818 or email@example.com.