Elementary students walk across Alaska

Teacher Mandy Buckingham uses a large-scale map of the state of Alaska with her first-grade student Sammy to find where the coordinates E-3 are located on Nov. 12. Staff photo by Dustin Safranek

Fawn Mountain Elementary School students and teachers had the opportunity to walk across the entire State of Alaska last week without stepping foot outside the school’s gymnasium.

Third-grade teacher Angie Taggart acquired one of the National Geographic Society’s “Giant Maps” of the State of Alaska and set it up in the school’s gym, so all the classes had a chance to interact with it for one day only. She acquired the map on loan from Susan Smith, who is a teacher and principal for the Iditarod School District in Takotna.

The map, which measures 21 feet wide and 17 feet long, introduces geography, map reading skills and spacial thinking for students K-12. The map is made from a durable plastic and labeled with rivers, seas, mountain ranges, and even the route of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

Taggart described the students’ reaction to the almost 1,000-mile Iditarod trail that she completed twice — once in 2011 and again in 2013.

 “For them to see part of the trail where I ran my dogs was kind of cool,” Taggart said. “It was neat to point that out to them and then thay could actually see how far it was and they were like, ‘Wow, that’s a long ways.’”

Taggart expressed that the map showed up last minute and teachers scrambled to prepare activities for their students, but were able to plan for four. In the gym, teachers asked students to volunteer and then handed them a photograph of a wild animal and were asked to place it near an area where they could possibly observe the pictured animal.

 “Many of the animals live in Southeast Alaska, but moose and caribou don’t live down here, so the kids had to think about what kind of area — like if it was tundra or mountainous,” she said.

Students also matched cities with a given population, found locations by using grid coordinates, and used the compass rose to describe direction.

Taggart explained that the map gave students a good understanding of scale as they walked over mountain ranges and explored where some of the glaciers carved through.

“I don’t think a lot of kids realize how large our state is, even though you’re not referencing it at that exact moment to the rest of the United States,” Taggart said. “For them to actually see the distances, like from Ketchikan to Nome or Ketchikan to Barrow ,is very beneficial.”

She also observed that students were very fascinated with the scale of the Aleutian Chain and the many seas that surround the entire state. “The Aleutian Chain was kind of neat for them, because a lot of them didn’t realize that they were mostly volcanic islands, and for them to actually physically see how far they stretched out past the interior of Alaska was really interesting to them.”