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Grade 2 'Travels' to Alaska

After a week spent researching the arctic fox, Mae Sartorius '29 was writing and recording a first-person description, as if she were the fox. She covered the key details, including its average size (6-10 pounds), various names (it's also known as a snow, polar, or white fox), main features (it changes color, blue or white, twice a year when it molts), and preferred meals (small mammals, like lemmings and tundra voles). Then, she took a picture of a scaled drawing she had made of it earlier in art class. By importing the drawing and recording into an app called ChatterPix, which moves the animal's mouth to the rhythm of the script, her arctic fox suddenly came to life.

With the help of Educational Technology Specialist Jill Driscoll P '30, Mae's recording was one of many. Each of her second-grade classmates was similarly engaged, but with different animals that had been assigned to them. What's more, her recording project was just one of six designated "stations" in the Grade 2 corridor, each immersing students in a different aspect of life in America's 49th state. It was December 13 at the Lower School, and, with the season's first snowflakes falling outside, practically on cue, students were participating in an in-class field trip to Alaska, the culmination of an eight-week unit on the state.

Just behind Mae, at another "station," math specialist Verna Lange was working with a small group of students on math problems, determining the distance from checkpoint to checkpoint in the famed Iditarod. In Shalini Parikh's classroom, Alaskan games—like cornhole, animal fortune tellers, and a native stick-and-ring game—were being played. Jamie Nanfara was peppering students with Alaska-themed Jeopardy questions in her classroom. Intricate designs were being carved into clay, an approximation of Alaskan soapstone, in Mary Ogden's room. And in the art studio, students were using cardboard to create totem poles, traditionally used to represent Alaskan clans and families, and to ward off evil spirits, to post outside their own classrooms. Later in the day, to conclude their field trip, there would be a viewing of the animated movie Balto, about the dog-sled team that saved a remote Alaskan village from a diphtheria outbreak. (Earlier in the unit, during Reader's Workshop, students read the popular children's book.)

It was a bustling scene of adventure and exploration on the Short Hills Campus—and of comparing and contrasting a native culture to one's own—and yet students barely left the comfort of their Grade 2 hallway.

"Rather than rent a bus and take the kids somewhere, we decided to keep this in-house. We've been doing the Alaska unit for over 12 years this way, and the kids really enjoy it," explains Grade 2 teacher Mary Ogden. "We can take advantage of all the resources we have right here on campus."

Mae seemed to echo her teacher's sentiments. "I liked it when we were with Mrs. Lange, measuring our animals to scale and cutting them out to create this big mural," she says, pointing to a colorful map on the wall of Alaska's three regions, the tundra, the taiga, and its polar ice caps. "I learned a lot about the state's animals. I didn't even know lemmings were a thing! Or that an arctic fox has four different names!"

Photos, top to bottom: After writing out a script, Mae's arctic fox comes to life in the app, ChatterPix; molding "soapstone"; Alaskan facts.

Contact: Andrea Dawson, Senior Writer,