TREMONT, Maine — In the Alaskan sledding race, the Iditarod, it’s humans who cheer for the dog teams. In Tremont School’s Idita-read, quite the opposite. Dogs are the mascots for student teams who, starting Monday, are working to read for 1 minute for each mile in the 1,112-mile sled race.
The reading marathon seemed like a natural fit for the school, which has had a dog reading program for years. Each week, students who need help reading can sit with Timber the black lab and read out loud to her.
“Dogs relax kids,” Timber’s owner Pam Borque said in the school’s gymnasium Friday after the event’s official kickoff. “The dog doesn’t correct them. They can just read to the dog and relax.”
At the Idita-read kickoff on Friday, one small boy approached one of the dog handlers — all volunteers from Down East Dog Scouts — and told her he couldn’t read. She told the boy it was OK, he could try reading to the dog. He left smiling.
Timber is a mascot for the red reading team. The 111-student K-8 school was split into four groups. Each child in the group is expected to read for 1,112 minutes in the next 55 days. That evens out to about 20 minutes a day. The real Iditarod lasts about 15 days, but it didn’t seem reasonable to ask the children to read for about 18 hours in nearly as many days.
At an assembly Friday librarian Crystal Dow explained the competition to children, most of whom seemed entranced by the six dogs standing in their school.
“Any questions?” Dow asked at the assembly.
“Can I pet the dogs?” one tiny boy in the front row asked.
The Labradors and a Great Pyrenees stood around the starting line of the reading race as kids crossed it.
“Today we cross the starting line. You want to cross that finish line. You don’t want to watch while everyone else crosses it. Read read read. Read anything,” Dow said.
Sean Murray, 10, of Bass Harbor, wants to finish Lemmony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events” during the Idita-read. He is currently reading the 11th one. The competition is a big motivator, Murray said.
“It’s interesting. I’ve never done something like this before — everyone in school will read at once. It’s intense. But it’s doable,” he said, from the blue team’s corner.
The green team’s Emma Watras, 13, of Seal Cove, said she plans to read more because of the competition. She plans to start “The Hunger Games” series.
“I have a stack of books I want to read,” she said. “[The Idita-read] is a good way to get everyone to read — competition.”
The reading program will kick off on the same day as the Iditarod. By tracking their reading progress online, students can compare how far they are in their race to where the dogs would be in Alaska.
“Anytime you connect kids and dogs, you get results,” said Dow, the school librarian. “When kids have expectations on them they will rise to the occasion.”
“Yeah. You don’t want to be the one to let everyone down,” added library volunteer Stefani Simpson, of Bernard.
Simpson has two kids in the school. Her 7-year-old daughter reads for two hours every night, but her 9-year-old son would rather be outside playing, she said.
She plans to embrace the dog-reading idea to encourage him to read more.
“My kids read to the dog or the cats sometimes. That’s what I’ll have Zach do. Tell him to read to the cat. It might work — unless he gets distracted by the cat,” Simpson said.
Correction: Due to an editing error, an early version of this story referred to Tremont School as Trenton School.