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Pine City educator a finalist for two prestigious awards thanks to transformative program

Ryan Larson melded his two passions: the outdoors and education, to create a tangible learning experience for his students.

MINNEAPOLIS — Teaching isn't for the faint of heart; really, it's got to be all heart

Ryan Larson with Pine City Public Schools is being recognized for his passionate and transformative methods of teaching. Larson is a finalist for Minnesota Teacher of the Year and National Rural Teacher of the Year.

Larson loves being outdoors; so standing inside a classroom all day led him to a crossroad when he earned his degree.

"I knew I wanted to teach. I knew that I wanted to work with students, but it was just hard for me to think about being inside all of the time," explained Larson.

The teacher found a way to use his work in outdoor education to transform a program for at-risk youth.

"I learned a lot about working with students that sometimes have really challenging life experiences. How do you help them develop a passion? How do you help them find a drive for whatever is before them?," questioned Larson.

That's what's behind the project-based learning at Pine City Junior/Senior High's 'Dragon Academy.' 

The program's unique style of teaching weaves everything from boat building for social studies to tapping for maple syrup to learn math.

"When you have to carry eight 5-gallon buckets of sap and you spend hours boiling it down and it yields what is the same as a 1-gallon milk jug of syrup, 40 to 1 means something," said Larson.

It's a curriculum that grabs the attention and imagination of the students.

"I don't really think that school and academics should be disconnected from real life. The purpose of school is supposed to prepare students for whatever comes next. So, what better way to do it than to provide them with real life experiences," said Larson.

Because of COVID-19 and distance learning, Larson and his students had to adapt.

"For students who are out in rural areas, I think a lot of them felt really isolated at this time; they couldn't be with their friends. School is a safe place," remarked Larson.

But they found a way to stay engaged. That meant video conferences, texting apps and sometimes it was phone calls with parents with the students on speaker.

When asked if he had anything he could share with his fellow teachers, any words of encouragement or advice, Larson said, "Whether they're in an urban school or a suburban school or a rural school, a lot of our students face a lot of challenges," said Larson. He continued,"Our students need to know that we're there for them, that we have their backs."

The selection panel for Minnesota Teacher of the Year is tentatively scheduled to meet on June 13th to interview the finalists. 

The Rural Teacher of the Year announcement is slated to be announced in November.

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