Thinking outside the classroom:  Cambridge-Isanti graduate a finalist for Minnesota Teacher of the Year

Larson helped his Pine City students build an umiak – a skin-over-frame boat based on traditional designs – and then paddle it on the Snake River.

Cambridge-Isanti High School graduate Ryan Larson has been named one of 10 finalists for Minnesota Teacher of the Year – and he’s done so by thinking outside the classroom.  

Larson, who currently teaches at Pine City High School, brings broad life experience to his teaching. After graduating from CIHS in 1998, and earning his college degree from Northwestern in Communication Arts and Literature Education in 2002, he worked a range of jobs –  doing timber framing with Great Northern Woodworks out of Cambridge, then shifting to outdoor education with Voyageur Outward Bound school in Ely for three years running dogsledding and skiing expeditions. After briefly returning to timber framing, in 2012 he started working at Pine City High School.

He was hired to work in the junior high alternative program. Larson proposed switching to more of a project-based learning format, and in 2015 the school ran with it. “Dragon Academy” covers math, science, social studies and English. Larson works with 8th and 9th graders for two, 2-hour blocks per day alongside Mrs. Dennis, a math teacher, and Mr. Lundgren, a science teacher. 

“We try to do hands on stuff when we can,” Larson said. “A good example is, every spring we tap maple trees and boil down maple syrup. That is a fantastic way of helping students understand what proportions are. Eight five-gallon pails of sap equals one one-gallon milk jug of syrup. That’s what 40 to 1 means. That ratio means a lot when you’ve hauled all that sap in by hand and you’ve boiled hours upon hours upon hours.

“The first year of the program we built an umiak, which is a skin-on-frame boat. It’s based off of indigenous arctic designs. It’s big – almost 19 feet long and it’s five feet wide. Our first year, we were able to bring it down to the Fur Post and launch it there in the river ... right at the end of the school year, after we spent all year building it. It was pretty cool for the kids.”

Larson said they have continued to launch the umiak every year, although 2020 will be the exception to that rule due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He said that trying to teach his students through distance learning has been a challenge. 

“The technology on the school end has all been in place for a long time, and our students are pretty comfortable and pretty skilled with it,” he said. “The challenge comes then with the broader internet access within the community. There are places you just can’t get internet, or it would be prohibitively expensive or it’s not dependable or the speeds are really slow.” 

Teacher of the Year finalist

Dr. Candice Ames of the Pine City School Board nominated Larson for Educator of Excellence award in 2019, and he was named one of the four winners. After that, the executive director of the Minnesota Rural Education Association nominated Larson as candidate for Minnesota Teacher of the Year. 

He was picked as a semifinalist – one of 36 teachers in the state, and then as one of the 10 finalists. Final interviews will be June 13. 

Larson said he is honored to be nominated, but is more interested in figuring out what’s next in his teaching career. 

“ I want to keep making Dragon Academy better,” he said. “I have kind of a unique position, because I get to work with my students in a small setting with a couple of other really great teachers, and we get to work with them for two years. And then, because I teach study skills, I get to teach some of these kids for five years. It’s pretty rewarding to see the change over five years.”

For now, he is focused on making the end of this strange school year the best possible experience for his students. 

“There are a lot of neat staff at our school, and I’m grateful to be part of the district,” Larson said. “It will be interesting to see what unfolds over the next month here for our community, and for our state and nation.”

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