Friendly faces in familiar places: Morgan Olson
Discovery Middle School science teacher weaves life experiences into learning
Morgan Olson is the kind of teacher who wanders the halls playing guitar or walking a wooden duck. He shares stories about the framed photos, rocks and mementos that line the shelves of his classroom.
He navigated around the desks toward one rock in particular, situated on a wooden shelf above counters lining the perimeter of the space. He pulled it off and held it in his hands, recalling how he found it where they buried his father’s ashes.
“When I teach about rocks, I show this to my students and I tell them a rock is more than a rock,” Olson said. “Sometimes, it ties you to a place in time and it can connect you to a moment of your life.”
He said he strives to teach his students how he learns best: Tying personal stories into academic lessons.
‘That other side of me’
Olson, 40, has lived in Minnesota for most of his life, but he was born in Billings, Mont. When his parents split, he moved with his mother and sisters to Beach, N.D. They relocated to Alexandria in 1989 when his mother was hired as the principal of Miltona Science Magnet Elementary.
Growing up, Olson spent the school years in Minnesota with his mother and sisters and summers in Montana with his father.
On his solo summer adventures, he would pack a lunch, grab his fishing gear and holler, “Alright dad, I’ll see you in a bit,” before proceeding with his daily routine: Hiking up creeks and finding places to catch trout.
“All that time by myself in the summer really gave me a chance to get to know myself,” Olson said.
Back at school, he was known for his class-clown persona. So when he returned from the summers away, Olson’s friends would tell him that he had changed and that something was different about him.
“I think they were just seeing that other side of me,” Olson said.
Immersing himself in these two contrasting environments shaped who he became: an introvert at heart with an outgoing side. Olson said these two elements of his character have allowed him to connect with different types of learners as a teacher, but teaching wasn’t something Olson set out to do.
He planned to be a pharmacist, but once he got into upper level chemistry courses, Olson found himself getting bored.
At that point, he thought he would change trajectories and become a geologist, so he transferred to a college in Montana. While pursuing this new line of study, Olson said he had a “wait a minute” moment.
What happens when I’m a 50-year-old guy? Am I going to be hiking up mountains in all kinds of weather? I need a job that’s going to take me through my whole life.
He said no to pharmacy and no to geology, so he considered the possibility of teaching.
Olson returned to Minnesota and attended the University of Minnesota Morris.
His advisor, Keith Brugger, told stories to the class about hiking in the Grand Teton Mountain Range and nearly getting struck by lightning. Olson remembered Brugger showing the class photos of the location and prompting them in a discussion about the geology of that particular area.
“Having that authentic experience shared with me really made me feel good about being a teacher because I have a ton of different life experiences, and that’s a big part of what I share with my students,” Olson said.
‘Find that pathway’
Olson was in the first class of students to come through Discovery Middle School in 1994. He said he feels lucky to be teaching in the Alexandria school district because some of the teachers he looked up to are now his co-workers.
“Right from the start in Alexandria, I feel like I was set down a path,” Olson said. “Being in this building and teaching with people who were so inspirational to me, it’s just a very meaningful position to have.”
Discovery is the fourth school where Olson has taught, but he says this is the only place where he’s experienced a tight-knit community. As a middle school science teacher, he says he feels like he’s found his fit.
“People who are in middle school are finding their pathway in life, and it’s a neat role to be a person who helps them to find that pathway,” Olson said. “And can say, ‘Hey, everybody struggles in middle school. Everybody struggles to find who they are. You’re going to be OK.’”
Olson said he feels the most content while doing his hobbies, which are usually solitary activities, such as homebrewing, quilting, playing guitar, canoeing, doing carpentry projects, hobby farming and gardening.
He knows it’s something he truly enjoys when he turns music on and gets lost in the activity for hours, so much so that he sometimes forgets to eat and doesn’t stop until after the sun goes down.
“Something where you can get success right away at an entry level, and then as you get excited, you can keep learning,” Olson said. “The more that you learn, the better your skills become, and these are things where you can spend decades working and improving your skills.”
When he was in seventh grade, Olson remembered making root beer in science, so he decided to do the same project with his students. He started homebrewing the same year he started teaching about the fermentation process as a demonstration of cellular energy in class.
After the project was a success, he thought to himself, “You can make real beer, too.”
His friend’s father taught him how to brew, giving Olson a book and set of equipment.
“That’s been a passion that really took off,” he said. “There’s so much science involved.”
Olson has taught local homebrewing classes, grows his own hops and plans to add barley to his home garden next year.
He also serves as the community education garden manager at Woodland Elementary in the summers. This year, the kindergarten through third grade students did a lot more of the hands-on work, from weeding to planting.
Through this program, Olson estimated it provided the schools with about 130 pounds of zucchini and 300 pounds of potatoes for students’ lunches. The kids may also harvest smaller garden items for their snacks, such as cherry tomatoes and lunchbox peppers.
“The small group of kids I work with, they’re future farmers,” Olson said.
Projects in progress
A few years ago, Olson and his wife bought a 9-acre piece of land near Lake Carlos State Park. They had learned more about homesteading and bought the land when it was open prairie.
Olson built the house himself with some help from contractors. He spent his days teaching, changed clothes and worked on the house until 11 p.m. every night framing walls, installing insulation and building cabinets.
“I don’t know how I pulled that off,” Olson said. “Working basically two jobs for a whole year.”
Since finishing the house, he’s invested himself in starting a hobby farm. He’s planted 10 apple trees to start an orchard. He placed a shelter belt with about 50 spruce trees, apricot trees and cherry bushes. This year alone, Olson and his wife raised 125 broiler chickens and 24 ducks for laying eggs.
For a few weeks in August, they were butchering chickens every other day. By the end, all 625 pounds of chicken meat was in their freezer. Olson said there are many projects in progress around the house and yard.
“I think what we tend to do is take big bites,” he said. “Sometimes, we bite off more than we can chew, but we never stop chewing.”
‘All I need’
One night over the summer, Olson strolled into his backyard and stumbled upon a meteor shower. He watched in awe as the meteors flew by over his head.
“I felt like I was connecting with something beyond myself, and I just came to the feeling that this is all I need right here,” Olson said, as he looked around his 9-acre property.
Moving forward, he said he wants to keep putting his time and energy into the community, building his farm and helping raise his three children to be strong, happy and healthy.
Noah, 12, produces videos for his YouTube channel “Bricks and Flicks.” He builds Lego structures and creates stop-motion animations.
Elijah, 11, enjoys cooking and tinkering with objects to see how they work. When Olson’s house was under construction, Elijah would peek under the cabinets to see where the plumbing went.
Micah, 5, spends a lot of his time creating art.
“He is just a goofy, funny little kid,” Olson said. “He’s turning out really impressive works of art.”
Olson wants to be remembered as someone who was surprising. Someone who people may not expect to have input on their situation. A person who’s helpful, who can be trusted and who has a plethora of experiences that help him connect with others and learn along the way.
This is a part of "Friendly faces in familiar places," an occasional series telling the stories of the unique people that make up the Douglas County community through writing, photo and video. To nominate an individual to profile for this series, email Jasmine at firstname.lastname@example.org.