Montana Arts Council

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Denny Olson

Address: 1230 5th Ave E
Kalispell, MT 59901
Phone: 406-249-3987
Discipline(s): literature, theatre

The focus is a multi-discipline approach to teaching and learning using storytelling and creative non-fiction writing as tools to learning seemingly unrelated content in science, history and social studies. I use stories, humor, unpredictability and audience involvement toward these ends.

Quote: "Dennis Olson's programs are a wonderful mixture of wit and wisdom, science and art. His messages are universal, his style unique, and his commitments profound. Denny is a master of his craft." Douglas Wood, Singer / Songwriter
Professional Statement: In 27 years of working with students at all levels, it has always been by intent to show that life is interdisciplinary, and education should be as well. Art forms stand on their own, but are also the best ways teaching and learning content in science, history, math and social studies. Compartmentalizing different subject areas makes them hopelessly abstract because they are out of the context of everyday life. I look for teachers and learning experiences everywhere, with the secure knowledge that every living thing; every relationship and every process is connected and interdependent. Our estrangement from nature is a product of compartmental, discipline-oriented thinking, and is the root cause of many easily curable problems. School should be a metaphor for living well. My methods include high levels of humor, unpredictability and student involvement in both the theatrical, storytelling and writing aspects of my work.
References: Judy Olsen
6th Grade Teacher
Cayuse Prairie School / District # 10
897 Lake Blaine Road
Kalispell, MT 59901

Diane E. Brugge
Biology Teacher
Bettendorf High School
3333 18th Street
Bettendorf, IA 52722

Mary Jo Gardner
2nd Grade Teacher & Science Leader
Fair Mont Egan School
797 Fairmont Rd.
Kalispell, MT 59901


Fee paid - $300
Travel - 56.5 cents per mile
Lodging - motel or homestay

Fee paid - $1500
travel, food and lodging the same as above

Biography: Denny Olson's formal training as a biologist and geologist, as well as teaching nature for over 20 years in the north woods and mountain west, has given him expertise in many disciplines. He has done research on beavers, hares and loons, and received an M.S. Degree (magna cum laude) from the University of Minnesota. From those scientific beginnings he forged an unlikely union between theatrical arts, science, humor, and storytelling, and established a national reputation as an innovative performer and educator.

Denny has trained thousands of naturalists, teachers and students in storytelling techniques, designed practical instructional evaluations, lectured on Native American storytelling as a teaching tool, and conducted workshops nationwide. He has performed his humorous alter-egos (incl. Critterman, Wolfman, The Grizz, Dr. Death, Prof. Avian Guano, Dr. Loonacy, The Lost Voyageur, The Mad Herbalist) over 3,000 times, in 49 states, for over 2 million people. Included in these totals are 2000+ schools, 70 conference keynotes, 44 national park presentations, and 26 university performances. His work has been the subject of over 80 newspaper articles, and he has received over 1500 unsolicited thank- you letters from students and teachers for his school programs.

Denny's use of conversational writing and theatrical arts to teach science and social studies emerged from two ideas: (1) that the emotional response of students to direct multi- sensory involvement is the key to long-term learning and (2) that integration of disciplines makes education more like real life -- raising the odds that motivation for learning will be far higher than in the traditional academic setting.

His books, Way of the Whitetail, Shared Spirits: Native Americans and Wildlife, and Cougars -- Solitary Spirits have been critically acclaimed. A companion book to Shared Spirits, Wolf: Wisdom Warrior, and a children's book, Special Gifts, were released in July 1999. A book on "place education" as a tool for school restructuring will be completed for the new millennium. "Critterman and Friends" appear in re-run on PBS programs syndicated in 12 states. He now lives in Montana grizzly country.

Sample Residency Projects: My past residencies have been various combinations of the following: (a) Theatrical performances (Critterman's Unhuggables; Critterman's Creepies (pre-K-3rd); Professor Avian Guano; The Lost Voyageur; Critterman and the Wolves; Critterman and the Grizz; Dr. Loonacy, Doctor Death -- all approximately 1 hour, maximum of two per day), (b) Classroom sessions on storytelling, acting techniques for effective communication, creative conversational writing techniques, and various nature topics such as loons, wolves, the relationship between life and death in nature, and cultural comparisons between traditional Native Americans and White America, (c) teacher workshops on acting techniques in the classroom, the role of emotion in learning, school restructuring around "place education", (d) a community PTO talk on the latter two above workshop topics.

The performances are adaptable to various ages (see character descriptions in promotional materials). Two examples of themes for community projects would be (1) the production of a play/skit by students for the community on the value of artistic methods in their own education and (2) significant participation of children in the affairs of a community.

Planning Process: After the initial contact, I normally send a package of more specific information on program offerings to a contact person (most often a teacher or administrator). A subsequent phone call narrows the specific things I will do during the residency, and allows me to outline my needs and limits for each aspect of programming. I have used various forms of contract and invoicing, including oral agreements. Stage setting, audio- visual needs, room size and configurations, developmental levels of the students, lodging, and transportation are typical considerations.
Preparation Ideas: Little is required, other than scheduling and promotion to the overall community (other than above).
Suggested Activities: I like the idea of a joint community project which has the aspects of (1) reacquainting the community to local natural places, (2) actual participation by students in the real affairs and decisions of the community. A community storytelling festival and/or a reading of students&single; creative non-fiction would be examples of beginnings in the above processes.
Teacher Training: I would do workshops on (1) storytelling/acting techniques in the classroom and out of the classroom, (2) the relationship of multi-sensory involvement and emotion with learning (through art), and/or (3) the role of places outside the school building in promoting student participation as real citizens and promoting more community involvement with schools.
Follow-up: Post-visit rubrics can be designed to assess the type of residency. I hope to have laid the foundation (through inspiration, example and new skills) for an expanding appreciation for the arts as useful education and communication tools, new knowledge of resources outside the school building -- especially natural areas, and a stronger sense that education happens everywhere, every day and includes everyone in the entire community.
Experience with Children at Risk or individuals with disabilities: In Superior, Wisconsin, I coordinated a long-term grant project that dealt with at-risk high school students in an alternative school. I trained them in wild plant identification, computer mapping and landscaping, and negotiation skills. Teams of two alternative school students formed a committee with the principal, contact teacher, custodian and two students from each of the eight elementary schools in the district. They planned and executed a landscaped-for-wildlife area at each of the elementary school sites. The little kids did the actual planting and maintenance at each of the sites, with direction and encouragement by the at-risk high schoolers.

The theme for the project was "diversity". In nature, diversity is healthy, so the planning process for the sites centered on variety in the landscaped areas. The corollary for the at- risk students was a group counseling process that celebrated differences in individuals -- within limits. Using nature as the model, healthy human systems are tolerant of differences to the point at which laws are broken, and the fabric of the system is also broken. Nature works the same way. Extinction (going to jail) is the result of diversity outside the limits that the system tolerates. Self-esteem of these students improved measurably as a result.

I also teach science and geography methods to elementary education majors at Salish- Kootenai Tribal College. Native American students are nearly all at-risk in the present education system. It was my job to present alternative teaching styles to these future teachers which included high levels of inquiry and involvement, storytelling techniques, outdoor experiences and a broad understanding of cultural differences. I consistently receive excellent formal evaluations from the students in the four classes -- and I am a white guy. The students in these classes, 95% Native, have the same trust issues with me (at first) as they had with being an Indian in a white school when they were growing up. My appreciation of their traditional worldview becomes clear to them quite soon. I am as much a student as they are. Multi-cultural education is not learning from other cultures; it is having the humility to learn from them.


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