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Olson receives state coaching award for speech/theater efforts

ADRIAN -- Speechless? Not Jason Olson. It would take more than notification of his selection as the 2012 Minnesota recipient of the National Federation of High Schools' Outstanding Speech, Debate and Theatre Educator of the Year award to leave Olson without words.

But the distinction has certainly left Olson, the Adrian High School (AHS) social studies teacher for the past decade, "tremendously humbled" and thankful for all the people with whom he works and from whom he has learned.

"It's great, but it's because of a lot of other people that this has happened," said Olson, who recently learned of his notable honor. "It's because of the students who have been so marvelous to work with here at Adrian; it's because I've been able to count on administrative support for these programs; it's because I've been encouraged each year.

"The secret to success, truly, is to surround yourself with good people."

After joining the AHS staff fresh out of Southwest Minnesota State University (SMSU) 10 years ago, Olson was initially a volunteer assistant coach with the AHS speech team, while also organizing the school's one-act play program.

Four years ago, Olson became the AHS speech team's co-coach with English teacher Joyce McCarthy when McCarthy took on additional duties as an assistant track coach.

"Joyce has managed to put up with me for 10 years," Olson said. "We complement each other very well, because where I am weak, she has some strengths, and vice versa."

Over the last few years, the AHS speech team has doubled in size to a total of about 30 members, Olson said, and the team has experienced continual success.

"We've had several state-qualifying participants in the past several years, and both this year and last, we had three students in the state final --and, with 100 teams in state competition, only six schools had more than three finalists.

"We're right up there in the top 10 percent in the number of finalists, and our students have done well in the speech categories of Informative, Great Speeches, Extemporaneous Reading, Humorous -- they've been pretty well-rounded," Olson said.

Olson was involved in speech for two of his own student years at Dassel-Cokato High School, but his zest for it increased at SMSU, where he was on the forensics team (public speaking category) for all four of his undergraduate years as a history major.

"I was especially fond of extemporaneous speaking -- talking about current events -- because it correlated more to the history I was most interested in," explained Olson.

Olson had also participated in several musicals as a high school student and portrayed Ebenezer Scrooge twice in SMSU productions of "A Christmas Carol," which led to his role as director of the one-act play program at AHS.

"It took me a while to figure out what was needed to be successful in the (one-act) program, but lately our kids have routinely ranked near the top of the section competition," noted Olson. "We've seen continuous improvement, and they were second in the section out of 20 casts this year; the year before that they were third, and they were in the top five for a couple years before that."

Another reason Olson came to the attention of the award selection committee was his willingness to jump into state-level leadership positions with the Minnesota State High School League.

"I've been selected the last three years by fellow coaches to be a state speech judge, and for the last five years I was the Class A chair of the Discussion category committee," listed Olson. "For two years I was elected as one of the two Class A coaches to sit on the state speech advisory committee, as well."

In addition, Olson spends a week each July as a coach at the Summer Speech Institute at Gustavus Adolphus College, which is attended by 150 students "devoted to speech and preparing their speech events for the next season," said Olson. "That's another great experience for me, because I get to work with some of the best speech coaches in Minnesota."

Along with McCarthy, Olson took the AHS speech team to 14 tournaments in 2012, beginning in Worthington on Feb. 4 and ending at the state tournament on April 20.

"It's a very busy few months, and what is difficult is speech begins just as one-act is ending," he shared.

Because many of the AHS speech students are also involved with sports, jobs or other activities, Olson said he and McCarthy meet with students for practice sessions whenever it works for them.

"We've given up lunch, we've met with them at 6 p.m., we've met at 7 a.m. -- but Joyce is better with the early before-school times than I am -- whatever it takes to make it work for the students," stressed Olson. "It's a testament to the quality of our students, that they want to be involved and look good so they practice hard."

Outside of teaching and coaching speech and one-act, Olson helped create the Adrian summer musical, having led six productions in the community, as well as directed the successful "Beauty and the Beast" community theater show in Worthington last summer.

"I have to give such a huge amount of the credit to Kay Prunty, and to Judie Johnson who designs such incredible costumes," said Olson. "Kay does such a good job with the kids, and I have been blessed to learn from her, Judie and Joyce.

"Besides the teachers I had in high school, those three, even now, are great teachers who have helped me out tremendously.

"That's what is so terrific about speech and theater--they are real collaborations," continued Olson.

Olson is not resting on his laurels; he is in the midst of working toward a master's degree in history through the University of Nebraska-Kearney, he was in the cast of the St. Kilian dinner theater production earlier in the spring, and he is already making plans for the 2013 one-act and speech seasons.

"One of the things I'm very thankful for in Minnesota is that speech is so strong here and we have many great coaches," he summarized. "Seeing my students come alive in a different way than they do in the classroom is what makes coaching these activities so rewarding.

"Speech and theater aren't just for people who can already act and speak well, but for people who want to grow."