Montana State University

MSU English professors win grant for work with rural Montana teachers

March 1, 2016 -- Nilam A. Patel for the MSU News Service

Montana State University English professors Robert Petrone and Allison Wynhoff Olsen are working to create a support system among rural Montana English teachers. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.

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Tel: (406) 994-4571

BOZEMAN – For nearly three years, two professors in the Montana State University Department of English have been working to better understand the challenges of teaching in rural Montana and to create a support system among English teachers across the state, which should ultimately help better prepare Montana students for college.

Assistant Professor Allison Wynhoff Olsen and Associate Professor Robert Petrone, both in the MSU College of Letters and Science, recently won a $50,000 grant from the Spencer Foundation to bolster their efforts. The two will use the funds over the course of a year to continue their research of rural English education in Montana. Specifically, they will conduct interviews with small groups of English teachers in four different parts of the state—the Hi-Line, the eastern Bakken area, the Flathead valley and the greater Bozeman area—to learn more about teaching strategies, resources, challenges and opportunities.

Their research is intended to contribute to a better understanding of the experiences of rural English educators, and particularly how to better prepare and support English teachers to work in rural areas.

“We know that teachers in rural communities confront challenges similar to those faced by any teacher, but they often do it without a large support network in place,” Petrone said. “Our hope is that by bringing groups of rural teachers together, we can help create invaluable support networks.”

“I am very excited that Rob and Allison have received this major award.  Their work further demonstrates the relevance of MSU research to all Montanans,” said Nicol Rae, dean of the College of Letters and Science.

“Allison and Rob are the perfect team for this grant. They are teacher-centered, and they do research that’s hard to separate from teaching and outreach,” said Kirk Branch, head of the Department of English. “The Spencer funding really gives them the resources to develop existing networks of teachers in Montana. This matters deeply for educators in Montana. What makes it even more exciting is that they will be creating connections that can be models for rural teachers everywhere.”

Wynhoff Olsen and Petrone began their work after hearing from a handful of MSU alumni who were working as teachers in rural schools. They said some of those alumni expressed frustration with their isolation and simultaneously expressed a desire to be more connected with teachers in similar situations.

“We want Montana teachers to know that they are connected to one another and to feel supported by one another,” said Petrone.

To begin their work, Wynhoff Olsen and Petrone applied for an Instructional Innovation Grant from the MSU Center for Faculty Excellence. They used the $2,500 award to create a yearlong sequence of courses with an online service-learning component connecting MSU pre-service English teachers with rural teachers and students. Through these connections, current MSU students are serving as writing mentors for middle and high school students, facilitating research and literature discussions and developing curriculum.

They also received a nearly $10,000 Scholarship and Creativity Grant, an MSU grant program that supports scholarship and creative activity in the arts, humanities and social sciences. 

The grant from the Spencer Foundation will enable Wynhoff Olsen and Petrone to expand their efforts.

“We want to build a supportive, networked space for teachers who choose to live and teach in rural areas,” Wynhoff Olsen said. “Teacher education is a process of continual learning.”

The foundation’s investment in Montana teachers is worthwhile on a number of levels, she added.

“Rural schools are often the lifeblood of the community, and teachers play a central role in their school’s and students’ successes,” she said.

Allison Wynhoff Olsen, (406) 994-5185 or; or Rob Petrone, (406) 994-5186 or