As a high school English teacher in rural Montana, Casey Olsen doesn’t have a lot of close English teacher colleagues. He’s one of two high school English teachers in his town of Columbus, and the nearest university is miles away. Olsen doesn’t have many people who share the responsibility he feels for teaching literacy skills. And he doesn’t have many people to talk with about the challenges of engaging rural students or the struggles he faces in encouraging his students to stay in school when they can earn a decent living at the Stillwater Mine down the road.
As a new teacher in 2005, Olsen felt so isolated that he nearly left the profession. Then he attended a summer institute put on by the Montana Writing Project, which he says gave him the connections he was looking for.
“The writing project gave me a network of other writing teachers across my state who were also rural like me,” he said. Those connections helped him find meaning in his work once again.
“We could bounce ideas off each other,” he said. “Share frustrations, learn from each other throughout the year by email.”
Olsen returned the following summer and has worked ever since to expand the Writing Project’s work in Montana. Today, there are three Writing Project sites in the state. This growth has helped connect thousands of rural teachers, making it easier for them to attend professional development sessions, connect with colleagues, and think critically about the importance of writing and the teaching of writing today.
Olsen helped to develop the College, Career, and Community Writers Program (C3WP), an intensive professional development program that aims to strengthen teachers’ ability to teach argument-based writing and to engage their students in communities and in citizenship through writing. In addition to serving on the C3WP leadership team, Olsen has presented on national panels in Washington, DC, on the importance of teacher professional development.
Olsen’s students now spend part of each semester researching public issues they care about and writing a short op-ed on the issue and presenting evidence. The op-eds have been published in the Stillwater County News, the local paper, and in some cases have resulted in real community change. One student successfully advocated for a tax increase to fund advanced life support services on ambulances.
Olsen takes his students on trips to nearby Yellowstone National Park and is working with colleagues in Billings on anti-racist units that connect students to local history and culture and combat white supremacy. Students hear from local experts on Indigenous history and connect literature from Holocaust survivors, for example, with literature from Indigenous genocides.
Olsen says his goal with these projects is not just to inspire student writing but to help his students “become part of the conversation.”
This kind of project helps take students beyond just writing for the teacher, he says, or even writing for peers. “Now students are writing for their own community, they are writing to make a difference, writing for policymakers, they are becoming informed and they know evidence is important when they speak.”
Olsen says in today’s political climate his focus on evidence is particularly valuable. “I hope to help my students be less influenced by memes and fake news, whatever political labels my students may carry,” he says.
“I want to create a population of citizens, of people who care about evidence and use it to make informed decisions.”