Transcript of presentation speech by Robert Brooke, NeWP Director
(with a tribute to Carol MacDaniels by Paul Olson)
I am pleased to present the 2006 Nebraska Writing Project Carol MacDaniels Teacher of the Year Award to Paul Olson.
Paul is retiring this year after 50 years in the Department of English here at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Early this month, the university celebrated Paul’s career with a Saturday conference devoted to three main themes in his ongoing work: first, his commitment to historical literary studies (Paul has taught Shakespeare in one form or another almost every one of those 50 years); second, his commitment to civil rights and the widening of the literary canon (Paul has been an advocate for minority literature throughout his career); third, his commitment to connecting schools and communities, especially in rural Nebraska. It is this third theme we celebrate tonight. For the Nebraska Writing Project, Paul Olson has been a visionary helping us enact real connections between our schools and the communities we serve. We have our Rural Institute program largely because of him. He started us on the road to place-conscious education. And, if you go far enough back in history, he is largely responsible for the very existence of the Nebraska Writing Project, since most of the people who founded NeWP in the late 1970s had absorbed Paul’s educational philosophy during the TTT project (“Teaching the Teachers of Teachers”). Paul’s vision of our region as a place kept vibrant, healthy, and ethical by the work of schools has been a guiding light for the entire three decades of the Nebraska Writing Project. His work as teacher, writer, and teacher educator has helped us become the active network we celebrate each year at this Spring Gathering.
Our teacher of the year award is named for Carol MacDaniels, whose all too short life exemplified these same traits of visionary teacher, writer, and teacher educator. Those of you who knew Carol know the outlines of her story: a woman who grew up in North Bend, migrated east for education, returned to Nebraska out of commitment to this region, became a teacher and then teacher leader out of that commitment. Those of you who know Paul will see a similar pattern in his life, from his beginnings in the Wahoo area, through his graduate study in the east and England, to his return and fifty year stay at here at UNL out of commitment to fostering a better life for all who live in this region. Many of you also know that Carol MacDaniels worked closely with Paul Olson. She was an important leader in Paul’s School at the Center program and was acting as a grant writer for him when cancer forced her to retire from university service. Carol would have been pleased to have Paul receive this award.
Current Nebraska Writing Project teachers will know Paul Olson primarily for his work with School at the Center, and the collaboration between that organization and our own. School at the Center was active between 1996 and roughly 2004. During that period, it helped fund seven NeWP Rural Institutes, sponsored several conferences featuring NeWP teachers, and collaborated with NeWP on an assessment project that was instrumental in our state becoming the only one to choose local assessments over the placeless national standardized achievement tests. Several of us here tonight remember Paul’s guidance as we imagined and then created the first Rural Institute in Henderson in 1997, as well as the many place-conscious teaching projects in local communities since that time. Several people sent comments about these matters in support of this award. To quote a few: former Nebraska Teacher of the Year Suzanne Ratzliff writes: ” Through my work with Paul Olson & School at the Center, my fourth-grade students uncovered the stories of our place – stories that entertain and shape how they grow as members of a community.” Ellen Kohtz, a long time teacher leader in Albion , wrote: “Working with Dr. Olson during the School at the Center years was a privilege. He knew we would do our best, and he remains as proud of us as he is proud of Nebraska . He is a treasure.” And Nebraska Writing Project Co-Director Sharon Bishop sent in this telling anecdote:
“When Paul Olson worked with our school – Henderson Community School – during School at the Center, he was so supportive of teachers who were doing Place-Conscious work. For one of the projects that my sophomore students were doing, I had a group of boys who were studying the Pawnee Indians in Nebraska ; I suggested they call Paul and ask for some information that they could not find. The group appointed a rather shy boy who was very nervous about calling a university professor. Finally he summoned up the courage to go to the office and make the phone call. When he returned, I asked him how it went. He dispiritedly answered that he had left a message on Paul’s phone and he was sure he’d never hear from Paul again. Of course, that was not so. About a week later, Jeremiah walked into my classroom and asked, “Hey, you know that Paul guy? He and I are just like this!” He held up two fingers together, signifying closeness. I think Paul would be pleased to know that Jeremiah has now graduated from college and he and his wife have moved back to Henderson , adding needed young leadership to a small, rural community.
Traditionally, I end the MacDaniels award presentation by quoting from the recipient’s own writing. Paul has written books, including The Journey to Wisdom, The Struggle for the Land , and The Kingdom of Science , some of which I hope NeWP teachers will read. But I’d like to close by quoting a spoken comment, from a presentation Paul gave earlier this year to the Ecocriticism group in our department, because I think it captures the spirit and moral force of Paul’s leadership over the years. His words are also a sentiment I hope we all can enact, as NeWP teachers. Asked to comment on his reasons for civic and educational action in the current political climate, Paul responded (and I paraphrase):
“I’ve been involved in this work for decades, going back to the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement. And I still do it, even though I can’t say the nation has gotten better. If anything, things are worse now than they’ve ever been. But you don’t do this work just for the success of making things better. If you do, you’ll quit when there’s a set-back. You do it because it’s the right thing to do.”
Please join me in honoring Paul Olson as the 2006 Nebraska Writing Project Carol MacDaniels Teacher of the Year