2003 Carol MacDaniels Teacher of the Year Award
Presented to Sharon Bishop
I am pleased to present the 2003 Nebraska Writing Project Carol MacDaniels Teacher of the Year Award to Sharon Bishop.
For somewhere around two decades, Sharon has taught Secondary English in Henderson, Nebraska, population 999 according to the sign just at the border of town, at a school now consolidated into Heartland Community Schools: Henderson/Bradshaw. In this small rural community, Sharon has guided generations of students to writing through deep engagement with local place. She has written herself about her personal location in our region. And she has helped a widening network of other teachers see the potential in place-conscious education. In all these activities, Sharon Bishop exemplifies the traits we value with this award.
Each year since 2000, the Nebraska Writing Project has given this award to a teacher whose career demonstrates our core values: that good teaching can draw better writing from students, that the best teachers of writing are writers themselves, and that teachers are the best teachers of other teachers. Carol MacDaniels, in whose memory this award was endowed, exemplified these values in her own life. As a teacher, writer, and teacher-educator, Sharon Bishop also demonstrates these values.
As a teacher, Sharon regularly draws exceptional writing from her students. According to the students who wrote in support of her nomination, Sharon accomplishes this in two ways: she holds them to very high standards on the one hand, and immerses them in real connections between English and the life of the community on the other. One student wrote that, in Ms. Bishop's class, "Each individual is expected to perform to his or her highest standards." Her faculty nominators concur, noting "Sharon is known for her famous question, "Do you believe that this is the best that you can do?' Sharon doesn't expect students to be perfect by her standards, just to be successful by their own." But individual excellence is easier to achieve when your writing matters to real people in your local place. Students in Sharon's classes regularly write from interviews with local residents, from field trips and civic projects in the area, and for audiences of real people outside the classroom. Student nominators call this "connecting the language arts to other interests, [to show] that reading and writing are essential to all areas of life." Community nominators call this "integrating community activities and projects into her classroom." Those who have worked with Sharon in NeWP Rural Institutes know the actual stuff of such projects: students standing knee-deep in local wetlands, gathering water samples for joint Biology/English units; or students writing up conversations with old-timers from when the 1950's school consolidation occurred, so that they can speak with authority before the local school board.
As a writer herself, Sharon Bishop has described the central power of place in the work of writing education. In her chapter for the new book Rural Voices: Place-Conscious Education and the Teaching of Writing, Sharon describes it this way:
Studying local issues invariably leads to wider issues. Student learning anywhere is deepened when they use the stories of their place to communicate that learning. When students must represent the words and experiences of others whom they have interviewed, when they must capture the sights and sounds of the prairie in a poem that will go into a book that others will read, they are more careful and creative writers.
Of course, these insights apply as much to Sharon herself as to her students. Sharon regularly writes with her students, and with other participants in the rural institutes she conducts, for audiences both professional and personal. Those who have had the privilege of being in writing groups with Sharon know her abilities as a poet, a teller of stories, and a crafter of images.
But, within the Nebraska Writing Project, it is as a teacher-educator that most of us know Sharon best. Sharon helped Carol MacDaniels, Sandy Bangert, and I plan and conduct the first NeWP Rural Institute in Henderson in 1997. We didn't know then what we were starting, or how the idea of place-conscious writing would catch on at both the state and national levels. Since that time, Sharon has been on the facilitation team for four additional Rural Institutes, and will be facilitating yet another Rural Institute in Juniata this year (with Amy Wilson). She has presented the Nebraska Rural Institute model at more than one National Writing Project conference, has been a consultant for the Kennesaw Mountain Writing Project in Georgia, and has worked with the National office to create a digital story on our Institutes. Sharon, in short, has been central to the continued success of the Rural Institute program and to our collective understanding of place-conscious education. In addition, Sharon has been active in Foxfire, School at the Center, various local assessment projects, and on the NeWP Advisory Board. All of these have been opportunities for Sharon to share expertise with other teachers, proving in practice the NeWP principle "the best teacher of teachers is another teacher."
I would like to conclude by reading some excerpts from a poem Sharon wrote some years back. It's an "I am From" poem, a kind of poem Sharon often assigns to her students and her colleagues, because in articulating where we are from we capture the layers of self and society in which writing comes alive. Really understanding where we're from is the key to place-conscious teaching, for it involves understanding more than the narrowly local, but the place of the local in history and the future as well. Sharon's nominators write that, in her classes, "English is a universe rather than a subject matter." I think I glimpse that universe in this poem, and it's a place I for one would like to be from.
I am from books
from home-baked bread and garden-grown green beans
I am from Chinese Elms planted in the Dust Bowl years
"fragile" limbs still protected from my eager arms and legs. . .
I am from the purple Iris that bloomed every May
carefully cut and placed in Mason jars and carried to
graves in country cemeteries.
I am from near-sighted eyes reading – books, The Omaha World-Herald
creating visions far from Cherry County ,
from Walter Cronkite precisely at 5:30 pm
and every space flight a major event.
I am from a storied history of my mother's family,
Wallingford and Shelbourn
sod houses and rattlesnakes in the Sandhills,
hard scrabble farm and family stories of Sioux
on the North Table land so that girls could be educated. . . .
In an upstairs bedroom
a tin trunk holds the black and white photos
that no one ever had time to paste into ordered albums,
pictures whose images pale into words and stories—
stronger than those on Kodak paper.
I write my own chapters in new places.