2019 Carol MacDaniels Teacher of the Year Award

Brenda Larabee

Presented to Brenda Larabee

I am pleased to present the 2019 Nebraska Writing Project Carol MacDaniels Teacher of the Year Award to Brenda Larabee.

Brenda Larabee is the English department at Stuart High School, located in a rural community between O’Neill and Valentine in north central Nebraska. According to her nominator, Jan Knispel, Brenda began teaching at Stuart in 1989. Hence we are today celebrating 30 years of teaching! Brenda has been a contributing presence in the Nebraska Writing Project since 2010, when she participated in her first Summer Institute. Since then, she has served continuously on the Advisory Board, completed a full term as Co-Director, and helped launch both our Youth Writing Festival and our Nebraska Educational Technology Association partnership. Brenda facilitated the 2015 Summer Institutes (and will be facilitating another one starting in June). When Jan first recommended her to us in 2009, she felt “Brenda would benefit from and add to the Nebraska Writing Project.” Brenda Larabee has certainly done that!

Because she teaches all English/Speech classes at all grades 9-12 in her rural school, Brenda Larabee works with young people over their entire four years. Her students, past and present, sent in a host of supporting letters for this award, demonstrating how much they value her mentorship. As one former student explains:

Mrs. Larabee is by far the most genuine, caring, and passionate teacher ever. In her eyes, we—her students—always come first. She provided me with a deep understanding of our state’s English curriculum, but she also supplied me with the skills and tools that she knew would be essential in the future. She molded me into a better version of myself.

In practice, this student-centered mentoring means that Brenda Larabee’s work day extends from very early in the morning until very late, a routine several students commented on. One writes:

In our small school system, the majority of students participate in as many extra-curricular activities as possible to maintain their existence. With this, students’ schedules don’t fall between 8 AM and 4 PM. You could always find Mrs. Larabee waiting at school early in the morning or later at night to go over potential topics, run practices with her, or just to talk. Her dedication to each student is unmatchable.

A current student supports this view of Brenda’s dedication and work ethic, writing with just a touch of adolescent exasperation:

Mrs. Larabee is a superhero. Some people underestimate her but I think it is insane how she can go from being on her feet for most of the day with a room full of kids, spending lunch period with students or grading papers, and still have enough energy to go home to be with her family. She insanely is excited to do everything all again the next day!

 Our Carol MacDaniels Teacher of the Year Award doesn’t only honor great classroom teaching. We also honor teachers who advocate for other teachers. Several of the supporting letters for Brenda Larabee touched on her influence for her teaching peers. One young person about to enter the profession writes:

Although I graduated high school four years ago and am about to tackle my first year as a middle school English teacher, Mrs. Larabee still reaches out to me and my fellow classmates regularly. She keeps track of our collegiate life and accomplishments and is sure to extend her congratulations on our successes. Of course she would never take credit for it, but much of the success we have achieved is because of her dedication to our education and well-being.

Another colleague, who taught with Brenda at Stuart in 2001 and now has children in Brenda’s classes, writes of her influence on Nebraska State Speech:

I’ve had the privileged opportunity to attend several Nebraska High School Speech Championships. I can honestly say if one claims speech is not a competitive competition they have never attended and observed a state meet with Coach Brenda Larabee in action with her students. She has the grit, drive and motivation to inspire her students to stand atop that podium year after year! During her 30-year tenure of teaching/coaching in Stuart, her students have been awarded multiple individual and team championship medals. She is an “amazing” inspirational champion.

The final trait we honor with this award is the teacher as writer. One of the Nebraska Writing Project’s maxims is “the best teachers of writing are writers themselves.” And Brenda Larabee is a writer. I’d like to close with a short excerpt of Brenda’s writing, taken from the anthology from the 2015 Summer Institute she facilitated. That year, she wrote of playing hooky from Stuart High, driving a set of teenagers into a nearby town for cappuccino. Here is the return to Stuart from that adventure. I think you’ll recognize in her words some of the impetus for the accolades from students and colleagues that I’ve shared already. She writes:

As we pile into the car, each of the students is holding a warm cup in their shivering hands…. The ten miles back zip by. If we didn’t have to be back before the next class period, I would press less firmly on the accelerator just to spend more time in this moment, but the bells will ring.

As we arrive, the students climb out of my car walking quickly across the street and into the school. They carry their cups as a badge of defiance and pride, cups that say we did not get coffee at the local gas station in town. Envy flashes from those who have been privy to previous hooky trips.

On the surface it may appear they’ve returned with coffee, but indeed they have returned with so much more. The blessing of being in a small town school in rural Nebraska, the camaraderie of friends and teachers is permanently embedded in their souls. There are trials and tribulations, but the days like this one, the spontaneous opportunities for unexpected experiences, they are so worth it.

Please join me in celebrating Brenda Larabee as the 2019 Carol MacDaniels Nebraska Writing Project Teacher of the Year.

Robert Brooke
Director, NeWP
3 May 2019