2022 Carol MacDaniels Teacher of the Year Award

Jan Knispel

Presented to Jan Knispel

I am pleased to present the 2022 Nebraska Writing Project Carol MacDaniels Teacher of the Year Award to Jan Knispel.

Jan Knispel currently serves as Adjunct Professor at Mid-Plains Community College – a position she holds out of love for teaching writing, since she officially retired as Head of the Language Department at Valentine High School some years ago. In over forty years in education, she's taught high school and college English, Speech, and Communication, and inspired many former students to become teachers themselves. Jan has been involved with Nebraska Writing Project since 1985, participating in our Literature, Technology, Rural, Leadership, and Summer Institutes. She's served over three terms on our Advisory Board, organizing our Platte River Writing Retreat, spearheading several of our National Parks Service partnerships, and right now coordinating our "Voices of the Wind" video with teachers from Elk River Writing Project in Montana and rangers from Fort Laramie National Historical Monument. Jan also is one of the few current Advisory Board members who worked directly with Carol MacDaniels, the Co-Director in whose memory we give this award. Jan and Carol collaborated in the Rural Institute program, back at the turn of the century.

Like Carol, Jan Knispel exemplifies the three traits we honor with this award: great teaching, ongoing advocacy for teachers, and strong personal writing.

We can glimpse the transformative power of Jan's teaching in the comments of her former students – from whom I received a record number of support letters. These former students portray Jan with a healthy mix of camaraderie, respect, and fear. One writes:

Jan, to say that this award is well-deserved would be an understatement on the level of gross hyperbole. You are one of a kind. You are the Knispel-Ax, the Drama Mamma, and an inspiration to countless young people who would never have been as good as they are now if it were not for your involvement in our lives.

Another embellishes:

Ms. Knispel was probably the toughest teacher I had, which also made her the best. While Ms. Knispel has never suffered fools gladly, she has always been dedicated to her students if they were willing to put in the work. There was never a time when she was too busy to assist me with a writing project or speech preparation before or after school.

And a third, who self-identifies as the biggest man at Valentine High School, expresses the trepidation:

In the fall of my Junior year, Jan Knispel would always find me in the hallways hanging out with my friends and would make sure to use her teacher's voice, so anyone from three towns away could hear her yelling at me. Now, skip sixteen years ahead to when I returned to Valentine as a teacher, what do you know? My first day at work, I was a little nervous. I arrive at work early. I am working at my desk and in pops Jan. The first thing in my mind was “Did I take her parking spot? Should I have brought her some coffee?” NOPE, she came in and welcomed me to the building and if I ever needed anything she was there to help me. From there on, we became pretty good coworkers and friends.

This same mix of camaraderie, respect, and fear shines through the support letters for Jan from her teaching colleagues –indicating Jan’s ongoing advocacy for teachers. A current NeWP Co-Director writes of the camaraderie Jan fosters:

As an early-career teacher and recent member of the Nebraska Writing Project, I am so appreciative of teachers like Jan Knispel. In my time working with her on the NeWP advisory board in the last five years, I have admired Jan's passion for the work we do. Without her, our site simply would not be what it is today.

Another teaching colleague explains why Jan’s advocacy creates respect:

It is with a stern, yet loving attitude that Jan approaches those who work with her. Her no-nonsense attitude has created lifelong friendships, but more importantly, lifelong learners. She epitomizes learning and creates a space for others to digest the material she presents as well as seek their own knowledge. It was one of her Nebraska Writing Project workshops held at Valentine City Park many years ago that actually spawned my interest in place-based writing and the notion that there was an organization of writing enthusiasts to which I could belong.

And a third teaching colleague highlights the productive edge to Jan’s advocacy. He writes:

Jan’s snark is legendary.

You don’t have to be snarky to be an incredible teacher, but Jan deploys snark with a marked degree of pedagogical precision. I have seen this as she interacts with past students on social media, using a bit of wit to prod those who were in her classroom decades ago but are *still* her students to think a bit more critically about an issue. I have experienced this snark myself when I needed a reminder to calm down.

Jan’s snark is a practice of pedagogical commitment, of care, and we are all better for it.

Of course, Jan’s teaching and advocacy are centered in her experience as a writer. She writes alongside her students, with her teaching colleagues, and in a variety of professional contexts including our Nebraska Writing Project blog. I am honored to have records of her earliest NeWP writing, since she and I both participated in the 1985 Summer Institute – a random fact that may explain our kindred spirits over the years. That institute anthology contains twelve poems by Jan, all worth reading. As an example of her work, I’d like to end by reading her poem “July 11, 1985”—which I believe was written for the final day of that first Summer Institute, as a kind of envoi to all of us writers as we leave the safety of the Summer Institute and head back to the complicated realities of our teaching lives.

               July 11, 1985

Tiny ship drifts free
      of golden shores.
The comforting glow, home
    fires, reassuring voices,
  fade into receding past.
The pain of loss and lost,
farewell, as friends float
    forth on a sea of questions
in small boats of answers.

Please join me in recognizing Jan Knispel as the 2022 Nebraska Writing Project Carol MacDaniels Teacher of the Year.

Robert Brooke
Director, NeWP
15 July 2022
Lincoln, Nebraska