The 2017 Carol MacDaniel Teacher of the Year Award

Presented to Danielle Helzer

Director Robert Brooke presents the award to Danielle Helzer at the 2017 Spring Gathering
Director Robert Brooke presents the award certificate to Danielle Helzer at the 2017 Spring Gathering

I am pleased to present the 2017 Nebraska Writing Project Carol MacDaniels Teacher of the Year Award to Danielle Helzer.

Danielle currently works in the Writing Center of Central Community College on the Hastings and Grand Island campuses. Her teaching journey, however, has taken a circuitous route through Nebraska communities, big and small. She's taught high school in Ogallala, middle school in Gretna, and high school in Omaha before settling for now in the Grand Island area. She's been active in the Nebraska Writing Project since 2009. In her eight years with our network, she's served a term as Co-Director and on the Advisory Board, and she's facilitated several advanced summer institutes. She's also had a knack for initiating new programs. Our Leadership Institute, our spring Young Writers Festivals, and our Gretna Embedded Institute all emerged under Danielle's guidance.

Her nominators on the NeWP Advisory Board are especially conscious of Danielle's compelling leadership. One writes:

I remember hearing about Danielle shortly after she had taken the Summer Institute. There was a buzz about a teacher out west with incredible energy, drive, and ideas. I was told to contact her as she was "a fireball and an educator to watch." And she is just that.

The second nominator embellishes on these ideas:

Danielle is a force to behold, whether she's running in the arctic air on Nebraska backroads, teaching classes underfunded and undervalued in community college or rural schools, or sharing her love for children, coffee, and the Nebraska Writing Project. Helzer exemplifies the multiple ways teachers can impact their students, colleagues, and communities. And she challenges those of us who know her to follow her example.

Her current colleagues at Central Community College notice the same traits in Danielle's work with them. One writes:

Danielle is a consummate professional who not only cares for our students' writing, but who also truly wants the students to learn how to learn. Writing instructors live in fear of hearing students talk about how a tutor or Writing Coach "fixed my paper." We don't hear that from our students who work with Danielle. Instead we hear "she helped me fix my paper."

Apparently the same is true of Public Speaking classes at CCC, as another instructor tells us:

Danielle has been instrumental in helping Public Speaking students find success in the course. Her feedback to me has assisted me in developing assignment clarity, and in reaching out to students I may not have known were struggling!

The care and guidance Danielle gives her students isn't just something other instructors notice. Several of her former students wrote in support of this award, and their words make clear the immediate, practical, human side of her work. As one explains:

Sophomore year I was going through things that 16 year olds shouldn't have to witness, let alone go through. If it wasn't for journaling for Mrs. Helzer I don't know how I would have made it.

Another student reaches for similar insights:

Out of all the teachers I knew over my years in school, none deserve this award more than Danielle Helzer. She was my junior year English teacher and was the lone light of inspiration during a dreadful and agonizing time in my academic career. Everything I learned in her class seemed to coincide with issues in my life. She seemed to grasp what all her peers lacked – she genuinely cared about what she was doing, and she conveyed that sentiment brilliantly. Danielle Helzer challenged me to think, to observe the world and dissect it for what it was. I would go so far as to say her teaching was art.

These students emphasize the ethic of care felt in Danielle's classroom. At the same time, several former students drew attention to another aspect of her teaching: fostering what one called "awareness and social justice." She writes:

Because of Danielle, I look at the world as something to give myself to. Her project encouraging us to be active in our local communities began a long line of activism that I continue in college today.

A final student, explaining that "it was blatantly obvious how the lessons taught in her class applied to real life," says this:

I remember her in class as a frenzy of caffeine-filled energy, whirling around the desks, bursting with questions, and eager to prod the minds of her students. Mrs. Helzer always wanted us, her students, to think for ourselves, to discuss our ideas with others, to become effective communicators. She fostered in us a duty to do good for our communities, and prepared us to be leaders and agents of change.

I want to pause on this former student's image of creating "agents of change" because this is a dominant theme in her nomination letters from the NeWP Advisory Board.

Danielle's Nebraska Writing Project colleagues clearly see her as a change agent, a teacher who leads the way into community and civic action. "In these unsettling times of political upheaval," writes her lead nominator:

We need more Danielle Helzers. In Nebraska, and across our nation, we need educators like her who love their students and will run headlong into town hall meetings, write impassioned letters to their senators and legislators, and rouse the rabble with their informed opinions to advocate for students and schools.

This nominator cites Danielle's personal blog, a failed millennial, ongoing since 2008, as a compelling example of public writing as personal inquiry and civic action. I hope you will all visit Danielle's blog soon. Writing, of course, is one of the cardinal values of Nebraska Writing Project, articulated in our slogan "the best teachers of writing are writers themselves."

In the spirit of celebrating writing – and the civic themes in Danielle's teaching life – I'd like to close these remarks by reading a couple short paragraphs from a piece Danielle wrote in her very first NeWP experience, the 2009 Summer Institute. This essay captures some of her wanderings across Nebraska as well as some of her advocacy for us all. Here's what she says:

THANK YOU, SMALL TOWN NEBRASKA

Though I haven't had much time to be with you, I have come to appreciate you and what you bring to life. As a little girl I remember running your streets, walking the ten blocks across town to St. James School without my parents. They weren't afraid to let me walk down your streets. If I raised hell, Marcy and Norman, Diane and Don, Rachel and Rowdy or the countless others would just call mom and dad.. . .Though you gave us plenty of space, many people complained about not having a Wal-Mart. You did not have one-stop shops. If we wanted our oil changed, our hair cut, and groceries all at once – we had to drive thirty miles. As a child I didn't understand this concept of miles. My dad would always say, "Sit tight. We'll be there in about six songs." He thought we were sleeping, but really we were just pretending. In the car, driving those thirty miles, was the only time my dad ever sang.

Now I am on my own and have found myself back in your arms – a place unwanted and unvalued by many. People say you don't have a thing to offer, but they are only looking at the outside. They forget what an impact you can have on a family. You have taught me to appreciate the small things.

Thank you, Danielle, for those words. And thank you for your work. Please join me in recognizing Danielle Helzer as the 2017 Nebraska Writing Project Carol MacDaniels Teacher of the Year.

Robert Brooke
Director, Nebraska Writing Project
5 May 2017