2009 Carol MacDaniels Teacher of the Year Award

Deborah Coyle receiving Carol MacDaniels Award

Presented to Deborah Coyle

I am pleased to present the 2009 Nebraska Writing Project Carol MacDaniels Teacher of the Year Award to Deborah Coyle.

Deb Coyle currently teaches 3rd grade at Sheridan Elementary School and has been teaching in Lincoln Public Schools for around two decades. She's been active in the Nebraska Writing Project since 1997, when she participated in her first Summer Institute. She helped facilitate the 1998 Summer Institute, was instrumental in developing our After School Writing Circles program, facilitated one of our first Embedded Institutes in Papillion-La Vista, and currently is finishing her second term on the Nebraska Writing Project Advisory Board . Outside of Nebraska Writing Project, Deb runs the summer "I Love to Write" family writing camps funded by the Lincoln Library Commission, with help from long-time friend and co-teacher Connie Healey. For well over a decade through this program, children and families write together each summer. In addition to her excellent work with writing, Deb Coyle is also known as a stupendous math teacher, as evidenced by her 1998 Presidential Award for math educators. For many years, her students have kept math journals in which they write about math events they encounter in their daily lives, about their understanding of mathematical concepts, about their confusions. In all these contexts, Deb writes alongside and with her students, colleagues, and community members, modeling by personal example the rich work of writing and the kind of life it supports.

As you can tell from this brief list of accomplishments, Deb Coyle exemplifies exactly the traits our Teacher of the Year Award honors: the ability to inspire a love of writing in students, advocacy for the professional expertise of teachers, and a personal commitment to writing. These three traits are, we believe, the solid core of the Nebraska Writing Project philosophy. They were true of Carol MacDaniels, the visionary teacher in whose memory we give this award. And Deb Coyle has all three traits in abundance.

Her students, and their parents, tell us just what an inspiring teacher of writing Deb Coyle is. Ms. Coyle strives to cultivate in her students lifelong investment in writing as a personally meaningful activity. And she succeeds. In support of this award, for instance, one student, now an older and world-wise 6th grader, wrote:

Mrs. Coyle was my 2nd and 3rd grade teacher. She was and still is my favorite teacher. Mrs. Coyle gave us writing time every day and I loved it. She let us write about what we wanted, but would give us ideas if we were stuck. Mrs. Coyle would discuss our pieces with us and show us what areas we needed to work on by asking us questions about our writing . . . My 6th grade teacher has told me that I am a good writer and I owe it to Mrs. Coyle, I don't think I would be as interested in writing without her love of writing.

A current student adds detail to just how Deb Coyle does it:

[Ms. Coyle] is a great teacher in many ways. She is also a great friend. She often let us bring favorite toys to school to show our friends, and once when I brought a polar bear to school I got a great idea for a poem. I wrote it, and Mrs. Coyle helped me spruce it up, and she even typed it out for me. She is kind, sweet, nice, and very understanding. One more thing I can say about her is that there is no way you can put into words how wonderful and special she is.

This student's mother took up the challenge of putting into words how special Deb is, and sent us these insights:

Deb has a calm and nurturing demeanor, and has a special knack for guiding and coaxing her students to dig deep for their own unique creative expression and voice. In a very gentle way, she helps her students fine-tune their writing, and bring it up to a higher, more finished level without losing their own individual spirit. I saw her do this time and time again with students of all levels of motivation and talent.

Deb's colleagues say that her approach to teaching writing is similar to her approach to professional development--that this same spirit applies across all the life stages, this spirit of digging deep for unique creative expression and then bringing it up to a higher, more finished level. Of Deb's work in professional development through summer institutes and teacher study groups, two of Deb's colleagues write:

Through all these experiences, we have witnessed Deb's gift for lifting others up and helping them to recognize their talents. She easily invites all into the literacy club. Her belief that anyone can write, merged with her own writing as testimony, encourages and recruits the enthusiasm of children and adults to write themselves into who they want to be, to discover who they really are.

As an educator, Deb Coyle has worked hard to create professional development opportunities based on these beliefs. Between 1998 and 2003, Deb worked with eight other NeWP teachers to develop the After School Writing Circles program as an explicit antidote to in-school mandated writing programs that restricted the aspects of writing she holds most dear. In 2005, Deb and her colleagues published an article about this work in a special issue of Language Arts devoted to professional development. One of Deb's contributions to this article were these words she found from Reggie Routman:

Education is political, and it's time we teachers get political in dealing with it. It's taken me a while to figure out what that means. I believe becoming political means actively and thoughtfully entering the educational conversation in order to make a positive difference for children, their families, and ourselves.

Deb coaxed all of us to think through Routman's statements, and to consider how we might teach the full experience of writing around the edges of school, at a time when the mandated curriculum might truncate it. In her work on the Nebraska Writing Project Advisory Board, and as an LPS Primary Language Arts Liaison, she continues to coax us all. And she practices what she preaches. She is currently field testing the new writing curriculum for LPS. Her After School Writing Circles continue to offer young writers the opportunity to focus wholly on their writing, in a space sponsored by school by not limited by any agendas other than their own. As one of her colleagues describes it:

This year I have teamed up with Connie and Deb to help facilitate an after-school writing club at Sheridan. Every Monday I get to see Deb work with third and fourth graders on their writing. She provides a very accepting atmosphere for our young writers. With a gentle touch of praise and enthusiasm, she encourages them to write about anything they feel is important. We have students writing graphic novels, poetry, personal narratives and co-authoring stories. She is so kind, and children feel comfortable sharing their writing with her.

To write about anything they feel is important, and to have that writing matter: what a gift Deb Coyle gives these young writers. And what a gift she gives us educators, and our community, in providing such a model. No wonder the children feel comfortable sharing with her. Of course, it's not just children that feel comfortable sharing with Deb. Important adults do as well. In preparing for this presentation, I looked back over our institute anthologies from 1997 and 1998, when Deb was first writing with us. I was intrigued to find a short piece she wrote in 1998 entitled "White House Event," in which she shared a moment with then First Lady Hillary Clinton. I'd like to read just a snippet from this piece, in Deb's own words:

She stepped into an opening, two people down from myself for the photograph. Just two people from the First Lady of the United States. When the photographer finished, she began to shake people's hands. She looked me square in the eye. 'Thank you for your efforts.' Our hands clasped. Her hand mirrored the smallness of my own.

Deb, we too thank you for your efforts. It's amazing what small hands can do. Thank you for giving your hands so often to so many children and teachers. Now let us have the honor of giving you a hand.

Please join me in recognizing Deborah Coyle as the 2009 Nebraska Writing Project Carol MacDaniels Teacher of the Year.

Robert Brooke
Director, NeWP