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Lobbying for Literacy

by Janice Suppa-Friedman,
Virginia Association of Teachers of English and
Region 2 Representative, NCTE Standing Committee on Affiliates
May 2009 SLATE Update

On April 23, 2009, two educators more familiar with the country than the city worked our way to Washington, D.C., discovering that the most difficult part for us was getting the correct tickets to the Metro line. Over 70 NCTE members, from elementary through college levels, from coast to coast, as far away as Hawaii, converged on our nation’s Capital to ask their Members of Congress to support two specific bills.

(from left to right, above: Janice Suppa-Friedman, Congressman Tom Perriello (VA-5th District), Sarah Tanner-Anderson)

Working our way between the stone monoliths, Sarah Tanner-Anderson and I discovered the changes at the Capitol building. Instead of climbing the steps to the Capitol, we now had to enter below ground into the labyrinths. After our trials with security, we entered a huge exhibit hall with statues around the perimeter. Finding our colleagues was not too difficult, as we had badges, indicating that we were meeting at the Capitol Visitors’ Center, and people around to direct us to our venue.

Barbara Cambridge, who has been in NCTE’s Washington office since 2005, educated us on the history behind this important day. In the mid 1990’s, NCTE began the annual Advocacy Day because of its passion and commitment to English language arts education. There was a “concern for how public policy was being shaped,” and “standing up for the classroom teacher” was in the foreground. The focus for us pilgrims this year was to be “for” something versus “against.” The two major documents being presented to Congress are a resolution to recognize October 20, 2009, as the National Day on Writing and a comprehensive literacy bill. On this sunny spring day, we advocates were to call upon our Members of Congress “to take bold action to fund the policy innovations and research required to meet the unprecedented challenges.”

Next, Congresswoman Dina Titus (D-NV, 3rd District) spoke to us about her concern with writing. She “checks all writing going out of the office.” Congresswoman Titus shared an example of a piece of writing that almost slipped out of her office when someone wrote that “the Soviet Union was like an octopus spreading its testicles throughout the world.” She knowingly acknowledged the changes in writing with blogs, Twitter, email, and texting, and what we have to teach. Cosponsor of the House resolution for the National Day on Writing, she stressed that “We continue to help students communicate and tell their stories [they] need to share in our global economy.” She assured us that people in “every walk of life and occupation” will be encouraged to write for the National Gallery, where the writings will be displayed online. Congresswoman Titus ended her address with a quote by Benjamin Franklin: “Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing about!” This is a quote worth posting in our classrooms!

Specifics about the comprehensive literacy bill followed with remarks by Bethany Little, chief education counsel, Senate Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions (HELP) Committee. She asserted that there would be no science, technology, and math success without literacy access. President Obama wants the U.S.A. to be first in the world in education. This won’t happen without literacy, and the national statistics are not encouraging. This literacy bill will have two-and-a-half billion dollars a year for five years to be distributed to every state. There needs to be state coordination with a state literacy team. If the U.S.A. is going to move forward and be the best, people must have high school diplomas or degrees, she emphasized.

“NCTE has had excellent representation in the development of this new literacy bill,” Barbara Cambridge assured us. It has been a dynamic process. The bill is currently 30 pages long. There are major changes such as the focus of reading and writing as equal components across the curriculum, strengthening support for the youngest literacy learners ages 0-5, and improving accountability and assessment. We were asked how our states were using stimulus funds. Were there cutbacks in staff and professional development? Cambridge stated that “moving No Child Left Behind forward is important at this time.” NCLB is the Elementary Secondary Education Act (ESEA) renamed by the Bush administration. The new literacy bill has focus on standards and assessment. The use of diagnostic, formative, and summative assessments should be included in evaluations. More important for us to focus on is “whatever the standards are, how are we getting the students there to be successful?” Cambridge exclaimed that “our voices are being heard, should be heard!” She introduced the acronym LEARN (Learning for all, results for the nation).

To be sure that we teachers would be a strong force when meeting with our Members of Congress or legislative assistants, Jennifer Mascho, legislative assistant to Congressman Timothy V. Johnson, (R-IL, 15th District), spoke to our gathering of educators next. She told us to “focus on your message; be yourself.” She assured us that the “staffer is there to be the eyes and ears of the Member.” Encouraging us to use “concrete issues” and to “be concise,” she stressed that be sure we “have a clear ask.” “Do we want our Congressman to support a resolution or cosponsor or vote on a bill?”

In final preparation for our legislative visits, we were treated to a role- playing practice session demonstration by Katie Van Sluys (President, WLU) and Stacey Novelli (NCTE legislative associate). Then, like our students, we practiced in small groups what we would say to our Congressperson or legislative aides. The president of NCTE, Kylene Beers, gave us final advice on the importance of personal stories and passion before we headed off to lobby for literacy.

We two educators from the country, Sarah from Farmville, Virginia, and I, who actually live and work on a farm at the foothills of the Shenandoah Mountains, were off to the Senate to let our voices be heard. We had a full afternoon schedule with visits to both Senators’ offices and our district representative.

Our first visit was at Senator Jim Webb’s office. There we met with Maribel Ramos, Senator Webb’s Education, Immigration, and Judiciary legislative assistant. She felt that since Senator Webb was an author that he might be interested in cosponsoring the National Day on Writing resolution when it comes across the Senate. We were sharing our information about the literacy bill when Sarah’s and my coordinated efforts were interrupted by the joining of three other women from Virginia, two teachers and an employee of The Daily News. Now there were five of us, whom Ms. Ramos had apparently scheduled together, who were giving her information. I felt that she was a little bombarded at that moment, and Sarah and I, gritting our teeth and making eye contact, held back to let the others speak.

Next we climbed two flights of marble stairs in the Russell Senate Building to Senator Mark Warner’s office on the fourth floor. We had arrived early and were outside the office taking pictures of each other in front of the flag and a plaque with the Senator’s name when the Senator himself passed by rushing briskly down the hallway. I exclaimed, “There’s our Senator!” like a teenage groupie. He turned and waved to us without missing a beat. Disappointed, we discovered that our cameras were not ready at this moment. We met with a lovely young lady, Leah Ralph, who was Senator Warner’s senior legislative correspondent and Education, Immigration, and Judiciary aide. She was encouraging, without making a specific commitment, that the Senator would probably be in favor of the National Day on Writing resolution but needed to see the actual wording of the comprehensive literacy bill. Still we left feeling encouraged that we had made our points.

For our final visit, Sarah and I had to cross through the Capitol’s maze of buildings to the Longworth Building where we met with Ericke Cage, legal counsel to Representative Tom Perriello (VA, 5th district). Ericke grew up in Halifax, Virginia, and his mother was a teacher for many years. We had an encouraging discussion with him about our “asks.” We knew that Perriello, the Representative that unseated long time incumbent Virgil Goode, was very actively participating at the Hill. He was making his mark early. Surprisingly, Perriello arrived while we had been in discussion and came out of his office for some photos with Sarah and myself.

Our day on Capitol Hill ended with a “debriefing” session with our NCTE colleagues at the Rayburn House Office Building. Here we submitted reports on our meetings and findings while we compared information about and from our visits. After refreshments and celebration of our successful day, we were off to the Metro station.

Were our voices heard? Absolutely. The Members of Congress count on the information they receive from their legislative aides. Our making requests clear to these aides is pertinent to having their legislators vote for these bills. On this day, Sarah and I were invited to Senator Mark Warner’s coffee hour on May 21, where we could speak informally with the Senator. As of this time, we are planning on a return visit comforted by the fact that we country girls now know our way around the Capitol complex and how to get a Metro ticket from Vienna, Virginia, to Capitol Hill South!

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A Professional Association of Educators in English Studies, Literacy, and Language Arts