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Taking Advocacy Into Your Own Hands

by Clarissa West-White, Editor, SLATE Update
Florida Council of Teachers of English and
Region 3 Representative, SLATE Steering Committee
May 2009 SLATE Update

 

Each year a group of NCTE members journey to the nation’s Capital to urge House and Senate representatives to support key legislation that enhances education reform, and this year was no different.

More than 70 members from 22 states and the District of Columbia were present, including Maryland, California, Indiana, Texas, Michigan, Florida, Virginia, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New York, Kansas, Ohio, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Wyoming, Washington, Arkansas, Hawaii, Wisconsin, Colorado, and Nevada.

Perhaps more people realize that they are the catalyst for change; change lives within each of us. We should not have to become moved to action at the lost of a planning period, lunch, paid teaching planning days, added responsibilities without compensation, or ever increasing class sizes. The desire to improve the educational experience of all students and professionals should be everyone’s priority because it is right and logical. Instead of asking, Why do I need to come to the “Day on the Hill?” the questions you have to ask are, What am I willing to concede by not going? What educational opportunity am I comfortable not sharing with students?

We all stand dropped jawed, awe struck, and dumbfounded when we review legislation passed at the local, state, and national levels that defies best practices and common sense. However, our elected officials are only effective if they are well informed. Since they have to know so much about multiple units that make a government whole, our civic responsibilities mandate that we become knowledgeable informants.

I am not promising that your presence will influence a member’s vote and that that vote will result in monumental changes to education, but I also am not promising that it will not. Take a chance, take the charge, come to D.C. on April 22, 2010, for the next Literacy Education Advocacy Day and join the conversation, join the movement!

 

Highlights from NCTE Advocacy Day on the Hill 2009
This year six Florida Council of Teachers of English members, April Blaze, Susan Houser, Joan Kaywell, Christiana Succor, Clarissa West-White, Shelbie Witte, along with Florida resident and  NCTE Past President Kathleen Blake Yancey, attended NCTE’s Advocacy Day on April 23, 2009, in Washington, D.C. This was the largest contingent from one state in attendance. The members met directly with their representative or their representative’s legislative aide. Offices visited included: Alan Boyd, Kathy Castor, Vern Buchanan, Adam Putnam, Bill Nelson, and Mel Martinez.

(from left to right, above: FCTE's Clarissa West-White; Vennia Francois, legislative aide to Senator Mel Martinez; FCTE's April Blaze and Kathleen Blake Yancey)

The resolution to recognize October 20, 2009, as the National Day on Writing, the 2009 Legislative Platform and gloss, and other information can be found on the NCTE website; details on the comprehensive literacy bill that NCTE is working to establish will be posted as it becomes available.

NCTE made two “asks”:

  1. Sponsorship and or support of a resolution to recognize October 20, 2009 as the National Day on Writing
  2. Sponsorship and or support of a comprehensive literacy bill

The National Day of Writing
(from the NCTE website)

Writing is a daily practice for millions of Americans. But few notice how integral writing has become to daily life in the 21st century. To draw attention to the remarkable variety of writing we engage in and help make writers from all walks of life aware of their craft, NCTE is working to establish October 20, 2009, as the National Day on Writing.

While at the National Day on Writing website, you will find other writing resources:

Comprehensive Literacy Bill

In a letter dated April 23, 2009, Kent Williamson, Executive Director of the National Council of Teachers of English, describes the purpose of the bill:

Extensive research shows that literacy learning begins at birth and extends over a lifetime. Although literacy instruction and practice are essential at all grade levels in school, too often government aid to advance literacy learning has focused on a narrow range of grade levels or skill sets. That is why NCTE has joined with other literacy advocacy organizations to support a comprehensive literacy bill. This legislation aligns pre-school, school, and after-school initiatives to provide high quality literacy instruction from the earliest ages through the high school years. It includes ongoing professional development for educators based on scientifically valid research and documented effects of that professional development. It helps educators use formative assessment so that learners receive the kinds of instruction that benefit them most. It also advances the development of 21st century literacies so that students not only learn to read and write but can solve problems and communicate clearly with different audiences, in different settings, across a lifetime that will bring changes we can scarcely imagine today.

The 30-page report is forthcoming and will provide stakeholders a better understanding of the historic endeavor. However, key concepts and terms vital in describing the bill’s purpose include: comprehensiveness; scientifically valid research; literacy-rich environments; writing and reading as inseparable literacies; literacy across the curriculum; supporting students who are reading and writing below grade level; ongoing, job-embedded professional development; assessments useful for instruction; and coordination. The bill also establishes a state literacy leadership team with a minimum of 10 members.

 

Attempt to Begin a State Advocacy Day -- Second Installment
Enthusiasm is a must! Members of the Florida Council of Teachers of English were more than ready to enact the inaugural 2009 Florida Advocacy Day.  We were to join another organization and watch and learn. However, to our dismay, the organization’s idea of advocacy did not match ours. Nonetheless, we were able to learn two things: (1) a rally is not necessarily advocacy and (2) not all educational organizations share the same purpose.  During some rallies, members-at-large stand on the Capitol’s steps and hold signs, give speeches, and shout chants, while the “leadership” of the organization meets behind closed doors with representatives and committee members, or makes presentations on behalf of the organization. Other rallies quickly turn into a gripe session with little resolution and a competition of one uppings. This is fine, presumably. However, members involved in the creation of a Florida Advocacy Day would rather exercise their right to meet face-to-face with representatives and voice concerns and or praises.

The date originally agreed upon for members to meet at the state Capitol would not work. Our goals were to learn more about the process, the legislative session, the committees, hearings, speaking before the House and or Senate, special sessions, etc. We wanted to influence and assist representatives in introducing legislation. One that I am eager to suggest to my representatives is “recency” where each member would spend at least five full days teaching in a public classroom that coincides with their degrees. There of course will be stipulations, but that is what makes the process laudable.

Since those participating in Florida’s Advocacy Day are those who also attended NCTE’s Advocacy Day this year, we also gleaned from our time on The Hill that we have to be more aggressive in presenting our profession as not just a group with our hands out begging for more money, but as an organization that offers solutions, all of which do not carry a price tag, like the National Gallery of Writing. We must hold our national officials accountable and not allow them to pass the blame to state officials without question. We must also urge our professional colleagues to become involved and inform legislators about reforms that may have been enacted to assist, but have created more problems than they solve. Finally, enacting a State Advocacy Day will certainly ensure participants that their complaints, concerns, and praises reach the proper representative.

 

What Is Your State Doing?
Thousands of bills were introduced to the House and Senate this legislative session. I have attempted to compile those that impact education, although there were bills and or statutes written with higher education in mind, those were not included.  Over the next few issues, legislation from various states that is pertinent to the English language arts classroom teacher will be highlighted. The first 10 states to be highlighted are below:

 Alabama Alaska  Arizona Arkansas   California
 Colorado Connecticut Delaware Florida Georgia

 

 

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