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Empowering English Educators through Literacy Education Advocacy

by Sarah Tanner-Anderson,
Virginia Association of Teachers of English
May 2009 SLATE Update

As a young English educator, there are times when I feel that legislators are so completely disconnected from our profession that they could never initiate real change in 21st century education.  Rather than being discouraged by that disconnect, however, I chose to take my voice to the big city as an advocate for literacy reform. On April 23, 2009, donned in high hopes and my I-can-so-do-this suit, I joined fellow Virginia Association of Teachers of English Board member Jan Suppa-Friedman for a day of advocacy at NCTE’S Literacy Education Advocacy Day in Washington, D.C. There was only one thing that stood between these two country bumpkins and our legislators: the Metro.

(from left to right, above:
Janice Suppa-Friedman,
Virginia Congressman Tom Perriello,
Sarah Tanner-Anderson)

After being instructed by a pushy woman that purchasing a day pass was the “better buy” for our trip, Jan and I inserted our money, retrieved our tickets, and attempted to enter the Metro station. After several failed attempts, a Metro employee not-so-kindly grumbled, “You can’t use day passes until 9:30 -- I know you read that on the ticket machine.” Jan and I looked at each other, holding back laughter, because we as English teachers certainly should have read the sign on the ticket machine. We quickly purchased two more tickets, under the careful instruction of the Metro employee, and, after a total loss of a little more than $3, we boarded the Metro.

We chatted about teaching, professional organizations, and personal stories as we traveled alongside morning traffic on the Metro. People were obviously entertained, as we were awarded several strange looks, a few comments, and information regarding our stop by two helpful gentlemen (one whom worked at the Capitol in fellow Virginian Eric Cantor’s office). Arriving at our destination, Capitol Hill South, we exited the Metro briskly (since everyone else exited with such an important manner of briskness) and made our way to the Capitol. We took several pictures along the way to capture the moment, as I had not visited D.C. since middle school. We made our way to the Capitol entrance, an underground visitor center, to announce our “official business” as NCTE members and advocates. After passing through security checkpoints, Jan and I wandered through what looked like something from an Indiana Jones film with enormous marble and gold-filigree statues towering over the visitor hall.

We nestled into our meeting room to prepare for the day’s events. NCTE Washington Office Director Barbara Cambridge welcomed us and explained the importance of our voices as advocates for English educators across the nation. She asked that we take a proactive stand for education rather than simply complaining against established policy; therefore, our goal for the day was to focus on two key “asks” of our legislators -- support for the National Day on Writing and support for a bill that centers on improving student literacy in the 21st century. NCTE Executive Director Kent Williamson provided us with a brief overview of the 2009 NCTE Legislative Platform from which both key “asks” stemmed.

In our informational packets, we had a copy of the resolution proposal and a letter to Congress members seeking support. As indicated in the letter, the National Day on Writing has been developed to “draw attention to the remarkable variety of writing we engage in and to help connect writers from all walks of life.” NCTE has developed a gallery forum, the National Gallery of Writing, to showcase works of writing from all ages, areas, occupations, etc. We heard remarks by Congresswoman Dina Titus expressing to us the importance of recognizing the power of writing across our country. As the resolution to recognize October 20, 2009, as the National Day on Writing was currently proposed as a House of Representatives resolution by Congresswoman Titus and Congressman Todd Platts, we were asked to seek support and possible cosponsorship of the resolution when meeting with our Senators later in the afternoon.

After reviewing our “assignment” regarding the National Day on Writing, we moved into the comprehensive literacy bill. Barbara Cambridge explained the distinctiveness of this bill; rather than centering solely on reading or writing, this bill clearly indicates that the two are inextricably interconnected. Furthermore, this policy is unique in that it is comprehensive in nature -- children from birth through twelfth grade would be provided with learning opportunities, funding would be distributed to all states to ensure implementation, and on-the-job professional development would be offered. Bethany Little, chief education counsel, Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP) Committee, spoke to us about the significance of this bill and expressed the need to move No Child Left Behind (NCLB) forward as soon as possible. As the bill will be forthcoming, our “mission” for the afternoon was to ask our legislators to support this bill when it came across their desks.

In order to be fully prepared for our legislative visits, we had an opportunity to practice our “asks” with other NCTE members. Jennifer Mascho, legislative assistant for Congressman Timothy Johnson, provided us with insight to a typical visit. She stressed that legislators are “just people” and that they enjoy visits from their constituents. We then enjoyed a mock-visit demonstration by Katie Van Sluys (President, WLU) and Stacey Novelli (NCTE legislative associate), detailing what we should strive to accomplish from our meetings. Finally, NCTE President Kylene Beers expressed the importance of sharing our personal stories and passion when speaking with our legislators. We were then dismissed for our afternoon meetings.

Jan and I made our way over to the Russell Senate Building to meet with a representative from Senator Jim Webb’s office. We posed for photos outside of Webb’s office, and, after a moment of acting like complete tourists, we reported for our meeting with Maribel Ramos, a legislative assistant for Senator Webb. Little did we know that we would soon be joined by two other educators and a representative for USA Today. Jan and I were not prepared to juggle the number of people present, however, with grace, we persevered. Ramos indicated that Webb may be interested in supporting the resolution and the bill as he is a writer himself who values literacy and education, but she would have to discuss the phrasing of the resolution and bill with the Senator before committing to support and potential cosponsorship.

Our next appointment was two floors above Senator Webb’s office, so we ascended the beautiful marble staircase to report for our meeting with Leah Ralph, senior legislative correspondent to Senator Mark Warner. Again, pausing for the sake of tourism to take photos, Jan and I began to enter the office when we caught a glimpse of the former Governor. Jan exclaimed, “There’s our Senator!” and, as he briskly rushed down the hall, arms filled with paperwork, he smiled and waved cordially. After his presence was a just a breeze behind him, we realized that we missed a photo op! Ms. Ralph genially welcomed us in and listened attentively as we pitched our “asks.” She believed that the Senator would be interested in both the National Day on Writing resolution and the comprehensive literacy bill, although she indicated that she would have to speak with Warner before providing a certain answer.

From the Russell Building, we then hustled to the Longworth Building to meet with a representative from Congressman Tom Perriello’s office. We met with Ericke Cage, legal counsel to the Virginia 5th District Representative, who indicated that his mother was a teacher, and that he most certainly understood the value of comprehensive literacy education. Like Ms. Ralph and Ms. Ramos from the Senators’ offices, Mr. Cage believed that the Congressman would be interested in supporting the resolution and the bill; however, he would need to confirm that with Perriello himself. We were then pleasantly surprised by the opportunity to briefly meet with the Congressman and have our photo taken. We were very appreciative of his time.

After a productive afternoon, Jan and I walked to the Rayburn Building for debriefing. We shared our stories, submitted reports, and a sneak-peek of the National Gallery of Writing. As I reflected on the day, I simply could not express how important this learning experience was for me. At first, I was skeptical that my voice would not be heard on Capitol Hill; however, in all of my meetings, I learned that our legislators DO want to hear from us, their constituency, as we are the experts of our field. I felt that our concerns fell upon compassionate ears, and I was humbled to have been a part of such an empowering experience.

Tired yet satisfied with our advocate work, Jan and I boarded the Metro back to Vienna (with no mishaps along the way, thank you very much). As we parted ways, I gave her a big hug of appreciation. I am thankful to have had the opportunity to share my first NCTE Literacy Education Advocacy Day with such a wonderful mentor!


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