New Hats: The Power of Advocacy

by Rebecca Sipe, Eastern Michigan University

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CEL is the constituent group of NCTE for literacy leaders.

When I started my career as a teacher of 7th and 8th graders, I learned quickly to wear a number of hats in addition to teaching: mentor, police officer, friend, and political advisor emerged among a host of others. As my career progressed from teacher to department head (at various levels) to curriculum coordinator in a large and highly diverse district, to university professor and now Honors College administrator, I found myself in need of more skills and strategies to help me negotiate the demands of students, parents, administrators, colleagues, and budgets. With each new competing need came the necessity of wearing yet more hats.

Wearing many hats is certainly a phenomena familiar to most literacy leaders. I’m sure every CEL member can identify with those moments on the job each week when they draw upon all the skills they learned as successful early career teachers. An hour later, it may be the skills they acquired designing and managing budgets or negotiating curricular changes. Literacy leaders do not shed the hats we wore earlier in our careers, we refine and enhance them so they can be grabbed easily when needed.

It took me many years to identify that advocacy was one of my most important hats. As an early career teacher, I advocated for my students constantly. Along with my colleagues, we advocated for adoption of literature that offered more diversity and writing strategies that had been proven effective by the consultants of the National Writing Project. At each step along my path, I discovered new passions that required advocacy.

Today, literacy leaders are feeling urgency to do whatever they can to change the national narrative about teaching and learning. Literacy leaders in particular have come to realize the importance of reaching out to parents, legislators, and the broader public to help them gain clarity about what is working in classrooms. To do this, we have begun to clarify and crystalize our vision of leader as advocate.

In my newest role, as the Vice President for the Honors College at my university, I’ve come to understand that policy makers often fail to truly understand the students and their families for whom they make decisions. To combat this “decision in isolation phenomena”, we have begun a multi-tiered outreach, beginning with inviting legislators to come to campus to shadow students. We started with our local state representative who spent the day with us shadowing an Honors student—from breakfast and classes to various jobs and clubs. At the end of the day, he asked two things: “Do many of your students work this many jobs and stay this busy?” and, “do you think a student would like to come to Lansing to shadow me?” Since that first visit, we have sent a student to spend a day in the state legislature, and we have hosted our community liaison for one of Michigan’s U.S. senators. We have come to understand that the more we involve these influential individuals in our world, the better they will be able to speak from a position of authority when they share with colleagues in their respective legislative bodies.

A second and emerging strategy for us is that of teaching Honors College students about the power of advocacy and strategies for exercising that power. Some strategies—including sustained communication with legislators from one’s own community—work well in building credibility. Others—such as single contacts or angry letters—generally fail to make the desired impact. We hope to help students acquire both a sense of the potential power of their own voices as well as a set of strategies for use in conjunction with the fall elections. If we are successful, our students will develop important life skills and society will benefit from their involvement for many years.

These are but two of many advocacy strategies available for literacy leaders to use. For others, we are fortunate to have outstanding resources from the National Council of Teachers of English. Be sure to check out Representing a collaboration between Dr. Cathy Fleischer and Jenna Fournel, this site provides strategies to assist literacy leaders as we collectively work to change the national narrative about literacy education.

Advocacy is a hat that is familiar to us. I invite readers to share their own strategies so that we can all benefit from them as we all move forward with our advocacy efforts.

Rebecca Sipe

CEL Chair 2014-2016


Staying Motivated in May

CEL Wordle

It’s May and the end of the school year is in sight.

Will you breeze through that finish line still energized, or go limping forth while counting the days?

When motivation and vigor are at a lull, one text that can help reenergize is Meenoo Rami’s Thrive. Written with the intent to provide a sustaining voice and vision for all teachers, Meenoo addresses (among other topics) the need for mentors and networking in our profession. We are not in this alone! Meenoo writes, “The research suggests that teachers who have had a more varied mentorship experience are more likely to thrive in their work and to stay in the field.” She goes on to describe “varied mentorship” as including “meetings with peers and planning with other teachers in their subject area.” Sharing stories, strategies, and experiences: these are some of the informal ways that mentoring happens. Meenoo adds, “My mentors don’t just give me answers: some help me respond to pressing needs from a position of experience or work with me as I try out new ideas.” Other ways that informal mentoring happens:

  • Colleagues who provide feedback as a means of seeing what’s possible in practice
  • Colleagues within your discipline with whom you collaborate, and/or who challenge your work
  • Colleagues who help you find a professional community (perhaps on the CEL Blog!)
  • Colleagues who help you value your work
  • Colleagues who help you stay balanced

Where, then, might you look for mentors who rise to this challenge? Meenoo suggests considering these questions:

  • Who seems to be passionate about their work and enjoy their job?
  • Who lifts your spirits when you see them in the hall?
  • Who is most willing to share ideas?
  • Who has ideas that are fresh and interesting?
  • Whose career path looks like a path you would like to follow?

At our CEL convention in Atlanta, GA this coming November (20th-22nd), we have the distinct honor of having Meenoo as a keynote presenter. The theme of this year’s convention, which compliments Meenoo’s Thrive, is: Innovative Leadership: Navigating Changes in Literacy Education.

In the coming months, the CEL blog will host a series of posts centered on the theme of innovative leadership. Reinvigorate your energy by participating in our CEL blog, which will focus on the following topics in the upcoming months:

  • Advocacy
  • Mentoring New Teachers and Maintaining Momentum
  • Connecting Career and Classroom: Leading the Charge in Academic and Career Planning
  • Leading the Way: Technology that Empowers Students and Teachers
  • Cultivating Novice Teachers as Teacher-Leaders
  • Maximizing Meetings and Maintaining Morale

We look forward to investigating these topics with you, and to learning from the many varied voices across our CEL network.

Here’s to finishing strong.  



Amanda Stearns-Pfeiffer (CEL Member-at-Large 2016-2019)

#celchat – Be sure to join us on Thursday, May 19th from 8-9:00 p.m. (Eastern Standard Time) on Twitter (#celchat) for a continued discussion of this topic. CEL Member-at-Large Matt Morone (@MrMorone) will lead the discussion.

#LitLead Preview 8.13.15 – Differentiating Instruction

Janice Schwarze

Janice Schwarze

For many, a new school year starts soon, and teachers across the country most likely have mixed feelings:  sadness that the summer (and the much-needed break) is almost over, excitement about teaching a whole new group of students, and anxiety about how to help each one of those students achieve the year’s learning outcomes.  The fact that each student has different needs, different skill sets, and different interests can be overwhelming, and well-meaning teachers often find themselves teaching to the middle because that is the only way they can survive.  However, there is a better approach:  differentiated instruction.  This is hardly a new concept; teachers who taught in a one-room school-house certainly didn’t teach the same thing in the same way to all of the students!  Still, differentiating a classroom can be daunting, especially if you try doing it without support.  Fortunately, you don’t have to do it alone.  This Thursday, August 13, at 9 p.m. EST, educators across the country will share their knowledge about differentiated instruction in this month’s LitLead chat.  Whether you are just beginning to experiment with a differentiated classroom or are an expert at it, join us for this practical discussion.  Here are some of the questions we will consider:

Q1. How do you build a classroom community that is conducive to DI?
Q2. What resources have you found to be helpful when planning DI lessons?
Q3. What technology have you found to be helpful when implementing DI?
Q4. What classroom management tips regarding DI can you share?
Q5. What are some lessons you learned as you experimented with DI?
Q6. How transparent are you with students when differentiating?
Q7. What problems have you experienced when implementing DI?

Engaging in discussion about these important topics will ease the anxiety of a new school year and help prepare you to reach each of those students who will enter your classroom soon.  Hope you can join us!

Janice Schwarze (@jschwarzeteach)
Associate Principal for Curriculum and Instruction
Downers Grove North High School, IL

#LitLead Preview 4.9.15 – Using Blogs to Amplify Educator Voice w/ @NatBlogCollab

The current national narrative on education is one littered with misperceptions, politically laced rants, and many voices not even directly involved in education.  While taking back that narrative can be a challenge, The National Blogging Collaborative (@natblogcollab)believes that writing and blogging is one way to enable and empower teacher leaders in this quest to reclaim the narrative…OUR narrative.  Blogging and co-blogging allow teachers the chance to share their experiences with the rest of the world, helping everyone see the truth about all the amazing things going on in classrooms across the country.  Additionally, blogging provides educational leaders with the opportunity to develop a collaborative culture built upon sharing the written word both within their school and across the country.  Through blogging teachers and leaders are able to not only share their success and seek help for their challenges, but they are able to learn from others in a safe and collaborative setting.  For all these reasons, The National Blogging Collaborative was created for teachers by teachers in an effort to provide free, one-on-one, writing coaches to educators who are looking to get started with blogging as well as those who have been blogging for years.  Simply put, we are here to help YOU share your your story.  So, join us as we talk about the power of blogging and co-bogging for teachers and leaders.

Please join the National Blogging Collaborative (@NatBlogCollab) on Thursday, April 9 at 9 p.m. EST as they co-host #LitLead on Twitter.  

#LitLead Preview 3.12.15 – Tech Tools for ELA Classrooms

Technology has become as integral a part of English classrooms.  English educators must integrate digital tools into their instruction in ways that are purposeful and authentic.  But with so many websites, apps and communication systems, how do teachers choose which digital options are best to meet a unit’s objectives? Please join three CEL members, Kate Baker, Oona Abrams and Matt Morone, on Thursday, March 12 at 9 p.m. EST as they co-host #LitLead on Twitter.

Here are some questions we’ll consider:

Q1 How have you evolved as an educator since integrating technology into your instruction?
Q2 What tech tools are most versatile in your classroom? How do you apply them?
Q3 What tools do you use that are scalable and allow for successful differentiation?
Q4 What tools would students use on their own if you didn’t use them in class? Why?
Q5 How have you “smashed” apps or tech tools together in your classroom?

Digital Reading – #LitLead Preview 2.12 @ 9pm ET

On Thursday, February 12 at 9 p.m. EST, CEL’s guest host, Sara Kajder (@skajder), will join us to discuss “Digital Reading.”  Here is a preview of the chat:
Sara Kajder

Sara Kajder

What it means to read; how we access, select, and hold onto texts; and the strategies we use for constructing and sharing our meaning making have been dramatically impacted and enabled by newer literacies and technologies. So, if reading in digital spaces is different, what are we doing to create instructional opportunities for students and teachers to explore practices now open/available?  Or, are we simply applying print reading strategies (and putting out other fires as they are burning a bit hotter?)  In this hour, we will talk about our own digital reading practices as well as the ways in which we might support students practices and meaning making in digital spaces.

Questions will include:
1.  What counts as “digital reading” in our curricula?  Is that only on-screen reading, or are there other attributes?
2.  We often ask teachers to model their active reading lives for students.  Does that need to include their digital reading practices?
2.  How are we cultivating digital libraries?
3.  What does “social reading” require/invite?
4.  What are the scaffolds needed as we help students navigate and annotate digital texts?
5.  Where and when do we open our digital reading work to include readers outside of the classroom?
6.  If you are a literacy leader, how are you providing PD and supporting teachers through this learning?
We look forward to learning from all of you!

#LitLead Preview for 1.8.2015 – Designing Authentic Writing Experiences for Students

On Thursday, January 8 at 9 p.m. EST, #LitLead will spend the hour considering how we design authentic writing experiences for students. In our educational culture where timed, on-demand writing is king (according to the powers-that-be), it is crucial that students also experience the real writing process and the thrill of composing pieces that reach a wider audience and matter deeply to them.  On Thursday night, #LitLead will discuss how we create these opportunities for our students and support teachers in these efforts.   Below is a sample of some of the questions we’ll discusScreen Shot 2015-01-07 at 10.12.46 PMs on January 8.

  • What does it mean to design “authentic writing experiences” for students? What makes them authentic?
  • What is your planning process for creating writing assignments? What factors are most important?
  • What authentic experiences do you create when asking students to do informative/explanatory writing?
  • How do you make a literary essay more authentic to students?
  • When writing opinions or arguments, what topic choices do you offer them? Why?
  • What authentic writing experiences do you provide students to show them how writing can help them think?
  • To be authentic, Ss need a wider audience than you.  Where do you publish/share student work?
  • How do you respond when someone asks if these writing experiences prepare students for standardized tests?
  • If you are a literacy leader, how do you support teachers with this work? What PD do you provide?

We hope you can join us at 9 p.m. EST on January 8th!

Heather Rocco
CEL Associate Chair
Supervisor of English Language Arts, Grades 5 – 12
School District of the Chathams, NJ