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 https://teachertoolkitblog.wordpress.com/. 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

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