Sunday, November 4, 2007

Teacher Citizen

Teacher as Lobbyist
by Sarah Lorenz

My involvement with the NWP over the past ten years has always been the source of wonderful personal and professional growth. But I never expected lobbyist to be one of the hats I’d wear when I started out to learn more about writing. Hmmm, isn’t there some quotation about all writing being a political act? I suppose it is true, because during the last Thursday and Friday of March, I found myself as part of the first pair of EMWP delegates to the annual NWP Spring Meeting in Washington D.C. Every spring, TC’s from all over the nation gather in the capitol for a day of meetings and a day of contacting their legislators to talk about the work of the writing project. As I have always found to be true with new experiences with the NWP, this trip was mind-broadening, informational and personally enriching, as well as full of good food and nice people.

I’ve been pretty deeply connected to the writing project for a decade now, but this experience made me feel like a little kid who finally comprehends that mom and dad have to work to pay bills, and that you can’t just go to the bank and withdraw money any time you want. Wow! Here all these people have been working tirelessly in Washington for years to make sure that the writing project funding exists each and every year! And I’ve just been sitting back at my own site, sponging off their efforts {I thought of "asking Mom and Dad for allowance" to continue the metaphor}. It was an eye-opener.

First of all, it was really exciting to go to our legislators’ offices on Capitol Hill and talk with them about the work of the writing project. We made appointments in advance with legislative aides from Congressmen Dingell and McCotter’s offices, covering most of EMWP’s territory. We were actually scheduled to meet with Congressman McCotter in person, as well as be addressed by Senator Cochran in our opening meeting, but the huge, controversial spending bill was being voted on that day, and the senators and representatives were tied up on the floor for the entire day. People from other Michigan sites were meeting with their representatives’ aides during the same time. Then we all gathered in Senator Stabenow’s office to talk with her education aide. (The aide from Senator Levin’s office was supposed to be there but wasn’t able to make it at the last minute.) Some of the Michigan delegation, like Lynn Chrenka from Crossroads Writing Project, have been meeting with the same staffers over several years, and they have built a relationship. They feel like they are able to add to the stories and knowledge base each time.

Congressman Dingell and Senators Stabenow and Leven have been supporters of the NWP in the past, and their aides knew about our work. Congressman McCotter’s aide was new to the idea. If you live or work in the 11th district, it would be great for you to contact Rep. McCotter and let him know that you and your students have benefited from the NWP and you would like him to support it. A personal letter with a story about your or your students’ experiences would be perfect. He visited my school in the past for an event and was very gracious to a student group I had in Washington one year, taking time to come out of his office and talk with the kids when we stopped by to pick up tickets. He also has school-aged children himself. It seems like he is quite interested in students and very approachable. So please take time to do a little lobbying yourself, and maybe we can pick up another supporter in Congress.

For your own info and for when you contact your representatives, here are a few facts. The total appropriation for NWP this year is just over 21 million, and we are asking for an increase to 30 million next year, in order to fund more expansion. Did you know that we are just three shy of hitting the 200-site mark in the U.S.? And that 60 new sites have been established since 2000? We are asking for a tiny amount when it comes to federal programs, but we do incredible work with that money. One point we made when talking with the legislative aides was about the concept of leverage. The NWP is very skilled at leveraging the federal money it receives by requiring each site to secure in-kind support from its host university, with space, staffing, and other support. And when TC’s pay tuition for institutes or school districts contract inservice work, that money goes back to supporting the local site. We leverage $3.34 additional dollars for every $1 of federal money. And the quality of NWP programs is unsurpassed. We are the largest and longest-standing teacher development program in U.S. history. We aren’t just a PD program—we are a valuable national infrastructure that is highly effective at improving student writing.

One last exciting thing that happened: on Friday, in our general meeting, many people stood up and shared what had happened on Capital Hill in their meetings the day before. We discovered that many, many folk had the legislative aides ask them about No Child Left Behind. They were looking for ideas on how to improve the legislation when it comes up for reauthorization soon. One of the key players in that rewriting will be Dale Kildee, who represents Michigan’s 5th district, which includes the Red Cedar Writing Project. His aide invited input from the Red Cedar TC’s, and hopefully we’ll be able to use that contact to route ideas from all over the country to the people who are writing the legislation. Many hope that it will be taken care of in the next few months, because “nothing gets done in an election year, or, worse, the issues get turned into a political football,” according to Stabenow’s staffer.

So I invite everyone to add “teacher as lobbyist” to your list of accomplishments. Visit a local or DC office, call or write to your representatives, and thank them for their support or ask them for it. Send them samples of student work, or better yet, have your students write specifically for them. If you are in DC on your own business, stop in and do your own little lobbying call, or be part of our DC delegation in the future. Don’t forget what we tell our students: writing is a powerful act that brings about change. Let’s all use it to make sure the NWP’s funding is secure for years to come.