Category Archives: teaching

Angular: Teaching and Learning on the Slant

For the last few days I’ve been in Washington DC attending the National Writing Project Annual Meeting, a conference for those connected with writing projects all over the country. In this space we come together to reconnect, learn together, and envision and re-vision possibilities for both our national network and our local sites. And while I was in this rich, intellectually stimulating space, I found myself thinking about angles, the slant that is essential in the work of learning and teaching.

Tell the truth but tell it slant.  Emily Dickinson

The hallmark of writing projects has been their longevity (we’re in our 40th year as an organization), which attests to their ability to adapt to new mandates and contexts in education, their ability to remain responsive to changing needs in the educational community while holding on to their core beliefs, and their ability to innovate as they strive to anticipate upcoming needs and trends and develop more effective and relevant approaches to supporting teachers with the goal of improving the teaching of writing. And even in our own community, what that means and how that looks does not assume that we all agree or even that we all understand our charge in the same ways.

And as I consider my own learning experiences, my observations of others, and continue to think about presenting ideas to my own students and to my writing project colleagues I realize that the straight path is not always the best path. I can’t assume what I have come to understand over a number of years will be clear to others as I explain what I now know. I have to find ways to communicate the truth…but find the slant that gives others access. Sometimes looking straight up or straight ahead actually works to obscure your view and understanding.

straight up

As I spent some time at the National Cathedral yesterday, I started to see the embodiment of some of these slants. What I noticed as I walked into the nave…the main body of the cathedral…were the incredible angles.

cathedral inside

Columns reached high, curved, and then met in angular points. In that expansive and intricate structure, I could feel the careful study of architectural soundness. I felt reassured that this long-standing building would continue to stand, in spite of some damage from a recent earthquake. And so I’m thinking about the underlying structures that inform work some of us as educators do around the concept of connected learning.  How do we make the structures and educational soundness visible?  What experience will adult and student learners need to feel the expansiveness?

There is a beautiful infographic that I’ve seen shown over and over again and that I have used myself, but like the beautiful stained glass windows in the cathedral, it requires not only a close look but an understanding of the underlying design, accompanied by some personal experiences related to the concepts to truly begin to make sense of it.

stained glass

And like the stained glass window, light shining from outside reveals details and intricacies that are not otherwise noticeable. Rubbing emerging ideas and persistent questions against those of my colleagues works like that shining light, revealing nuances and pushing me to rethink and reconsider my own understanding. When I can see my thoughts reflected through the ideas of others, they take new shapes and create new possibilities like these intricate shadows the wrought-iron work reflects on the cathedral walls..

angles of reflection

And while that sounds pretty easy and productive, it isn’t always that straightforward. There are more slants and angles to consider. Sometimes the learners and teachers must wander down seemingly endless corridors, making false starts and running into dead ends before finding their way in. But repeated opportunities to try and stumble, reflect and reengage eventually reveal a pathway—maybe not THE pathway—to understanding.

corridors

Sometimes you have to crane your neck while your nose is right against the window to catch a glimpse of possibility like I had to as I searched for gargoyles. And sometimes that view might be terrifying, monsters seem to come into view, until you realize you are not alone and there are other meanings to be made of what you are seeing and experiencing.

gargoyle

As I have reflected on my experiences this week, I am reminded of the value in taking a step back, considering other perspectives and the role that resistance (my own and that of others) plays in learning. How do I play the doubting and believing game (Elbow) in productive ways that opens doors rather than closes them? And how do I facilitate processes like these for my students and my colleagues?

looking upI know it’s about the slant, the angular nature of our personal biases and the complexity of learning itself.  And just like the straight path isn’t for everyone, I know that there are many slants to consider as we continue to learn ourselves and to support learners in this fast-changing, information-driven, connected world we live in.  My trip to the cathedral not only allowed me to explore this beautiful national treasure and take interesting photos, it also helped me think about learning and angles and envision the role I might play in creating entry points and interactions to extend opportunities to consider alternatives to our current educational system. I’m looking forward to exploring the slants…and I’m appreciating the angular.

 

Developing Endurance

There’s nothing easy about the beginning of school.  As exciting as new beginnings are, they are also filled with uncertainty and maybe even a bit of fear of the unknown…on the part of the teacher, but also on the part of students and their parents.  Even in a class like mine where two-thirds of our students return each year, it takes some time to get back into the rhythms of learning together as a community.

And then there is the need to shift from the habits of summer…staying up late, sleeping in late, playing and vacationing, visiting with family and friends…back to the routines of the school year.  Further complicating the transition, it still feels like summer when school starts here.  It has been unseasonably warm (downright miserably hot in our non-air conditioned school), the kind of weather where the beach and the pool sound so much better than the classroom, for both teachers and students!

air conditioning

(This portable air conditioning unit was delivered Tuesday afternoon…the day of the peak highs! It helps, but its range and capacity do not match the size of the classroom!  Luckily, we should be near the end of unbearably hot weather.)

There’s also endurance that has to be developed; the ability to sustain focus for the work of school and learning that emerges alongside fluency, confidence, and stamina.  As a teacher I see this endurance grow as the school year progresses, especially in the area of writing.

Our writers are already surprising us this year, only weeks into the school year, with their endurance, creativity, and willingness to take risks.

reflection writing

With our returning writers, we see evidence of the layers of mentor texts and writing lessons they experienced last year, and for the third graders, the year before, along with the richness of stories they have read and listened to in their lives.  The first graders seem inspired by their older classmates, and are willing to put their emerging writing skills to use as they work through the challenges of transforming their thoughts and ideas into words on a page.

writing

writing 2

We’ve been writing in all areas of the curriculum…to learn, to think, to remember, to express. We write indoors and outdoors…garden writing

and we are working on revising to improve our writing too.  (You can take a peek at a collaborative piece of writing we did in honor of International Dot Day on our class blog. (Our students always welcome comments!)

We often think about endurance when it comes to physical tasks…and there are those that definitely require endurance.  I’m still working on improving my hiking endurance–increasing my mileage and speed and capacity to hike up steep inclines and setting a pace that allows me to continue to improve over time.

GPS

I’ve definitely learned over the years that endurance comes with repeated opportunities to do something that you actually want to do.  It takes time and we don’t all progress at the same rate.  It helps to notice your strengths and focus attention on areas where you want to grow and improve…and it always seem to help to learn in a community of supportive others who are also learning too.  The writers and learners in my class are developing endurance…there’s nothing easy about the beginning of school, but then again, things worth doing are seldom easy!

 

 

An Invitation to Hack

On Hack Your Notebook Day I found myself thinking about all the possibilities for hacking curriculum.  Especially as we think about our students and who we are and are not reaching with our teaching,, we often think about the materials we are compelled or choose to use.  I feel strongly about the need for teachers to hack their curriculum on the behalf of their students…and to encourage students to hack the curriculum for themselves too.

hacking hands

By curriculum, I don’t just mean those self-contained programs in binders and workbooks, but also the novel unit, the teacher-developed projects and materials, the cute unit inspired by a pin on pinterest… Even the lessons we have poured heart and soul into–they all deserve careful scrutiny with our students’ needs in mind.

We all have students who need scaffolds and we all know (or are) teachers who need scaffolds…there’s nothing wrong with leaning on some support structures.  The problem, for me, is when the structures get in the way of student learning and teacher development.  My least favorite words out of the mouth of a teacher are, “Just tell me what you want me to do!”  And I’m not really fond of those words from students either.  They imply a lack of investment, a lack of agency, a lack of understanding of purpose and audience.  And all of those might be true.

So what do we (I) do about it?  I propose that we hack.  Let’s carefully examine the materials we are required to use and/or decide to use.  Who do they work for in our classroom?  Who benefits?  Who doesn’t?  Who do we give permission to “break the rules?”  Who is handcuffed by the materials?

 

Appreciating Difference

I love my macro lens!  What I like best about it is that it makes me slow down, breathe deeply, and pay attention to the smallest of details…things that I didn’t even realize I couldn’t see.

Over the weekend I had the opportunity to spend some time at our local botanic gardens, offering a wide variety of plants in different ecosystems from deserts to rain forests to native plants of our area.  They also had a section of the gardens that was all fruit trees…a variety of citrus, figs, persimmons, guava, and more.

When I saw this delicate guava blossom, I had to stop and take out my macro.  I just knew that it would take a close look to really see and appreciate the beauty of this ethereal bloom.

guava blossom

And once I got started, I couldn’t stop myself.  Each variety offered its own unique beauty. Here’s one variety of fig.

fig blossom green

This is a different variety of fig…and perhaps at a different stage of development.

fig blossom red

I was surprised by the center of this lime blossom.  I knew it was a white flower, but I hadn’t noticed the center before taking this photo.

lime blossom

And this lemonade lemon tree had the prettiest pink blossoms getting ready to open.

lemon blossoms

I’m not sure which fruit tree this blossom came from, but I love its crazy red fringe!

fruit blossom

As I looked closely at these fruit blossoms I found myself thinking about how much diversity there is among them.  Even varieties that are closely related are different from one another. Which got me thinking about my students…and students in general.  As teachers (and parents too), we need to slow down, look and listen closely, and pay attention to the diversity among our students.  Even when students are all the same age, they have vastly different personalities, learning strengths, and interests.  I often have the privilege of teaching siblings…sometimes even twins and triplets…and what I know is, despite having the same parents and living in the same environment, each child in the family is different from the other(s), highlighting the complexities of DNA, personality, behavior, and more.

And in spite of these differences, we all have so much in common:  the need to be loved and valued, to be nurtured and supported, to have others assume the best and help us learn from the inevitable mistakes we will make.

That macro lens offers insight as I look closely at the world of plants, noticing features and details I might have missed without it.  I don’t have a macro lens to use with my students, instead I have to use the lens of mindfulness to keep myself attuned to the individuality of my students and take the time to notice and learn from them and about them.  I don’t just teach a group of children, I teach a classroom full of diverse individuals and to teach them well it’s important for me to know that and take their differences into account.  And for me, that’s the beauty of the classroom, it’s a room full of teaching and learning opportunities as we all bring who we are into the mix.  Our differences are the best part of our learning community as we help each other slow down and see the world in new and different ways.

Garden Magic

This is the time of the school year when schedules become unscheduled, students start to feel like summer has arrived (and act accordingly), and it’s also the time when the most amazing displays of learning happen.

We’re lucky to have a school garden…and even luckier to have a gardening teacher who takes our students out to the garden to plant, learn, and harvest each week.  And yet unexpectedly this week our gardening teacher resigned.  So we (my teaching partner and I) decided this would be an excellent time to have our students get their iPads and head out to the garden to take some photos.

It was just a week ago that I had taken the first and second graders out around the school grounds to take photos while the third graders were otherwise occupied.  And as we walked the campus they framed shots of whatever caught their eyes…and many of the photos are stunning!  (When they get them posted on their blogs, I’ll link you to a few!)

So with iPads in hand, our students were eager to explore the garden.  They photographed strawberries and cucumbers, sunflowers and squash, bees and caterpillars.  They delighted over each new find and worked to capture their discoveries in photographs.  (And I couldn’t resist a few either!)

orange sunflower with bee

green pumpkin

But taking pictures just wasn’t enough.  So after recess (and putting the iPads safely away), we headed back to the garden with our writer’s notebooks.  And that is when the true magic happened.  Our students settled with their notebooks to capture their images of the garden in words…words of their choice, format of their choice, style of their choice. They sat on the ground, on the stumps, on the benches, and even on the edges of the garden beds. Some sat alone, others gathered in small clusters.  And all wrote.  A magical hush settled on the garden. We could hear the shush and whoosh of cars passing by and the songs of the birds that would swoop into the beds for a nibble here and there.  Butterflies flitted from blossom to blossom and bees went about the business of pollinating too.

After some time writing, I got up to peek at the students writing and captured a few images of the writers in action.

boys writing in the garden

girls writing in the garden

more girls writing in the garden

After a time, we gathered back together to share a few lines from their writing and experienced the richness and variety of what it means to write under the influence of the garden.  I can’t wait to see how they transform this writing into blog posts that also include their photos.

So, I’m reminded that the unscheduling of schedules can result in wonderful serendipity…and the most incredible writing!  Gardens are amazing places…and our school garden is truly spectacular, filled with life and science and learning and offering students so many opportunities to interact with the natural world and get close to the foods they eat.  There is really nothing like a bit of garden magic.

Lighting Up Writing and Art: a Design Challenge

My students love a project!  Project communicates to them that they will be doing some making, some designing, some problem solving, and probably a good bit of collaborating.  They also know that projects are about sustained time to create something they will value…and likely, others will too.

The project they did last week comes from 21st Century Notebooking: work I have done in collaboration with Paul Oh of the National Writing Project, Jennifer Dick of Nexmap, and David Cole of CV2.   I’ve had a few opportunities to explore the possibilities of “lighting up” my writing and art–and knew right away that my students would both love the opportunity and learn a lot from working with circuits and writing and art.  I feel fortunate to have the chance to pilot the use of LED stickers with my students and explore the ways a project like this works with young students (grades 1, 2, and 3).

On Monday we started with a pre-assessment to document what my students already knew about circuits and electricity (not much) and then to read a picture book to give them a bit of background knowledge about how electricity and circuits work.  We read Switch On, Switch Off by Melvin Berger to give students an overview of electricity and circuits.  And while the book is a bit dated, it did pique students’ interest and generated lots and lots of questions.  “Breaks” in circuits in conjunction with switches created lots of confusion!

On Tuesday we began talking about how light might impact a piece of writing and art.  I showed students examples that I had created and then they began to brainstorm other possibilities…focusing on topics and things they cared about.  They were invited to come up with at least four possibilities and began sketching them in their writer’s notebooks.

Just this small selection shows the variety of ideas…and students were eagerly discussing not only what they would draw, but also what they would write.  And in typical fashion they were already questioning whether they had to write in the format I had written (I had written a Haiku as my example) or if they could write in some other way.  For me, this was a demonstration of the ownership they were already feeling as the creative juices flowed.

On Wednesday, students were asked to commit to a design and draw it on their folded booklet. Then I showed them how to draw a circuit diagram on the inside of their booklet that would allow them to put the light(s) where they wanted them to shine through.

circuit diagram

series diagram

Thursday was the day that the kids got their hands on the copper tape and LED light stickers. Before they tackled creating their own circuits, I showed them how to work with the materials, how to make turns with the tape, how to use the stickers to measure how far to run their tape…and then they set off to work.

working with led stickers

guiding copper tape

The room hummed with the 43 six through nine-year-olds all focused on getting their circuits constructed with the tape and lights.  Many worked with a basic one-light circuit and a few brave students tackled a parallel circuit that included two lights.  When the first circuit worked, the entire room lit up with the students’ excited energy.

circuit success

But as you might imagine, every student was not successful on their first attempt.  We suspected we might have to deal with a few tears of frustration during the course of the project…but, although there was frustration, everyone kept at it, and the spirit of collaboration and encouragement could be felt across the room.  Some students became expert debuggers–and helped their classmates figure out why their circuit wasn’t working.  And my teaching partner and I also became experts, giving recommendations and helping those little hands that had trouble keeping their copper tape smooth and getting their battery lined up and clipped on.  Even before everyone finished, it was time to clean up…and we reassured them that we would return to the project the next day.

On Friday we were fortunate to have our school’s science teacher design a lab to complement our project.  She had students work in groups of four to attach components to make a circuit with an AA battery and battery holder, a light holder and a small incandescent light.  Because of their experience with the circuits in their project, this was a fun review for them…and they loved that they were able to get their circuits to work!

science lab with circuits

light

light with Joe

As part of the lab, they also explored conductors and insulators and noticed which materials allowed the light to light up and which interfered.  All of this was useful information as they returned to their circuit/notebooking project to problem solve circuit issues and continue with their art and writing.  By the end of the work period on Friday every student had successfully gotten their circuit constructed and their light(s) to work.  And we learned some important lessons along the way.  The stickers are pretty easy to work with, but grubby little hands can cause interference with the conductivity of the adhesive.  We had a few instances where we needed to pull the adhesive off and use tape to secure the sticker.  And sometimes our best approach was to peel the copper off and begin again.

Here are few examples of student projects:

circuit project-CJ

circuit project sophie

circuit project-elke

circuit project_Eva

We still have some final details to complete…including some writing about the science learning that took place during the project. And students are anxious to get a closer look at everyone else’s projects too!  So this week we will take some time to concentrate on the finishing details and already have a gallery walk planned for students to get a close look at all the projects.  The kids can’t wait to take these projects home…but they will have to wait until after Open House later this month.  We just have to have them on display on that night to allow families to experience the “wow” factor in the classroom.

With all the work we have done with the power of iteration this year, I am wishing for some more LED stickers to allow my students a second chance to use these materials.  I am wondering what they can do and would do now that they understand the possibilities.  Maybe I can talk Jen and David into scrounging up a few more just to see what my students would come up with…

Sometimes Process is the Product

It was quiet when I arrived, the coffee maker was percolating, the snake stretching up to explore its glassed-in space, and the empty exhibits waiting to be filled with the curiosity of children. There’s something magical about an empty museum…an experience I have come to love through our Intersections work, a partnership between the San Diego Area Writing Project, the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, and the San Diego Natural History Museum (the NAT).  We, classroom teachers and museums educators, have been learning and working together throughout this school year to improve the field trip experience for students, and to explore the relationships between science and writing. And yesterday was our second field trip pilot, an opportunity to observe students, their teacher, and chaperones in action as they implemented the tools we developed to support the experience.  These tools: a chaperone orientation video, exhibit guides, and questions to invite student inquiry; a hands-free field kit, question card, and exhibit booklet for students; and all the experiences the teacher–one of our participants–had through our year together, were meant to support student inquiry and encourage exploration.  They were meant to support the parent volunteers/chaperones, helping them to facilitate student-driven conversations about their observations.  And in many ways, these tools did help to support these goals.

Student Field Bag...(Don't you love the sparkly pink leggings?)

Student Field Bag…(Don’t you love the sparkly pink leggings?)

My favorite part of the field trip happened at the very beginning when students were treated to a behind-the-scenes tour of the Nature to You loan library at the NAT, a room filled with taxidermy animals, insect specimens, and a geologic collection that are available for teachers to check out and take to their classrooms.  As we piled into the small space lined with glass cases of bobcats, birds, bats, possums, insects, and more, you could feel the energy.  Students spontaneously began asking questions, “Are they real?” “Are they alive?” “How did they die?” After a brief explanation that in fact, all these animals are real, but no longer alive…and that they either died of natural causes or were found dead and then preserved through taxidermy, students were invited to explore the collection and to consider which animals they might like to have visit their classroom.  The children and their chaperones spread throughout the room, eager to uncover the treasures within. looking closely interesections Student knelt down and bent in close to the glass, carefully observing the animals of interest. They told stories of animals they recognized…and their adult chaperones also told stories and pointed out animals of interest.  Everyone seemed to find favorites and called their friends over to see their finds. With Doretta Intersections This little girl was fascinated by the butterflies and desperately wanted this specimen to come to her classroom.  She asked if she could make a list of animals she wanted to bring back to school…and of course, she was encouraged to do so.  Students spontaneously took paper out of the field bags and used all available surfaces: shelfs, carts, the floor… to write lists and other information they wanted to remember about these animals. writing to remember intersections As they exited from the loan library, students gathered into their small groups and headed off to the museum exhibits.  They were free to explore in whatever order they decided, and our team of educator-researchers followed along, taking notes, listening in on conversations, documenting the museum experience. We noted the places where students lingered, where they seemed eager to spend more time and explore, and captured their questions and conversations where we could.  I found myself interested in the structures and spaces of the museum, thinking about the strategic placement of benches and stools and the height of information boards.  I loved watching students at this chalkboard that invited students to draw skulls that they had observed throughout the exhibit. skulls on a chalkboard intersections And I noticed students sketching and writing in their booklets–a space intended to invite student observations and deepen their thinking.  Unfortunately, in many cases students and chaperones seemed to view the booklet as a duty, often filling in spaces as quickly as possible with little thought and attention.  I did notice a student or two take some time…this little guy made himself quite comfortable in the middle of the floor, as he sketched and completed a page in his booklet. drawing my hand intersectionsBefore lunch, students had the opportunity to get close to a couple of snakes…and even touch them.  They moved in close, asking questions of the the docent as they reached toward the snakes. snake petting intersections After lunch, students headed off to the Fleet with the researchers in tow.  We continued our documentation and observations.  As the field trip wound to an end, the educator-researchers gathered in a conference room to debrief the process.  Reviewing our notes, we thought about the positives of the field trip experience and the places we still felt a need for change and improvement.  And then we gathered in groups and discussed our observations.  The conversations were rich and dynamic, noting the places where we observed students engaged and inspired and still finding missed opportunities for students to be self-directed and to delve more deeply into the questions the exhibits provoked. This process of designing field trip tools, testing them in an authentic field trip experience, and then reflecting on the implications of our observations in order to iterate and innovate has been a powerful one.  And while there has been frustration in our group that we haven’t yet produced a product that captures the depth and intensity of our work together, we have learned a tremendous amount and come to some startling ahas about the intersections of informal and formal learning opportunities.  As much as we’ve tried to support chaperones to facilitate inquiry, the reality is many of our well-intended parent volunteers are not prepared for that role…and our “crash course” in juicy and probing questions isn’t enough to make them feel comfortable and confident in that capacity.  Mostly, they do just what we asked them to do, they keep track of students, redirect them when needed, and deal with the safety and personal well-being needs that come with groups of children.  So, we are rethinking our tools…again.  And maybe we will never have the perfect product we wish for…and then again, maybe this process is the product we are searching for, an occasion to really see students in action and consider the roles we might play in supporting their curiosity, deepening their learning opportunities, and opening up time and place for playful exploration and inspiration both inside the classroom and in those wonderful spaces beyond the classroom walls.

Spring Break: In 25 Words

Sometimes in writing (as in life), less is more.  Coming back from our spring break, we asked our students to zoom into some aspect of their spring break activities and compose a 25-word story to capture the experience.  25 words is short…and it’s not as easy as you might think to come up with a “story” in only 25 words.  But our first, second, and third graders gave it a try. Here’s a couple of examples (the links are to their published blogs–they would love comments if you have time!):

There is new growth in my family garden! Carrots are growing in nice soil (getting sunshine, too!) Making me want to eat the delicious vegetables!  (E.F.)

My brother fell out of a tree, he was in pain! He got crutches, he screamed a lot! Hopefully he didn’t break a bone! (M.B.)

My friends and I went to my Gramma’s house, we had tons of pure fun. We got lost sometimes but it was still extremely fun. (N.B.)

Biosphere two is an amazing place where the scientists are in Arizona, the desert and survived 2 years trapped, researching plant life in threemile greenhouse. (A.R.)

And then there is the student who writes the 25 word story…but can’t resist expanding on the story in her blog post!  (A girl after my own heart!)  Here is the 25 word version…you can click on it for her blog post.

Suddenly a foul ball comes hurling our way. It bounces, jiggles, is everywhere. It happens quickly but suddenly the ball’s in my brother’s sweaty palms. (M.O.)

And of course, I had to try to my hand at a 25-word story about my spring break.  It took me a number of tries to come up with this one…and I might have to try another dozen or so to really craft a story.  And I will include a few photos to enhance my words!

nashville mural

Toes tapping and fingers snapping, she explored the city along the banks of the Cumberland in her new cowboy boots. Her camera captured the details.

Nashville downtown

Cumberland river

 

 

Playground Life

I spend three mornings a week out on the playground watching children play.  These early morning duties are generally calm, giving me an opportunity for reflection and observation.

I notice children making up games, resolving their own conflicts, and through their play, improving their coordination and fitness.  I see the same early arrivers most mornings and watch the seasonal changes in the sports of choice.

Balls are always popular, the current favorite ball games are wall ball, basketball, and a blacktop version of baseball that requires no bats or mitts and involves a large rubber ball.

I wasn’t sure this morning that the kids would get to go out and play.  We had a rare rainy day and I ran my windshield wipers all the way to work.  But by the time kids arrived, the sky was still dark, the ground was still wet, but as long as no drops are falling, the kids can play.

rainy playground

The day turned out bright and sunny–and I am doubly glad that I stopped to capture this wet, cloudy moment of children at play.  And so this becomes my Street Life for the Daily Post’s Weekly Photo Challenge.

It’s supposed to rain again tomorrow.  We need the rain so badly that I’m not complaining about the inconveniences of rainy day schedules.  Instead, I’m looking for the silver linings…

 

Walking the Halls of Congress

For the last several years I have traveled to our nation’s capitol each spring to advocate for teachers, students, and writing.  As part of that process I walk the halls of congress and meet with elected representatives, telling the story of teaching and learning in my hometown and the power of the National Writing Project network to support teachers and learners.

capitol skyline

I’ve never considered myself political.  Although I have always voted, I hadn’t really considered my role in the political process as a citizen beyond placing my vote at election time.  And honestly, the first time I agreed to meet with elected representatives I wasn’t sure I would be able to find the words and the courage to speak to these strangers about the profession I love.  But I did it…and have continued to do it, because students deserve the best learning opportunities we can provide.  And in the process I have learned a lot about the political process and the power of building relationships with the people who represent us in congress.

In San Diego there are five congressional representatives for the area the San Diego Area Writing Project serves.  There are democrats and republicans, veteran politicians and those new to the job.  Sometimes we meet directly with the representative, sometimes we meet with one of their aides.  Some are knowledgeable about education, some are not.  Sometimes we meet with the same person from year to year, others times we meet someone new.  Sometimes our representatives are upbeat and hopeful, other times they are frustrated, and sometimes even curt.  I can’t imagine how many people they meet with, each wanting their interest to be the priority.

And over the years I have learned some things:

  • Education doesn’t need to be partisan.  Remind the representative of the ways that students in their district benefit from opportunities for high quality learning.  And remind them that teachers work hard and want the best for their students.
  • Our elected representatives understand the value of good writing skills.  They tell us stories every time we meet with them about the difficulty finding employees and interns with good writing skills.
  • Be direct and positive.  That doesn’t mean to sugar coat the truth, but it does mean being pleasant and being prepared with the information you plan to share and the request you have.
  • Work to build a relationship–both locally and in the capitol.  Send information, follow up with emails, invite them and their staff to visit local events…who doesn’t want a photo op with an adorable student?

This year, my friend and colleague Abby, who traveled to Washington D.C. with me, decided to make a video for her second grade students featuring our local representatives.  With each of the representatives we spoke with directly, she asked them if they would mind saying a few words to her students.  (We met with three of our five representatives directly–they are featured in the video.) Each representative was happy to participate…and Abby sent them each a link to the finished movie.  (Hope you enjoy it too! I served as cinematographer for the scenes featuring Abby.)

And here’s a couple of behind the scenes photos of Abby in action.

I’ve also learned the power of social media in advocacy.  After Abby tweeted the link to the video she also had responses from the congressional twitter feed.  And it wasn’t long before a photo we had taken with a local congressman was tweeted out as well.

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The only way we can improve the political process is to participate in it.  And although it isn’t necessary to travel to Washington to participate, being there expands my understanding of how the processes work (and don’t) and helps me think beyond the partisan politics that dominate the rhetoric about our government.

I am more convinced than ever that we need to move beyond binary thinking, beyond democrat and republican, beyond right and wrong, and black and white and move toward more complex understandings of how our government works.  For me, these efforts to advocate on behalf of my profession and the students we teach have been steps in that direction.