Tag Archives: advocacy

A Day on the Hill

Representative government, a staple of our democracy, is something we often learn about in school…and yet seldom engage in beyond voting.  But for the last several years, through my interactions with the National Writing Project, I have had the opportunity to push myself to delve more deeply into the governing process as I visit the congressional representatives of our region to advocate for our organization by heading to Capitol Hill in Washington DC.  This means making appointments with our congress people, meeting with them to talk about the work we do locally, and often making a request that they sign onto a Dear Colleague letter or support a particular piece of legislation coming up for a vote.

And for the last few years, my friend and San Diego Area Writing Project colleague, Abby Robles, has been coming with me, setting up appointments, and helping to build relationships with the representatives and their staffs.

There’s something larger than life about this city.  Monuments loom large, bringing the history of our country into focus.  The streets teem with people…and when you are on Capitol Hill, most are in dark suits rushing here and there.  Armed sentries stand at attention and the entryway to all governmental buildings require passage through metal detectors.

Like hives, the houses of representatives buzz with groups of people in conversation.  Tiny elevators carry people from floor to floor of massive marble hallways, old fashioned clocks beep and wink indicating voting in progress.  Impossibly young interns man the phones, handle queries, and usher people in and out for appointments.  Each office is decorated with artifacts of “home,” the place the congressperson represents.

Last year Abby decided to make a movie about her trip to DC to show her students.  So we talked through her plan, scoped out potential shots, and considered how we could use our time in at the Capitol to tell a story.  With Abby as the star, I was pressed into service as cinematographer, filming pieces of our visit that she would stitch together into the movie.  It was great fun…and the movie was quite a hit!

And so this morning, Abby was eager to make a new movie for her students and we began talking as we walked to the Capitol for our meeting.  A conversation we have had before is about the word capitol with an “o” and how it is different from the word capital with an “a.”  This led us to the discussion of the multiple meanings of words…and what ultimately became the inspiration for the story Abby would create for her students.

I was studying carefully today, taking in Abby’s process as we thought about the different movie scenes and planned the shots.  I have tiptoed into some movie making…but have only used photos…no video at this point.  (Here is a movie I made a year ago) We had lots of fun with word play as we considered the many possibilities for words that had meaning in this place where our government lives. And as we shot each scene, we were thinking about what would come next…knowing that we would ask our representative, Scott Peters, to play a role in the video.  And what a great sport he was, not only agreeing to play along, but also adding his own twist to the plot, creating complexity and authenticity.

Making the movie kept our day lively, as each place we went became fodder for our thinking about multiple meaning words.  And by including the congressman in the movie, our conversation with him became more genuine.  We laughed, shared stories about our work and his, and engaged his staff in our video vision.  The making made us curious…about words, about this place, about angles and light and sound.  And it felt good to find a suitable end piece…and a crazy coda with Abby dancing on the steps of the Supreme Court.

Abby pieced the movie together…some during our lunch in the House of Representatives cafeteria…and the rest in the hotel bar as people came together to share the results of their day on the hill.  And here it is!  A lovely movie that reflects Abby’s thinking and her hard work…and I can’t wait to share it with my students too!

I think I’m ready to try a movie of my own.  I don’t think I will be starring in it…I don’t see myself as quite the actress that Abby is.  But I’m ready to try my hand at thinking through scenes, planning shots, and creating a story through the process.  Wish me luck!

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.