Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Stories Make It Personal

Imagine that you shared this passage from NCTE’s 2010 Legislative Platform with a non-educator you know. The particular person doesn’t matter. You can think of a family member, a neighbor, or a friend. Whoever you choose, simply imagine that you gave him or her this passage to read:

Improve the quality and use of assessment in determining student achievement, teacher effectiveness, and school performance. To support this improvement policymakers should:

  • Fund the development of a balanced assessment system that includes and validates the use of formative assessment, performance-based assessment, growth models, and summative assessment to create a more in-depth portrait of student learning for the purposes of determining accountability
  • Create accountability measures that are developmentally, linguistically, and culturally sensitive to the particular needs of English Language Learners and students with disabilities
  • Make a sustained investment in community-based plans with contributions from students, teachers, parents, administrators, and community leaders to turn around chronically underperforming schools. These plans should include adequate time for learning and teaching while avoiding the burdensome over-testing of students

How do you think the person would react? Would he or she support this kind of educational reform? Would the person want to ask more questions? Would the person just nod and hope you didn’t plan to quiz them on all that educational jargon?

Okay, now, instead, imagine that you tell that same family member, neighbor, or friend about the recent firing of all 74 teachers at Central Falls High School (ABC News). Sprinkle in some details from the NPR stories “School Fires Its Teachers In The Name Of Progress” and “Former ‘No Child Left Behind’ Advocate Turns Critic” if you like. Connect that story to what needs to be done to “improve the quality and use of assessment in determining student achievement, teacher effectiveness, and school performance.” I bet the person sees your point much more clearly and quickly.

That’s the power of stories. They can take abstract notions and turn them into something concrete and compelling. Any story that you tell about the classroom, the students you teach, the school where you work, and the others in your educational community can be exponentially more powerful than the 2010 Legislative Platform is on its own.

Your personal stories can tell people how legislative policies trickle down to the communities where they live and where they send their children to school. Your stories can help people understand why federal and state policies matter in your town and in your state. When you send your stories to legislators, you can show them how the decisions that they make affect the very real people in their districts.

That’s why the best thing you can do to help advocate for better literacy education is to tell the stories about how legislation affects the students you teach and about the things you need to improve academic achievement. Think about your classroom experience and choose a situation or experience that illustrates how current legislation affects students or how a change in legislation can improve student achievement. Keep the following tips in mind:

  • Make your story real and specific.
  • Include details that your audience will understand and can identify with.
  • Focus on a specific point about improving education. (Don’t write a memoir of all your experiences.)
  • Tell the story in first-person. Make it a personal story about a specific experience.
  • Use specific names, but be sensitive to everyone’s right to privacy. Using an alias for students, families and colleagues is fine.
  • Cut your story down to the critical details. Make it short and direct.
  • Avoid educational jargon. Be sure to define any terms or abbreviations that you do include.

That’s all there is to it. Advocating for better literacy education doesn’t have to be difficult or complex. All you have to do is share the stories from your own experiences as an educator.

You can write an opinion piece or a letter to the editor for your local newspaper, or you can tell your story to local legislators. Call your local radio talk show, record and post a podcast, write a blog entry, or upload a video to YouTube. Tell the story to friends when you talk over coffee. Just be sure that you speak out and make sure your story is heard.


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