Voices Vol 41 No 4

TESOL Advocacy Day —
              A Unique Opportunity

By Tina Kern

This year on June 18 and June 19, I had the honor of representing NJTESOL/NJBE in Washington, D.C. for Advocacy Day. This experience was offered by the TESOL International Association. I was extremely excited, especially because I knew I would probably never again have the opportunity to attend because of the length of our school year.  During the school year 2011 – 12,  the weather cooperated with our district by granting us days off (because of unused snow days), thus the opportunity to attend the seventh annual program with 20 U.S. affiliates in attendance, including New Jersey.

I arrived late on June 17 with most of the representatives, and early next morning was ready to breakfast with TESOL members.  From the moment we grabbed coffee, we were immersed in interactive activities.

All of us, the TESOL delegates, were rigorously briefed about policy and goals.  To maximize our impact, we choose one of two topics: central to grades K-12 was the ESEA (Elementary and Secondary Education Act) Reauthorization, or central to adult education was the WIA (Workforce Investment Act).  We were to visit key members of Congress serving on the Education and Appropriations committees in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, in addition to any other pertinent members of Congress from my district.  I had no idea of how comprehensive (and exhausting) the training would be, and how many phone calls and emails each visit would require!

The agenda included briefings from experts on the key issues and legislation, activities to review various aspects of the legislative process, role playing and mock debates.  Our first briefing featured staff from the offices of Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ). In order to train us about the WIA, Dr. Rosalinda Barrera, director of the Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA) at the U.S. Department of Education joined the panel of experts and closed the morning session with an update on activities undertaken from her office.  All of the guests discussed what legislators knew about our ELLs, and what we could do to further their, the legislators’, knowledge, and thus be more sensitive to the needs of our population.  Hopefully, we would help create more support for legislation in favor of ELLs and their families.

I chose to support the ESEA Reauthorization. I received “Talking Points” in order to facilitate my discussions.  Even though some of the issues to me seemed elementary, each point may not be fully understood by the politicians, even those who touted our cause.  For example, one of the discussion topics was the following:

“Federal, state and local officials need to recognize that acquiring academic language proficiency – the level of English required for academic success – is more demanding than acquiring social language skills.”

Those of us who work with ELLs know it is ESL 101 to know that social language skills in English can be acquired in 2 – 3 years, yet academic language can take from 5 – 7 [or longer] years to achieve parity with native speakers. Convincing politicians of the reality of teaching ELLs seemed a daunting task; this was one of our charges.

In addition, we were to talk about the need for more resources and support for our programs. From our briefings to mock debates between “members” of Congress (artfully role-played by members of our group) and TESOL members, to planning sessions for our actual meetings, the experience was unique and incredibly fulfilling.

At this point, I must offer thanks and kudos to John Segota, TESOL’s Director of Advocacy, Standards, and Professional Relations. His skill, knowledge, and dedication made the experience completely awesome!  From providing complete information about advocacy to details such as providing tokens for the subway, he created the ultimate event.

After our grueling training, we were set forth upon the unsuspecting legislators. With fare cards in hand, we negotiated the Metro and descended upon various offices.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to meet personally with Sen. Menendez, Sen. Lautenberg, Rep. Holt, and Rep. Frelinghuysen because of a last minute vote which required members to be in session.  Instead, their aides were welcoming and we dialogued at length about our passion and cause.

Exhausted, I left Washington, DC with a profound appreciation for the art of advocacy. Also, I learned that advocacy isn’t just one day, it’s every day.  I also learned that we are not just advocating in the political circle, but every circle – with our students’ families, when they don’t understand the need for ESL and bilingual education, and, yes, even with colleagues who misunderstand our mission and the practice behind the theory. At the end of the day, we, in the field of ESL and bilingual education make the difference and move forward the awareness that will change our students’ lives.

Until next time….keep advocating!

Tina Kern
ESL/Bilingual Middle School SIG
Morris School District