Mr R Goes to Washington
I played hookey yesterday for 30 million dollars. (Technically, I was lobbying for federal funding for the National Writing Project on Capitol Hill.)
The experience made me feel a lot closer to our government than I ever have before, even though I’ve lived nearly in sight of the Washington Monument for much of my life. I also figured out where all those smart girls named Sloane and Jordan who took perfect notes and graduated five years ago ended up.
The NWP, at least its Northern Virginia site, is a professional development organization that has changed my teaching life. Going through the Summer Institute at George Mason in 1997 profoundly altered my relationship to the profession by teaching me how to do and use freewriting, writing groups, and writing to learn. Each time I’ve been to the well since – taking or teaching classes, writing with and about teachers-- I’ve come away refreshed.
So I was happy to join a few hundred other like-minded folks from the 200 sites across the country yesterday to try to convince Congress to give us our annual allowance. They’ve done it every year since 1991, making us the longest running PD program in the country. Universities and local districts also kick in to fund local programs, “leveraging” federal dollars.
Other talking points: there are 7000 current Teacher-Consultants out there, each of whom spreads the gospel to 14 colleagues annually. Thus 92,000 teachers nation-wide are Project-influenced, reaching one out of three kids across the country. I could go on (thanks to a useful set of talking points provided by the research group that helps us study the organization), but you get the point.
It’s not just about spewing statistics, of course. The key to good lobbying, we were instructed, was to “tell our story.” For a bunch of teachers trained to scribble meditatively in marble comp books while sitting under trees, that part was easy. Finding the offices where we were supposed to do it among the imposing marble corridors or via the warren of underground tunnels proved slightly more challenging.
Somehow we gee-whizzed our way to five half-hour appointments from Rayburn to Cannon, meeting each time with “education aides” whose job was to greet us, accept our flyers, and later pass along our pitch to their boss in what we imagined was a terse meeting that might go something like this.
Aide: “Next, we had a group of teachers from The Natural—wait, the National Writing Project.”
Congressman: “What’d they want?”
A: “$30 million for Fiscal Year 2009 and your signature on a ‘Dear Colleague’ letter.”
C: “Who’s the sponsor?”
A: “George Miller, Sir, the chairman of Education and Labor--”
C: “Course I know Miller. Did we sign it last year?”
A: “No sir, I don’t believe so. But you did vote for funding for the past three years.”
C: : “We just got hammered on those NCLB numbers, didn’t we?”
A: “I have that right here. [Flips papers.] There was a 12% increase in reading and math at schools with 43% free and reduced lunch--”
C: “Sign the letter. Do you remember where we put that scale model from the Navy guys that were in here the other day? Send it over to my kid’s school for that auction thing, and when’s the oversight hearing…”
We didn’t get behind any closed doors, of course. But the aides we talked to, while showing varying degrees of interest in those stories we were supposed to tell, were sharp young women (by young I mean very early twenties, except for one) who took careful notes and seemed concerned to know who else had signed the “Dear Colleague” letter of support.
Despite their similar demographics, all aides were not created equal. My little group particularly liked Jim Moran’s, who it turns out had gone to TJ, the high school where I teach, and had written 53,000 words of a novel on her laptop during her morning commute. (In fact, in all five meetings either the aide herself had gone there or we discovered some other TJ connection. For example, during a quick handshake with the one Congressman we actually saw, Randy Forbes, we found out that his daughter’s boyfriend had been the student body pres.)
We really didn’t like Jim Webb’s aide. We figured that Webb, himself a writer of some repute, might be willing to sign on, but after a half hour wait she spent all of the five minutes she gave us listing reasons why Senator Webb probably wouldn’t get to the letter and next time could we call her and fax it over in advance (we’d done both) and did she mention how many letters like this they get every day? She didn’t even show us into a conference room as several of the others did, which at least made us lobbyists in the literal sense of the word since we took our brief meeting outside the door of Webb’s office in the Russell Building.
At the end of the day, as I metro’d home in my blazer and tie, I felt as I had all day a strange sense of wonder at being out in the regular world instead of in the perpetual never land of school. So this is what it feels like, I thought, swaying gently as the train crossed over the Potomac River on my first and perhaps only day as a Washington lobbyist.