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Time to Use our Outside Voices!

We had an exciting Teach-in last night hosted by Teachers' Letters to Obama, (a recording of which is now available here) featuring special presentations by Yong Zhao, Monty Neill and Doug Christensen. One of the questions that resonated throughout the evening was the desire for our voices to be heard -- and for us to speak out beyond the safe confines of our own teachers' lounges -- those in our schools and online, and be heard in the wide world beyond. The consensus was that we are at a critical time, and if we do not act now to shift the direction in which we are headed, public education could be damaged for generations to come. We have waited for our invitation to the table. We have used our "inside voices." Now it is time for our outside voices to be heard.

One way to be heard is to write for publication. You have special expertise as someone who works in the schools, and you have valuable information to add to the public discussion! Channel your anger and sense of injustice into learning all you can about the issues. Become familiar with the current research in the area, so you can write authoritatively and make powerful connections other people may not have made before.

Teacher Magazine and Education Week offer blogs and a discussion forum where these issues are discussed. Social networks like Facebook are great way to meet others with similar interests. Teachers' Letters to Obama is one place to develop these skills, hone our arguments, and work with one another to influence policies. We will be planning some concrete steps to act together - and coordinated actions are the most powerful ones.

One way to influence public opinion and policy makers is to get published. We are generating some new ideas and creative alternatives to many of the policies currently in place. But the blogs and groups where we are discussing these things are kind of walled off from the public and people making decisions about these things. We may never get that engraved invitation to a seat at the table - so let's crash the party.

As you read the latest news, think about connections to the issues you care about. See if you can come up with an original angle, or an implication others have not thought of. React quickly to hot news with your opinion, and get your piece to the editors fast. When a news story breaks, there is a 48 hour window when editors are looking to keep the story alive and explore the implications. That is your chance, especially if you have a unique angle.

If you want to be published, most newspapers have two avenues. Letters to the editor are limited to about two hundred words, focused on a single point. Many newspapers also publish guest editorials, which can be a bit longer - up to about 700 words. If you go to the editorial section of the publication, you can find their guidelines. Make sure you adhere to word limits, and accept feedback when offered. Develop relationships with editors so they are aware of your abilities and interests. They are not usually going to approach you, but it helps for them to know you as a reliable source.

Take a clear stand. Short letters to the editor can be purely one-sided. In longer pieces you have the space to develop your argument with examples, and respond to opposing points of view. Always try to anticipate and respond to the biggest argument against your perspective. Wrap up your piece by saying what action should be taken.

Be sure to share your piece with the lawmaker who might be able to act upon it. You might even write an open letter to them. Take advantage of your first-hand knowledge. You are an educator, and if you are writing about schools, tell stories that show you understand the situation firsthand. This allows you to bring in a more emotional element that is very powerful. The story you tell about the immigrant who struggled to take the test a month after arriving in the country can be more moving than any statistic you could cite. Combine it with statistical data and you have a powerful one-two punch.

Think about the audience for the publication. Even newspapers have different angles. An op-ed for the Sacramento Bee might emphasize state policy, while one in San Francisco might focus on urban education. If a piece is rejected by one publication, polish it and submit it somewhere else. Topics come in and out of style. Look for the moment when related topics are hot and see how you can work in a fresh angle.

Participate in online discussions to hone your arguments. Add your voice to the comments on blogs, discussion forums or newspaper articles. You can publish your own blog. These venues give you a chance to develop your ideas and respond to the reactions of others. Get used to being challenged. The greatest compliment you can have is a lot of feedback - that tells you that you have hit a nerve. Please add to this advice in the comments below.

What do you think? Is it time for teachers to speak out? Any advice for those of us who would like to have an effect on the direction of our schools?

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