The Power of Advocacy
Avant Assessment sponsored the 2019 JNCL J. David Edwards Power of Advocacy Award which was presented to Linda Markley by David Bong, CEO of Avant Assessment. We thank Linda for her relentless advocacy, inspiration, and courage and can’t think of a more deserving person to earn this award.
What does it mean to be an advocate? The word, advocate is from Latin and means “to call to one’s aid”. As teachers, we usually feel a calling to the profession to pass on our love for learning and to empower students with knowledge of our subject matter. In this way, we are all advocates for our profession in our deeds and in our words. With every choice we make and experience we have, we are writing our own life story as well as impacting the life story of others. My language learning story began when I was in eighth grade. The teacher of my Spanish 1 class was really a History teacher and had no knowledge or experience with the Spanish language. Nonetheless, she was armed with ALM tapes and dialogues that she tasked us with memorizing and reciting in front of the class. If we remembered everything and sounded like the tape, we got an A. When I arrived in ninth grade at the high school for Spanish 2, the teacher told those of us from the junior high that we didn’t learn enough in Spanish 1 and told us to get a schedule change back to Spanish 1. I was horrified and went to talk to Señorita Ortiz after school. How could that be? I had done everything that had been asked of me? Although she was a little heavy on the Grammar-Translation Approach, it was apparent in her words and deeds that she had a passion for the Spanish language and culture that she wanted to share with her students. In her eyes, we had been cheated of the opportunity to explore and learn not only the language as a means for communication, but also, we had not been afforded the privilege of connecting to ourselves and others through an appreciation of the culture. After a few minutes of conversation with me, she could sense that she had sparked a curiosity in me to learn more, so she agreed to tutor me every day after school until she felt I was ready to join the others in Spanish 2. That choice changed my story forever. Señorita Ortiz chose to pass on her love of Spanish to me, and that made all the difference. I decided to major in languages and become a language teacher in order to also pass on a love for languages and cultures. Interestingly enough, when I would share with others what I did for a living, a Pandora’s box would suddenly be opened and a flood of stories would erupt about the other person’s language experiences…both good and bad. What I soon came to realize was that each and every teacher has the power to pass on a love for her subject matter and create a positive learning experience OR she has the power to pass on painful memories and feelings of failure and resentment. This is what would echo in my head and would drive me to tap into my passion for languages and culture and pass it on to my students, which is the truest, most pure and long lasting form of advocacy. We have choices every day as to the experiences we want our students to have. Our students will go on to become administrators, politicians, doctors, lawyers, nurses, artists, janitors, flight attendants and every possible career imaginable. They will become the decision makers and the policy makers and the cultural ambassadors who travel around the world. They will become parents, grandparents, family members and community members. These people, our students, will carry these stories within them and share them with whomever will listen. They are the ones we call to our aid. They are our true advocates. What story will you create for languages and pass on?
I decided early on in my career that my main goal as an educator, especially as an educator of world languages, was to not only change the stories my students were telling by always listening to them and trying to make their experiences positive and powerful, but also to listen to the stories of others, good and bad, and try to reach into their hearts by sharing meaningful, real world success stories of the power of languages to connect to others and tap into the common humanity we share. We all can share stories from our students of how they now have “lentes nuevos” through which to see the world. Stories of how studying another language and culture has opened their minds and their hearts and given them more meaningful direction to find their place in the world. And through those connections, they find a path to make a difference in the world and impact the life stories of others. Yes, every word and deed has a ripple effect, and THAT is advocacy!
My career has been filled with administrators, parents, community members and even colleagues whose personal stories about language learning experiences were not happy memories. Some were even very painful. I had one administrator who wouldn’t even come into the classroom because he was “afraid” of what was going on because he just didn’t understand. So, what did I do? I invited and welcomed him in every.single.day! I told my students to invite him in. Eventually, he came and sat in my class. We were reading a story, and each student had a role to play. I gave my administrator the task of every time he heard the word “rey”, he just had to hold up his crown and smile. That’s it! When he saw how much fun the students were having, how much they were learning, and even more importantly, how empowered he felt to learn in a positive way, he became a huge advocate for the Spanish program at our school. So, invite everyone into your class to shine a positive light on the language learning experience. Invite native speakers into your class to share their stories. Reach out to the community and create connections and partnerships to shine a light on powerful language learning experiences. Showcase your student learning in the media center, in the community, through social media, newsletters, on the school or district website/TV channel, through the local newspaper or magazine, through your state language organization or even through YouTube videos, blogs or collaboration with other schools, teachers or districts around the state or even around the world. Let your students perform and demonstrate their growing language skills through competitions and community cultural events. Reach out to teachers of other subjects at your school and invite them to co-create a cross-curricular lesson for students that will deepen their understanding of both subjects. Enlist the help of others to plan, prepare and execute these ideas and initiatives. Yes, as teachers, our plates are already full, but it is certainly within our power to share what is on our plate to “feed” others! All of this is advocacy, but it is also touches on Standards-based teaching through Communication, Culture, Connections, Comparisons and Community. It is a curriculum, or maybe call it a “food plan” rich in advocacy-based nutrients that will feed the world a healthier story of language learning. Then, when we are faced with the possibility of program cuts because of lack of funding or because of someone else’s bad experience or because of a legislative initiative to replace languages with computer coding, we can call to our aid all of those whose stories were impacted in a positive way through a healthy diet of language learning. This is exactly what happened when Florida was faced with the possibility, many times, to pass legislation that would allow for Computer Coding to count as a world language credit. There is a lot of money and power behind this initiative that is sweeping the country, and sadly, has passed in some states. At first, I tried using data and statistics and quoting research about SAT scores, college admission, Alzheimer’s prevention, etc., but that was not effective. So, I decided to call in students, parents, administrators and all those I knew to share their powerful language learning stories…in person, by phone, by email, by letter, through social media. We recorded videos of these stories to share. We invited students to create artwork to advocate for languages, and then, made them into post cards to send to every single legislator and school district superintendent and school administrator with a personal message and story as well as an invitation to come to our schools and our state conference to see all the good that was going on with languages.
The first time I went to Tallahassee to speak to the legislators about the Coding Bill, I was stunned to see ten lobbyists there from various tech companies and Disney. The Senator sponsoring the bill was the CEO of a tech company, but he also shared painful details of his own personal language learning experience and what a waste of time it was because he didn’t learn anything and couldn’t do anything with the language. They also had students with learning challenges there in order to testify that expecting them to learn another language was unfair and beyond their capabilities. There were legislators who got to speak and share their painful language experience stories that we have all heard. “I took x number of years of Spanish, and can’t say or do anything”. Their strategy was to clearly tap into the affective domain of language learning, so I suddenly knew what to do…tap into the experiences of our shared humanity. I looked the legislators in the eyes and asked the following: “at the end of the day, when you are gathered at the table with your loved ones, do you want this (I modeled using a cell phone and also changing channels on a television) or do you want this (I then gestured a face-to-face conversation, a smile and a heart connection) and added “THIS is what a language class will get you!” One of the freshman Senators actually spoke up, choking back tears, and said “I want to hear more”. He was being called to our aid through the heart of humanity. The bill then died in committee on both the House and Senate sides. It has not returned, but that doesn’t mean that it the possibility is not there.
Beyond what we do in the classroom and in the community, it is also important that we make connections and stay active in our local, state and national organizations that offer support systems, provide guidance and are conduits to everything that is going on with language education, including policies, funding and opportunities available to pave a clear path for us to keep creating more and better stories with happy endings. All language educators owe a debt of profound gratitude to JNCL-NCLIS and all of its partner organizations for Language Advocacy Day in Washington D.C. as well as for all the other things that they do throughout the year to help us get the funding and support needed from the government to sponsor and provide a better vision, more funding and greater access to opportunities that will build more quality programs for teaching and learning languages. With their guidance and support, we can continue writing powerful stories of positive language learning experiences that connect us to the real world and to the humanity in all of us. That is our life purpose, and isn’t it grand and glorious that we, as language teachers, have the power and the opportunity to do just that! So, I invite you to get your passion on and sally forth. After all, passion = I pass on! What will you choose to pass on to your students, to others you meet and to the world?