When There’s No White Horse: Being our Best Advocates

A few days ago several people forwarded a blog post to me titled “An Obituary for Close Reading.” They sent it along not because they thought talk of the death of close reading would worry me (life will go on), but because there are some less than glowing comments made about Kate and my book in both that post and a follow up one.

Some close friends felt badly for me, some others wondered if I should respond, still others said to brush it off.  I’ve had my share of good and bad reviews for all sorts of stuff, so it’s nothing new.

I did feel compelled to write a post today because, bruises aside, I actually agree with the author.

Well, okay, I’m human I don’t completely agree. I, like all parents, think my babies are the sweetest, brightest, most beautiful ones on the block.

I more specifically agree with the conceit that we need to be careful of buzz words and advocate for our own learning and practice.

To go a step farther, I think advocating needs to go well beyond shunning buzz words. Once something has become edubabble it is almost too late.

We, as a profession, need to advocate earlier and often for the policies that come our way. We need to shape the decisions that are made in our districts. We need to be active with our administrators. We need to offer our professional expertise so by the time something gets to the babble stage, it’s actually worth babbling about.

That was our hope with our tongue-in-cheek titled, Falling in Love With Close Reading, that we could restore best practices to a term which, at the time, was buzzing with nonsense.


We Can’t Wait for Advocates, We Need to BE Advocates

In their book Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School, Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan argue that while the teaching profession can hold onto hope that an advocate in government or the public will arrive, we must instead become our own best advocates right now.

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The reality is, when questionable things intended to “help education” trickle down to us — either from the federal, state, or district level — they are questionable to us now because they truly were questionable when they were decided.  Or more accurately, they were questioned during the process of decision making.

I was watching a documentary on the Cold War recently and I was struck by one meeting in particular.  Russian ships were on their way to Cuba and no one in the US military was certain why. Could they be carrying missiles? Were they empty and only coming to posture? Around the table, most of Kennedy’s advisors were pushing for a preemptive attack against Russia. Striking first, before the ships arrived, could scare them away. There was much debate, a lot of uncertainty, and for whatever reason Kennedy continued to say no, we should wait. Wait to see what they do first. No one knew the “right” move, it was all discussion, it was all conversation.

History revealed that choosing to wait was the right choice. Of course it could have not been.

Watching that documentary, I was so struck by my naiveté regarding history. For me, it always seemed so linear: pilgrims came, then colonies, then the Revolutionary War, and so on. Seeing the people, hearing their perspectives, I was shaken to realize (and embarrassed this had not clicked for me until now) that every decision that has been made and will continue to be is, quite literally, a room full of people talking about possibilities.

The same holds true for decisions that come our way in education. Though textbooks can seem to rain from the sky and standards are zapped into being through bolts of lightening, those initiatives were made by people and their best guesses.

So first, it’s important to realize that in all cases, decisions are drawn from experience and information (or lack thereof). When your district says “this textbook will help our students succeed.” You can be certain that no one who made that decision is 100% sure of that statement.

Which is where we, as professionals, come in. Before edubabble ever gets to the point of edubabble, we can advocate in small and big ways. We can help bring our expertise, experience, and knowledge to the table.

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Small Steps to Advocate

There are small step ways to advocate for our students, our work, and the right improvements to education:

  • Take back edubabble: In some cases the babble may come with a good intentions that may have become muddle in practice or the telephone line of implementation. If what you are hearing doesn’t match what you know to be best practices, change the word or revise the definition.
  • Don’t malign district decisions, get in there are help to make them: Decisions that are made are almost always made to help kids. It is just that often people making those decisions do not read research and work with kids enough to really know what works best. You are the expertise they need. Volunteer for curriculum review committees (even if they don’t exist yet, volunteer yourself!).
  • Connect with other passionate educators: Around your district and across the world there are people as engaged, active, and inspiring as you. Find them. Start a book club or lesson planning circle in your community, join a twitter chat, or sign-up for a summer course.

Dorothy Barnhouse‘s introduction to her new book, Readers Front and Center, is a master class in advocating. Written with passion and practicality, she helps us to rethink some of the edubabble in the Common Core reading standards and the constellation of “aligned” (and often not) initiatives. One highlight is the way she reframes the “Text Complexity Triangle” that every CCSS states’ educators have seen one-thousand-and-one-times (see my tweet for the visual, color added). That graphic, stunning in it’s simplicity, is a whole new way to talk about the same work described in the standards. I can picture school board members having those concentric circles in their hands and school leadership teams posting it on the wall of their meeting room, all saying “did we start with students with this decision?” and consulting the image again.


Big Steps to Advocate

The big step ways involve supporting our colleagues in having the vision, passion, and guts to bring classroom experience to leadership and policy levels:

  • More career educators need to move into policy and government roles: school boards, local, state and federal governments
  • More career educators need to move into school leadership roles: administration and central offices
  • More career educators need to move into research and teacher training roles: higher education, authors, consultants
  • More career educators need to remain in the classroom and also become more politically and socially active: writing, voting, speaking

A piece of this is reflecting on our own careers. Have you ever entertained the thought of an education life beyond your classroom or school building? You do not need to have one, but it’s a question worth considering. Your gifts may be able to impact many students and educators in more positive and purposeful ways then we are often experiencing now.

A larger key is being inspiration for others, for our fellow educators. When I began as a teacher I assumed I would always be in the classroom, I loved my students and found the job both impossibly difficult and incredibly fulfilling. It was a high school literacy coach who said, “maybe you should consider coaching. I think you’d be good at it.” It was my first step out of full time classroom teaching. The rest is history.  You can help shape the future of our profession by inviting a talented colleague to dream: “I think your passion and voice could help a lot of teachers and kids, have you ever thought of applying to policy program? We need more educators out there.”


We Are Our Profession

You are already an advocate. Every day you walk into your school, every child you believe in, every family you connect with, you are advocating.

We need your voice and talents even more. There are many improvements ahead for our profession, if you are not a part of making them then someone else will.

Your voice matters.

Thanks for all you do.


10 thoughts on “When There’s No White Horse: Being our Best Advocates

  1. In regard to An Obituary for Close Reading…Even the writer of that article referenced the fact that teachers have different interpretations of what close reading is. Although we don’t want useless buzz words, we know that we do need common vocabulary (Marzano) to name what we are doing in order to communicate among educators and our students. There is a great need for teachers and students to have some direction and structure for interpretation within close reading and your book offers that. The writer states that the tone of his article is light so not to take it really seriously. Besides, being named alongside Kylene Beers isn’t too shabby.   Keep up the really smart thinking!    Nora Lichtenstein (home e-mail.)

  2. Hi Chris,

    Boy do I feel like an insensitive jerk! I think I am so habitually irreverent toward my own work (case in point: the “high-brow” tagline of my blog) that I forget that not everyone appreciates a little snark now and then. I don’t blame you for that, either: an author’s book is, like you mention lightheartedly above, in many ways like an author’s child. Writing a book is freaking hard, it takes large deposits of heart and soul, hours of writing and reading and discussing and studying and working with kids and responding to copyeditors and proofreaders and editors and such. I say this with sincerity, Chris! (And also to you, Kate.)

    With that being said, I agree that my snark was less-than-glowing (though I did say that I greatly admire your book’s central argument!), and therefore I would like to encourage you to defenestrate me or throw eggs at me or inflict bruises upon me when we do someday meet. And I hope we do, Chris and Kate — if for nothing more that to give me a chance to shake your hands in person or buy you beverages so that I can tell you I appreciate how you push my thinking and I value the pure heart with which you seek to serve kids and teachers.

    I say these things without any insincerity (let me learn from this whole thing and make clear the tone I intend). As Fran McVeigh pointed out just moments ago on my Moving Forward with Close Reading post, the approach I’m intrigued by lately (Harvard’s thinking-intensive reading) is NOT ideal for all situations or all age groups, nor does it make clear (as your book adeptly does) the enormous importance of transferring one’s learning in reading or writing class toward the rest of life.

    Let me close with this: your response to the hurt I caused you, a solutions-oriented, it’s-not-all-about-me, impassioned post about educators needing to take ownership of their professional development, is an awesome testament to your character and your heart. I offer it as a strong piece of evidence in my argument that you do, in deed, seek to serve kids and teachers as best you can.

    I hope I do as well, Chris — and I hope we have this as common ground to stand upon, even if we don’t always see eye to eye, and even if I am the lesser of us for causing pain with my insensitive irreverence for another’s work.


  3. I love this! It’s just what I have been thinking these past few years. Be the change we want to see and share that passion with others! If we know what is best for children and how they learn, and we know that it works, then we have an obligation to try to defend it and share that expertise with others. Although I have considered administrative positions, I feel that for me, I can help more teachers and students as a peer to my colleagues. What I am trying to do more of is model, co-teach, coach and mentor, and present workshops for teachers and administrators to increase their understanding of best practices. Thanks for sharing your passion for advocacy and your passion for teaching Chris:)

  4. Ouch. This one hits close to home. I haven’t read your book (it’s a summer TBR selection), and I don’t know what the naysayers were criticizing, but I’ve fallen into a pit somewhere between resignation and despair this past year. I feel so discouraged by what I see as the systemic disconnect from breathing kids and a crazy love affair with their data points that I’ve lost sight of my own power in the equation . Thank you for the reminder.

  5. I was just starting my second year teaching during the 2000 presidential election, and I was asked to debate another educator about the candidates’ positions on education on a TV news broadcast. So much of what was discussed is still relevant today. I wish I’d been wrong about my predictions. (Also, debating someone that you can only hear and not see is hard. Remember this if you ever Google the clip. It’s out there.)

  6. Thanks for this, and it should be noted loud and clear how your book about close reading expands the notion of how we can make sense of reading in meaningful ways to make the use of close reading as a frame for learning actually worthwhile and moves us beyond the jargon (which is how I read the article you reference) so that the jargon becomes meaningless in the educational lexicon.

  7. Stunning. Thank you Christopher. You have taken pure negativity and turned it into a positive call to action. These are the voices that need to be heard in our profession. Yours is ‘front and center’.


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