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Advocate for Education: How to Publish Your Opinions

| Anthony Cody

Someone commenting on my last blog entry posed the following provocative question: "To really make a lasting difference, I think it will require that educators -- with or without unions -- put pressure on politicians and advocate for students and schools. Where do we start learning to be political?"

I believe the best way to learn is to act. 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 that others may not have made before. Edutopia.org is an excellent place to start.

Another site to investigate is the Teacher Leaders Network, which hosts excellent blogs. Teacher magazine is a terrific source as well. Finally, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development sends out a daily SmartBrief with links to hot education articles on the Web.

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 forty-eight-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.

Most newspapers have two avenues for laypeople who want their opinions published. Letters to the editor are often limited to about 200 words and are focused on a single point, but many newspapers also publish guest editorials: Those can be a bit longer -- up to about 700 words. Go to the publication's editorial or op-ed section to locate its 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 recognize 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 you can respond to opposing points of view. Always try to anticipate and respond to the biggest argument against your perspective.

Take advantage of your firsthand knowledge. You are an educator, and if you are writing about schools, tell stories that show you understand the situation based on experience. This approach allows you to bring in a more emotional element that is very powerful. The story you tell about the immigrant who struggled to take a standardized test a month after arriving in the United States 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, whereas one in the San Francisco Chronicle might focus on urban education.

If one publication rejects a piece, 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 or newspaper articles. You can also 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 receive is a lot of feedback. That tells you that you have hit a nerve.

Please add to this advice by commenting below.

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Comments (15)

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Hillel Weintraub (not verified)

Advocate for Education: How to Publish Your Opinions

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Amazing coincidence! I write regularly for Child Research Network (CRN), a research branch of Benesse Corporation, one of the largest educational publishers in Japan. Their homepage in English can be seen at http://www.childresearch.net . Milton Chen, the executive director of the George Lucas Education Foundation, is a member of the Advisory Board of CRN.
At almost exactly the same time (the 20th of June in Japan, which is the 19th of June in California), Anthony's article (above) and my article "Sharing our feelings and experiences about Teaching and Learning" were posted. The themes of these two articles are amazingly similar! Have a read of the full article at: http://www.childresearch.net/RESOURCE/DETAIL/details_00123.html
Well, at least there 2 of the 100 monkeys thnking the same thing!

Hillel Weintraub. (Comments welcome at hilleljw@yahoo.com )

Rhonda Browning (not verified)

Writing letters to the editor

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I have written a number of letters to the editor over the years and currently have about 8 stuck up on my wall. They are normally on education or politics. I also wrote a few articles for a paper out of Natchitoches Louisiana that has an online presence. It is called Real Views. The first one was on getting ready for school and had a special education slant as that is what I know.

One trick to getting published is keeping your writing focused on a single point. Another that can sometimes help is having a different viewpoint than a lot of people who write. For example, when a lot of anti-immigration letters were being written, I wrote one that was pro-immigration.

Some papers allow longer letters and so are easier to write for. The Advocate (Baton Rouge Louisiana---not the gay magazine) allows 450 words, but is hard to get published in. On the other hand, Times-Picayune (New Orleans) is fairly easy but only allows 200 words. One of my letters was picked up by a paper in another Louisiana town. I was published 7 times in the Atlanta Journal/Constitution, but that was over about 10 years. I got that many in the T/P in one year.

Local community papers are fairly easy to get published in, but you need to have local issue. It can be very difficult for a liberal to get published in a paper with a very conservative viewpoint, but if it is tightly local and well written it can be done. I once got one published in Town Talk (Alexandria LA, nearest town of reasonable size to the infamous Jena Louisiana) that gave my view about its very strict hair code for schools. It appeared that the editor agreed with me, so that helped, but other letters I wrote to that paper were not published.

I don't know how to get beyond this level, like to become a paid columnist, which I would love to be (Oh I could stir up some mess!), but you can certainly make people think, and occasionally you will get an ugly (or complimentary) phone call as a result if you have a listed phone number. You can also do some good by sharing your special kind of expertise and, despite everything, most people do respect teachers.

Nancy Flanagan (not verified)

The ordinary is extraordinary

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Anthony, I have been reading your thoughts and ideas for about 8 years. Lots of good, basic suggestions here, but the money quote is: "the best way to learn is to act." If educators are going to develop their voices as advocates and experts, the first step is jumping off the cliff, and putting their ideas out there. We can never hone our arguments until someone reads them, and pushes back.

Thanks for another solid piece for teachers.

Bill Ferriter (not verified)

Pushing the Pendulum

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Great post, Anthony---and I couldn't agree more. Writing for publications---whether they be letters to the editor, articles for magazines or blogs---is an action step that all teachers should consider if they want to see our profession change for the better.

We live in a world where the barriers to publication have completely disappeared. With digital tools, anyone can have a voice today---and with legitimate takes on issues and a creative writing style, anyone can build a following.

By doing so, we give ourselves a greater chance of influencing those people who have the organizational power to make decisions about what happens in our classrooms----or of influencing the voters who elect those people!

I think of all of the suggestions that you made, the most valuable is to join digital conversations as a way of practicing craft and polishing thoughts. I know that I have little trouble developing pieces on almost any topic only because I've been involved in digital conversations for decades!

Each written contribution that I make to a digital conversation is essentially a first draft that I can refine and revise for use in other forums. Articulation through text becomes easier only because I do it so often.

For some teachers, finding digital conversations may seem intimidating---but it shouldn't be! The comment section of every blog can serve as perfect places to polish ideas.

One of my personal goals as an educator and a writer is to leave at least three comments per week on the blogs of other educators. By doing so, I'm staying in touch with current issues in the field, I'm "seeing" the range of persepectives that others hold on a particular issue, and I'm practicing the expression of my own point of view in a risk free setting.

Even better is that inevitably, the comments that I leave draw other people into the conversation. Most of the time, someone replies to an idea that I've left----challenging or confirming my thinking.

Either way, I get valuable feedback that I can use to polish my ideas!

So to anyone interested in practicing their voice as a tool for gaining influence, find a few blogs....start reading them regularly....and leave comments whenever you can!

Does this make sense?
Bill

Donna C. White, Fayetteville, NC (not verified)

Teachers advocating for quality education

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Thank you so much for this plan of action! I continue to struggle to find my “voice," but I did recently take a very small baby step that others may find helpful . I read in our newspaper that one of our school board members had voiced concern about the building of new schools in the suburbs while the physical maintenance of our inner city schools was declining. I sent him an email in which I thanked him for his concern and encouraged him to continue to advocate for the improvement of our inner city schools. I told him some of the things that our school had done to enhance the appearance of our facility and spoke of some of the problems that we still encounter. I received an encouraging reply from him and the dialogue continues. If you choose to send an email, it is important to remember that emails to government officials can be obtained by “the press,” so don’t write anything that you would not want to see on the front page! I know I need to do more, but for me, this was a comfortable first step.

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Anthony Cody Science Coach and mentor, Oakland, California

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