A Congressman in My Classroom: Making Connections

A Guest Post by Lori Menning
Lori has been teaching in the School District of New London, Wisconsin, for the past 13 years, where she is also the district ELL/bilingual coordinator. In addition, she instructs current and future ELL and bilingual teachers for Silver Lake College. This is her fourth year serving as WITESOL advocacy chair, and this year she is also WITESOL President. Lori provides workshops and presentations at regional, state, and national conferences, teaching best practices and strategies for working with ELLs.

As Advocacy Chair for WITESOL, I attended the past three TESOL Advocacy and Policy Summits in Washington, DC. During these powerful summits, I participated in grassroots activities led by John Segota and had the opportunity to meet with my local members of congress on Capitol Hill. These meetings were sometimes challenging. So the congress members could make connections, I shared current happenings in my high school classroom, school, and district. I also invited them to visit my classroom and meet the ELLs.

Inviting the Congressman to Visit

Each year, 8th Congressional District Congressman Reid Ribble has dedicated time to meet with me in his Washington, DC, office. With each visit, he learned more about our bilingual program and how recent educational changes in our state directly impact the students. He always had questions, because my students are children of his constitutents in New London, Wisconsin. In the hopes that the congressman would make time to visit my bilingual classroom, I remained in contact with the staffers in his Wisconsin office, and I was thrilled to receive notification that Congressman Ribble would be visiting us!

Preparing for the Visit

My students were aware of my annual visits to Washington, DC, and my meetings with our local representatives on Capitol Hill. Each year upon my return, I share pictures, stories, and updates with my students highlighting my experiences. Therefore, I had to do very little to prepare my students for his visit; I have been updating them all throughout my advocacy journey. The only specific preparation I did before the congressman’s visit was to have them write questions they would like to ask him if given the opportunity. Most questions they selected where about his job responsibilities, about his daily life in DC, and also about recent events they heard in the news. In addition, I told them to prepare to introduce themselves, sharing a bit about how they came to New London, along with their language experiences.

The Visit

During his visit, the congressman was eager to hear from our bilingual students and learn about their language and culture. He was surprised by the variety of literacy levels in the two classes he observed, along with the incorportation of the WIDA Standards for ELLs and goals connected to their ACCESS English proficiency test results. He learned how ELLs have the challenge of learning both the academic language and content while acquiring English. He shared his personal experiences with language and literacy, such as when he ran a roofing company, which had one-third Mexican employees, and when he needed an interpreter for international travel.

After observing the class and talking with students, the Congressman shared that he reads 2 hours each morning and truly enjoys reading to learn. The students were curious to hear about his experiences reading digital books versus print books (he still prefers print books). Students asked questions on current events, and one student asked a question on behalf of his history teacher.

Making ELLs a Priority

When it was shared that Congressman Ribble would be coming to my bilingual classroom, my school administration and some other classes hoped to have a few minutes of his time. Although he acknowledged their interests, he also confirmed he was in New London to his spend time in my bilingual classroom; this made the students feel very special. The Congressman’s visit was confirmation that my voice is beng heard on Capitol Hill, and this collaboration is a first step.

As an advocate for high school bilingual students, it is crucial we work together to seek opportunities. My goal is for the students to see that they can be change agents. Their voices can be heard, and they can make a difference. I want my students to know that I am an advocate for them and for bilingual education, and, therefore, I model the work that they, too, can do.

As advocacy chair for WITESOL, I continue to seek to connect our members with their passions as we work to build a board composed of teacher leaders. I believe it is critical not to seek people to fill positions but instead to connect our members with their passions. Four years ago, when I was asked to serve as advocacy chair, it was because of the advocacy I do for my students and bilingual education on a daily basis. As I share the progress I made in making connections on Capitol Hill, thanks to the training I received with John Segota during the TESOL Advocacy and Policy Summit, I hope other ELL and bilingual teachers will also share their stories with members of congress. We can make a difference!

On 27 March 2015, Lori will present on “Incorporating Technology to Present Nonfiction Text” in the Electronic Village at the 2015 TESOL International convention in Toronto, Canada.

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