The Heart of Teaching and Learning: Dropping Knowledge on Capitol Hill

2010-07-31-kateoncapitolhill4.jpg I'm no stranger to burning the midnight oil in a hotel room the night before a big speech. But usually I'm in coach mode, helping the kids on the Bronx Prep Speech Team get ready to break out their talent at tournaments. The night before last, though, I was the one pacing the floor, streamlining and sharpening my own delivery and rhetoric into the wee hours. I missed the camaraderie of having my team around me, reveling in that funky elixir of nerves, intellectual exertion and sleep-deprived hilarity we always experience in the ramp-up to a big day. But the kids let me know they were with me in spirit, shooting emails of encouragement as I prepared to add their voices and our shared stories into the mix on Capitol Hill. The next day I'd be joining educational leadership organization ASCD and partner education organizations to present a briefing on Consensus Policy Recommendations for Well-Rounded Education in ESEA (Elementary and Secondary Education Act).

As an artist/ educator/ writer/ mother and wearer of multiple other hats, I'll be the first to acknowledge that "policy wonk" is not on my resume. While we're at it, neither is any kind of real civic involvement at all, besides voting in presidential elections and the occasional primary. I cringe to call myself out on this, but the running excuse has always sounded something like the following: With only so many hours in the day to divide between kids at school, life at home and my own creative adventures, who has time to be digging through the fine print of legislative proposals and hollering at elected representatives?

Lately, though, the questions on the flip side of that excuse have started to sound a lot more compelling -- if only slightly more overwhelming: Who's going to let our officials know the impact of the laws they create on the kids and teachers they're supposed to be serving if we're not telling our stories? With so many educators and administrators feeling burned out and alienated and so many kids dropping out, how are we supposed to stay connected to our mission if we're not constantly refining what we stand for, vigorously and in public? And on a more personal note, what credibility do I have when I'm trying to get my kids at school amped up about their rights and responsibilities as citizens if I'm not out there exercising my own?

I finally came around to the idea that it was time to brace myself and start jumping into this conversation a little more intentionally. And right on cue, there was my girl Molly McCloskey, managing director of Whole Child Programs at ASCD, shooting me a Facebook message to see if I'd be willing to offer the practitioner voice at a briefing on the Well-Rounded Education piece of the ESEA-reauthorization puzzle.

Now, I admit, when I had originally glanced at President Obama's ESEA blueprint while launching the initial phase of my "Ms Q gets savvy about ed-politics" plan a little while back, I'd actually been excited to see a provision calling for Effective Teaching and Learning for a Well-Rounded Education. "Sounds great," I thought. "Who would argue with that?"

Granted, I was looking at the proposal while balancing a baby on my hip, making a sandwich and emailing a script to one of my students; apparently the multitasking eclipsed a few crucial details. A closer look -- motivated by my freak-out around the possibility of having to sound intelligent about this thing in public -- revealed some big problems. Although the 2011 budget request includes a $38.9 million increase in funding to support teaching and learning in the arts, history, civics, foreign languages, geography and economics -- me likey! -- the president's plan would combine eight subject-specific grant programs into a single competitive grant program. Me nooooo likey.

Because what this means, I realized, is that disciplines other than reading and math would have to compete against each other for funding, with some disciplines undoubtedly getting the short end of the stick. What's more, pitting subject areas against each other would ultimately undermine the spirit of collaboration among disciplines that I know firsthand is essential to delivering students a truly well-rounded education. Ahhh, the old law of unintended consequences. Maddening, ain't it?

Yup. It is. Maddening enough, in fact, to convince a person to ask the staff of "Camp Grandma" for some babysitting back-up and jump on the train to DC.

In the end, it was way more fun than I thought it would be. While I'll always be more comfortable in paint-spattered jeans making theater with a bunch of kids in a high school gym or rocking late-night practice sessions with the speech team, I have to say: I had a blast putting on the slacks and the heels yesterday and dropping some knowledge on Capitol Hill.

As an arts educator who makes an effort to work across disciplinary boundaries whenever I can, I was excited to help roll out a consensus statement signed by 22 (and counting) partnering organizations with five policy recommendations to help ensure that all students have access to a truly comprehensive, well-rounded education. As teacher and proud mama-bear to some of the most creative, hard-working students on the planet, I was thrilled to bring stories from our South Bronx classroom into the legislative process. And as someone who has dragged her feet big-time on the march into the ed-politics fray, I found myself wondering why I'd waited so long to help shape this conversation.

One thing I know for sure. Next time I come to Capitol Hill, I'm bringing the whole speech team with me.

Want to know more about how the briefing went? Click here.