Amplifying expert voices: Teachers’ letters to Obama

TLN Forum member Anthony Cody authors the blog Living in Dialogue, hosted at the Teacher Magazine website. In early November, Cody used his bully pulpit to post an open letter to President Obama, in which he described himself as “one of the millions of teachers across the USA who actively supported your candidacy.” Cody said he “took heart” when he read these words on then-Senator Obama’s campaign website:

Obama believes teachers should not be forced to spend the academic year preparing students to fill in bubbles on standardized tests. He will improve the assessments used to track student progress to measure readiness for college and the workplace and improve student learning in a timely, individualized manner. Obama will also improve NCLB’s accountability system so that we are supporting schools that need improvement, rather than punishing them.

Cody, a National Board Certified teacher who coaches science colleagues in Oakland CA, then challenged the President to compare these words with the announced plans for Race to the Top funding. The proposed reforms, he contended, “do not enact the vision you have put forward.” He went on to make his case that the RttT proposals would leave teachers “demoralized and sidelined…We will remain the subjects of change rather than agents, and our creative vision will be missing.” He concluded:

It does not have to be this way. Teachers are ready for change, ready for mutual responsibility, ready for better assessments of student learning that honor our classroom practice and our students’ capacity for critical thinking. We are ready, but we are still waiting to see these things.

Cody then invited teacher-readers of his blog to join him by signing his letter or writing one of their own. Encouraged by the response, he soon established the Facebook page ” Teachers’ Letters to Obama,” which garnered more than 500 members (and over 100 letters) in a month’s time. Cody continued to build his viral campaign with cross-posts of sample letters at his TM blog, ultimately shipping nearly 100 letters to the White House. More have continued to flow in. In early December, Teacher Magazine editor Anthony Rebora opened a discussion group at the TM website to allow visitors to debate all sides of the issues raised by Cody.

Various signs point to the fact that Education Secretary Arne Duncan and others in the Administration are aware of the letter campaign. Education Week plans to publish a January 2010 op-ed article prepared by Cody which will include excerpts from a selection of teacher letters. And the Facebook community continues to grow.

Throughout this exercise in what web-trends expert Clay Shirky has termed “the new social media,” Cody and many other letter writers have taken on the role of the “loyal opposition” — recalling Obama’s vision of hope and asking the President and his education policy advisors to recognize the need to engage America’s accomplished teachers as full partners in school reform — to listen more closely to the ideas of classroom professionals with a track record of quality teaching and student achievement.

Cody’s ability to harness Web 2.0 tools to engage teacher colleagues across the nation in amplifying teacher voices on matters of great concern to their schools and students offers further proof — to paraphrase Shirky — that principled educators no longer have to settle for the role of consumers of change, they can be producers as well. In a world where the term mass communication has taken on an entirely new meaning, “the (networked) audience can talk directly to one another,” says Shirky. “The complexity of the network is actually the square of the number of participants. Meaning that the network, when it grows large, grows very very large.”

Imagine that.

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