September 2017
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Maria Betancourt, East Los Angeles College, Monterey Park, California, USA

Many ESL educators and administrators are baffled by the notion of advocacy and its role in and out of the academic environment because they do not know how they can support students in this chaotic time period. Immigration policies and the recently proposed budget released by the U.S. president has caused turmoil in the field of education. Within the TESOL profession, many are equipped with the tools necessary to teach English and prepare their students for the rigor of academia; however, numerous students throughout the country—particularly those at my college, East Los Angeles College—are experiencing a growing amount of fear due to the political uncertainty in the United States. Because of this fear, there is a vital need to not only advocate for students but also to empower them to become leaders for their families and their communities. First, however, faculty and administrators must educate themselves about advocacy. The TESOL Advocacy & Policy Summit, which was held in Alexandria, Virginia, USA from 18–21 June 2017, was a great first step toward becoming aware of policies that affect education and the role of advocacy within the field of TESOL.

A great number of educators and administrators are passionate about seeking ways to improve the delivery of their lessons or developing new programs to ensure the success of students. In addition, many are unaware of how their professional role has expanded throughout the years. Some educators do not understand the relationship that exists between their role as educators or administrators and their responsibility to advocacy. Not only are they educators and administrators, but they are also advocates for their learners. They represent their students at curriculum development discussions or district meetings, where they speak on their students’ behalves to secure more educational opportunities for them.

During the summit, keynote speaker Dr. Diane Staehr Fenner, who has written several books on advocacy, like Advocating for English Learners: A Guide for Educators, had attendees discuss the definition of the word advocacy and its role within the profession of TESOL. During the course of this discussion, audience members realized that there is a dire need to broaden the definition of the TESOL profession to encompass the role of advocacy and to develop new ways in which to integrate advocacy in educators’ lessons. With this awareness, attendees planned to share this knowledge with others within their field and with their elected officials.

TESOL organizers David Cutler and John Segota had sent out emails in the months prior to this summit requesting all attendees to set up meetings with their senators and representatives. For instance, I am from California, so I collaborated with my TESOL state affiliate, CATESOL, and I attended CATESOL’s scheduled meetings, which included Kamala Harris, Diane Feinstein, and Nancy Pelosi. Because senators and representatives were voting at the Capitol building, aides met with many of the attendees in their stead. Meetings were generally scheduled between 10 and 15 minutes. In preparation for these meetings, Cutler and Segota shared with attendees the importance of structuring their time before their meetings, and they asked them to think of two or three talking points that they wanted to focus on in their pitch. In addition, attendees needed to interrelate their points with their students’ personal stories; these narratives needed to be memorable so that they would resonate with politicians and aides and motivate them to make a change.

After spending two days with ESL teachers and administrators from across the United States, attendees gathered with their organized groups to march together on Capitol Hill. Attending these scheduled meetings provided educators and administrators a meaningful, hands-on experience to act as advocates on Capitol Hill. Attending this summit empowered attendees with information that pertains to immigration policies, such as the Bar Removal of Individuals Who Dream and Grow Our Economy (BRIDGE) Act, which affects ESL students and their families who are enrolled in K–12 education, adult education programs, or higher education. The summit provided a platform for both educators and administrators to advocate for the needs of students and to meet with their local representatives in Congress or with their aides. It was a great reminder for everyone present that they have a civic responsibility, and it is their right and duty to share their message with their elected officials so that those officials can promote the notion of change.

Not only did this summit enable participants to become strong leaders, but it also gave them the chance to reevaluate the ways in which they can develop and implement advocacy-based activities that empower students to become future advocates for their families and become leaders in their communities.

Writing Assignments

Creating advocacy-related writing assignments is an effective way for teachers to target both purposeful and meaningful critical thinking and writing skills. Educators can have students write to their local representatives to share their personal stories and explain what their needs are. This would provide an opportunity for students to understand the importance of making their voices heard and helping others to gain the confidence to make theirs be heard as well. At the summit, Dr. Ester de Jong, TESOL president, explained to attendees the importance of being persistent when advocating in general. Having students write to their local representatives at least once every semester will create a consistent voice that politicians and their aides will not forget. Instructors can help nurture and strengthen their students’ voices by incorporating a writing activity like this.

Campus Event and Leadership Activities

At East Los Angeles College, an ESL task force has been created to plan and prepare for an International Student Festival, which will be held in Spring 2018. Task force members are planning to have a panel of ESL students share the challenges that they have experienced here in the United States. Faculty, staff, administrators, local representatives, and the community will be invited to hear students share their stories, and they will educate audience members on how everyone on and off campus can further assist them in achieving their goals.

Activities like these incorporate both elements of advocacy and skill sets relevant to language learning. Educators can continue to have students focus on their educational goals while simultaneously developing their leadership skills.

The need for advocacy is crucial, and educators and administrators share a responsibility to enable our ELLs to become independent learners and leaders. The summit was a great avenue for learning more about the role of advocacy, and it provided a meaningful opportunity to discuss with other educators from across the country and to collaborate with them in educating those on Capitol Hill about the needs, diversity, and equity of our English language learners. Educators and administrators who are interested in advocating for English language learners should attend this summit, for it brings awareness to the gaps that exist within educational and immigration policies, and it will ignite the passion to seek justice and equality for the needs of students and their families. As a united group, faculty, administrators, and students can help bring change just by actively participating in their civic responsibility.

The TESOL Advocacy & Policy Summit is held annually during the month of June. For more information regarding the summit, please visit the TESOL Advocacy & Policy Summit webpage. This year, TESOL will also be offering a new 1-day program for advocates who are interested in advancing their advocacy skills and capacity. This workshop will be held once on 27 October 2017 and will be repeated on 4 November 2017. For information about TESOL’s advocacy initiatives, please visit the TESOL Advocacy Resources webpage.

Maria Betancourt is an assistant professor of ESL at East Los Angeles College in Monterey Park, California. She teaches credit ESL there. Professor Betancourt has had several opportunities to present at many of professional conferences and considers these opportunities to be helpful for her to strengthen her own pedagogy and mentor novice instructors.

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SRIS Survey Results
The SRIS Survey identified the following strands:
  • Gender & ELT
  • Social Justice in Teacher Education
  • Peacebuilding & ELT
  • LGBTQ+ & ELT
  • Global Education
  • Environmental Responsibility
  • Immigrant Rights & Access to Education
  • Racial, Linguistic & Cultural Discrimination
  • Advocating for ELs
Next Issue's Theme: Social Justice in the Classroom
How do you incorporate social justice into your classes with English learners or teachers in training? Share your practical ideas on creating lessons that center social issues and raise students’ awareness. Submissions due 1 November.