Teachers at Work
A column about teaching
Dropouts or Ivy Leaguers, Writing's the Same.
Lori Pope runs a busy New York literary agency called Writers Represent. When she's not reading manuscripts, developing authors and closing book deals, Lori pursues another passion: Teaching writing. She leads two kinds of classes. One for post-graduate students at the Columbia Publishing Course at Columbia University. The other for high school dropouts earning their GED and Associate's degree at a school called the Interboro Institute. As you'd expect, Lori uses different techniques to teach the different classes. As you might not expect, the two groups have more in common than you'd think. Lori explains:
VT: What's your approach to teach writing to the GED students?
Lori: I try to get them comfortable with expressing ideas on a page. And I try not to make them too nervous by marking up their writing with the red pen. I think you develop the strongest writing skills by first feeling comfortable with your own language -- what you speak with your family or on the street. If you can communicate in your first tongue, so to speak, it's much easier to translate to what I call "Standard English."
So that's what I say to my students: In education and business we use Standard English to communicate. I'm not saying what they speak at home or on the street is wrong. I'm just trying to give them the language they need to succeed. They can easily go back and forth, like anyone who speaks several languages does.
VT: What are some of your challenges with these students?
Lori: My GED students often get very intimidated with writing because they think they have to use what I call the "five dollar words." I tell them to lay off the five dollar words. But those words, in their minds, are what make you intelligent and a good writer. But if you use five dollar words the wrong way it can mess everything up, of course.
VT: Do you use any special teaching techniques?
Lori: Rather than, for example, explaining how to conjugate a verb in the past tense on a blackboard, I have my students keep a journal and write down everything they did yesterday. So, of course, they have to write it in the past tense. There are a lot of these tricks to make writing less intimidating. Instead of trying to get them to learn the rules, I try to get them to express what they think on the page. The mechanics follow.
VT: How do your GED students compare with your Columbia students?
Lori: The interesting thing about the Columbia course is that those students aren't necessarily any smarter than my GED kids. They're very polished and, most importantly, they've all had someone who expected them to succeed and pushed them every step of the way. Those are the only differences. They still have the same challenges with writing: Getting stuff written, expressing themselves, telling their story. It's the same thing no matter what your level of intelligence or skill is with the writing.
My style doesn't change very much in how I help both sets of students write better. But my Columbia class, interestingly, really does inherently believe they're better. I sometimes have to remind them that I have students on the other side of town who didn't complete high school but, trust me, if they'd had the same opportunities, they'd probably be at Columbia instead of them. That jolts them for a second.
VT: What's the flipside?
Lori: The flipside is a lot of my GED students are sometimes very defensive. One student asked, if I went to Brown and teach at Columbia, what am I doing with them? I told her there's no difference between her and my students at Columbia, except that the Columbia students had someone push them every step of the way. You should have seen the look on her face. She inherently thought, I'm not as bright or can't achieve these things. It gave her a boost. She was like, wow.
VT: And in the end?
Lori: Writing is about trust. Showing someone your writing is a scary thing to do, even your teacher. But in both classes -- the Columbia students and the GED students -- I read their stories and book proposals and it's not hard to see the improvement. I do that with them. I show them the first thing they wrote for me and their stuff now. Like anything -- whether you're at Columbia or you're getting your GED -- you have to keep practicing.