Writing at the White House

April 04, 2011

GW professors and senior leaders conduct writing workshops for local high school students.

When students make the transition from high school to college, they face intensive new writing demands.

That’s why GW President Steven Knapp, Provost Steven Lerman and two GW professors, at the request of First Lady Michelle Obama’s office, have been volunteering their time at the Old Executive Office Building to give local high school students some extra writing tips as they prepare for college.

Last month, Dr. Knapp kicked off the series with a workshop around what he calls the “fundamental building blocks of an essay” – sentences and paragraphs.

“As I told the students, nothing is more important to success in college than the ability to communicate. No matter what field students study, they will have to write papers and present their ideas in a clear and effective manner,” said Dr. Knapp, who before coming to GW taught English literature at the University of California at Berkeley and served as dean of arts and sciences and then as provost of the Johns Hopkins University. “This is just one of the ways George Washington University is focused on education at all levels.”

After discussing correct grammar, Dr. Knapp showed the students several examples of strong and weak paragraphs.

At another workshop, Dr. Lerman taught the students about how to write personal essays for college applications. He showed the students examples of essays that had been turned into GW’s Office of Admissions and discussed each of the essays’ strengths and weaknesses.

“I was pleased to be asked by the first lady's office to teach one of the four writing workshops. The students were engaged and took time to absorb the lessons, which I hope they are able to put to practical use in the classroom,” said Dr. Lerman, the A. James Clark Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “I would be pleased to see any of these students at GW one day."

During a workshop led by Gil Yancey, executive director of the F. David Fowler Career Center in GW’s School of Business, students learned how to write business letters, specifically cover letters when applying for jobs. According to Mr. Yancey, employer surveys suggest that the ability to communicate is one of the most essential traits for job seekers, but one of the most deficient among students entering the workforce.

“Business writing is a necessary lifelong skill no matter what your career choice. Unlike the spoken word, a letter leaves a permanent record that is often transmitted to persons other than the original recipient, referenced with frequency and filed for the long term,” said Mr. Yancey. “Cover letters with bad form, poor grammar or typographical errors convey to the reader that the applicant is careless, insincere or inappropriate for the role.”

Mr. Yancey also invited the students to submit their resumes to the career center for feedback.

“GW is one of the largest institutions in D.C. and consequently should be one of the most visible in activities designed to develop talent for the global economy,” he said.

Derek Malone-France, interim director of GW’s University Writing Program and director of Writing in the Disciplines, led the final workshop where he explained the differences between high school and college writing. While most high school writing occurs in English classes, Dr. Malone-France explained to the students that most college classes have a writing component to them. Specifically, Dr. Malone-France showed the students examples of college papers written in a math and an engineering course.

“Every subject in college requires writing skills,” he said.

Dr. Malone-France suggested the students start working on their papers well in advance of their due date and take advantage of a university’s writing center for helpful resources. One of the biggest differences between high school and college writing, Dr. Malone-France explained, is being able to criticize an expert and form your own opinion on a topic.

“What college is all about is forming your own opinion and figuring out what it means to develop your own expertise in a specific subject,” said Dr. Malone-France. “Professors are looking for students that act more like a colleague than a student.”

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