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Personal Observations, Experience, and Knowledge: How Learning to Write a GED Essay Helps Us Know Ourselves

by Cindy Strodel McCall on September 3, 2013

The topic is “What makes a good parent?” Our adult literacy student, a thirty-one-year-old mother of four who left school in seventh grade, hands me a neatly written two-page essay to review. She’s written one -and two -paragraph essays before but this is her first attempt at the General Educational Development (GED) test’s five-paragraph essay format. Her introductory paragraph states three qualities that make a good parent: (1) some disciplinary skills, (2) understanding, and (3) patience. I find it hard to comment further however, as the essay continues:

When I was little, my father would get drunk and beat me for the things my mother did, so it has taken me a long time to figure out how to discipline my kids. . . . I needed help from a mental health counselor. Before I had this help, I let my kids do anything they wanted, and I turned my older son into a monster.

My learner sees me pause as I read. “I have to work on my spelling, right?” she says. “Is it OK so far? The directions said use your personal experience.”

“It’s very OK,” I say, “It takes a lot of courage to write things down sometimes. This looks like a great essay. But you don’t have to be so personal in your writing if you don’t want to.”

“Oh, I want to,” she says firmly. She had never written about herself before, she said, but she found it made her feel better about the things that had happened to her in her life. It made her understand them better.

Standard directions for the GED essay are as follows: “In your essay, give specific details to explain your views. Use your personal observations, experience, and knowledge.”

The young Chin Burmese student in our program escaped from her war-torn village at the age of fourteen. The topic is: “‘Every cloud has a silver lining. Do you think it’s true that every bad thing that happens in life has a good side to it? Use your personal observations, experience, and knowledge.” She wrote:

I believe that bad things that happen to you can have a good side. Leaving my country was very difficult. I left my family, friends, church, and my village. I left because soldiers were taking girls from my village. I had a difficult journey and walked many days without food. I was thirsty and hungry. I was with strange people. I had to run and hide from the police. But there was a good side. I got to Malaysia. I met new family and friends. I learned a new language. I sent money home to my parents.

Located in a rural area of Central New York, Cazenovia Public Library (CPL) offers adult literacy tutoring in Adult Basic Education (ABE), English as a Second Language (ESL) and GED (high school equivalency exam preparation) at two public libraries and a local food pantry, CazCares. About eighty percent of CPL’s adult literacy students are enrolled in the GED program. Volunteer tutors are trained through Madison County Reads Ahead, a public library literacy consortium of eight Central New York libraries in the Mid-York Library System. Madison County Reads Ahead was a literacy initiative originally funded by Community Foundation of Central New York.

Many GED student referrals come from learners we meet at CazCares Food Pantry. It’s clear why refugees need educational programs like ours, but how about our native Central New Yorkers? We have excellent public schools in our area, and yet in some of our local communities twenty to thirty percent of adult residents did not complete high school. What interrupted their education?

The stories are both unique and similar. Foster care placement gone wrong, parents with mental health or addiction issues, families in crisis who moved children often from school to school. Drastic family change—such as divorce, imprisonment, or death of a parent—and even the familiar and yet devastating story of a high school culture that taunted or marginalized outsiders.

The tutoring process is learner-driven, and tailored to each student’s needs. Our students have learned for themselves the value of education, the value of honoring one’s own goals and dreams. They just need help in getting there.

Sometimes, we have to start with small goals. Keeping tutoring appointments and being where you should be—on time and ready to work—can be the first step. In learning to respect your volunteer tutor’s time and efforts, you learn to respect your own time and efforts.

Students must apply for a library card if they don’t have one. If they do have a card, it must be clear of fines. New learners have six to eight weeks to “clean up” their library cards as they work with their tutors on educational goals. A good step towards fiscal responsibility in all areas of life, this process of getting one’s library card in good order sometimes requires a little patience and forbearance on the part of our libraries. But we work together, and we work it out.

The GED students who come to us often tell us they feel stuck in their lives. They know how limited the job market is for those who lack a high school diploma. They want to move on, to career training programs, college, or better employment opportunities. Also, as their essays show us, they want to gain the personal and emotional satisfaction of finishing their high school education, for themselves and their families.

A nineteen-year-old GED learner in our program who wrote the essay excerpt that follows worked as a healthcare aide in a nursing home. After her stepfather died, she became injured at work, and was too distraught to sleep. She had trouble leaving the house, and found it hard to talk to people. A friend brought her to CazCares, where the two of them now attend weekly GED tutoring sessions. The two friends saved on gas, were more motivated to study, and helped each other keep their commitment to furthering their education.

The essay topic was: “Choose an important person that you have looked up to and who has helped you in your life. Explain who this person is, why you look up to her or him, and how the person has helped you.” She wrote:

My stepfather, who recently passed away, is the person I most look up to in life. The reason I want to get my GED is because of him. He was a good father. He was upset that I left school. Before he died, he told me that getting my GED was the one thing he wanted from me. . . He was the one person I could always count on whenever I needed him.

The essay became a five-page eulogy to her stepfather that moved her tutor (and myself) to tears. “I feel so much better after writing this, even though it was painful. I cried buckets all through it,” she told us, as we handed around the tissue box. “But I had the best night’s sleep after that.”

Writing about ourselves provides us with an opportunity to give the past a careful onceover. Life happens at warp speed, and often we become lost in the hurry of events, particularly troubling or tragic times that we feel deeply but have no time to understand and process. Our GED students are new to the healing possibilities of writing. They are uncomfortable with writing. But when the task presents itself, and they are required to focus on an experience, an idea, or a relationship, and explore what it meant to them personally, something unforeseen begins to happen—a learning experience greater than the sum of its parts.

A total of twelve to fifteen tutoring pairs work together over the course of a year in our literacy program. The learning process depends a lot on the ability of tutors to connect with their learners in a supportive yet instructional relationship. Often, the one-on-one attention our tutors offer students is all they need to succeed. We listen carefully to students, ask them to set their own learning goals, and talk through solutions for navigating the obstacles adult learners with jobs and young children face in studying for the GED. We identify academic gaps and then we find the needed review areas to fill them. As learners progress, they gain new confidence in themselves and their abilities. For learners with family responsibilities we offer a combined adult/early literacy program. Adults can receive GED tutoring while their little ones attend our preschool program.

None of this can be done without help from volunteers. But with a trained and dedicated core of volunteers, supported by library resources, much can be accomplished.

Families who attend the combined literacy program become very close to CazCares literacy volunteers, and to each other. They cheer each other on. They cheer each other’s children on. And when a learner passes the GED, we have a party and we celebrate together.

For many of the learners, their families are the reason they are pursuing their education. Their personal goals are often centered on their children, like the young single mother who wrote the following (on the essay topic “How do you define success?”):

For me, success is obtaining my GED. . . . The main reason I want to get my GED is my daughter. She is only four now, but someday she will be in high school. I don’t want her to say to me: “You left school when you were sixteen. Why can’t I? You never finished high school. Why should I?” . . . I don’t want to see my daughter make that same mistake.

A Collaboration Begins

GED tutoring at a food pantry? How is it that a public library has taken on such work? CPL Library Director Betsy Kennedy, the staff and Board of Trustees, literacy coordinators Carla Zimmerman and me—we all believe that part of our library’s mission is to be an educational resource to the community. Low-income and low-literacy families rarely attended the library’s adult programs or family preschool programs. How could the library reach those families?

In the area of early literacy, for example, grants were obtained in the past to offer educational programming at the library to low-income preschoolers. However, those library-based programs had low attendance and did not reach their target audience. In 2007, local food pantry CazCares moved to larger quarters, and Kennedy saw the opportunity to begin a literacy outreach. The Friends of the Library provided funding for the first year, and the collaboration between CPL and CazCares began.

From the start of the partnership, Caz-Cares Director Gigi Redmond provided CPL staff with the crucial onsite support needed to operate library literary programs. For CazCares-based learners, our GED program is most in demand.

When we first began tutoring at Caz-Cares, eight out of ten of our new learners did not have a library card. Our food pantry location brings library services to these new learners, and at the same time brings new library users to our libraries. The initial student contact is made at CazCares but tutoring can take place at any of our program sites, which include our home base at CPL, and the New Woodstock Library, which serves a rural population in southern Madison County about seven miles south of Cazenovia. Both libraries offer more extended hours than the food pantry for tutor-learner pairs to meet.

If a learner’s schedule doesn’t work well with food pantry hours (CazCares is open only three mornings a week) a program is set up at the library closest to the learner. In rural areas, transportation can be an issue, so the closer our programs can be to our learners, the better. If they are new library members, students are introduced personally to circulation desk staff. As literacy students, they are allowed longer lending periods for literacy materials they check out. They also have access to a library computer or laptop dedicated to literacy program use. All of this helps our students (and new library users) feel very at home at the library.

One of our fast-track learners did not need much tutoring to pass the GED. A very capable student, his math aptitude in particular was so strong that his tutor helped him connect right away to a community college counselor who eventually found him a scholarship. His essay topic was: “What is more important to a person’s education: things learned in school or through real life experiences?”

In my experience, both things are important. I just turned twenty-one but I’ve made many mistakes in my life. I spent six months in jail before I was nineteen. I was a good student but didn’t think it was worth my time to go to high school. Drugs and alcohol were the wrong choice, but no one at school could tell that to me. . . . For me, life experience showed me I needed to get my education. I want to get my GED, get a good paying job, and buy a house and land for my family. To achieve these goals, I need to go back to school. So, life experiences and things learned in school are both important in a person’s education.


No one can be taught the value of education. Our students had to learn that for themselves. What adult literacy programs can do is help students reach their goals through learning, and in learning there is personal growth. Finding your own voice, using that voice to connect with the world, and making your way in it, may be one of the most valuable things our students take away from the program. And indeed, completing your high school education opens the door to a host of educational and employment opportunities. But when the exam is over, what do our students bring forward into their lives? A new confidence and a newfound ability to look for the resources they need to reach their goals, along with the satisfaction of having accomplished an important educational milestone. And, hopefully, a new self awareness through the power of writing, as they use their personal observations, experience, and knowledge to gain a better understanding of the world and take their place in it.