Friday, July 8, 2011
The Elevator Pitch
I take an aerobics class several times a week. The same people tend to show up at the same class times, and after a while, we get a little friendly, although locker room chit-chat tends to revolve around exercise or the weather. However, recently, one of the women I talk to revealed that she is a high school biology teacher. That prompted me to mention that I work in education as well, in ESL. She said, “Oh, I have a number of international students in my classes. I have to go soon, but… what is one thing you could tell me about international students that you think I should know?”
Oh, my. It’s a big question, isn’t it? There is so much more to tell than just one thing! And yet… she’s out the door, and she doesn’t have time for me to cram my career and my degree into her head. She really does just want, at the moment, to know one thing. One thing that might make a difference, that isn’t too hard to understand, that can be communicated quickly.
Here’s the one thing I chose to tell her: That some of the mistakes that students make in writing that look like very simple things—mistakes with a, the, and choice of prepositions—are actually very high-level mistakes. They do not (necessarily) indicate a poor command of English, and cannot be cleared up in a few hours of study.
She knew exactly what I was talking about, and also said (since I asked) that these mistakes didn’t really obscure meaning, just made her wonder about the writers’ English ability. She asked what the solution was, and I said that it was to have those students make an American friend that they could treat to a coffee or a milkshake in return for some simple proofreading—because those are very easy mistakes for a native speaker to catch and correct, even a high school student with no ESL background.
As a parting remark, I said she should tell her international students that receiving such help was not “cheating.” She assured me she didn’t think it was dishonest; but the important thing, I felt, was to make sure that her students knew that, since if they’re from another culture they might not have any idea whether it was OK or not, and penalties in American high schools for cheating can be severe.
She thanked me for my advice, which she said she found very helpful, and the next time we ran into each other I think we talked about sore thigh muscles (that particular exercise instructor is very fond of “walking lunges”). I suppose if she has specific questions in the future, and crosses my path again, she might ask for more advice; but for the moment, she had what she needed.
Are you familiar with the concept of the “elevator pitch”? It’s a term used by aspiring writers: the idea that you should be able to quickly summarize the plot of your novel to an agent in the time it takes you both to ride the elevator to wherever you’re going. Times given for an elevator pitch are around 30 seconds to up to two minutes. They’re brief. They catch the agent’s attention, but they cover just the essentials.
It occurs to me that we have many chances in our lives to give elevator pitches for our field of knowledge and our careers. You’re at a party, and someone asks you what you do. “I teach English as a second language,” you say, and they respond with “What does that mean?” (or the one I usually get, “Wow, you must speak a lot of other languages!”). What would you say about ESL to someone unfamiliar with it, if you only had two minutes?
What would you say about teaching? How about in response to “That must be an easy job—you go home at 3:00 and you get your summers off!”?
I think it’s worth thinking about our elevator pitches in advance, before we’re put on the spot. So I invite readers of this column to take the time now to think of one idea—not even the most important idea, just one that is important at all, and/or interesting—that you would want to say about English (or teaching or grammar or ESL or materials writing or program administration or whatever your focus is) if you had only two minutes in which to say it, and then to post your “elevator pitch” below here as a comment.