Wednesday – May 23, 2018

Julie Liotta's Enthusiasm for Language Helps Break Down Learning Barriers for GED Students

May 2010

Milwaukee Area Technical College, in partnership with 40 community-based organizations, is celebrating the 25th anniversary of GED/HSED graduation in the Milwaukee area during 2010. MATC instructors teach GED classes at the college and at community-based organizations throughout the greater Milwaukee area. This is the story of how one dedicated instructor and the college's partnership with Milwaukee Achiever Literacy Services helps community members earn their GEDs.

Adult learners often face tremendous pressures when it comes to schooling. Complications may arise from competing priorities in family life, work and transportation. Others struggle with language difficulties and a lack of confidence. Adult students who are trying to earn a GED (General Educational Development) diploma face even more hurdles, as it's often been a long time since they've had any formal education. To earn a GED, they must pass proficiency tests in five subjects.

Enter Julie Liotta, an MATC instructor with enthusiasm to spare. Liotta teaches GED classes through a community partnership with Milwaukee Achiever Literacy Services. In the past five months, Liotta coached 48 adult learners at the Pierce Center on Milwaukee's near south side to accomplish what many thought might take them years - they earned their GEDs. What is most striking about her success is that English is not the native language for the majority of her students.

"My students are about 60 percent Hispanic, 30 percent African American and 10 percent of other races," Liotta said. Many of her students are Mexican immigrants who don't have a strong grasp of English and have had little schooling. "Most of my students from Mexico had to leave school after sixth grade," Liotta said. "They couldn't afford to go further."

Liotta teaches her classes both in English and in Spanish, which she believes benefits everyone. By teaching in both languages, native English-speaking students learn a bit of Spanish and Spanish-speaking students learn English. As an added bonus, Marquette University students who volunteer to help as tutors learn some Spanish as well.

"I think teaching in both languages makes the students feel comfortable with me. My Spanish is by no means perfect," Liotta said. "I can communicate effectively, but it puts us on a level playing field."


MATC GED instructor Julie Liotta



Liotta's Background Helps Her Relate to Students
Liotta is familiar with the challenges of communicating effectively with a person whose first languages is not English. Her husband came to the U.S. from Italy knowing only 10 words of English. "The students can relate to the fact that I live with someone who experienced moving to another country, having to learn English and work while going to school." He and his brother are role models for Liotta's students. Both earned their GEDs and associate degrees at MATC, and went on to obtain bachelor's and master's degrees at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.


Liotta finds that looking up student GED test scores during class gives students an opportunity for celebration and motivation.

James Campbell, an associate dean in MATC's Pre-College Division who oversees the college's outreach to community-based organizations in adult basic education, said, "Julie is an outstanding teacher. It's quite an achievement to be able to teach that many students in a semester, especially since so many are not native English speakers. She helps them to develop into English speakers and to assimilate into the community."

Students have the option of taking the GED tests in Spanish, but many of her Hispanic students are proud of what they've learned and choose to take their tests in English, Liotta said.

"I focus on what's possible. Adults need to know they're not required to be perfect in GED testing, but they are required to try. I pour all my attention into teaching what they're most able to learn."

--Julie Liotta

Focus on the Possible
Liotta is open when it comes to sharing educational "insider tips" on her teaching philosophy. "I focus on what's possible," she said. "Adults need to know they're not required to be perfect in GED testing, but they are required to try. I pour all my attention into teaching what they're most able to learn."

She begins by encouraging students to take the tests they're most likely to pass first. "Once students make the commitment and can pass an exam, the momentum starts," she said. "One of the biggest motivators this semester was the ability to access the students' scores on computers during class. It builds an excitement and students want to test. Even if someone doesn't pass, they are encouraged by the other students."

Most of Liotta's students find the GED tests in social studies, reading and sciences easier to pass than the tests in mathematics and writing. So she spends most of her classroom time on those subjects that cause them the most difficulty.


MATC GED instructor Julie Liotta poses with a banner which celebrates
the partnership between MATC and Milwaukee Achiever Literacy Services.

Using Language to Teach Math
She teaches in a way that makes sense to her. "I'm a language person," she said. "So I teach math by using word problems, using real life examples ? such as asking them to figure out what price something is when it's discounted by a certain percent. I don't want them to get all hung up on worrying about decimal points or equations. I try to keep it based on the math they need to know for everyday living."

Liotta loves to travel and has immersed herself in several other cultures throughout her lifetime. Gifted in languages, she speaks English, Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese, and is now learning Chinese. She is currently the director of languages and intercultural relations for UWM's School of Continuing Education. In the past, she's taught English as a Second Language (ESL) at Waukesha County Technical College, run a language consulting business, taught high school French, and served as the manager of education and training for the Social Development Commission. She has served as an ESL/Basic Skills Bilingual GED instructor for MATC since 1993. In her role as an MATC instructor, she taught 10 years at UMOS, four years at the Social Development Commission and three years at Milwaukee Achiever Literacy Services.

Liotta takes her commitment to her students further than required. In addition to preparing students for the GED tests, she assists them with financial aid paperwork and shares information about educational opportunities at MATC and other institutions.

She has a cheerleader in former student Lourdes Lopez, who earned her GED in 2008. Lopez went on to earn a certificate in MATC's Nail Technician Program and also opened her own cleaning service. She plans to enroll in MATC's Dental Assistant technical diploma program in the fall. "Julie taught me a lot," she said of Liotta. "She made learning exciting and she was always there to give me extra time and attention when I needed it."


Liotta teaches to a full class at
Milwaukee Achiever Literacy Services.


Liotta's teaching style keeps
students actively engaged in class.

Tracy Loken Weber, programs director at Milwaukee Achiever Literacy Services, is also a fan. "Julie's incredible," she said. "We're grateful to her, and to MATC, for their continued dedication to our adult learners."

The Kronquist collection was on exhibit at Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum in Milwaukee for a short time in 1997, but other than that, most of it has not been available for viewing since the early '80s.

"It's so wonderful that this outstanding collection is now available for everyone to see," said Culea. "It was an honor for me to work with these treasures. You don't see work like this anymore."