The absurd business worksheets

The worksheets

A while back, I mentioned that I was making business worksheets. The idea has been to find some sort of “business worksheet” that does the following thing:

  • Engage my students so that they don’t shut down and go into passive mode
  • Cover grammar in a “business context” so that I can say it is relevant
  • Include business vocabulary

I approached this the way I approach everything: as a chance to be a clown. The worksheets are a collection of prose ‘business stories’ (or emails) illustrating the grammar/point in question and exercises based on that grammar. The stories and emails, however, are completely absurd.

Besides my own personal love of absurdity, I value it for two reasons: it brings some levity to the classroom and, second, it allows me to admit that I don’t know anything about their work in a practical way. We always finish the story with me saying “this is how I imagine your job…”

The post linked above includes one example, but here’s another.

This is not so much typical, as one of my favorites (also from the worksheet series focused on the passive voice). It follows the adventures of a fictional Customer Service Representative named Fritzilinde:

“The ‘Grammatik der Liebe‘ album has to be delivered on Friday,” she said to her colleagues in the creative department. “The customer wants to know if we’ll make the deadline.”

Her colleague made a face. “It should be finished on time…”

Fritzilinde cut him off. “Should isn’t good enough. What do you need to get it finished?”

Another colleague stopped mixing ketchup into his vodka and said “What he means to say is that it will be finished, if the muse inspires us.” He looked at the bottle in front of him. “And this is our last bottle of muse. So, it could be delivered on time, if this is enough.”

Fritzilinde went to his desk, took the bottle and held it in front of his face. “Listen to me, it is going to be delivered on time. I know that, because, if it’s not, I’ll take this bottle and stick it so far up your behind that you’ll need your muse and a powerful flashlight to find it.”

The Reception

When I made the worksheets, I had some specific groups in mind. The ones I like to laugh with. Originally, I thought that I’d rewrite the stories to match the tone of the more straight-laced groups. But, as things go, I “didn’t have time.”

So, all of my business groups (and several advanced evening groups) have had at least some of these worksheets.

And they were a resounding success.

I credit that to a few things.

First, I have learned that people genuinely enjoy the absurdity, if only to say “I know colleagues like that” or “is that what you think human resources does, Toby?” Everyone has some idea of the fact that their work is undervalued by people who don’t do it, so these sorts of jokes are great.

Second, there is a pretty boring component to the worksheets. I don’t make much of it here, because it’s not much to write about, but after each story introduces something, there are boring activities reinforcing what the story was supposed to introduce. Following the story above, there are activities matching modal verbs to probabilities as well as exercises with more ‘normal’ vocabulary. (“The product is going to be replaced by the more expensive SuperProduct 3000.”)

Third, they include brainstorm activities. Like worksheets downloaded from the internet, these are kept deliberately general. I’ve found that the ideal solution is to include some sort of brainstorming activity in which the students list their own vocabulary (for the passive, this is a table of tools they use and associated verbs).

Lastly, the trick is to combine the ‘generic’ worksheets with specific exercises. Using the vocabulary gained in the brainstorming, and in addition to the worksheets, I prepare a translation exercise using that vocabulary which, if I do it well, comes pretty close to language they would actually produce, or can imagine themselves producing. And that brings the exercise from a sense of abstract detachment (the absurd story) gradually to a feeling of hands-on practice (the customized exercises).

All of that, I think, has made for a series of successful worksheets.

The power of refinement

Something I’d like to tag on at the end here is that I think a value to using one set of worksheets for many different groups is that I take the time to go back and expand upon them, improving them as I realize what didn’t work.

An example is that I added a whole worksheet to the processes collection of worksheets to focus on the present perfect. (And, to be honest, it wouldn’t hurt to add at least two extra worksheets that focus only on negations and questions using the grammar covered, if I were to have unlimited time).

That means that my ‘generic’ worksheets have grown into a pretty decent tool which, coupled with my vocab worksheet generator for vocab review means that I’m only occasionally making really great, tailored activities, but maximizing my results.

Picture Matching!

 

picture_matching
A picture matching activity!

I didn’t plan to add images to the worksheet generator, yet. I just wanted to wrap up the interface and include images on the list of things that would be included in a 2.0 update. After all, there are other things that are really pulling at my attention now.

But then…
I found out that I’ll be teaching a beginning English group soon, and I knew that something I wish I had available would be picture-based activities. After all, things like definitions and gapfill exercises require a certain level of English knowledge before they’re helpful. And, though I’m ready to push my students, that seemed unnecessary.

As it stood, the only thing the worksheet generator would have done for a beginning group is create translation matching exercises, and manage classroom vocab lists. (But even the vocab lists would include definitions that would be impossible for the students to read.

Pictures were the way to go, and they’d been planned, anyway…

It was a bit hurried
Fortunately for me, I’d been poking around in the code, slowly getting the interface and behavior to where I wanted it to be. That meant that I’d already had the days-long process of asking myself “how did I manage that?” and “why is this here?” behind me.

Adding images went surprisingly quickly, though I did run into trouble with PNG files that had a transparency set. (They printed as solid black in PDFs, no help at all.) The internet had a solution, of course, and I quickly changed the way images were uploaded to automatically account for that.

Later, I realized that I could have made the images behave more like other resources (each teacher could add his/her own, there could be regional ones) and I’d still like to do that, but I’m still moving forward. There have to be some features to implement the next time I visit this project.

So, I moved from adding pictures and making a memory into creating the exercises.

Formatting the picture matching exercises was a bit harder. They had to look good (to me) and be compact enough that they could be the first page of a multi-page worksheet without breaking across two pages in an awkward way. (Don’t you hate that?) And, of course, they couldn’t be too small or you wouldn’t be able to see what the images were.

Worksheet progression needed fixing
The way the whole thing is supposed to work, nothing comes onto the second page of a worksheet without having been on the first page of the previous worksheet. The whole idea is to ‘automate’ reviewing the vocabulary for the students, right?

But, some words just can’t be part of a picture-matching activity. What’s a good image for ‘name’ or ‘industrial?’ So, picture-matching activities have to exist outside the whole system of progression, which was doable (and skipping code is certainly easier than creating new code) but it required a certain degree of concentration.

It’s not finished, yet
I’m not using this code in ‘production,’ yet because of one simple thing: after adding a bunch of images to the system, my existing groups would suddenly have a lot of picture matching activities with vocabulary stretching back to September of last year. One review activity seems reasonable, but after that the activities have to feature relatively recent vocabulary.

The solution for that is to make a tool that will mark vocabulary as ‘finished’ with the picture matching activities. The idea is that I’d be able to go into a group’s settings, and say “mark all the vocabulary from before January of this year as finished” and the system wouldn’t use them in new worksheets.

It should be straightforward, but I haven’t found the time to do it, yet. I want to, before I put a last few finishing touches on the interface and then start soliciting beta users (again).

Wish me luck.