Anticipation (Thinking Negatively)

This chapter (in my continuing The Obstacle is the Way series) begins with an inscription from the oracle at Delphi:

Offer a guarantee and disaster threatens.

(Fun aside: I’d always heard that “Know yourself” was inscribed at Delphi. Realizing that there were other inscriptions lead me to this page.)

The core of this chapter is fairly straightforward: plan for things to wrong as much as you plan for things to go right, and you won’t be disappointed.

But, it’s a full chapter and it does include one reference to Seneca worth recording here.

…like all great ideas, it is actually nothing new. The credit goes to the Stoics. They even had a better name: premaditatio malorum (premeditation of evils).

A writer like Seneca would begin by reviewing or rehearsing his plans, say, to take a trip. And then he would go over, in his head (or in writing), the things that could go wrong or prevent it from happening: a storm could arise, the captian could fall ill, the ship could be attacked by pirates.

“Nothing happes to the wise man against his expectations,” he wrote to a friend. “… nor do all things turn out for him as hi wished but as he reckoned — and above all he recokend that something could block his plans.”

A good part of the chapter is reiterating that this premeditation of evils does not mean that the evils will be easy to bear, but that we are at least spared a shock and have the chance to prepare our ‘playbook’ before the emotional time of confronting a disaster.

I liked this chapter. It matches to me well, and to where I am. And, I like that there was reference to the process of thinking in writing (which is, basically, what this blog is).

So, maybe I’ll sit down and wrote a blog post as a premeditation of evils.

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Can we translate from German?

There’s something I used to do in my classes. An early version of my vocabulary review was making up little strips of paper that had a sentence in German on it, using one of the words we’d covered in class.

The sentences were things like this (the underlined words are examples of the vocabulary):

  • The person on my left makes several questionable statements.
  • When I saw the person across from me today, I felt joy.

The result was not only that people got very good at vocabulary such as ‘on my left’ and ‘across from,’ but that it was often surprising (to me) which phrases were difficult for my students to translate.

(Fun aside: for other reasons, I’ve missed these activities and am working on adding them to the worksheet generator.)

Why translate from L1?

In spite of the fact that I was taught to do all English, all the time in the classroom, I realized that I wasn’t serving my students well. I began to understand students who said to me “I do fine in the lesson, but when I have to talk to a customer I draw a blank.”

My students were hitting walls when they hit a spot in a conversation where in spite of being able to say what they want to say in English, they are stuck at a fixed phrase. These are things like “in Anbetracht der Tatsache…” which translates to “considering the fact,” but, while we covered ‘to consider’ in class nobody thought to connect it to that particular phrase.

Maybe this whole thing is about how I failed my students.

The point I want to make, however, is not that I failed. It’s that translating from German gave them the skills to start working around these roadblocks. (And, in the example above, it was generally fun to accuse the person next to you of being questionable.)

How I do it now.

The question that became the title of this blog came in a lesson where we’d used an emailing worksheet I made (it will eventually be available with my other business worksheets) and had to translate a ‘typical’ business email from German into English.

The whole goal of the exercise (really, of all the emailing worksheets) is to try and identify as many of the phrases my students use often in their emails and to help them find English formulations for them.

Then, the next week (yesterday’s lesson, in this case), a student came in and asked “could we translate from German more? That was much harder than translating from English.”

And, I realized, I need to get more of that back in the lesson.

Some of my classes (more elementary classes) get worksheets that include translation from German as one of the ‘steps’ that vocabulary goes through. But, there’s a limit to how much work a group can get, so not everyone gets it.

When I get some time for coding again (I’m working hard to get there!) I want to make review translations one of the review options provided. I’d like to have the option of occasionally making that homework, or cutting the sentences up into strips to play the same game again.

Until then, I’m really glad in retrospect that I opted to use emails in German in my worksheets.

 

There is sugar everywhere!

kidneybeans

The sugar fast update

Of course, I planned to be able to write that I didn’t cheat at all in my sugar fast. After beginning a day earlier than I planned — I didn’t eat the chocolate I had planned to eat — I thought it would be a pretty simple experiment for me.

After all, I don’t eat that much sugar.

That’s a joke.

“I’m not feeling so great”

On Wednesday and Thursday, three and four days after beginning the fast, I felt crappy. I couldn’t place what my exact complaint was, but it was there. I found it hard to get myself started on anything and did a lot of sitting and staring at walls until deadlines made me move.

I had a headache, and a pain I used to have in my neck, shoulder, and arm came back. (I still have it. I thought doing planks had helped.) I complained a lot to my wife, who observed that she didn’t think I had eaten so much sugar that I should have withdrawal symptoms, did I quit anything else?

Yes, I quit alcohol along with sugar (because it’s basically good-feeling sugar water, right?). But, even less than I liked having withdrawal symptoms from sugar, I didn’t like the idea that I had withdrawal symptoms from alcohol.

By Friday, though, I was happily buying a Granny Smith apple to eat in a meeting where I knew that my boss would be bringing cake. I wanted to have something to put in my mouth to avoid the temptation.

“What can you eat?”

When I talk to people about this, they have ask the obvious question. And it’s both more and less than you might think. First, I’m not trying to be strictly plant-based doing this… though that’s where I’d want to end up again.

Secondly, I’m not avoiding all carbs — or even all sugars — just the refined ones that have been added to something. Snacking on blueberries? Acceptable. Eating apples? You betcha. Pasta? Yes, please.

But, I took the photo at the top of the post to send to friends in protest. After I’d made my ‘healthy’ lunch (and I’m enjoying the minimalist element of my life right now), I saw on the back of the can that kidney beans have added sugar.

What?!

That was today’s lunch, and it wasn’t my first time ‘cheating.’ Last Tuesday, my wife cooked some pre-marinated chicken that we’d bought for a barbecue and didn’t grill. There’s a good chance there was sugar in the marinade. (And I still felt like crap on Wednesday!)

On Sunday, we had a really great pan-fried pasta-and-sausage thing. Delicious. But there was dextrose in the sausage. And, yesterday, my wife thought she was doing me a favor by buying me one of those sushi-to-go things. It was great to come home to after teaching until nine thirty.

After I ate the sushi, though, I turned the package over out of curiosity and… there was sugar in the rice.

Results

I can report that my energy is getting back to usual. I don’t know if that’s a result of the sun coming out, or the end of some mythical “withdrawal.” And, I feel good and mentally sharp. What’s more, I feel mentally sharp later in the day.

The mental sharpness could be an artifact of the placebo effect, but I’m looking forward to seeing how it continues.

My weight is slowly but steadily dropping. I’m down about a half kilo since I started this, but that could just as easily be the result of quitting alcohol as of anything else.

Lastly, I’m finding it easier to stick with fitness goals, like the ones I set in January. (I should get back to writing up those plans/reflections). That could be because I’m generally more motivated to see a return on my ‘investment,’ or it could be because my overall energy/motivation level isn’t changing as much.

I’ll keep you posted.

To charge for EFL resources?

So, as I’m trying to build up a paid EFL worksheet generator, you might not be surprised to hear that I’d like people to be okay with paying for resources from the internet. It’s logical.

But, as I’ve started cleaning up the things I’ve produced to use in my own classes, with an eye towards sharing them, I’ve realized that there isn’t a point in trying to charge money for them.

My thinking can be organized into three questions: why would a teacher pay money to access things that I’ve paid? Why would it make sense for me to charge money? And why would it make sense for me to give things away?

Why pay money?

I’m a teacher. And a paying customer of EFLlibrary.com and handoutsonline.com. And I happily pay for what they make, because I don’t want to make my own ‘boring’ worksheets. (Sorry, people of those websites.) That’s the word I use for worksheets that explain a grammar point and let you drill it with mind-numbing exercises.

Such things are often necessary, but they’re hardly enjoyable in class and I don’t like the idea of making them in ‘my own time.’ So, I’m glad they exist.

For me, the answer to this question is: I’m happy to pay for resources when they help me improve my lessons and free me up to use my energy in other ways (whether related to teaching or just additional free time). There is some level of cost-benefit analysis where I ask myself: how many hours are they saving me? Is x Euros per year a fair price to pay for such an assistance?

Why charge money?

Charging money seems to be the logical thing to do. I have invested time and energy in making something, so why shouldn’t you pay to use it? I’m a big fan of more of the internet costing money (argument in a nutshell: I’d rather work for you, than to maximize page views and ad revenue) and it follows that I would ask people to pay for what I’ve made.

Considering that my worksheet generator should, one day, cost money, why not include a library of static worksheets that are, basically, amazing in the price? I could add to my ‘unique selling proposition.’

Why give things away?

Here’s the thing, though… I don’t think there is a business in selling ‘static’ worksheets (defined as made once, for as many people as possible) on the Internet. The problem is twofold:

  1. One person has to pay for them, and then passes them around to friends, colleagues, posts them on her own website, whatever.
  2. Another word for ‘one-size-fits-all’ is ‘boring.’ It’s not for nothing that I called them boring worksheets above. But, if you want to make money you need to attract as many people as possible, and that means being as bland as possible. Bland is not a strength of mine.

I don’t like the idea of investing my time in hunting down online pirates. And, I don’t like the idea of not doing it, because then I’m basically punishing the people who do things the right way. Blah.

And, I don’t really want to try to be one-size-fits-all. That’s partly because I’m not the kind of person that everyone likes (ask people who know me). And, it’s partly because I know that I, personally, don’t like those resources.

There is a school of thought which suggests that the internet is big enough that there must be hundreds or thousands of people just like me, willing to pay for the privilege of downloading things that I make. And there’s probably something to that. However, I enjoy making stories and worksheets. And, I enjoy coding. However, I’m not big on promotion, and my recent experience with AdWords suggests that I can’t afford to advertise to all of my users over paid advertising.

The (to me) logical conclusion…

So, to me, it seems reasonable to offer the ‘static’ things I make for free. At some point, I might do the annoying thing of tacking a page on them pointing users to the paid service that I will, by then, hopefully provide. But, that feels like too much work.

Which is why I’m happy to point you towards the Free EFL Resources I make.

Do your job, do it right

Continuing my tradition of writing on each chapter in The Obstacle is the Way, and following my last post on this, continuing in my tradition of disagreeing slightly with Ryan Holiday.

This chapter begins with a story of Andrew Johnson being proud of his working-class origins, not as a link to the mythical ‘common man,’ but because he was a good tailor and continued to be proud of excelling even in humble work.

Then, it goes on to talk about James Garfield:

… paid his way through college in 1851 by persuading his school, the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute, to let him be the janitor in exchange for tuition. He did the job every day smiling and without a hint of shame. Each morning, he’d ring the university’s bell tower to start the classes–his day already having long begun–and stomp to class with cheer and eagerness.

Within just one year of starting at the school he was a professor–teaching a full course load in addition to his studies. By his twenty-sixth birthday he was the dean.

This is what happens when you do your job–whatever it is–and do it well.

I take objection to the last line. I could take objection because “hard work is its own reward” precludes doing hard work only because you expect returns of the sort that James Garfield got. But that’s not why. I think it’s ridiculous to hold up such a rags-to-riches story as an example of “what happens when you do your job” in 2018.

It’s not that I agree with the value of doing hard work. I believe that you are what you do, and if you consistently do sloppy work, you’ll be a sloppy person. The idea of “I can do it right when I have to” has proven itself wrong in my experience. (Naturally, I’m thinking of others when I say this, but I can think of at least one instance recently when I wasn’t able to perform like I should have on a job because I’d consistently slacked off with that company.)

In talking about this, Ryan Holiday eventually moves away from the idea of “you’ll get your just rewards in due time,” which sounds to me like something you’d say to someone who is being exploited, and gives better reasons for working hard:

The great psychologist Viktor Frankl, survivor of three concentration camps, found presumptuousness in the age-old question: “What is the meaning of life?” As though it is somene else’s responsibility to tell you. Instead, he said, the world is asking you that question. And it’s your job to answer with your actions.

In every situation, life is asking us a question, and our actions are the answer. Our job is simply to answer well.

I think that’s a better argument for doing the right thing, often, even when nobody is looking. However, I think that, if life is asking you “what is the meaning of life?” you’re welcome to answer: “not this.”

Sugar Fast: Day -1

It seems silly to say that I’m going to start a fast tomorrow, but that’s the plan. Yesterday I came across this report of what happened after a month without sugar and something inside me clicked. I’ve known for a while about how addictive sugar is. To read that quitting it helped someone else feel better… well, that seemed like an indication that I could feel better, too.

Originally, I was going to start the fast a week from today. My rationale was that I didn’t want to have cupboards full of sweets to snack on and to have to rely on my willpower to not eat them. I’d rather just not have them around.

However, our cupboards are not full of sweets. I had, inadvertently, gone from snacking on sweets to snacking on nuts. (There is an open bag of almonds hidden away in the workshop as I speak.)

Still, I still have half a bar of dark chocolate that I’d feel bad throwing away, so the fast begins tomorrow. Besides, I’d rather not write about what I’m not eating without eating them.

The situation now

As I’ve already mentioned, I’ve been able to mostly move away from eating sweets, with dark chocolate as an exception. That’s not entirely true, as there are certain kinds of waffles that I really like and I snacked quite a bit on Easter candy leading up to Easter.

However, I think most of my sugar consumption is in the form of marmalade, cake, processed foods and alcohol. In fact, I like the idea of this fast as a chance to get away from processed foods, as much as anything else.

What I’m hoping for

Reading the article, I of course like the idea of increased energy levels. There’s enough going on in my life that I seldom finish a day feeling like I still have energy reserves left to spare. Even if I never have extra energy, I’d like to get through more of the day on the energy I have, rather than on willpower.

And, sure, I’d like for this to be another step towards my goal of getting my weight down to under 220lbs or so. But, if I just feel better, that’s progress on it’s own.

What I expect

I don’t expect it to be easy. My experience with not eating anything is that the focus has to be less on what I “cannot” eat, but instead on what I “eat now.” Walking through a grocery store and looking longingly at the chocolate chip cookies is no help. I tend to do better if I can look forward to my chickpea salad, instead.

And, in general, these experiments work for me… until I get tired. Once I get low on sleep, however, it seems as though my body thinks that food substitutes for sleep and begins to get cravings, even when I’m hungry.

Unfortunately, I seldom get eight hours of sleep, so… Let’s hope that I can start of focusing on sleep as an important tool towards making this work.

My “special group”

I think every EFL teacher has a special group. I don’t mean the one that I love, because I can take all of my ideas to them and get good feedback (though I have that group, too). And I don’t mean the groups where I learn a lot (I have a bunch of them). And, I don’t mean my most frustrating group (that’s a rotating honor, to be honest).

The group

I mean the group that I’ve had for literally years without making a lot of progress. The group that makes me wonder if I’m as good at this teaching thing as I like to think I am.

They’re great people: it’s an evening group that gets together as much out of the joy of seeing each other as out of any real desire to learn English. In fact, half of them are retired and will probably only ever need English on the level of “one beer, please” and the other three only might need English.

They know their English isn’t great, but I think they’re satisfied with how things are.

It goes without saying that I am not satisfied.

So, as I wind up the worksheet generating software (weird idea, but it’s basically finished, though I’ll probably never stop poking at it) I think my next big focus will be on growing as a teacher and using this group as the obstacle course on which I train.

Of course, they get the New Spork City stories every week, and they read and translate them faithfully.

The challenge

I remember someone summarizing her teaching style as “give them what they need disguised as what they want.” And it’s a good philosophy. It’s what I’m trying with these guys.

So, here’s what they want: to come in in the evening, have a good time, enjoy the connection that they have to each other, and go home. They wilt when we obviously drill anything for more than five minutes and, to be honest, they’re quick to grasp something like a structure or vocabulary “for now” but will struggle to employ it even thirty minutes later.

Here’s what they need (I think): They do okay with individual words. Voabulary isn’t the problem. The problem is forming sentences reliably. And, what they need is to practice them in a simplified way until they click and to build up from there. However, if it’s too obviously practice, energy leaves the room.

What I’m trying

I intend to write more with time, and I’ll describe some activities in detail, but I’m trying hard to find activities that feel like a game or a conversation, but which emphasize repeating the same structures over and over again.

In addition, I printed out a game board from LinguaHouse (I think, I can’t find it again…) that focused on asking questions and let them discover that that was hard for them. Then, I made up a first worksheet using the characters from New Spork City going through the fundamentals of questions step-by-step. (Eventually, I expect it to be very similar to the “passive voice for processes” series of worksheets already available here.)

My goal is to follow the same recipe that worked so well with the absurd business resources: make some great worksheets that I can reuse (and share here) and mix them up with customized materials just for the class that are fun to do because they’re about the class participants.

With time, I hope to write up some of the activities that I thought of in order to disguise the drilling I do with them (and other groups), but that’s going to have to wait for another time.

I spent years getting into this situation. It’ll take me a while to get out. But I will.