The Master Plan

As we move towards the summer — and, even more, towards the fall when a lot of language courses start up — I’ve been brainstorming how I’ll promote the worksheet generator. It’s not something I’m naturally good at, but I rationalize that means it’s an area where I can grow the most.

So far, two things are clear to me: 1) I can’t afford to buy every click I get on Google 2) I need to increase the rate at which people who do click through to my site create free accounts and experiment with them.

That brings me to step one:

Finish the worksheet generator

It’s an obvious step and will mean a bunch of small changes, tweaks to the interface, and walkthrough videos. I hope to fix the one thing I’m aware of going wrong, as well as to add an extra review activity.

Basically, this step addresses part two up above: before I start really pushing people towards the website, I want it to be as ready as possible to wow them with its functionality.

On the topic of pushing people towards the website, that brings me to the next step (which isn’t necessarily chronologically next — I can do these things in parallel).

Make two free websites

That’s right. In order to promote what I hope will be a paid website, I think it makes sense to make two more free websites. These should attract English teachers and ‘prepare’ them to want to see great vocab worksheets.

Here is the idea:

The New Spork City Website

I have already moved the stories I wrote for EFL students to their own website, called New Spork City. (If you never read the stories, New Spork City is the fictional setting.) This website should serve several purposes:

  1. Get me to keep writing the stories. I use them, and I can’t write them week-by-week just in time for a class. I have to set aside time to sit down and make the stories.
  2. Let me showcase the worksheets. Using the worksheet generator, I’m creating vocab worksheets that could be passed out in parallel to the stories. Naturally, these will be amazing on their own, but I’m hoping they’ll be an argument for creating tailor-made worksheets for your groups.
  3. Let me showcase the other resources. I don’t think I personally would invest class time playing a memory game based on a reading activity, but the website will give me a chance to show the resources it can make.
  4. Let me promote a free website. Having a free website means I could add it to lists that are only for free resources. Or, I could upload a few stories to worksheet-sharing sites with links back to the New Spork City site.

A blog for teachers in Germany

I don’t know if I really have time to commit to a second blog (third, if you count New Spork City, which has a blog component), but I rationalize that I could pre-write articles and commit to an article-per-week plus things like conversation topics/games.

Here are the goals that I think this could help me accomplish:

  1. Promote the worksheet generator, of course. After all, teachers who come to a blog with teaching tips are probably more open to learning about new resources. What’s more, I couldn’t find a list of online resources for teachers in Germany. I could make (and be on the top of) that list.
  2. Push me to get some stuff done. That is to say, there are activities and ‘teacher documents’ that would make more sense to host on a site for teachers as opposed to on the specific New Spork City site. Having a site that needs content might push me to get it done.
  3. Push me to learn and do some of the things I want to learn and do. It might surprise you to know that I’m not a perfect teacher, but there are things I could improve at. Researching, practicing and writing about those things for a blog would be a great way to improve. That’s in addition to the fact that writing about the things I do think I know will make me understand them better.
  4. Give me a second free website to promote. This is the same as point four above (and it’s point four, here!) It’s not a high priority, but I think that it could be part of a sustainable model for the worksheet generator, to have things that I give away for free as well as a service I provide for money.

That certainly seems like enough, doesn’t it?

So, in addition to finishing the one website I’ve been working on for years, I’m looking at making two more. I get that it seems absurd.

However, most of the work for the two websites can be divided into two categories: initial setup work that has to be done once, and then stays done; and work like writing stories, making worksheets and classroom activities that I would do either way, and which I might do a little better if I knew it was for an ‘international audience’ and ‘promotional purposes.’

I’ll check in again soon.

The Discipline of Will

As I continue in the home stretch of my The Obstacle is the Way project, I thought a chapter on will was especially welcome today. As I’m trying to fit more into my days — more work, and more superpower activity — I’m learning to value willpower.


This is another one of the chapters that focus mostly on a single person as an example: Abraham Lincoln. And, it focuses on an aspect of his life that I hadn’t been aware of.

This is the opening chapter:

Because he has become more myth than man, most people are unaware that Abraham Lincoln battled crippling depression his entire life. Known at the time as melancholy, his depression was often debilitating and profound–nearly driving him to suicide on two separate occasions.

The thrust of the chapter following that is that Lincoln learned from his suffering — not just his depression, but poverty, and ballot box defeats — to develop a fortress of will that kept him safe.

Ryan Holiday makes the argument that we’ve come to believe that we can control anything, but that that is not true. That Lincoln excelled in learning what he could from experiences and allowing them to make him stronger and wiser and better prepared to confront the next hardship.

Of course, there is a reference to a stoic maxim, as well:

Lincoln was strong and decisive as a leader. But he also embodied the Stoic maxim: sustine et abstine. Bear and forbear. Acknowledge the pain but trod onward in your task.

And, there is a last bit of wisdom from this chapter that I will carry with me:

If Perception and Action were the disciplines of the mind and the body, then Will is the discipline of the heart and the soul. The will is the one thing we control completely, always.

When few other things seem to be in our control, it’s nice to know that there is one thing that is. When I’m busy with work assigned to me by other people and unable to do the things I’m passionate about, it’s nice to know that I still have the opportunity of training myself in the art of willpower.

It’s something that’s always available to me, and it’s something I’ll always be able to make use of.

Exercise is a superpower

I just finished writing on how I failed at my burpee experiment, so you might be wondering why I’d reboot it. The fact of the matter is, the older I get, the more convinced I am that the little bit of exercise I do is really a superpower.


I had a busy week last week. Tons more work than I usually have, as well as a backlog of prep work that had to be done by last Wednesday.

On top of that, what I think is a pinched nerve in my neck was giving me a hard time, with pain ranging from my neck to my left shoulder, arm, and hand.

So, naturally, I focused on… exercising.

My experience

It’s taken me decades to realize this but I stink at stress. A ‘dose’ of stress that might be considered ‘background level’ for some people can reduce my capacity to work by… well, it feels like a serious reduction. I’m a good worker, and I do a good job, but when there’s stress involved… not so much.

When I exercise, however, I can handle more stress. Much more stress.

So, last week I focused on doing pull-ups and planks — both of which I can do in my apartment without much lost time at all — and getting runs in when I could.

I don’t know if the stress ‘burns cortisol‘ or if the exercising uses up energy that would otherwise be spent elevating my stress levels (translation: maybe exercise makes me too tired to be properly stressed) or if it’s some third thing.

However, in my case, when I know that stress is on the horizon, the right thing to do is to remind myself that, no matter what other things are going on in my life, exercise needs to be a priority.

It’s a superpower.

The Burpee Project

Not long ago, I was enamored of burpees. On a whim, I decided to do them daily. There’s something about burpee that appeals to me — or something about my own checkered history with fitness that makes me feel intrigued by the idea of tackling such a thing as a burpee.

burpees1

The thing is this: my last attempt at doing them often petered out.

I don’t know why. I felt great after doing them. They were so intense that, while working through a set of ten, I looked forward to getting back to the relative ease of running. I actually caught my breath while running.

But, I have to do them outside (I’m heavy and we live on the second floor of an older building — just walking I make furniture rattle).

But, a Lifehacker article got me intrigued again. Remember how much you liked just knowing you were doing burpees? Why did you stop?

Why not start again?

So, yesterday I set a timer in the middle of my run — that’s when I’m in the park, after all — and checked how many burpees I could do in two minutes. Fourteen. (I’d done that many in a set at the end of my last experiment.)

Clearly, it’s time for a burpee reboot.

Here’s the idea: I’ll do at least one burpee a day. Ideally, I’ll do three sets of half the number I can do in two minutes. If I don’t think I have that time, but one burpee seems like a copout, I’ll just do the test again.

Does it seem convoluted? It’s how my mind works.

Today’s burpees are already done.

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.

Iterate

I enjoyed this chapter of The Obstacle is the Way more than the last one. It didn’t seem to be as cliché, and it talked about iterating, which is something I’d already believed in.

The first concept introduced is the idea of the “Minimum Viable Product.” It’s something you’ll hear about if you follow startups much, the idea that you make the smallest possible version of your product and see what people say. (Rather than, as I seem to have done, making a full-featured product and then releasing it to the world.)

The idea is that, people will tell you what’s great, what needs to change, and your product can grow into greatness, rather than you needing to brainstorm that greatness locked away in solitude.

Or, on the other hand, if nobody likes what you’ve made, you move on to the next thing having lost as little as possible.

I like the idea.

Ryan Holiday goes on to say this:

In a world where we increasingly work for ourselves, are responsible for ourselves, it makes sense to view ourselves like a start-up — a start-up of one.

And that means changing our relationship with failure.

Maybe it’s because I enlisted back when “an Army of one” was a thing, but I loved that. And, I loved that he went on to say:

Our capacity to try, try, try is inextricably linked to our ability to fail, fail, fail.

It’s true.

The chapter is a good one, but that’s the core of it right there. (The only historical anecdotes are back to Rommel in the desert again.) but there is one more thing I wanted to quote, beginning with a question that the reader is hypothetically asking him or herself:

Well, why would I want to fail? It hurts.

I would never claim it doesn’t. But can we acknowledge that anticipated, temporary failure certainly hurts less than catastrophic, permanent failurE? Like an good school, learning from failure isn’t free. the tuition is paid in discomfort or loss and having to start over.

I think that’s all true and, on that note, I’m off to start paying my tuition.

(As an aside, the Work Life Podcast has a great episode about embracing negative feedback, but I can’t see how to link to individual episodes.)

Forming a running habit

After writing about how surprisingly motivational the Google Fit weekly running goals are for me, I thought it’d be nice to post an update:

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It took quite a bit of work and more than once I caught myself saying “if I don’t get a run in, I’ll have to wait a long time to push an incomplete week out the other side.” (If that phrasing makes any sense.)

The result was me having more back-to-back runs in the week: generally one 5k and a 7k, and a long run on the weekend. Maybe it’s not the structured approach to running I’d been hoping for, but it’s running.

Glory Days

I think a lot about the song “Glory Days” and of the danger of becoming a person who lives in the past. (‘A lot’ in this context means at least half a dozen times in my life.) The thing is, I used to run pretty regularly and it’s weird for me to struggle to get something done that used to be so fundamental to me.

I can rationalize that my kids are getting bigger, that I’m doing more with them, that I didn’t use to try and code a website in the same off-time that used to be just for reading and running. Nonetheless, it’s important to me that I continue to be the kind of person that I want to be, rather than assuming that having once run a marathon means I get to claim “runner” status forever.