The power of iteration

When I decided that the worksheet generator was going to suffice for bespoke worksheets, I started making more worksheets that I planned to reuse. Initially, it was just because I was nervous talking about “business English.” Eventually, it was because I found that those worksheets provided a pleasant structure and were one more way to bring grammar back again and again.

Starting the project, I hoped to realize two goals. The first was to get one step more away from the situation where each week handouts from a different website are presented to the students, giving the impression that “Toby just prints stuff out from the Internet.” (Nobody ever said that, I just didn’t want to reach that point.)

The second was a time savings. The worksheets took some time to make, but offered more structure (usually, I plan on blocks of four to six lessons for a topic) and saved me the hassle of searching for a suitable handout before each lesson.

The unexpected benefit

The thing I didn’t expect, however, was the improvement in the worksheets. Typically, I’ll teach a block of worksheets and, in class, scribble a note on what wasn’t clear for the next time I use the worksheet. Because I’m checking these things to update dynamic-efl.com (someday I’ll do a post on my workflow there), I update the worksheets as I go.

Then, later, I remember a block of worksheets as ‘successful’ and get them out for another group. And I’m pleased at how much better they are, but, with a different group of students, find ways to improve them.

None of this should be surprising, but it’s the first time I’ve really been exposed to the power of this kind of iteration. I know there is only the one series of business worksheets on the New Spork City site (same link as above), but that’s because I want to move through some of the series with another group to make sure I’m happy with the current state of the worksheets.

What do I learn from this?

I think this is the harder question. I mean, I’m impressed by the whole thing. But, shouldn’t that translate to more than a blog post? Can I reference ‘the power of’ something without trying to make the most of that power?

Thinking about this, I’m beginning to wonder if I shouldn’t do more things with an eye to re-using them. I have colleagues who have ‘files’ on each of their conversation topics. It would be an organizational hurdle for me (organization is not my strong suit), but it would make sense.

Do you have any other suggestions on where I could ‘harness the power of iteration?’

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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.

Making business worksheets

Not long ago, I wrote about the “imposter syndrome” I feel when I try to teach Business English. Don’t worry, I certainly still feel that way.

However, my goal this year is to go from simply saying “it’s all English, master this grammar and then use it in a business context” to showing it. And, to that end, I’m actually making business worksheets focusing on a specific grammar and using ‘business texts.’

However, to avoid getting caught in the situation where I write about things I don’t know, these worksheets follow fictional companies in ridiculous industries (the collection I’m working in for emailing follows a business in the “world domination” sector).

Here’s one of my favorite example texts, from a worksheet focused on using the passive to describe processes.

Hits are made at the Ohmpah Express! Internationally famous groups such as the Grammar Junkies and the Homework Heroes were discovered by the talent scouts of The Ohmpah Express and their unique sounds were developed in weeks of workshops with our ‘rock doctors.’

At The Ohmpah Express, we don’t wait for music to happen. Here, music is made. The musical demands of next summer are predicted now, using complicated statistical models. Rhythms, lyrics and songs are carefully constructed using advanced aritifical intilligence (and some alcohol intelligence) and refined until they’re guaranteed to sell out stadium concerts the world over.

Then, these songs are delivered to the talent we have developed in-house and are turned into platinum-selling albums.

I’m happy to report that the worksheets have had the best resonance of any I’ve used for ‘Business English.’ Partly, that’s because my students know me and we all laugh at the absurdity of these businesses, and it’s partly because my texts still come across a lot of vocabulary that they find useful in a business context (‘proprietary algorithms,’ ‘generate reports from user data’)

If you’re struggling with adapting texts to your students, the lesson to me seems to be adapting the texts to you, and inviting your students along for the ride.

Impostor Syndrome

Teaching and coding are more similar in my life than you might think. Not only am I ‘unqualified’ to do both, but at my moments of peak self-esteem, I think I’m good at both, and that my lack of qualifications is a strength.

However, in other moments, I suffer from impostor syndrome.

In Germany, there’s a difference between your job and your profession. Or, as one student put it, “What do you do?” and “What are you?”

And I don’t really have a profession. I have two Bachelors of Arts in German and Communication Studies. (Fun anecdote: When I got married (in German), my marriage certificate was supposed to have my profession on it and it was a very long discussion with the civil servant who was supposed to put it there. “If I write ‘communication scientist,’ is that wrong?” — “It’s not right.”)

But, I learned German as an adult, and feel empowered by that experience to teach English, especially to Germans. (They just learn everything backwards from what I did, easy, right?)

However, impostor syndrome rears its ugly head whenever I’m asked about English for situations that I never had to discuss in English. Many adult topics, such as taxes, financing a house, and divorce, fall under that heading. Even worse, so does the dreaded “‘Business English.”

I never feel more like an impostor than when I teach “office phrases” that I can’t imagine saying or that, worse, sound like something that annoying boss from Office Space might say in order to demonstrate what an utter insult to humanity he is.

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However, I know that phrases that I’ve actually heard myself say in the lesson, such as “In the Army, I was required to answer the phone with…” are not helpful to people who (rightly) assume that the Army is not a language model for their mid-sized German business. So, my experience isn’t really helpful.

I’ve taken some pretty extreme (for me) measures, including taking Business English courses online, to ‘pirate’ phrases they use, as well as actually taking an office job here in Germany (I’m the office’s English-translator / guy to ask randomly for vocabulary) with the rationale that I’ll have stuff to think about in English.

It’s all been great material for lessons (I sound like a comic here, mining my life for material), but none of it has helped with impostor syndrome.

Are you an EFL teacher? If you are, how do you deal with teaching vocabulary that you’re not comfortable using in your day-to-day life? How do you get ready?