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.

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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.

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.

Having the same conversation seven times

I’ve been thinking about what I can say that is of value to people who are considering becoming EFL teachers. I have a niece who wants to live in Europe and thinks teaching EFL can be her ticket. I told her two things:

  1. Learn another job in the U.S., because the most in-demand teachers are the ones who have experience in something else, and can teach specialist vocabulary. Also, because…
  2. I don’t think my job will be around in the future. Machine translation will be a much more affordable way to do the communication that I teach most. Sure, it won’t help much in vacations, but the people who pay for my work, bosses don’t care about their employees’ vacation experience. For what they want, machine translation will be great.

However, I’m collecting a couple of tips that I think might help people who are thinking of teaching EFL or are starting off. Today’s tip is this:

Get good at having the same conversation fifteen times, but making the person you are talking to feel like you’re having it for the first time.

No joke, I think this is my greatest strength as a teacher. It saves me thinking of something to speak about for every lesson, and the students think I’m the fun teacher who always has a different, wacky idea.

Even more, after you have the conversation twice, when you go into the third group you’ll know better which questions to ask, you’ll be able to provoke conversation with “you know, I’ve heard…”

A go-to conversation topic for me.

An example I have is talking about when to say “Hello” in Germany. I think this sounds absurd to Germans and people who haven’t lived in Germany, but I can do a good job of moving from one point to the next in this conversation spontaneously, as though I’m asking this question for the first time. I should point out, my style is much more conversational than this, but here are the major points in the conversation:

  1. In the U.S., when I studied German, my professors taught us the words “Guten Tag,” and then emphasized that we should never greet strangers in German. “It’s the fastest way to let them know you’re not from Germany.” Do you think that’s true?
  2. Here’s the thing, I’ve been thinking about this, because my wife — who you know is German — absolutely hates one of our neighbors because “she can’t open her mouth to say hello.” Why would she hate her for not doing something she shouldn’t do?
  3. So I should say hello to my neighbors? Even if I see them downtown, shopping?
  4. If I see you guys when you’re shopping, should I say hello?
    1. From what distance? I mean, I have no problem yelling across the street “Hey, Marcus, it’s me, the English teacher” and waving, but I don’t see other people doing it…
  5. Now that I’m thinking about it, people say “Hello” when they walk into the Doctor’s office. What’s up with that?
    1. Are there other places I should say hello?
  6. My mother-in-law greets every hiker we pass when we’re hiking. Is that normal?
    1. Should bikers greet each other? What about joggers? What if I’m walking with a stroller, should I wave to other people with strollers?
  7. Okay, thanks… I think you’ve helped me in my goal to become a little more German. I really appreciate it.

The think about this conversation is that I’ve found people love being helpful. And so, I like to give them the chance. You can see in reading this that the conversation is based on an actual question that I once had.

My strength is in letting people help me again and again. I think it’s once you should develop, too.

What my App does

I had an inspiration last night. I realized — after working on it for the better part of two years, including several reboots — what it is that my app does. I’m talking about the worksheet generator, which seems closer to becoming something now than it ever has before.

First, I think I have to mention what it isn’t.

What the worksheet generator isn’t

It isn’t just another application or website that promises to relieve you of the burden of preparing for your classes. I pay for such websites, and I think they have their place, but I’m not going to be able to compete with them, even by doing the job marginally better.

The worksheet generator will not be just one more place that you can go because you didn’t prepare a lesson and you want to print something out for that class that is starting soon.

Working just as much – or more – for more results

I realized that, if I had to tell another ESL/EFL teacher what it was that my app did, it would be to say that it does a lot of the ‘stupid work,’ so that the energy I invest in prep goes farther. There are a couple of ways that this manifests itself.

  • Organization: Never my strong point, this is what the project originally was supposed to help me with. The idea is to have a virtual record of what you’ve done with each group, in terms of grammar and vocabulary. The strength of this organization will be in helping to review regularly. And that brings me to the second thing:
  • Permanence: Maybe this is just one aspect of organization, but it’s something I’ve known that I’m bad at. I’m great at creating a single, excellent, engaging lesson. I’m not so great at tying them together into a series that makes sense in a meaningful way. The extent of my understanding of ‘permanence’ has been to say that, if we’re working on the simple past, I can do a series of lessons about the past.

    What I’d like to do in the future is to have a more clear sense of repetition, by which vocabulary that came up once is reviewed again and again in the exercises of the following week. Even more, I want to say “hey, we practiced this structure three weeks ago, let’s do it again with the vocabulary from last week.” And that brings me to the last main point:

  • Modularity: I don’t know if it’s just me, or if every teacher is lazy, but I suspect it’s the latter. If you’ve ever had a teacher, you probably know what I’m talking about. I’m talking about teachers who create one set of PowerPoint slides and then teach them forever. Or,  in my case, who prepare an exercise for one class and then modify it only slightly for another (generally to realize that I overlooked an inside joke meant for the first class and completely without meaning for the second).

    The thing is this: Most of the worksheets I create in OpenOffice are great for the class they’re created for, and only the top half of page two is really great for the next class. So, I could just copy and paste but, inevitably, searching through everything I’ve made to get enough material feels like more work than creating a wholly new worksheet.

    When I talk about modularity, I’m talking about defining — in XML or in code — the basic structure of some exercises and stringing them together (simple past is comprised of these 10 or so modules, some are text explaining regular, irregular and the ‘be’ verbs in the past, others are exercises practicing them…) and then just saying to my app “hey, we’re starting this block on the simple past” and it adding one module to each worksheet until the block has run its course.

    It’s important to note here that this is going to be in addition to the other ‘modules’ in each lesson’s worksheet — whether they’re vocabulary review or a reading text to take home as homework. And, further, that a module is going to define how the exercise is created, but I’ll still be prompted to generate new content for it (“Enter a sentence in the simple past using word ‘ginormous’.”) (Fun fact: I’ve never taught that word in my lesson.)

Looking at what I’ve written, I’m beginning to think that maybe the unordered list might not have been the best way to get that done. Still, I think that summarizes what will eventually make the worksheet generator different from the “we do the work so you don’t have to” websites.