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.

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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?’

“Did you bring the next story?”

Something really positive happened last Tuesday. A student was frustrated that I had forgotten to bring the reading assignment, and I had to pass a sheet of paper around so that students could write down their email addresses to get it sent to them.

That hasn’t happened before.

New Spork City

Did you know that I wrote a series of stories set in the fictional “New Spork City” (the stories are available here, or will be as they get revised and edited.) I’ve been handing out one story every week since classes re-started for me at the beginning of this month.

My goal with the stories were pretty simple:

  • I wanted students to have a positive English encounter. Sometimes I get too deep into the ‘English Workout’ metaphor and everything is just work, work, work. Some students already have ‘fun English’ built into their lives, but for those that don’t have a chance to relax with English, they needed something that wasn’t homework.
  • There is an advantage to having a cast of likable characters that we can eventually revisit. If I could get a few people who the groups seemed to like hearing about, we could use them in other contexts, the way you can use “Jack Sparrow” with people who all love the Pirates of the Carribean movies.
  • Obviously, I am in favor of people reading. If this is a stepping-stone to students reading ‘real’ English, I’m in favor of it. (Or even reading more in their native language. Reading is good for everyone.)
  • The more ‘good English’ my students are exposed to, the sooner they’ll (hopefully) develop an ‘ear’ for English. I want people to be able to hear their own mistakes, and if they only ever hear their classmates speaking, that will take longer.

So, I wrote up a collection of stories, setting some constraints for myself:

  • Each story was no longer than a single A4 page, on one side.
  • Each story describes an entire situation or interaction. They all end with “to be continued” but only because the drama is never over. So far, stories cover a father and daughter in a restaurant, a few first encouters, a family planning dinner. But they cover it all the way to the end (though, obviously, not is much depth, see the first bullet point).
  • The characters speak ‘native’ English… but a little better. That is to say, they say things like “lend a hand” and “help yourself” which needs to be explained (more on that in the next bullet point) but they always do it using good grammar. Nobody says “you got a minute?” They would all say “do you have a minute?” I get that it’s not ‘native’ English, but have a look at the point above about these being a stepping stone.
  • I want my students to, in the best case, read the story in one sitting without the assistance of a dictionary. To that end, I imagine them getting a lot out of context (they are all fairly universal situations, adults know what happens in these situations) and I provide footnotes for words or phrases where I imagine them stumbling. There is one group that I have in mind when I write them, and I think “if they can read this, things will be fine.”

The reception

I pass the stories out in six lesson. On the first day, I explained that they don’t have to read them, but that I’m going to pass out the eleven that are already written and we’ll talk about whether they were helpful or not afterwards. Since then, I’ve asked once or twice “are you reading these” as I pass them out, and the answers are generally positive.

People like to ask about the funny names (see me and my love of absurdity). The landlady in the story is named Mrs. Geldsack (German for ‘Moneybags,’ basically.) and they love that.

And, more than one person has said they look forward to knowing what happens next. “I don’t think they’re super exciting stories,” I tell them. “I’m not Dan Brown.”

“That’s because you know what will happen.” Was the answer from one student.

And then, on Tuesday this week, I didn’t print out the next story because, well, it’s not automatic for me, yet. And, I got to class, had a good lesson, and, in the end, a student asked: “do you have the next story?”

“I forgot to print it.” I said. “That’s my bad organization again.”

“I have to wait a week?” She seemed genuinely frustrated.

“You can give me your email address and I’ll mail them tonight or tomorrow.”

“Please.” And everyone signed up for the voluntary reading worksheet.

I’m satisfied.