Katherine Bilsborough

Creating ELT materials

Helping teachers make excellent classroom resources

Month: May 2022

Making connections: from whatever book you’re reading … to your own professional development

Brain in overdrive

Last week a lot of my Friends and colleagues attended the IATEFL conference in Belfast. Judging by the photos they had a great time, socialising after a couple of years of not getting out and at the many and varied presentations. I decided not to attend this year, but I enjoyed watching the plenaries online and reading people’s posts and summaries. I always come away from a good conference with a head bursting with ideas, my brain in overdrive and a restlessness to do new things or find out more. This is one of the things I missed this year, and it got me to thinking about how we can replicate this sensation, at least in part, especially, for this blog, when it comes to the work we do as materials writers.

Join up the dots

I think what is key is that when we read things, watch things or listen to things, we need to make connections, join up the dots and reflect on how something relates to, or impacts on, our work. Making connections is everything really. It’s what creativity is all about and it’s how we grow and develop.

A (very) simple framework

In this blog post I decided to look at one thing I read this week and to make connections between what I read and my professional life. I came up with a (very) simple framework for this, just to keep me focused and stop me from meandering all over the place – something I have a tendency to do. The exercise has proved useful and given me food for thought, so I’ll definitely do it again and I might build it into a workshop myself one of these days.

  • Read something
  • Underline some interesting bits
  • Think about those bits in the context of the author
  • Think about those bits in a more general context
  • Think about how those bits relate to my own work
  • Make some notes about them in a place where I will re-read them

The book

I had my copy of ‘The Art of noticing’ [See here] by Rob Walker out on my table this week, because I’d lent it to a friend who had returned it and I hadn’t yet replaced it on my bookshelf. It’s a great book to dip into. It’s the kind of book I like to have in print because I want to write in the margins and highlight sections. [Note to self: write a blog post about this habit] I’ve just flicked through and found three bits I’ve highlighted as being relevant to my own work as an ELT writer. I think this would work with any book. That’s something I’ll need to put to the test. In the meantime here’s a bit more about my three highlighted bits:

1. The Short, Collective, Biography Experiment

The author mentions an idea that he read in a book by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, a children’s author [see more here]. She called the idea ‘’The Short, Collective, Biography Experiment” and in her version it consists of a fun activity to do during a dinner party. Throughout the meal guests are asked to find thirty things that they all have in common, or, as she says more eloquently, “Through conversation endeavour to find a collection of autobiographical statements that are equally true for each and every member of the group.” When I thought about this idea, I realised that this is the kind of thing we do naturally anyway, when we are thrown together in random groups, as often happens at a face-to-face conference. But it’s also something that we could write up as a simple lesson plan, adjusting accordingly. By getting learners to actively seek out and find similarities, we can, at the same time, learn about each other and celebrate differences. If I made materials based on this idea, I’d probably include a section in which learners note things of interest that they’d like to know more about, about the other members in their group.

2. Change your route

The author mentions an idea he got from Jim Coudal, who works in creative design and is famous, amongst other things, for the Field Notes notebooks. Coudal suggests that by changing the route you normally take every day to get from A to B, you will notice new things which will trigger creative ideas. He also points out that the idea is appropriate in a metaphorical sense too and says, “Maybe you know what works – and that’s exactly why you should try something different.” I’ve given this some thought and while I like it, and I think it makes sense, it’s a bit scary too in a way. It goes against the ‘why change it if it isn’t broken?’ idea. But I’ve made a note to myself to try it out in some way, professionally. I thought I’d give it a go the next time I’m creating a presentation. The steps I usually follow to make slides and come up with a narrative usually work, but I do think I could do things differently. I’m usually in a hurry so just do what I’m used to doing, rather than consider new ways. So I’ve decided to do a bit of research first and then, when I have some spare time, have a go creating a presentation a different way. It’s occurred to me that I am very interested in the process of creating presentations, making nice slides, etc. so I suspect the exercise will be enjoyable, and hopefully I’ll get better at that side of my work.

3. Make an appointment with yourself

In another section of the book the author refers to something the film maker Mike Birbiglia had done he realized that as his schedule became fuller and fuller, he was neglecting himself more and more. Birbiglia wrote a note to himself and left it by the side of his bed. It said, “Mike you have an appointment at Café Pedlar at 7:00 AM … with your mind”. Blocking out time is nothing new and these days we come across it a lot in books or podcasts about productivity. Rachael Roberts [website here] talks about it a lot in her work and she’s one of the most productive and grounded people I know. She also believes that besides blocking out time for work-related activities, it’s also a good idea to block out time for self-care, for thinking, for reflecting on things, or just for sitting and doing nothing more than enjoying the here and now. I tend to time block when I am very busy. But I’m going to have a go at blocking out an hour or so here and there in the week ahead for meetings with myself. And how is this related to my work? Well, if I am not as healthy in my mind and body as I can be, it’s unlikely that I’ll be able to do my absolute best.

So that’s it.

One book.

Three highlights.

A few things to try out.

I’ve enjoyed writing this and think I might do more in the same vein. I’d love to hear about any ‘connections’ you’ve made recently that will have an impact on your work.

Thank you for reading.

Talking to my screen

The dictate function

This is a bit of an experiment because I’m using the dictate function in Word to write this. I’ve used it several times recently for work, and I’ve had mostly good results. It seems to have improved a lot since I last used it a year or so ago. I haven’t used other voice recognition software before, so I don’t really have anything to compare it with. But it’s certainly an interesting tool with lots of potential. I think.

Using it for work

I’m writing some culture pages for an Extra Resource Pack for secondary students. For one of the levels, I asked my co-author and husband to give me a hand. I asked him to write two texts, a reading, and an audio script. He wrote them for me using a pen and paper. That’s the way he does most of his work, later transferring it into a digital form. I do the same sometimes, especially if I’m writing primary materials, things like stories or short texts. I like being able to write on paper, moving around and getting away from a screen.

There you go

When Steve finished the texts, he handed me the paper and said ‘there you go’. So I decided to use the dictate function to write them up. What could possibly go wrong? In the event, when I reread the texts, I only had to make a few tweaks. Word seems to mostly accept my accent. I probably saved time and did a little less typing, which might be a good thing.

Rabbitting on

So, this blog post is a bit of a stream of consciousness about that process. I am wndering whether talking is still writing, in the same way that I wonder sometimes whether listening to an audio book is the same as reading. And about when voice recognition software might be useful.

Other people

For some people, software of this kind must be a huge help. I’m thinking about those who are unable to use a conventional keyboard, people who are visually impaired, or restricted because of wrist problems, arthritis or hand tremors. But it’s my understanding that a lot of people use the dictate function for other reasons. And I wonder what they might be. Having a break from typing seems like one good reason. In theory you could also multi-task, though I’m not sure how good I’d be at that. I really can’t imagine myself dictating a text and doing anything else at the same time.

I think I’ll use the dictate function more often, for things like blog posts, emails and other admin stuff. We’ll see.

I’m very interested in hearing from people who use this dictate function regularly, whether professionally or for other things. Please get in touch if that’s you.

How to get paid to read

In my blog posts I mostly write about writing. But in a recent post I wrote about ‘talking about writing’, which is something I do frequently in my teacher training role. In this blog post I’m writing about ‘reading about writing’. And in particular, I’m writing about ‘getting paid for reading about writing’. Yes, it’s possible and I’ve been doing it this week.

A new challenge

I’ve been commissioned by a publisher to write a white paper. I’ve never written one before, but they deemed me to be the right person for the job, so I decided to say yes. I can’t write about the focus of the paper yet, but I’m sure I’ll be shouting about it when it’s published. What I can write about is how privileged I feel to be in a position where I get paid to read. I have to write too, of course, quite a lot as it happens. But mostly it’s been reading; articles, blog posts, podcast transcripts, reports, and other such things.

Something fun

This week too, fellow ELT writer and friend, Ken Wilson got in touch to ask me if I’d be a judge on a writing competition he has set up. I said yes to that too, even though it is unpaid. It’s a nice thing to do for a few reasons, one being to connect with teachers around the world and see their creativity in action.

This got me thinking about other times when I’ve been paid to read, in my capacity as an English Teacher, a teacher trainer, a consultant or a materials writer. And I realised it’s something that others might be interested in too. Because sometimes it’s a good way to break into materials writing as a profession, to get a foot in the door. Here are a few examples.

Four ways to get paid to read

Read. Then write a report

Publishers pay teachers and other professionals to write reports about materials that are in the process of being prepared for publication. They usually provide a specific brief with a checklist of things to look out for. This is a bit like writing a review. You read the materials and you evaluate them according to a set of criteria. You might be asked to try them out with a class, but not always. If you have experience teaching learners of a specific age or level, or with a specific exam focus, for example, it could be a good idea to get in touch with publishers who produce materials with the same focus and offer your services as a reviewer.

Be a materials competition judge

If you know of a publisher or an institution that is running a lesson plan competition, get in touch and offer your services as a judge. This might not always be a paid role, but it is a good way of getting your name out there and you might be able to negotiate an alternative to a fee, such as a dictionary, a resource book, or an online course.

Read an old edition and give feedback for a new edition

Sometimes publishers decide to bring out a new edition of a course book. When this happens, they often contact teachers to ask them for help in identifying sections of the book that could benefit from being updating or changing. If you are familiar with the original course book you are ideally placed to do this work. It’s similar to writing a report for unpublished materials but the criteria-focus will be different.

Read a new book and write a review

When a publisher brings out a new book, they use reviews to get the book noticed. They can be written for all kinds of journals, websites, and other media. While reviews are unpaid, you will receive a copy of the book in question and, again, your name will start to be noticed. Don’t wait for a publisher to get in touch about this. It’s unlikely to happen that way. Take the initiative to contact publishers and journals to offer your services, perhaps stating some areas of interest or expertise.

So, a few ideas of how you could get paid to read. And if you need a reason to read, remember what someone famous once said:

‘The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.’

Dr Seuss