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Snowbound at TESOL?

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Uh-oh, it looks like my friend Tora was right! She’s an English teacher who grew up in Colorado, and she predicted that having the big international TESOL conference in Denver in March might prove to be too early in the spring to avoid snowstorms. And sure enough, I heard on the radio that there’s a blizzard in progress! By now they’ve downgraded it to a “significant spring snowstorm,” but still, a lot of flights have been cancelled (and apparently it’s really cold: 19 F, -7 C!). I hope everyone who is trying to get to TESOL, especially from overseas, makes it safely and on time, and is able to go home again on schedule as well. (I hope everyone brought warm coats, too!) I wish I could have gone, but it just wasn’t in the cards this year. TESOL is an outstanding experience but it’s so expensive. It’s a real barrier to participation by the countless ELT professionals who aren’t in traditional teaching situations where departments pay their way, or whose departments can no longer afford to pay for this kind of travel. (I think that we need to be thinking about new ways to approach professional development without such economic burdens, actually.) In addition, I seem to have a habit of getting sick around TESOL-time, too, and I’d really hate to be sick in that weather. It was bad enough in Seattle! Anyway, if you’re there, have a great time, and stay warm.

Time for a New Layout

Well, when I chose this design for the blog I didn’t associate it with Twitter, because I never saw it when logging into Twitter. But apparently everyone else associates it with Twitter–it just showed up in an e-mail from a retail book chain plugging their account there. Sigh. So I guess I really have to change my layout, but I’m not really confident enough with CSS to write my own, plus I have a cold (again!) and can’t think straight. Anyway, if the site changes appearances several times in the next few days, that’s why. Please bear with me! (And if you have a suggestion, let me know.)

Free Illustrations

No need to pirate!
No need to pirate!

Illustrations can really liven up activities or serve as the focal point of an entire lesson. Fortunately, it’s fairly easy to find sources for these online, particularly for non-commercial usage. A recent Lifehacker post pointed out this About.com article on 30 legitimate free image sources, but I’m going to to just feature a selected handful from there and from my own Delicious bookmarks. I think these will save you time, because the list of 30 sites includes a lot that don’t seem very useful to me.

  • Open Clip Art Library has a wide variety of digital art, from 3-D to black and white. Some is original; others were scanned and cleaned up from Victorian graphics, etc. The quality ranges from incredibly professional to so-so. I got the Korean flag image and several other images used previously from here. Some are high-res enough to be printable. There are no limitations on how you use the images. (If search doesn’t work well, try navigating to the image you need using tags.)
  • Flickr’s Advanced Search feature + Creative Commons box checked lets you look for Creative Commons-licensed photos and videos (which you can read about here). Not all users who have put CC licenses on their work really understand it, so you may wish to comment and ask permission to be nice. Make sure to follow the rules of the license, such as giving attribution (name and a link back) if requested and not modifying unless the license grants that permission.
  • morgueFile is a site where photographers submit images for others to use (the name evokes the “photo morgues” that newspapers keep). You can search and download in the “free photos” section. Nice and easy to use, but be sure to check licenses.
  • Stock.XCHNG is a very popular free “stock photo” site with some great images. Unlike the above sites, you need to join (free) to download images. Be sure to read the license information for the images you want to use.

Korea 101 Plus

jp_draws_south_korean_flag1Chris in Korea (a great blog if you’re interested in teaching there) brought my attention to “what may be the most comprehensive guide on living and working in Korea”, published by the Association for Teachers of English in Korea. Chris recommends this book for anyone interested in teaching in Korea and anyone who’s already there. It has sections on finding a job, your rights as a resident and employee, working with Korean co-teachers, making lesson plans, and even the average nutritional content of common Korean dishes, totalling nearly 350 pages. Wow. I wish other countries had resources likes this–particularly for free! (If you know of one, please let me know in the comments!) I’m going to read it, not because I’m planning to work in Korea, but because I’m curious about the place where my friend has just started working.

It’s apparently not fully linked on ATEK’s site yet, but Chris and another blogger spotted it and provided links to the PDFs (and there are some problems with ATEK’s website at the moment). Notably, though, the book is being provided under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works License, which means that we’re free to share and copy it as long as we do not alter it, sell it, or remove its attribution. (The principle author, Tony Hellmann, has kindly reassured everyone that this is OK.) Therefore, to make your life easier, I’ve put all the PDFs in a single .zip file, which you can download directly right here: ETG2K.zip (11.3 MB). If you have any problems with it, let me know. (Remember, I just created the .zip file and am hosting it; the work was done by the listed authors and ATEK.)

Major kudos to Tony Hellmann, Tom Rainey-Smith, Jason Thomas, Matthew Henderson, and everyone involved with putting this together! What a fantastic labor of love. Please send them your thanks if you download it and use it.

Muddling Through Magazines

I tend to discourage my students from reading mass-market magazines until they are fairly advanced readers of English. I used to do this based on some vague instinct, but later I read that popular magazines tend to use a really challenging mix of styles that can be indecipherable to many English language learners. Aha! That’s the problem–pick up People or Cosmopolitan or Newsweek, and while you won’t tax your brain, you will see a mishmash of slang, academic and technical language, pop-culture references, and jargon. The tone or register varies wildly, too, sometimes in the same piece of writing. Yikes! It makes sense, right? Some students have been deeply relieved when I’ve explained to them why Newsweek and other things that have been shoved at them with the promise of “This is easy to read!” haven’t been so easy after all.

Recently, though, I’ve been wondering if I’ve gone overboard in warning students away. When I was in Taiwan and Japan I was essentially illiterate in Chinese and Japanese, but I loved looking at magazines like Taipei Walker and Kikan S. It was through those magazines that I had several of my best experiences. Taipei Walker and the Walker line of magazines highlight shops and restaurants, with little blurbs and tiny maps. It was through one of those spots that I found out about a shop entirely devoted to Wachifield products (a Japanese line that I’m a fan of, featuring a wickedly cute cat somewhere between Kliban and Cheshire). It was in a back street somewhere and I wouldn’t have found it without my incessant magazine-flipping. Some other Taiwanese magazine led me to a fantastic travelling exhibition of Alphonse Mucha’s art, too, with the funny result that I’ve now seen Mucha’s art in person in Taiwan and Japan (there’s a Mucha museum just across from the train station in Sakai city, outside of Osaka) but not Europe. Mucha and Wachifield may not be Taiwanese, but both are very popular in Taiwan, and finding my way to those places are some of my favorite memories. I also found some great Taiwanese cafes and restaurants through the magazine–even if you can’t read much, you can tell the price range, look at the lovely little photos, and read the tiny little map.

Kikan S is a Japanese illustration magazine I bought in a manga shop on our honeymoon in Japan, and it had an advertisement for an art exhibition by Japanese fantasy illustrators and manga artists. We had to get some help to figure out where it was, but we managed to go to it and it was terrific! I scribbled down names left and right and remain a big fan of a bunch of the artists I first learned about there. Seeing their paintings in person was a unique experience I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.

I can’t say that looking at those magazines actually improved my Chinese or Japanese language skills, and I sometimes think there may be some weird genetic flaw that leads me to want to “read” magazines and watch TV when I’m overseas and can’t understand it. On the other hand, you could say that what little information I got from the magazines worked to reinforce my integrative motivation (positive attitudes toward the target language’s culture and desire to participate in it). Some researchers link integrative motivation with language-learning success, so who knows. It may be worth letting students know about magazines with information that’s usable by them in some way, even if the bulk of the writing is still above their level. Give them other sources for appropriate reading materials, but let them check into the magazines as a way to stay excited about learning English or living in their new home. Let them know why the text is so hard to read, and even better, let them know they can ask you about perplexing things. What I would have given to get someone to explain some of the ads in those Taiwanese beauty magazines…!

What do you think, teachers?

(Huh, it seems that Kadokawa, the Japanese publisher who does about a dozen “Walker” magazines in Japan plus Taipei, tried a Seoul version that failed. I wonder why.)

Kindle 2: Caveat lector!

Well, I’m going to give Amazon a little tough love here. I do use Amazon Affiliate links here and at Readable Blog, but if you’re an EFL teacher who is interested in the Kindle 2, Amazon’s brand new e-book reader, watch out.

The Kindle 2 is a very appealing piece of technology for overseas English teachers. It’s thin and lightweight and can hold a ton of books, so you can keep up on your English-language reading during your commute on Taipei’s MRT or wherever. And just think of all the space you’ll save in your luggage, and all the postage you’ll save mailing books to yourself! (Even in the US, I struggle with how many books to pack in my carry-on, because I finish them quickly and they take up a lot of space.) For that matter, at the prices English-language novels sell for in many countries, the high price of the Kindle 2 may start to seem worth it.

I got to play with the one my friend just bought in anticipation of her new teaching job in Asia, and it’s rather nice. I wasn’t interested before, but I found myself wanting one after I tried it. The “electronic ink” makes reading feel different from an old-fashioned monitor or a laptop screen. It’s more comfortable, although you’ll have to use a booklight at night. One of my initial objections to the Kindle was that I could already download countless works of classic literature that are out of copyright for free through Project Gutenberg. As it turns out, a lot of these have been formatted for the Kindle and can be downloaded free through Amazon, and I had to admit that I would prefer to read them on a Kindle screen than on my MacBook Pro’s screen.

However, there’s a big problem with the Kindle 2 that I haven’t seen getting much or any press.

What’s the catch? Well, it’s a pretty big catch: The USB connection appears to be faulty on many Kindle 2s. Do not buy the Kindle 2 unless you have enough time to experiment before you go overseas, because one of the Kindle 2′s biggest selling points (wireless downloads) does not work overseas, and the backup method (USB) seems to be horribly glitchy. Amazon provides free wireless access to these Kindles (including a kind of rudimentary websurfing) that lets you shop Amazon and download Kindle titles quickly, which is the preferred and primary way to buy books. This access is through Amazon’s own network, “Whispernet,” not through your house’s wifi, etc. The backup method is to shop online with your computer and then transfer items by USB cable, which is also how the Kindle 2 charges. Whispernet is only available in the USA. If Whispernet is down, or if you’re not in the United States, you must use USB. As far as I understand it, there’s no other way to download items, transfer files, or retrieve your previously purchased items if the Kindle 2 crashes.

Unfortunately, many laptops don’t seem to recognize the Kindle 2 via USB. Despite a ton of theories on Amazon’s discussion boards, no one seems to have figured out why. For every plausible theory, there’s a disproof of the theory. My friend returned her original Kindle 2, received the first day they were available, and got a replacement, which worked on one computer but not another. She’s keeping it because it works just well enough and she’s still really excited about having 150 books in something the size of a memo pad. Still, it shows that you shouldn’t buy this unless you have time to establish that it works on your computer and aren’t going to change computers any time in the future. Best case scenario, of course, this is something they can fix via a firmware update. In that case I’ll try to post about it again, because I think the Kindle 2 (despite its high price) is going to be an excellent solution for some EFL professionals. Remember, if you do get one, you have to maintain a US-based credit card to buy things from Amazon.com. I hope they open this up eventually; the national restrictions are really irritating. In the meantime, check out Sony’s E-Reader, which I’ve heard is less restricted. I haven’t tried one myself so I can’t write about it.

(Amazon does have some TESOL books available for Kindle, by the way; the discounts are sometimes not substantial–though you can get From Corpus to Classroom for $18.70 instead of $89 hardback or $34 paperback. Of course, those TESOL books are sometimes heavy! The categories are a bit odd: here are some; here are some; and here are some more.)

P. S. Best wishes to my friend in her new job, and I hope she enjoys those Temaraire books and the other random things I recommended at the last minute! (And I hope she’ll write a guest post at some point.)