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Spotlight: (Thriving and) Surviving in Japan

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I’d like to spotlight a new addition to the recommended blogs here, Surviving in Japan (without much Japanese). This blog/how-to-directory is an ever-growing guide to how to improve your life in Japan if you are not perfectly fluent in Japanese, but are in English. The author, Ashley, is a writer (and part-time teacher) with a good sense of what people settling in to Japan really need to know about. She’s also the new writer for the “Lifelines” column at the Japan Times. There’s no travel-guide-style “wear toilet slippers in the toilet or risk embarrassment!”-style advice here–you can find that in your Lonely Planet. Instead, you get instructions, recommendations, links, photos, and even translations on topics such as

There are lots of other posts on everything from minor issues like how customize your order at Starbucks to critical issues like what to do if your Alien Registration Card is missing. (I’m secretly hoping for a post on reading Japanese nutritional labels at some point! That would be handy for me over here, even.)

This blog is highly recommended for being informative, readable, and essentially performing a public service. If you’re moving to Japan or are already there, check it out! I just wish someone were doing this for every country (and in every language combination!).

You can also follow Ashley on Twitter at @survivingnjapan.

Twelve Days of Christmas: Photojojo and more

On the fifth day of Christmas we’ll be taking a break from education again, sort of. Photography is a favorite hobby of many EFL teachers and teachers in general, but relatively few of us have huge amounts of money to spend on our equipment or taking classes. So, how to upgrade our photo skills? Keep reading–and if you don’t like to take photos but you do like to use them in your classroom, skip to the end.

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Photojojo is one of several photography how-to sites, but it stands out from the others because of its combined focus on photography techniques and DIY instructions for everything from “tripods” to photo Christmas ornaments. Here are a few stand-out articles:

  • Fun with Food Photography: Food photos are a favorite of EFL teachers, serving to make those of us who are are not overseas hungry and jealous. This article has several quick ideas for upgrading your food photo-taking skills.
  • Camera Dogtag: A great idea for any photographer, and one I plan to implement ASAP!
  • The Amazing $1 Pocket-Ready Tripod Trick: Clever!
  • 11 Tips for Sparkling Fireworks Photos: Fireworks are notoriously tricky to capture, but are a favorite of photographers from San Diego to Hong Kong
  • Erase Tourists from Your Vacation Photos: This probably won’t work in overrun sites like the Forbidden City, but two out of the three websites recommended in the article are still functional for those excursions where there is somehow always, ALWAYS one stray schoolchild or other lingering tourist in your shot

Of course, there’s more where those came from. You can subscribe to their blog or dig through the archives on the site. They do periodically flog items for sale, but it’s not much to put up with in return for the content.

Finally, if you just need photos and clip art to use in class, I’ve previously recommended several resources for free images, but here are two more on Flickr: Creative Commons – Free Pictures and Creative Commons. The photographers have Creative Commons-licensed their photos, usually so that you can use them as long as you follow whatever rules are part of the license. For most of them, the licenses just require attribution (putting their name/username wherever you use the images) and noncommercial usage only (don’t sell it or put it in something you’re going to sell, etc.). So to use the photos for class projects, slide shows, illustrations, and so on, all you need to do is discreetly caption them with the photographer’s username. (Hey, it’s a good opportunity to model attributing sources!) Many of the photos are excellent, and there are a lot to choose from–34,753 as I write this. Just put your keywords into “search this group’s pool.” From photo definition activities to sparking conversation, serving as writing prompts, or playing a part in a game, photos have lots of potential classroom uses–and I feel a lot more comfortable when I’m using images that I’ve acquired completely legitimately.

(EDIT: By coincidence, Lifehacker just posted a link to an article from MakeUseOf.com about an image search engine called Sprixi. Sprixi lets you search images that are free to use under various licenses such as Creative Commons–many from sites I’ve mentioned before. It tries to sort them by relevancy, and it lets you embed credit into the image and download that if you want. You might want to give it a try.)

Solving the Blogging Sword of Damocles

Especially when living and working overseas, it’s easy to plan to blog and then fail to, whether because of too much pressure or not enough opportunities to get online or an increasing backlog of photos and excursions to write up or too many options when it comes to the actual blog itself.

I think I’ve run across a couple of solutions that would have been really useful to me when I was briefly abroad in Taiwan and even more briefly in Japan; I had a lot of trouble getting organized enough to post even though a lot of people were waiting on me to.

Primarily, Posterous. It’s still under development (and very responsive to suggestions), but it’s great. Here is someone else’s explanation of Posterous. It’s a blog itself, but more importantly, a kind of blog/info management service. Imagine it: Sicily, 1945 Somewhere in East Asia, mid-afternoon. You’re required to be in the office at your conversation school, but not doing anything in particular. Prep is all done. You have photos on a USB stick, but hopping onto Facebook and your Blogger site and whatnot might not look too good. No problem, if you’ve set up Posterous.

Open an e-mail message to post@posterous.com, write the subject you want for the post, any text you want in the body, and attach your photos. (I send from Gmail, since it handles attachments so well.) Depending on how you have your Posterous set up, it’ll automatically format and post the photos and text to the services you’ve set up, such as Facebook, Blogger, WordPress, Livejournal, Flickr, and Tumbler, as well as a Posterous page itself (with the URL of yourusername.posterous.com). It’ll even post to Twitter (using the subject line of your e-mail/title of your post up to 130 characters, and then it adds a Posterous shortened url [post.ly], which I presume goes to the Posterous page).

If you only want something to post to specified services, you send your message to facebook@posterous.com or flickr@posterous.com, or both (and not everything else) by sending it to facebook+flickr@posterous.com.

Your Posterous page itself won’t look fancy; Posterous allows few options in terms of templates, but that’s fine. It’s probably not the main way people will be viewing your content, after all. Here’s a Posterous post and the same post on Tumblr, which I posted to using Posterous. I can’t show you the posts on other services because after the posts appeared, I edited them so that only certain users could see them. (That’s a drawback of Posterous–for services that allow “friends-locked” or password-protected posts, I think you’ll have to quickly edit the post after it appears.)

For when you’re browsing on your own web browser, not at work, there’s a bookmarklet you can put on your bookmark bar so that you can click and post things on Posterous.

Posterous really removes a lot of the barriers to blogging and can streamline the process, I think, so that you can just start posting. And yes, it’s free. (Maybe combine it with Picnik or Pixlr, two simple in-browser image editors.)

You can actually start by e-mailing post@posterous.com (seriously!) but to really get everything kitted out, you’ll then want to visit the site and register other services you want it to autopost to, choose how the Posterous site itself will look, etc. But this should only take a few minutes.

Oh, and you can attach not just images (.jpg, .png., .gif–all resized automatically, though they can link to the large size if you want), but also .doc, .ppt., .mp3, .avi, and .mpg (plus more). I haven’t experimented with this to see how they display, but Posterous claims they’ll all be handled intelligently.

WHAT YOU CAN’T DO: Format things. If you’re posting from e-mail, you’re not going to be able to put pictures in between text. You can’t change fonts, colors, spacing, etc., with HTML, nor write links any way other than as bare http:// … This is strangely freeing in a way, but if you are a hands-on coding junkie, you will be very dissatisfied. Finally, you can password-protect things on Posterous, but you can’t turn on other sites’ privacy settings from within the Posterous e-mail. (EDIT: Okay, after you post you can, in fact, edit the post that appears on Posterous.com to include HTML and other formatting, but it won’t carry over to other sites. If you can do it before it’s pushed to the other sites, I don’t know how yet.)

Tumblr itself is also fairly simple to use and can cross-post; my feeling is that Posterous is more flexible and I like it more. (Other people vociferously disagree and are huge Tumbler fans, so if you’re intrigued by the notion and don’t click with Posterous, check into Tumblr.) Tumblr doesn’t natively support comments, so it’s cool for presenting a list of images (for example, the Mori Girls Tumblr) but not so great for interaction without some hoop-jumping. If you click on “Comment” on my Tumblr post, since I actually made the post with Posterous, you are taken to Posterous. Some people just like Tumblr more, though, so it’s also worth considering as a solution, and you can add comments if you check into it with Google.

These tools are all potentially excellent for your students too, by the way. As mentioned in the Mashable Posterous Guide, you can make a multi-user Posterous that your students could post to, introducing their community or local restaurants, etc.

If you try it yourself or with your students, let me know how it goes.

(Of course, there’s always the more powerful WordPress.com, the popular Blogger, and various other options, as well as hosting it yourself like I do, but I wanted to mention Posterous as a kind of low-resistance way to just make it happen.)

Interdisciplinary Cross-pollination

Bee gathering pollen from a California poppy (by me)

Bee gathering pollen from a California poppy (by me)


My husband is a math teacher, and I like to think he’s learned some things from talking to me about topics like intensive reading–he’s actually started a kind of reading database/blog for his community college students, because he’s come to the conclusion that improving their reading skills through pleasure reading would make doing both real-world math and school math easier for them. (Real-world math–things like a newspaper story on chances of the Iranian election shaving been rigged, or figuring out the best terms for a loan, or trying to understand the instructions for adjusting an injection, which I had to do last week–is all about reading information and figuring out what’s relevant, after all.) I’ve also had some interesting conversations with him about cross-cultural math (something that TESOL sometimes reports on), and his unusually enlightened college even had an English-Math interdisciplinary committee. My husband was so interested in seeing what he could get out of this kind of “cross-pollination” that he’s attended a couple of CATESOL and writing center conferences. So if you get the chance to peek into some other teaching field’s conferences, journals, or pedagogical conversations (literal or metaphorical), I really recommend it. Who knows what you might find out or be able to contribute? Chances are many of them are dying for a chance to talk to an ESL expert, as well!

I like to read the blogs at ScienceBlogs.com, and one recent post that reminded me of this cross-pollination principle is this “Interview with Stacy Baker.” She is a high school biology teacher and biologist who says, in the interview,

At the risk of upsetting the traditionalists, I believe there is total lunacy in allowing a person to teach science who has never actually practiced science. You can’t learn science by reading textbooks or taking educational methodology classes. Every science teacher needs to have the experience of participating in original research and they need to routinely refresh their skills.

Wow. You know, I’ve often said that I think nearly every aspect of our K-16 educational system in the US is broken, but this is an aspect I hadn’t though of before. I think she’s right! (Just as I think TESOL professionals who are native English speakers and not already multilingual really must seriously attempt to learn a second language, preferably a non-Western-European language.) But, of course, as she points out immediately, under our current system it’s pretty impractical, and with current budgets it veers into quixotic even if you think about special grants to give teachers this experience. In the long run, though, I wonder if we couldn’t remove a lot of the disconnect that I always perceived as a kid by somehow heading in this direction. What do you think? I had a couple of good science teachers, but on the whole it seems like it’d be better to have scientist-teachers, practitioner-teachers. It’s really weird to have non-practitioners teaching so many subjects…

Since I first started to learn about pedagogy as a discipline, it quickly became my firm belief that university professors in the United States are in dire need of it. Very few professors have any pedagogical training at all, either general or specific, and for a lot of them it shows. Some had a single class as a grad student, but that is totally insufficient for a career that is supposed to consist of teaching as well as writing and research–I realize some “R1″ and other professors seem to resent the teaching aspect of their jobs, but who knows, maybe they’d resent it less if they had some idea of how to go about it. (Of course, a few are natural teachers–at least, for the natural learners in the class. Remember, if you’re a naturally academically inclined person, you can’t easily comment on whether someone is an effective teacher for those who really need it. This lesson took me a LONG time to learn during my MATESOL program, but I got it eventually! So I suspect that even many of the people I thought of as great teachers could have done with some pedagogical training.) K-12 teachers are far more likely to have pedagogical training, but 1) they often don’t have age- or subject-specific pedagogical training for all of the subjects and ages they’re teaching; 2) they’re often teaching a subject for which they don’t have subject-specific academic training; and 3) they are often teaching a subject in which they don’t have practical or research experience, as Stacy Baker mentions above. (Please forgive me for the general statements. I know it varies wildly by state and I fully admit that I haven’t taught K-12 in the US and don’t want to because it’s so challenging!)

Anyway, as you can see, despite originating in a science-teaching blog post, that got me thinking about all kinds of things. Have you learned anything from reading about teachers or teaching in other disciplines? Leave a comment and tell everyone about it!

Simpsons Linguistics

Sometimes a single-link post is worth it: Over at HeiDeas, “Beyond beyond beyond beyond ‘Beyond embiggens and cromulent’” is Heidi Harley’s fifth annual collection of linguistics jokes culled from The Simpsons, TV’s richest trove of wordplay and jokes about language! (well, other than QI, I suppose, and more prolific anyway.) The best part of these posts is that she identifies the linguistic topic with which the writers are playing, whether it’s “semantic bleaching” or “locative denominal verbs with telic particles” (errrr…). Yes, in googling what’s going on here, you’re probably going to increase your linguistic chops as well. I know I have some reading to do. Conveniently, the post contains links to the four previous editions.

Attempting to Explain

Recently, I’ve made a couple of posts over at Readable Blog, my blog for English learners, in which I attempt to explain sticky grammar or word-choice problems. One is about “almost” vs. “almost all,” and the other is about the use of “funny.” Both are frequent problems for Japanese learners of English, and for good reason–they’re really confusing and hard to explain. I hope the examples I used are useful, although I think the explanations still need some refining. However, if you think my explanations are useful at all, please pass the links on.

One reason I’m grateful for my TESOL certification and MATESOL training is that these things are easier to explain now. This is why untrained native English speakers are not ideal English teachers: they can probably use these words correctly, but they don’t have much training or experience in explaining why or how. (I’m trying to convince my students and clients of this important difference between trained and untrained teachers, so that they’ll share that knowledge with their friends and family looking for language schools back home. Disclaimer: I know there are some untrained teachers who just naturally rock, but they’re few and far between!)

That said, these kinds of slippery differences are still really, really difficult to explain in useful ways. I sometimes accidentally leave out something important, or I include way too many details and just confuse my students. Sometimes, of course, the reasons can’t really be explained. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve truthfully said “There’s no rule for that” or “It’s idiomatic” or “You just have to pick this up by reading a lot” …

I hope I’ll improve as I get more experience. Got any encouraging stories of your own success? Please share!

Blogroll: Cognitive Daily

Cognitive Daily is another blog I recommend. Generally, Greta and Dave Munger’s posts serve to introduce a piece of psychological, sociological, or neurological research and interpret it a little (the comments are sometimes very enlightening, as well). Because they cover many aspects of cognitive science, there are often posts that relate to teaching or learning language. Just a few days ago, they posted a guide to teaching with Cognitive Daily, which is essentially a list of some of their best posts by topic. Handily, this includes TESOL-relevant categories such as learning and developmental language, as well as “nearby” categories like memory (e.g., test-taking and memory) and social psychology (stereotypes, discrimination). They have many more relevant posts, though, so as always, I recommend subscribing and checking out the archives.

I have a bit of a background in this kind of thing because my mother’s master’s degree is in social psychology, but generally, I just think it’s fascinating–even though it often just shows how much we don’t know about how our brains work!

P. S. I’m sorry for the delay in posts. I’m preparing to go out of town, and there have been a lot of complications. I hope I’ll be able to post while I’m away.

Tame Info Overload with RSS

A big part of professional and personal development is staying current with research, news, and conversations among others in our fields. There are so many great and worthwhile blogs and blog-like sites that the ones in my blogroll here are just a drop in the bucket. How do you keep up with everything without clicking on 50 different blog addresses every day?

My preferred solution is to use RSS feeds. You can see the orange RSS logo on the right side of this page. Pages with RSS are kind of broadcasting their content in such a way that you can pull that format into your preferred reading place. You can get it sent to your e-mail (like old-school mailing lists, but one-way) or bundled into one place, which I think is the best solution. And yes, it’s all free.

Here’s a great little video that introduces the whole concept, by Lee LaFever. It’s less than 4 minutes long and really explains the basics of using RSS:

It’s actually even easier than that. Try it out with this site, my blog for EFL and ESL self-study, or any of the sites on the right, most of which have RSS feeds. Search for “feed” or “syndication” if you don’t immediately see a link. Most news publications have RSS feeds too, as well as some other often-updated sites such as real estate listings, and even Wikipedia. Some sites will let you create your own feed to send you updates with only the keywords you’re interested in. Students can use RSS to keep up with vocabulary sites, simple English news from various sources, podcasts, etc.

To find suggestions on the best RSS reader for you (since the above video is a little old), check out the brand-new post on Best RSS Newsreaders at Lifehacker.

Anyway, if you’re already an advanced RSS user, or if you’re really excited about it now and you’re using Google Reader, here are some Google Reader tips and tricks from LifeHacker. If you want to get more background, the Wikipedia article on RSS is a good place to start.

I think RSS is one of the most important tools for education professionals, since we really need to stay in touch and up to date without getting overwhelmed. If you have any questions, let me know and I’ll try to help!

Blogroll: Language Log

I’d like to introduce some of the links in my blogroll, the list on the right of blogs and blog-like websites. One with which you’re probably already familiar is Language Log. It’s so well known that I hesitated to write about it, but if you haven’t seen it, you’re really missing out. Most–not all, but most–of the TESOL professionals I know really enjoy playing with, learning about, and arguing over language. Language Log is a wonderful source for all of those activities. It’s a collective blog written by a group of distinguished authors, including Geoffrey K. Pullum. Most are linguists, and they bring a charming combination of academic expertise and honest crankiness to their posts.

Language Log is straightforwardly descriptivist. The writers talk about language as it is used, not as it is imagined to be. If you cling to particular rules from Strunk and White in the face of centuries of usage evidence, you may very well find yourself offended. Other than that, though, I think there’s something from everyone, from very abstract linguistic theory to amusing yet practical notions such as the Cupertino effect.

The Cupertino effect is a great example of how Language Log is more than just brain candy–I have actually used this notion to great effect with the students I tutored at CSUEB. The Cupertino effect is what happens with users are too submissive or too inattentive to their spellcheck programs. Sometimes a word that has a spelling error or a typo (cooperatino) is interpreted by the software as most likely to be another word entirely (Cupertino), even when human users might think that the intended word (cooperation) is much closer to the misspelling and should have come up. As a result, UN documents are full of bizarre references to Cupertino, the small California town where Apple, the manufacturer of the laptop I’m typing on, is headquartered.

Telling this story sometimes really makes it clear to students that they absolutely cannot rely on spellcheck to suggest the right answer every time, and that they must look at the suggested replacements and actively choose the right one. Just telling them “Don’t rely on spellcheck!” doesn’t seem to work very well, but based on repeated sessions with the same students, telling them the Cupertino effect story does work.

Language Log also does a wonderful job of deconstructing language myths, bringing your attention to funny comic strips, and challenging the conventional wisdom. Occasionally, they’re saucy or rude, but I usually love them all the more for that (even though I don’t always agree with them). Still, I guess the first Cupertino effect post is my favorite Language Log post, because it’s been so useful to me. What’s yours?

If you’re new to Language Log and want to catch up, it’s been around for so long that it can be daunting to dig through. Check out the Categories section on the bottom right for some of their most important topics.