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Precautions

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Sorry for the long radio silence here and on Twitter, etc.! I went to a convention over Memorial Day weekend, and when I came back, my place had been broken into. My beloved MacBook Pro was stolen, among other things. I hadn’t backed up as often as I should have, because too much other stuff has been going on recently.

Odds are, if you’re a teacher–and particularly if you’re an edtech fan or writer-type or grad student–you also have valuable information and technology in your place. Here are the lessons that I learned from this experience:

  • If you rent your home and own expensive laptops, TVs, jewelry, or other stuff that would cost a lot to replace if damaged or stolen, consider renter’s insurance. It doesn’t cost a lot per year, and it’s made a huge difference for us–replacing two Mac laptops would be an issue for two teachers, otherwise! (Traveller’s has been pretty good, by the way.)
  • Get an external hard drive and, if you are not a conscientious frequent updater of it, find an automatic backup solution. I think newer versions of the Mac OS have options for this built in…I didn’t have that and wish I had.
  • Anything that’s automatically stored in more than one place is a good thing, so anything that’s automatically synced is a good thing. My address book from my laptop was synced to my iPod Touch, so I didn’t lose friends’ phone numbers and addresses (I just wish I’d filled it out more instead of relying on a file!). My calendar with appointments was, too, and so on. If you don’t have a Touch/iPhone/Blackberry, etc., there are some free online services that do similar things. My bookmarks, which include things that are very important like research articles, teaching activity sites, etc., are intact because I use Delicious.com rather than just saving them in my browser.
  • Use an e-mail service that stores your sent mail forever and doesn’t delete it (and can be searched easily, like Gmail). Someday, those sent attachments may be your only record of things like, oh, your most recent CV. (Ack.)

Anyway, without getting into the security side of things, those are just some ideas to keep you rolling/help you bounce back in this situation. I’m sure there’s a lot more out there I could have done.

Ultimately, nobody was hurt, I’m getting a new MacBook Pro, and things could have been a lot worse.

Simple English Wikipedia

In this post, let’s not debate the validity of Wikipedia as a useful tool (though I will pause to recommend my online friend’s new book, How Wikipedia Works). What I want to talk about is the Simple English version of Wikipedia.

Wikipedia is available in many languages. Sometimes, if I need to explain a complex subject to someone quickly, I look up the topic in Wikipedia and then check the sidebar on the left to see if their language is listed. If so, I click on that, eyeball the article to see if it looks like it’s probably okay, and then pass it on. It’s very convenient for times when a direct translation doesn’t suffice–if the article exists in the language you need. Logically enough, many topics that are specific to English-speaking areas (such a town in Scotland or a landmark in California) have not been translated into other languages.

An option that shows up on some pages is the “language” of Simple English. Simple English pages are supposed to be written in a direct, straightforward way, without complex grammar; a limited vocabulary should be used. This is a terrific idea in theory. Those US-specific topics and others can be presented here, or a user can practice reading English by reading an article in her native language and then in Simple English. Ideally, it could be the richest free source of reading for beginning and lower-intermediate English learners in the world.

In practice, though, there are not a lot of good Simple English articles. Some are just a sentence or two. Others have been written by users who clearly didn’t read the guidelines for Simple English, and are just doing their own versions of “toning it down.” This is understandable–it’s hard to realize how and how much to simplify your language when you first start working with beginners. I know I’m still learning how to write for beginners, especially since I tend toward really long, overly complex sentences. Writing with a restricted vocabulary is also extremely difficult, particularly if you still want your topic to remain interesting (as anyone who’s tried to write a leveled reader knows!).

My sense from reading discussion pages at Simple English Wikipedia is that most editors mean well but do not have teaching or linguistics backgrounds, as evidenced by the user who claimed that the English place name “Rochester” is pronounced exactly as it’s spelled and thus needs no IPA pronunciation guide. Never mind how many ways the letter combination “ro” can be pronounced in English, for starters … Many editors are not personally familiar with the needs of English learners, I suspect, or have not had experience with non-European learners (though SE Wikipedia does have many non-native speakers of English serving as editors, which is excellent). At any rate, Simple English Wikipedia could use your attention.

One of my projects for next year will be adding new Simple English articles and trying to improve existing ones. I hope other TESOL professionals who have experience in writing beginner-friendly English will join me. Many of you have a lot more experience doing this than I do, and you could make wonderful contributions here. This is a great way to help aspiring English learners, almost like volunteer work for those of us who are short on time or money. If you want to get started right now, check out How to Write Simple English articles. See you there!