From My Gut, Soul, and Pedagogical Beliefs: Stimulating Conversation 

Greg Goodmacher


Simulating Conversations

Every textbook writer who really cares about his or her product pours the proverbial “sweat and tears” into their materials, but many writers will, in private conversation, speak about a textbook that is their most personally meaningful. Stimulating Conversation is the book that I worked the hardest on to get published, and it is the one that came from my gut, soul, and pedagogical beliefs.

Getting published was difficult because many textbook companies do not touch textbooks that deal with controversial topics, especially if the topics are ones such as sex education and STDs, educational reform, and the rights of foreigners (This situation, though, is slowly changing.). However, I realized years ago that many college students enjoy thinking about and discussing these topics. For several years before writing Stimulating Conversation, I taught with somewhat “controversial” textbooks that required me to create supplementary materials. Students were responding more enthusiastically to my materials than the ones produced by global EFL publishers, so I decided to write my own book. I believed that students around the world would appreciate unique activities that pushed the limits of what is usually taught in EFL classes.

Large publishers and traditional Japanese publishing companies rejected my proposal, but Intercom Press, a tiny publishing company, believed in me and my textbook concept. We worked together for almost two years. Stimulating Conversation is not a perfect book, but I believe that it effectively challenges students to create novel sentences, to think critically, to discover their own values, and to communicate.

Unlike the textbooks of many publishers which are designed so that any unprepared teacher can walk into a classroom, open the book to any page, and know exactly what to do, this book challenges teachers. Stimulating Conversation has a variety of activities, and many are unique exercises numerous teachers and students have not encountered beforehand. Of course, the book includes simple information gap activities, etc., but most of the activities and questions, like questions in the real world, cannot be answered by a small number of example answers. Many answers are based on students’ personal opinions, not specific right or wrong answers. Students will have lively conversations.

Stimulating Conversation is what I call a thinking/conversation textbook for intermediate and advanced level students, which it seems is a shrinking segment of the EFL textbook market in Japan. Because of its unique characteristics, because it is published by a tiny publisher, and because it is sold only in Japan, I am not making much money from it. However, the enthusiastic comments from my students and the positive feedback from the teachers who repeatedly order my book for their students thrill me and give me more of a sense of pride than my other books which have sold more copies.

See sample pages online and to request a sample copy, go to l. Scroll down to see sample sections. To receive a sample textbook, click on a link on the left side of the page.

Why doesn’t this work? Piloting

by MW-SIG 2012 Featured Speaker John Wiltshier


 

John Wiltshiere

“Why doesn’t this work?” Probably, because its not been rigourously piloted. Hi, I’m John Wiltshier and as a taster prior to my JALT 2012 Featured-Speaker Workshop here is a short blog-post about piloting: one of 7 key factors I’ve found to be important in writing succesful ELT material. ‘Successful’ here means, both in terms of helping students learn English and in getting your material succesfully published.

The first time to use new material in class, you quickly know if it has been sufficiently piloted or not. If you end up with a chaotic class and asking yourself the question “why doesn’t this work?” it is almost certain the material has not been sufficiently piloted. On the contrary, material that teachers can easily use to achieve specified aims will undoubtedly have been trialed a number of times. Or the author just got lucky! Can happen, but not often.

Piloting means trialing new material with a range of target users. It is a step which should be repeated a number of times. Piloting will throw up surprising and unintended ways of doing an activity – my students rarely do a first draft activity exactly the way I had imagined. Observing such pilot sessions provides inspiration for imporvements and allows me to find out specific things about my written material; i.e. language-level appropriacy, cognitive-level appropriacy, instruction clarity, ease of use and of course the timing of each activity.

How long an activity takes to complete is of course, of vital importance. An editor of a commercial textbook such as English Firsthand, will have decided the approximate completion time for each page. This is necessary to create uniformity between units which makes lesson planning easier. Do you really want to use a course book where unit one takes twice as long as unit two to complete? Too much material on the page is also problematic running the risk of confusing or frustrating students who can’t finish in the time allowed. Likewise, if you find your written material takes five minutes to demonstrate, and three to complete, revision is necessary. CHECK TIMING ✔

Even where attention has been paid to the timing of each unit, as teachers, we are ultimately teaching students not the unit per se. In my experience, more able students tend to need less material than weaker ones. Weaker students often simply aim to finish an activity as quickly as possible. Including extra or extension activities on each page makes the textbook a more useful teacher tool, especially in mixed-ability class. The need for such extension activities can be gauged and inspired from piloting. CHECK EXTENSION ACTIVITIES ✔

A less obvious factor that can be observed through piloting is the amount of cognitive-challenge an activity provides. Material for the teenage or young adult market needs to choose general topics that young people will have enough experience of, and interest in, to stimulate conversation. Such carefully chosen topics together with well-designed, open-ended tasks will allow for creative input from students. CHECK TOPICS ARE APPEALING ✔

The task of designing activities to include enough cognitive-challenge is especially demanding when writing children’s material such as the Our Discovery Island series. As with young adult learners, how much a child is stimulated by an activity will vary dependent on how interested they are in the content, but not only that. Children, as we know, are at varying levels of cognitive development. A preoperational-stage child of between 2 ~7 years explores the world in a different way from an older concrete-operational stage child of 8~ 12 years old. Piloting with various age groups will show over what age range an activity can provide a suitable cognitive-challenge. CHECK COGNITIVE-CHALLENGE ✔

The four check points listed here can be achieved through piloting which is one of 7 key factors to successful publishing that I am looking forward to highlighting at my JALT 2012 Featured Speaker Workshop in October. Looking forward to meeting you there.

Bio-data
John Wiltshier has been a teacher for 21 years and currently holds the position of Associate Professor at Miyagi Gakuin Women’s University in Sendai. He has presented nationally and internationally in Asia, Europe and the U.S being invited speaker on the ETJ Teacher Training Tour, plenary speaker at the PANSIG conference and featured-speaker at the JALT International Conference in Japan and MICELT conference in Malaysia. He is author and series consultant (Japan) of the new global six level primary course: Our Discovery Island. In additon, John is co-author of the highly successful English Firsthand series.