Den mörka portalen and NaNoWriMo

My Saturday was extremely literary! A member of one of my critique groups has, after years of hard work, self published the first novel in a planned trilogy. The release party was at noon at Marabouparken, and I stopped by to give my congratulations and enjoy a little bubbly to celebrate Den mörka portalen. It is surprisingly heart-warming and gratifying to see yourself appear multiple times in the author’s thanks.

Shot of the author's thanks (in Swedish)

Once under my own name, once as “Stockholm Writing Group” (the writing Meetup I organize), and (if I’m feeling generous) even a third time as a fellow redkatör and korrekturläsare, though I work in English and not in Swedish. Still, editor solidarity!nan

The venue was also lovely. When your park is named after one of the most famous candy companies in Sweden, it sets certain expectations (see: Hershey Park in the US), but it was actually quite understated. Dare I say…high brow, even?

A slate walkway and some statuary at Marabouparken on a rainy, overcast day.

As it turns out, Marabou no longer owns the property. It’s a bit of a misnomer.

After that I was off to help plan this year’s NaNoWriMo. Have you signed up yet? You should! And if you’re in Stockholm, you should come to the kickoff! We’ll have fika and pep and writing activities to get you all fired up for November. And, of course, my lovely face. Can’t wait to see you there!

National Novel Writing Month 2018: Butt in Chair, Fingers on Keyboard

I’ve participated in National Novel Writing Month (“NaNoWriMo” from here on) every year since 2008. Granted, some years my participation has been better than others. And for the last few years I’ve certainly played fast and loose with the rules, such as they are (i.e. 50,000 new words of writing over the course of November). For 2015, 2016, and 2017 I spent NaNoWriMo revising the rough draft I wrote in 2014. This year I’m drifting even further from the standard and using the time to tackle a (for-funsies) translation project I should have finished ages ago but didn’t.

Some people juggle multiple projects at once; I tend to work one at a time. And while I do want to get that 2014 NaNoWriMo project done and dusted so I can move on to other writing, this translation project has drifted high enough in my priority queue that it’ll be easier to work on my fiction backlog once I get this translation thing out of the way. (Am I being fussy? Maybe.) For me, NaNoWriMo has become less and less about doing the actual thing of NaNo and more about harnessing a collective mania and drive to get my own creative endeavors done. Three months out of the year (if you include Camp NaNoWriMo in April and July) is a pretty hefty chunk of creative time, especially when you’re holding down other full-time work!

As usual, during NaNoWriMo the Stockholm Writing Group Meetup will be a weekly two-hour chunk of writing time you can count on, every Thursday from 6 to 8 PM. We have our own classroom in ABF, a great alternative for when cafes are too noisy and distracting. This week and next I’ll be helping people sign up on the site, answering questions, and providing some writing prompts to help you get you hyped up for your project. Join me, won’t you?

More, Different Journaling

It kind of breaks my heart that I only found Lynda Barry’s journaling model  after my transition into full-time corporate translation, but nonetheless I’m glad I found it at all. The conceit is simple: you fill your diary with things you did, things you saw, things you overheard, and some doodles. Here’s Barry’s template:

Image courtesy Lynda Barry

As an avid journaler myself (my private online blog has been going since 2003!), this idea of breaking through the cruft of the daily grind to capture moments of presence really appeals to me. To quote directly:

What goes into your diary are things that you noticed when you became present—that is to say when the hamster wheel of thoughts and plans and worries stopped long enough for you to notice where you were and what was going on around you.

It goes without saying that this journaling model makes for an excellent EFL instructional tool as well. It seems that Barry includes drawings because this is an assignment for a comics class she teaches; in other words, it’s an activity that was designed with visual artists in mind. EFL students who aren’t so artistically inclined might prefer a different activity, maybe one like listing three things that they learned that day (the question my mother would ask me and my brother at dinner most days, and the reminder she gives us now and again as adults: “Don’t forget to learn three new things today!”). With younger learners it might also be fun to make it into a senses diary: three things you saw, three things you heard, three things you smelled, three things you touched, and three things you tasted.

Hat tip to The Englishist, one of my favorite teacher blogs to follow, for linking to this activity.

Haiku, Tanka, and Studying English

old pond / frog leaps in / water’s sound
 (Photo by Ghost Presenter on Unsplash)

So, yes, I’m not normally a big fan of poetry, either reading or writing, but that doesn’t mean I can’t recognize their usefulness. While originally Japanese,  haiku and tanka have become something of a new tradition in English poetry and are nonetheless useful for learning English.

For a quick refresher: haiku are the short, three-line poems with a strict syllabic pattern (5-7-5). Tanka are a slightly longer form (5-7-5-7-7). There are other rules and traditions about “cutting words” and referring to the seasons, but that’s some next-level haiku-ing. In teaching, I focus exclusively on syllable count.

Forcing students to count syllables in words has a couple of effects. More than anything else, it makes them slow down, and as a result they pay closer attention to the word: how it’s spelled, how it’s pronounced, how it sounds. This can be especially useful with students who struggle with spelling; seeing how multiple letters can combine into just one sound can help cement some of the trickier English graphemes in their memory. It can also help build morpheme awareness, since students will be focusing on each individual part of the word.

Reading and writing haiku or tanka is also a great moment to talk about stress and emphasis. Even if stress isn’t important in haiku itself, a natural follow-up question to something like “How many syllables are in ‘refreshing’?” is “Where is the emphasis?”.

Moving to a higher level of language instruction, the short nature of haiku and tanka, and the puzzle-like aspect of fitting words together to fit the prescribed length, make them great writing exercises for students who are less inherently verbal or who normally struggle with what to say. If you go a step further towards a “genuine” haiku and require a student to use a term from the saijiki, the prescribed word list that references a particular time of year (link is an Archive.org link to an English translation), then you can even provide a jumping-off point to get them started. Not to mention using the saijiki is a creative way for novice students to reinforce new vocabulary related to the natural world: seasons, plants, animals, the weather, etc.

And no matter what the language level, the arbitrary syllable count restrictions force students to search for different words and different ways to express things than what just initially comes to mind. If they want a 5-syllable line to read “beautiful summer day,” that won’t work, but can they think of any synonyms for “beautiful” that are only two syllables long? If they really want to keep “beautiful,” then they’ll have to compromise on “summer”  or even “day,” depending on what the rest of the poem is. How can they do it?

Finally, because they’re so short, writing tanka and haiku is just fun. It’s rewarding to be able to sit down and, a few minutes later, have a complete poem! It’s the perfect activity for when students (and teachers 😉 ) need encouragement or a bit of instant gratification.

Thoughts on Using Simbi to Find Tutors or Editors

Around Christmas last year, I stumbled on the website Simbi. The idea is simple: connecting people around the world to trade and exchange via bartering instead of money. Users list the services they can provide and the help that they need, and the rest is self-explanatory.

Lucky for the student of English (or, indeed, a lot of other languages), Skype sessions with native and fluent speakers are one of the most popular options available. If you feel that you need a tutor’s input to take your language study to the next level and haven’t had any luck with any other language exchange site, you can find someone on Simbi. Likewise, since the vast majority of Simbi’s user base is anglophone, this is a golden opportunity for native speakers of languages besides English to provide an in-demand service in their native language, whether it’s video lessons, writing correction, or translation. In this case, I’d recommend joining the group Language Learners to find other language students to exchange with right away.

Less the case in Sweden (where I might be the only member?!), Simbi also actively encourages members to meet and exchange goods and items in real life, fostering local communities and bringing neighbors back in touch with each other. (These events are called “Simbi Swaps.”) Students, visitors, and new arrivals to English-speaking countries might find it helpful in meeting new people who self-select to be open, sociable, and curious.

(And, of course, Simbi has a “currency” called the simbi, so if you can’t barter directly with another user, you can still pay them for their time and effort!)

The downside is that to get much use out of Simbi for studying English, you’ll need to be at an A2/B1 level of English already; there isn’t a native version of the site in any other language. And since Simbi is a general service- and goods-exchanging platform and not strictly an educational platform, caveat emptor. Check someone’s profile to get a feel for how professional and knowledgeable they seem, including any outgoing links they provide.

Writers will also get a lot out of Simbi. If you want editing or proofreading for your manuscript but don’t have much of a budget, critique and editing is another one of the most popular services available. Again, joining a group like Writer’s Club will make it easier to find like-minded members who are more likely to be able to help you out.

I hope you’ll join me on Simbi! Perhaps I can entice you with one of the services I offer: turning your notes into a custom Anki deck or providing short story feedback.

The Value of Daily Classroom Journals

I start every lesson with my younger and beginner-to-intermediate students with a brief journaling activity, depending on student level:

  • Little ones who are still learning how to read and write circle a sight word related to feelings, and then draw a picture of themselves.
  • Slightly older ones who have mastered reading and writing but are still low level in English write about one thing they did and one thing they want to do, complete with picture.
  • Older students, or ones who are already at a more advanced level, have four brief prompts without pictures: what they did last week, one thing they wish they could change, what they hope will happen, and what will probably happen

They’re basically a formalized version of the little ceremonial warm-up chat that I have with my more advanced students. By making that small talk part of the lesson in a more official way, it makes the lesson more about them. It can be a great shortcut around any resentment younger students might have since they’re often (but not always) engaged in lessons at the behest of their parents. Journals don’t really feel like work, and it lets students write or talk about themselves, which is everyone’s favorite topic!

A silver pen in a blank, open journal.

The luxury of private instruction is that I’m not crunched for time or beholden to a particular schedule, so I can spend as long on journals as works. I think this is especially important within the context of private lessons, since they’re taking precious free time away. I’m not a proponent of the idea that teachers need to be clowns or entertainers; rather that the value of language in terms of self expression needs to be emphasized in certain contexts. Rather than declaring X amount of minutes for journals, the same amount every time, I let it go as long as it needs. Sometimes a student had a really exciting week at school and they have a lot to talk about; sometimes there’s not much to say at all.

While they’re writing (or talking), I make a deliberate effort to ask as many questions as I can think of to elicit more details. I also make a note to ask follow-up questions in the next lesson, such as inquiring about how a test, project, or sports game went. I seem to have a natural memory for these things, but if you don’t, you can keep a little daybook of students and their activities, where you can make notes about their plans right after lessons and what you can refer to right before a lesson for a refresher.  This is important not only for generating more material to “exploit” (to use a piece of jargon), but for more altruistic reasons. Over the long term, it’s much easier to connect to a teacher who demonstrably cares about you than one who’s only interested in what you accomplish during your hour or two of instruction every week. Likewise, when you get to know students, you become even more invested in their success, in language and in everything else.

This can also apply to self-study. It might not always be possible to find someone to talk to (native speaker or otherwise), but whether or not you can carve out the time for a little journaling is fairly easy to control. And now with the Internet, it’s trivial to find someone who can correct your work and provide feedback, whether it’s for free (on something like Lang-8) or for minimal cost (on something like Ediket). The first step in being able to talk about anything else is always being able to talk about yourself. So get journaling!

National Novel Writing Month 2018

Today marks the two-thirds point of National Novel Writing Month (or, if you’re hip and in the know, NaNoWriMo). For the uninitiated, National Novel Writing Month is a worldwide event where participants sit down and try their best to write 50,000 words of a novel in the month of November. The math works out to 1,667 words every day. Here, on day 20, people should be at a little over 33,000 words in their manuscript.

As I have since 2014, this year I help administer Stockholm’s assorted regional events. This sounds impressive, though it mainly consists of stuffing envelopes for the kick-off event and then helping either set up or clean up when I can, in addition to directing people who attend my own writing meetup to the NaNo website and the Stockholm NaNo forum and Facebook group. When the stars align, I help run the Halloween Head Start event, but the next one won’t be until 2020 (barring someone becoming fabulously wealthy and buying a house where we can host all of the NaNoWriMo things).

I also write, when I can. As I have since 2015, I’m rebelling by revising an older novel (one I wrote during NaNoWriMo 2014) instead of writing 50,000 new words. Hopefully by this point I’m on track with my own goals, but since I’m writing this a few days ahead of the game, who can say? In case I’m not, and in case you’re not, I want to pass on a little pep:

It’s okay to fail at NaNo. It’s okay to miss the word goal, it’s okay to give up and decide it’s not for you, or that you hate your story, or whatever. There is an unrelenting optimism from official NaNoWriMo headquarters that can feel no less than oppressive at times, and so I’d like to take a moment and tip the scales back a bit towards neutrality.

It’s okay to hate your story, your characters, your writing, and even yourself. It’s okay to hate your NaNo so much, or the twee pep talks so much, or your fellow WriMos/the MLs/the cafe where you meet so much that you want to quit. It’s okay to quit, even.

Because you sat down and, for however long you managed it, you wrote a bunch of words that you wouldn’t have written otherwise. You declared that this was important to you and that you’d commit to doing it, and even dedicating one day to your craft is better than dedicating no days. This isn’t unrelenting positive thinking bullshit; this is math. One is more than zero.

The funny thing, though, about accepting that it’s okay to quit is that it makes it easier to not quit. Counterintuitive, maybe, but framing it as a choice rather than an obligation can make all the difference. It’s the same way that giving yourself permission to fail can improve performance. (See: the old writer’s block trick of deliberately writing something awful just for the sake of writing something so you can get to the good bits.)

Because if you’re quitting just because you don’t think you can win, you’re missing the point of NaNo. It isn’t hitting 50,000. It’s about prioritizing creativity and time for writing a little higher than you do normally. It’s about meeting people doing the same crazy thing as you, and who have the same crazy habits as you. It’s about making time in a chaotic and frankly terrifying world for creation and for quiet alone time. And that happens with or without 50,000 words.

Anki Grammar Deck: Participial Adjectives

I’ve created and shared another Anki deck for EFL students. This cloze deck focuses on the grammar concept of participial adjectives (for example, interesting and interested). While these adjectives have an overlap in meaning because they come from the same verb, there is a difference between being bored and being boring! This is a grammar mistake that plagues many beginner and even intermediate English learners, but the good news is that participial adjectives can be mastered with some extra drilling and attention, like the cloze exercises in this deck.

This is not a vocabulary deck; it is for students who already know the vocabulary but have trouble knowing right away which form to use. I used this list from the University of Victoria as a reference: twenty of the most common verbs used as participial adjectives. I used the past and present participle of each verb, so there are 40 cards in all.

To add the deck to your own Anki account:

1. Download the deck to your computer.
2. Open your desktop version of Anki.
3. Select “File -> Import”
4. Browse to the directory where you saved the deck in Step 1.
5. Select the deck.
6. Sync your desktop client to the web. Now the downloaded deck is on your Anki cloud and can be accessed on your desktop client, on the web, or on your phone.

And there you have it! Let me know what you think.

Are there other Anki decks you’d like to see? Don’t have time to make them yourself? Comment or contact me on Twitter (@KobaEnglish) and I’ll see what I can do.

Thoughts on Busuu Web Portal

Time for a long-overdue review of the Busuu language-learning portal!

What is busuu?

Busuu is a language-learning website as well as a smartphone app. It offers courses in 12 languages, including English.  You can focus on business, travel, or culture. The lessons typically include flashcard drilling, short dialogues, writing practice (corrected by other site users) and speaking practice (also evaluated by other users). This review will focus exclusively on the web version, though it looks like the web and mobile version are identical in content and presentation.

The main menu on Busuu after you create an account and start learning.

What do I like about busuu?

The site design is crisp and intuitive. It’s easy to find your way around. The lessons themselves are nicely varied, and they provide recordings as well as images for every new word or phrase. Additionally, when the lexical target is just a single word, they provide a sample sentence along with the word, the recording, and the image. Overall, the presentation is fairly thorough.

Unlike its free competitors, busuu is officially partnered with McGraw-Hill, one of the biggest educational companies and textbook publishers in the business. Busuu subscribers have the option to take a certification test from McGraw-Hill that will officially (or at least, in some capacity) grade the user on a particular CEFR level (from A1 to B2). This might be of value to anyone who needs English for a job, though of course you should check with your employer (or whoever) about whether or not they would recognize such a certificate. I’m not aware of any other language-learning portal that has such a partnership.

What don’t I like about busuu?

Busuu leans heavily on the user subscription model. If you look at the menu image again, you’ll note that some of the lesson icons have a small crown icon next to them. That means those lessons aren’t available until I subscribe.

The vast majority of material in this lesson is only available to subscribers.

Additionally, none of the quizzes or tests are available without a subscription, and learning research has repeatedly demonstrated that testing is one of the most efficient ways to learn new material. Another review has put those assessments on blast, however, so take that for what you will. Moreover, there are numerous complaints about just how difficult it is to cancel a subscription if you decide you no longer want it.

Of course I believe that people deserve to be paid for their work. (I’m a writer and an artist in my other lives–I know how easy it is for work to be devalued!) But I personally prefer the Coursera model: you get the information for free but have to pay for the certification. Especially when you consider the glut of EFL instruction material on the Internet (and the raw amount of English-language content), and the fact that their partnership with McGraw-Hill gives their certificate some serious brand recognition, the Coursera model seems both the most effective and the most fair.

They also like to tout the “22.5 hours of busuu is like a university level course!” all over the place, without giving the full context. The “22.5 hours” number is taken from one study that busuu funded at CUNY and University of South Carolina. I’m not going to go into a discussion of this particular study here; I just want to point out that (1) this was a single study (2) funded by busuu. As far as I know, the data hasn’t been replicated in other independent research. Personally, I’m skeptical about how this claim would hold up in the wild, if only because the material presented is generally limited in scope (especially in the free version), even if the presentation itself is varied and thorough.

Verdict

If it turns out their McGraw-Hill certification will help you land a job or a promotion, then go for it (or don’t), but otherwise? There are better options out there.

Reflections on NaNo 2016

Did you make it? Regardless of if you got to 50,000 words or not, if you wrote at all during National Novel Writing Month, then congratulations! You have X more words than you had at the beginning of the month, and that’s the really important thing. Maybe you even established a daily “butt in chair, hands on keyboard” habit—even better!

My goal for this year was to finish a round of revisions on the first draft I finished in NaNoWriMo 2014. After not touching the manuscript for months, I finished the remaining chapters in a week. (See what kind of magic an arbitrary deadline can work?) As far as NaNoWriMo was concerned, the rest of November was a combination of sitting on my laurels, writing some escapist nonsense for kicks and giggles, and working on the third round of revisions. (Writing really is revising.)

I’m at a point with this story where I don’t know up from down. If I let myself get distracted from the very practical aspects of putting scenes in order and making sure they all either advance the plot or develop a character, it’s an endless, terrifying void: is this project worth pursuing? does it make sense? will people like it?

All I can do is keep putting one foot in front of the other. One chapter after the next. I admit, it’s exhausting to not have a finished product after three years of (intermittent) labor. But I owe it to myself to finish this one, big thing. Just because I can. Do I need to publish it? No. Do I need anyone else to read it? Not really (except insofar as critiquing and editing is concerned!). I just need to prove to myself that I can put the time in to create something as sprawling and as weird and as complicated as this novel.

Those of you who crossed the November 30 finish line with me: take a rest. Take it easy. Be kind to yourself this December. See the friends you didn’t make time for, have a movie night with your spouse/child/pet, get back into running/yoga/meditation, cook a proper meal.

Speaking of meditation, allow me to share an analogy. This is, I believe, an old Rinzai Zen chestnut. It came to me by way of the priest at my zendo in the US, but I’m pretty sure he was quoting someone else.

Your mind is like a bird. And just like birds need to sit and rest in between long flights (even though some are capable of incredible journeys!), your mind also needs to rest in between states of focus. Otherwise you would lose touch with reality and burn out.

It’s originally an analogy about zazen, but it applies to anything you want to do well. We all just pushed through a mad 30-day flight over uncharted territory. It was exhilarating and terrifying and magical. But the bird needs to rest for a while, now, before the next mad dash.

And then, in January, we pick up our pens and sit down at our keyboards and begin again.