The ELT Workshop

Timothy HampsonThe ELT Workshop

Timothy Hampson

 

When Mike Griffin (of the ELT Rants, Reviews and Reflections blog) and I started The ELT Workshop, under an unofficial slogan “ELT coursebooks for people who hate ELT coursebooks,” we had big plans. There were ideas that we might make a thousand dollars in the first year, we had a list of about 20 books that we would produce, and we even put a manifesto on our website. 

Three years on, we have realized the process of getting books published is hard and full of setbacks, and that making money doing it is even harder. So when I got the opportunity to write this post about starting an ELT publishing company, I decided to talk about some of the difficulties we’ve had and some of the ways we’ve solved those problems. 

Time turned out to be the biggest issue we’ve had with the business. Ideas for books are plentiful, but having the time to actually get those onto the page is difficult. I have found for myself that working on the company projects often ends up being the first thing that doesn’t get done when times get busy. For a classroom teacher, there are always unexpected things that need to be done urgently, so The ELT Workshop ideas get put on the backburner. When you’re working with a partner and an author, you might all end up being free at different times, which means work that requires any kind of back and forth – and takes forever.  

We have also learnt there’s a lot to learn in publishing. There were a lot of “known unknowns,” such as learning to typeset well or advertising a book. We knew we’d have to sink some time into learning these skills to run the company. At the same time, there were a lot of things we didn’t know we didn’t know. As an example, making a Kindle book look good and be easy to read isn’t as easy as you’d think. While we have quite a good handle on them now, we spent a lot of time learning these skills that we didn’t know would prove to be so important.  

Another problem has been that following the blueprint of large publishers hasn’t worked for us, especially in terms of sales. We originally took quite a “if you build it, they will come” attitude to sales and advertising. This didn’t play out so well for us at first. As a small company, be prepared that people don’t notice it when you put something out as much as they might for a larger company.    

Despite all of these setbacks, I’m feeling very optimistic about the future of The ELT WorkshopWe recently published our first book “Teachers’ Toolkit: Presentation Based Activities by Tim Thompson. Seeing something you were involved in making feels great and has motivated me to do more. The company’s start has been slow, but we have found some solutions from the publishing process. In terms of organizing our time, we have learned to batch tasks to avoid back and forth. We can do all of the editing first and then all of the typesetting, which would mean less time spent waiting for replies. We have learned a huge deal from our experience so far and we are more ready than we were before.   

If you’re considering starting up a side project in ELT, please don’t let this article put you off. It is important to try and be realistic about what might be difficult.  

Punk, DIY, and the Art of ELT Conferencing

Timothy Hanson

Punk, DIY, and the Art of ELT Conferencing
by Timothy Hampson.

 

When people think of punk, they think of mohawks, boots and safety pin piercings, but they often forget punk’s DIY ethos. Punks were making their own clothes, making their own album art, and self-publishing records. This gave them a huge amount of control over their own output and independence from a society they felt was overly consumerist. While I don’t know any English language teachers with safety pins through their ears, there is definitely is a very strong punk DIY ethic in the ELT community. In this article I’ll draw from my experiences of founding and organising an ELT conference to give three lessons for anyone interested in DIY ELT.  

My own experience being part of the excitELT conference team was definitely DIY. The conference started from a frustration with “traditional” conferences which were often overpriced, overly academic, and overly cliquey. We wanted to change the way conferences happen and, like the punks, we weren’t afraid of a bit of DIY to make that happen. With a small team (varied in size between two and four), we’ve all had to learn new skills to make things happen. Over the last two years I’ve taught myself web and logo design, typesetting, advertising, scheduling, management, and many other skills. 

The first thing I’ve learned from excitELT is that you can make small changes that have a big effect and that it’s okay to think small. For example, if your dream is to start your own academy, that doesn’t mean you have to quit your job, get a mortgage on a nice piece of property and hire a full teaching, HR and advertising staff. Instead, it might be a better idea to start taking on private classes, building word of mouth and slowly reducing the amount you work for your primary job. Similarly, if you want to change a curriculum, you can, but improving the worst 2-3 classes of a curriculum is a good way of making some positive change without committing to a complete rewrite. 

The original plans for the conference were small; although we had 80 attendees for the first conference, we had originally never imagined having more than 30. The changes we made to the “traditional” conference format were also not huge but ended up being very effective. Switching out hour-long lectures for short plenary speeches and hands-on workshops didn’t take any more effort for the organisers but it changed the whole tone of the conference. Forcing speakers to trim their speeches to ten minutes forced all of the plenaries to be “all killer no thriller.” When selecting workshops, we deliberately picked the ones that were hands-on. As a result, the main feedback from the conference was that the whole day was engaging!  

We really wanted the conference to be a more audience-focused and social experience. Simple things like ditching conference booklets in favour of large schedule posters created congregation points for people to ask, “What are you going to see next?” and build new friendships. For the second conference, we introduced the “hangout” as a session type based around conversation on an issue, drawing the focus away from the presenter and allowing teachers to meet one another. Making sure that someone from the organising committee was on the registration desk at all times meant everyone at the conference met at least one of us during the day. The day before the conference there was a social gathering in the park to hang out for the afternoon, and I met lots of teachers that day that I’m still in touch with now.  

The second lesson is that you should ask for help. If you do want to change something about ELT, it’s likely that other people feel the same way as you do. In my experience, people in ELT are extremely willing to help one another and are very responsive to twitter messages and emails. You might be surprised by how much traction your ideas get. People might be willing to give advice, or they might be willing to help out in a bigger way. 

The more I spoke to people, the more people wanted to help out. Wonderful people volunteered to help with the organization and offered their expert advice on everything from general goals to graphic design. Incredibly prestigious speakers like Scott Thornbury and Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto volunteered their time and gave inspiring presentations. The amount of time and effort that people were willing to contribute astounds me and I think shows how giving the ELT community is. 

The last lesson I’ve learned is that you don’t need to be an expert to get things started. Often the willingness to make a change is more important than ability. One of the beautiful things about DIY is that you learn as you go along. You might find yourself learning all kinds of skills you never knew you were interested in and these skills might find their way back into your classroom practice. For example, after using blogs for conference advertising I’ve used blogging as a task in class. 

One of my mentors jokes that I’m a person who “went to an ELT conference and decided he could do that too” (which is deeply unfair: I’d been to two ELT conferences). No one on the excitELT team had a background in organising conferences, but all cared deeply about the conference and were willing to learn the skills that they needed to make the conference happen. If we can do it ourselves, you can definitely do it yourself, too. If you do, remember that your that your first steps might be small; that if you’re identifying a real problem, people will be willing to help out; and that you don’t need to be an expert to make things happen.