I went from being a waiter at an all-night café in Dublin owned by members of the rock band U2 to an English teacher in Japan. Like most things in my life, it was a h
appy accident. 16 years later, I still work in ELT. I’ve been lucky. Do I have any tips for the next generation of young waiters setting out into the world of language teaching or authoring?
[Busy readers need only read the words in bold.]
Firstly, find a reasonable teaching position in a pleasant school with good conditions and supportive management. I’m not just talking about salary, but a working environment that allows you to develop both creatively and professionally.
I was lucky to have been thrown together with Rie Kimura, a keen amateur illustrator who also worked at the school. She made everything I scribbled look good and that inspired me. It’s important to build creative relationships (with people who are better at stuff than you are).
We just made a start with no inhibitions and few preconceptions, producing worksheets, books, calendars, workbooks and a newsletter. Some of them were good. Some of them were terrible but all of them were ours.
‘Don’t stop’ was our motto. Making the most of a few jealously guarded hours a week, we began to make more and more materials. Photocopies stapled together at first, and then on one epic day, a trip to the printers. After that, with proper covers and a print run of 200, we really felt like the real thing. We had been published! That was April 2000.
We used the materials we had made in lessons with our students. This was fun and allowed us to see what worked and what didn’t. There are no better reviewers than real kids in real classrooms.
Things might have stayed small (and that would have been fine) had we not decided to show people around us what we were doing. In our case, it was my sister who enthused about our little books and encouraged us to send them off to a publisher. She even helped us to identify the right contact people. That advice made us dream big.
Making a formal proposal to OUP really forced us to take a good look at what we had created up to that point. The key phrase from that proposal that I have re-used again and again is ‘helping children to tell the story of their own lives’. As I put the proposal in the post box, I said a prayer and within a week we had a reply from New York asking us to meet their editors. I look forward to finding out if it was the prayer, the proposal, or both that did the trick.
Working with OUP opened up a new world. Getting real feedback, from publishing professionals was totally different to anything Rie or I had ever experienced. We also had a chance to show our ideas to other teachers, helping us to shape our vision.
Keep it simple. Keep it positive.
We really got into it then, making enormous charts, laying out the whole scope of the project all over the walls of one room of my apartment. I wrote endless lists of all the words that we would squeeze into the art. We drafted and redrafted, polishing all the way. We removed the story where potatoes eat other potatoes in the kitchen. That one was deemed unsuitable for the younger reader.
Both of our editors were musical and suggested that a song could be commissioned for each reader. Did I know a songwriter that I would like to work with? Yes! I knew Brian Cullen, Nagoya’s resident Irish musician and a man of infinite talents. We spent many afternoons in the park together, being very silly and singing fledgling potato songs. We are still good, good, good friends. Tracks recorded by Brian and his friends in Japan were sent to New York to be rerecorded with American children’s’ voices. Combining resources and talents across media and between continents seemed like such a magical and powerful thing to happen. It still does.
With books in hand we hit the highways and by-ways, spreading the word and celebrating whenever we found out that a classroom or individual learner somewhere in the world had started using the materials. Nowadays, that whole process has been transformed by social media. I have thoroughly enjoyed the ride; going to conferences, on author tours, riding bullet trains in potato suits and getting involved in further projects. Meanwhile, although still a minor series of supplementary readers, the Potato Pals continued to grow in popularity and I was commissioned to co-author Everybody Up, a more substantial 7-Level course.
It was in April 2010 that the iPad was released and I knew immediately that this was exactly the platform that the simple art and concept of Potato Pals had been waiting for. In fact, we had really written an app ten years before they existed. Two years later another creative partnership was formed with Benson Loo, an app developer from Singapore. I won’t spoil it by telling you all the incredible things this app can do (you can download a free sample story and try it out for yourself) but one thing is for sure; it will unlock your inner potato in ways you never thought possible. Enjoy it. We have.
[The Potato Pals 1 app for iPads is available in the App Store]