ELT News Interview

Keep it simple. Keep it positive.

ELTNEWS: First of all, I have to ask, why potatoes? Don’t we Irish hear enough spud jokes as it is?

PJ: I know this well having gone to school in England for 5 years. Even my best friend there called me ‘Spud’ (I won’t tell you what term my enemies used!). I believe that the equivalent in Japanese is ‘imo’ which is used hurtfully to describe someone unsophisticated and simple like myself. As Irishmen, I think we should stand up to this discrimination against humble root vegetables. What do you think Mark?  But seriously…the real story behind the Potato Pals began when I came to Japan from Ireland 9 years ago, clutching my hard-earned two-week TEFL certificate. The first and most burning issue was to find a job. Well, I opened the Japan Times and one advertisement jumped right out at me. “Potato Club Requires Teachers”. Nothing had prepared me for this. Vegetables teaching English! What was going on here? I mean, I was prepared for a certain degree of culture shock in Japan but this was ridiculous! Anyway, having come from Ireland, famous for its potatoes, I thought “That’s the job for me”. Fortunately, it was. “Why potatoes?” I asked the owner. “Everybody loves them!” she said.

The school had foreigners teaching alongside Japanese assistants. Actually it was really the assistants that ran the show, dealing with running noses, toddlers who missed their mummies and anxious parents⑷ll the usual day to day dramas of a children’s English language school. I was lucky to be paired up with Rie Kimura, a gifted artist with a great talent for drawing potatoes! We worked together to produce readers and workbooks for our students. I would do horrible rough sketches which Rie turned into beautiful finished art. It was through this process that we developed our creative partnership, having lots of fun on the way. The books we produced during those four years became the ‘seeds’ of Potato Pals.


ELTNEWS: For those teachers who haven’t seen Potato Pals, tell us a bit about the concept.

PJ: The concept is very simple. Potato Pals helps young learners to develop their communication skills by telling the story of the things they do in their own lives. The stars of the show are these 6 very cute potatoes, three potato boys and three potato girls. They are Buddy, Daisy, Nina, Dean, Joy and yes, you guessed it, Chip! The world of the 6 Potato Pals mirrors the world of real kids. They do all the things our students do. They use all the things our students use and their world contains all the ‘topics’ such as colors, numbers and shapes that we teach. The fact that they are potatoes somehow makes it more fun for kids than if they were human children. Why? I don’t know, but it works. More digestible perhaps! The language is presented in 16-page readers which come in sets of 6 books with a CD of readings and some very catchy TPR songs by fellow Irishman, Brian Cullen. There are also Workbooks, a User’s Guide and Picture Cards. The materials can be used in the classroom or at home but ideally, both. I’m always being asked by parents what they can do at home to help their kids learn and these materials are a response to that question as well as a reflection of what I felt would be most useful to the kids. Language that they can really use in a format that is accessible to teachers, parents and the students themselves.


ELTNEWS: And what exactly is a Memoricon? You coined the word yourself, right?

PJ: A Memoricon is a little picture cue representing a story sentence. They accumulate on the alternate pages of a Potato Pals reader and encourage the students to repeat and review the language of the previous pages. Students are able to read or sing the book through the Memoricons…in effect, speaking English through visual prompts.


ELTNEWS: Can you tell us the process up to the point where you first considered actually publishing Potato Pals?

PJ: The Potato Club is a school which believes in supporting teachers to develop their own materials and style of teaching rather than imposing one particular ‘way’. We were given guidelines and suggestions as well as any help we ever needed but we were always encouraged to try new things and share our ‘findings’ at meetings with the other teachers. We were taking part in our own development as teachers as well as in the success of the school. This was teaching as a creative process. Teachers interested in making materials, developing the curriculum in various ways or working on the school’s newsletter were even paid for the time they spent doing so.

Rie and I produced workbooks, readers, and cartoons which were used by our students. One summer, I showed these to my sister who suggested we send them to some publishers. There was nothing to lose so, with the help of a friend, I wrote a short proposal which was sent to the three biggest publishers of EFL materials. I really had no connections in the business so the proposals were completely unsolicited. I did however get down on my knees and pray that they might land on the right desk. Within a week we had been contacted by editors from OUP in New York. They invited us to meet them in Tokyo. You can imagine our excitement and delight when the books were favourably reviewed by teachers in the field and we were given a contract!


ELTNEWS: What was it like working with OUP and turning hand made materials into a published series?

PJ: To use an Americanism, it was a totally different ‘ball game’. Our previous work had consisted of me passing Rie a rough sketch which she drew and was then sent to the old fella’ at the printers around the corner (who used to drop cigarette ash on the documents!).

Now that Rie lives in Osaka and our editors are in New York, everything is much more complicated. I send manuscripts, art specs and rough visuals to New York. These are thoroughly gone over by the editors there who send them back with suggestions for changes. These changes are discussed in endless emails before a final draft gets sent off to Rie. She then does pencil drawings which are likewise commented on and changed where necessary. She then submits the final ink drawings to be digitalized and sent back to her to color before going into the final stages of editing and design etc. Finally, the books are printed in Hong Kong to be marketed all over the world.

I found the whole creative process extremely interesting. It has been an education for me to learn how books are made and I certainly look at all books differently now. OUP’s attention to detail was an eye-opener for someone as scrappy as me. There was a creative buzz with ideas coming from left, right and center. The final look and content of the books we ended up with are far beyond what I had hoped for.

This year has been great fun as we have been taking the Potato Pals on the road as part of OUP’s efforts to let people know about how to use the books. This is the most enjoyable part of the job for me as I get to meet the people who are, or will be using the materials. The sales and promotions team are a great bunch and have made me feel very welcome as have the other OUP authors I have had the chance to meet, especially Setsuko Toyama and Peter and Karen Viney who have been very supportive. We have been getting positive feedback from people all over which is a thrill too. It’s a great feeling to think of all those children all over the world using the books to learn English.


ELTNEWS: Do you have plans for further series?

PJ: Oh yes! The six books in Series 1 go through a day in the life of the pals from morning to evening. Series 2, which will be hitting the shelves soon, sees them out and about with their families: to the beach, zoo, farm and so on. Next, I would like to take them on some real adventures, exploring the jungle, through the desert and into space! I’m currently working on those but this is highly confidential as I wouldn’t want the designs for a potato rocket-ship to fall into the wrong hands.


ELTNEWS: Do you spend more time on teaching or on developing materials these days?

PJ: I teach 30 hours a week in the classroom at the moment and have two small children so the writing gets squeezed into vacations and late nights. At the moment I am spending much more time teaching than writing. I enjoy being in the classroom but would like to spend more time writing and hope to do so in the future. My ideal would be to teach for a couple of hours a day…when I felt like it. I’m sure some of your readers out there share this sentiment!


ELTNEWS: What practical advice would you offer other teachers who think they might have the next great idea for a book?

PJ: The standard answer to this question is that one should go to lots of conferences, read and review books, get to know teachers, writers and editors and generally network with people in the business. I am sure that this is all good advice but I did none of these things! I think that in our case, OUP were interested because we were actually producing the materials on a small scale and using them successfully in the classroom. That fact, some of the innovative aspects of the materials, and the visual appeal of Rie’s artwork got our proposal noticed. Publishers want to see the market potential of a project and a proposal should show them some selling points or an ‘angle’ which will attract people.

I get the feeling that editors meet a lot of people who ‘have a great idea for a book’ and that most of these ideas remain in precisely that state. It is a long haul from first contact with an editor to seeing the books in your hands and you should be ready for more work than you expected. In the case of Potato Pals this took about 2 and a half years and that’s not including the four years we spent working on them at the Potato Club.


ELTNEWS: You grew up just down the road from me in North County Dublin. What made you decide to cross the water and study at Oxford University?

PJ: As I mentioned, I had been at school in England so going to Oxford was not really such a strange decision. What was strange was my decision to run away to Pakistan half way through my degree course, which I never completed. After 5 years on the run, much to the relief of my mother, I went back to ‘formal’ education and did a degree in English Literature at Trinity College, Dublin. During the ‘lost’ 5 years I had failed in a variety of fields from selling pillows to prawn fishing, so going to university was really the only option left if I was to salvage anything from the wreckage!

Worse was to come however! Having finally graduated, my next ill-considered move was to open an all-night cafe in the center of Dublin. The food was awful and the service was worse but we were packed every night because we just about the only place in town open at 3 a.m. It was a lot of fun and I reckon that waiting tables and dealing with drunk customers prepared me for the classroom better than anything else I have done.


ELTNEWS: How did you originally get into teaching?

PJ: Everything changed with Yuko. She was a regular at my restaurant and I used to have lunch at the Japanese restaurant where she worked. Actually the first time she came, with another Japanese friend, they (accidentally?) left without paying the bill. Both said they had thought the other one had paid! Anyway, next thing, we were married (never mix business and pleasure), and on a plane to Japan with the idea of spending a year here. Like so many people, we never got away. So I suppose you could say that I only got into teaching because I was such a bad waiter having got into waiting because I was such a bad pillow salesman! Where will this lead?


ELTNEWS: You and your wife have two young children. Has becoming a father changed your approach to teaching at all?

PJ: I have become much more understanding with students who do not ‘fit the mould’. Having my own children made me understand how precious my students are…to someone! Watching my children learn to speak has also shown me the wonders of language acquisition. Ami (6) has been through various phases but is now bilingual and has strong opinions on everything in both languages. Kai (2) is in the babbling phase, producing long, unintelligible sentences in a mixture of Japanese and English spoken with a very earnest expression on his face and finished with “…OK?” Actually I am completely ‘oyabaka’ (English translation anyone?) and could go on about my children for ever.


PJ: Thank you, Mark. I look forward to meeting you in person some day, in Tokyo, Nagoya or North County Dublin. Keep up the great work.