Going Self-employed

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New Social Media Cover Photo

A few weeks ago, I came to a personal decision.  I had a successful interview in my home to teach individual students with a Norwich-based Homestay company.  If this happens later this year, which seems likely, I will need to be technically self-employed. It got me thinking.. why don’t I simply register myself as self-employed with HMRC and, therefore, be responsible for paying my own tax and NI contributions in future. After a series of job applications, at the end of last year, in which I didn’t hear anything back, I got a bit despondent.  So I thought if no-one else is going to hire me, then I should ‘hire’ myself.  I’ve always been ’employed’, never ‘self-employed’. There are advantages in this change of employment status for me personally.

It is a state of mind.  My own health and well-being has often been adversely affected by being in full-time work with one employer, the pressures of intensive teaching and living away from home.  It is exactly four years to the day that I found myself in a secure unit in King’s Lynn, with little hope and bleak prospects.  It is just over three years since I previously pressed the ‘reset’ button and started volunteering as a teacher for Norwich Mind, the mental health charity. I wrote about my future intentions in November 2013 in a post here.

Variety is the spice of life, so they say.  By taking on 3 or 4 different roles, I can mix up my working life.  Rather than teach regular classes, I will focus on tutoring 1-2-1, mostly in Norwich.  Today, I launch my Facebook page advertising my services.  I believe that I have to start small, build up a reputation once more and work on promoting myself. I will be extrinsically motivated to get involved in different things and to make it sustainable.  I have just started volunteering as an ESOL teacher and mentor with a refugee charity. I also hope to be doing some IT and social media work soon for Mind.  This still leaves me free to teach online and to do some promotional work for the Teacher Training Videos website.

By going self-employed I am regaining control of when and where I work. I can mitigate some of the pressures that caused me to start jobs and not stay in them for long.  I am feeling fairly positive now, buoyed by my decision, but it will take some effort to ‘rebuild’ myself. Especially over the next few weeks as I recover from an unexpected road traffic accident on 4 February, which I walked away from with just a minor fracture of a metacarpal in my left wrist and a badly bruised rib cage.

If you are reading this and live in the Norwich area and would like to have lessons with me or know someone that might be interested, please do not hesitate to get in contact.  My first lesson (meeting) is free and further lessons can be negotiated.  More information can be found on my ‘About’ page on here.  Even if you are not an English student but am interested by my change in employment status, I would really appreciate your support and advice. Especially if you have made this move yourself.

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Birds over Norwich market

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Mind mapping Tools

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Classroom Management Mind Map: Brainstorming ideas for a job interview

This post is about some tools that are available for creating mind maps. These are used widely in education, not exclusively in English language teaching.   I have created tutorial videos for each of the tools.  It also follows on directly from an excellent Business English SIG webinar (see below) given by Ron Morrain, on using mind maps in the classroom, which I attended yesterday.

Mind mapping techniques are used in business for problem solving and decision making. They are used for strategic thinking, giving presentations and used for coaching others. They can help a prospective employee in getting prepared for a job interview, as in my own real example above. For the student, a mind map can be a very useful ‘aide memoire’ to review notes taken in a lecture or for exam revision.  Brainstorming is often done individually or in groups and many mind mapping web tools allow for this to happen collaboratively.  There are some sound reasons for using mind mapping and tools should only really be used if there is some pedagogical benefits.

“The combination of technology, mind mapping, and L2 skills acquisition (reading, writing, speaking, and listening), make for a high energy and very interactive L2 learning experience.” (Ron Morrain interviewed by Phil Wade – here)

This is not one of those posts entitled ’50 mind map tools you must use in class tomorrow’. That kind of list is counter-productive. There are plenty of freely available tools out there, which you can find for yourself, as well as some premium ones.  I’m only going to focus on and compare three in this post.  Each one has its own appeal and I will offer some advantages and disadvantages for each one.

Some available software is highly technical and recommended more for the professional, such as web developers, who need to map out program decision making. FreeMind, for example, is free, premier  mind-mapping software written in Java.   The landing page itself will be enough to put off most people. Similarly, you can expect the inventor of mind mapping, Tony Buzan, to have has his own patented software called iMind Map, currently in its 9th edition. He charges a mere £2495 per person, by the way, to attend one of his courses.

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Free Mind

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iMindMap9

Some considerations when choosing your mind mapping tool:

  • Can it be used offline as well as online?  Is there an app version or a browser plug-in?
  • Is it free or do you need to pay for the full features?
  • How does it look?  The aesthetic appeal is important if you are to export the maps or to use them in presentations.  Beautiful looking mind maps can draw the eye.
  • What templates can you integrate into your design?  These can be useful for saving time and presenting your work in a more visually appealing way.
  • How accessible are they?  Is there an ease of use? Do they improve on using a pen and paper?  Are they quicker?  Do they produce better results?  These matter a lot in rapid brainstorming.
  • Can you collaborate easily?  Another critical feature if you need to work together away from the workplace or classroom.
  • Can you create a flowchart?  Not all of them do this as they don’t allow for directional arrows.
  • Can you cross link information in one part of a mind map to another related part?
  • Are you able to save and share the maps easily?  Is it secure or is there a risk with the particular tool?  This is important as you wouldn’t want to be restricted to downloading your creations in one format.  You may have the option to export a .jpeg or .png image.  An export format like PDF is a good additional option. You may want to integrate your creations into Word, PowerPoint or other software.

I took a closer look at three mind mapping tools out there, which all offer something different from each other. There are links to tutorial videos for each one.

Text2MindMap

Text2MindMap is great for creating quick mind maps from a text list.  Each text line becomes a node in the mind map. A new branch of nodes can be created with an indentation. It is a very simple piece of software, which does not appear to be maintained by its creators.  Indeed, when I used it the security certificate for it had just lapsed.  You can bypass the security warning which comes up in Firefox and Chrome by clicking ‘advanced’ provided you are not entering any personal or sensitive information.

It is a web-based, browser-based tool.  It acts like a spider diagram or a tree, with a ‘root’ being the central topic and ‘branches’ coming off this.  Subsequent branches can be created by adding new levels by indenting text in the window on the left-hand side.

  • Advantages:
  • It’s free.  You don’t need to sign up or pay anything.  There is a pay-for option but I can’t see this makes any difference to the features.
  • It’s simple, quick and easy to use.
  • It converts linear text which can be copied and pasted in from another source, if already indented.
  • You can drag individual text boxes or the whole mind map around the screen.
  • You can edit the colour, text size and general appearance of each ‘branch’ (box) and can do this by branch or level.
  • You can write directly on the connecting ‘nodes’ (lines) – although this doesn’t work that effectively.
  • You can save the mind map or get a URL link for accessing later.
  • Disadvantages:  
  • There is no app version for tablet or desktop.
  • You can’t collaborate with others.
  • It currently has an invalid security certificate, which I address in the videos, so don’t part with any money!
  • The connecting ‘nodes’ are simple lines. You cannot create flowcharts with directional arrows.
  • You can’t add images or shapes.

Popplet

A full set of tutorial videos for using Popplet 

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Popplet is a great-looking tool which has been around since 2010.  It has a large community of users worldwide who share their finished ‘Popplet’ boards in a public area. It is fairly versatile, intuitive and has a very clear and clean design.  It can be used by any age group and there are lots of options to share and work on boards collaboratively.  What I like about this most is the way the mind maps appear.  You can edit individual ‘popples’ (boxes) by colour and have nametags associated with each one – great if students are collaborating.  You can upload or copy images into popples and even add links to Vimeo or YouTube.  In addition, there is a fantastic blog called ‘Poppletrocks!’ which has lots of suggestions for how to use the tool.

There is a version for iPad or tablet which costs £3.99 or a free version called Popplet Lite.

  • Advantages:
  • It’s free to use, but you need to pay for additional features and options, which I would recommended if you are in an educational setting where the institution can pay.
  • It’s intuitive and fun to play around with.
  • Navigation of your board is straight forward with zooming in/out and dragging options.
  • Collaboration is not only supported but actively encouraged.
  • Boards can be set to private or public or shared in a number of ways.
  • There are formatting options, such as grid layout, which you don’t get in many mind mapping tools.
  • Comments can be added to individual ‘popples’.  This could be a teacher’s opinion or can be used to show image references.
  • You can present your board in one of two ways.
  • Adding content is relatively easy, although you might need to download an image first before uploading into the board.
  • You can export to .jpeg or .png or .pdf.  Or directly to a Pinterest board.
  • There is well-maintained blog with useful tips, ideas and a support team (powered by GetSatisfaction) with many existing queries already answered.  They also get back to you very quickly!
  • Disadvantages:  
  • The connecting lines are non editable. You cannot create flowcharts as, like the above tool, there are currently no directional arrows.  You can’t add lines off other lines, either, making family trees difficult – I tried in vain.
  • Adding videos is great but playing them currently brings a minor technical issue about how the video is displayed on the screen, which I address in the tutorials.
  • Adding an image directly from a URL link doesn’t always work.  It depends on the size of the original.  The dialogue box (screenshot below) doesn’t always appear, although I’m told it’s not needed if you copy and paste the link directly into the ‘popple’.adding-an-image-via-url-dialogue-box

There is an introduction (part 1) by Russell Stannard showing you what you can do with Popplet, followed some more detailed videos (part 2) by me here.

Sketchboard.io

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Sketchboard  has an .io domain name, suggesting the name was chosen with ‘input/output’ or a binary system of 1s and 0s, in mind.  It is a very sophisticated piece of software, designed by a Finish computer coder, Saiki Tanabe.  Sketchboard is more of a collaborative whiteboard rather than a dedicated mind mapping program.  It was designed for colleagues to work from remote locations.  It came from his own frustration with software development.  Teams can co-create their visual thoughts using structural sketching. Workspaces are vital for collaboraite brainstorming paired with a good chat app.  You can create boards with endless drawing space by dragging the canvas area. It allows for freehand drawing, ready-made templates and numerous shapes, which can be edited to the user’s specific needs. Like the majority of mind mapping tools, Sketchboard.io also comes with a choice of free and paid plans. The free plan is for 5 users. There is a fantastic Sketchboard user gallery for showing off some fine examples.

The main advantage I found with Sketchboard over the two other two tools is the ability to create flowcharts, because not only are a range of directional arrows allowed, but you can attach these arrows to shapes and drag them around the board effortlessly.  Only single lines or ‘nodes’ are available in Text2MindMap and Popplet.

  • Advantages:
  • It’s free to use to use for public boards.  To have numerous private boards you need to sign up to one of the pricing options.
  • You can add shapes from the on screen ‘toolbox’ plus there is a huge library of existing templates.
  • You can create flowcharts, because there are a range of directional and connecting arrows.
  • It is great for more technical projects as was designed with software or coding in mind.
  • The freehand drawing tool gives you the option to replicate hand-drawn maps.
  • You can create teams for collaborative work and assign admin rights.
  • Boards can be annotated and commented on by team members.
  • Boards can be presented in a visually focused way.
  • Boards can be exported as SVG, PNG and PDF.  Apparently these include a watermark, on a free plan, but I didn’t find this happened.
  • You can also integrate Sketchboard with team tools like Slack, Google Drive, HipChat, GitHub, and FlowDock.
  • Disadvantages:  
  • It might be a little tricky for low level users.
  • You need to have a paid account to embed images from your hard drive.
  • It’s a bit more expensive to have full features compared to other tools, but there are many pricing options.
  • It looks a big messy on mobile:

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Introduction to using Sketchboard

Using the Library

Presentation Mode

Conclusion

Each of the three tools I looked at offer something different.  I liked Popplet’s design and functionality. It is the most appealing, in my opinion, for use in the classroom. However, I really recommend Sketchboard. It is great and you can potentially do more with it, such as creating a family tree or more intricate maps.  It is better, however, for more technically-minded folk, while still not being intended for web developers or professionals, like FreeMind, for example.  The people at Sketchboard have already liked my tutorials, commented on them and have shared links on social media (see below). Text2MindMap is unfortunately let down by the lack of support and its expired certificate.  But it does a decent, basic job, especially if you already have a list of the notes you want to convert.

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This is a longer version of a post that was originally written for the Teacher Training Videos website.

For some beautiful hand drawn designs see Mind Map Art: http://www.mindmapart.com

References:

I looked at these two online articles in researching this topic:

Basu, S. 2015.  ‘8 Free Mind Map Tools & How To Best Use Them’ – http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/8-free-mind-map-tools-best-use/ November 27, 2015

Mind Tools, 2016:  https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newISS_01.htm

Mental Health and ELT

I am starting a conversation about mental health in English Language Teaching.  I am not sure if this has ever been discussed or debated widely within the industry.  In doing so, I am sharing some personal information about my experience of suffering from poor mental health at work. I do this in the hope that other teachers will open up, too, leading to more understanding and support for teachers as workers.  I have never known professional development or training within ELT deal with these kinds of issues. For many, a stigma still exists.  There is still a lot of misunderstanding and ignorance.  It is an ongoing challenge.

In the past, I have volunteered for the mental health charity, Norwich Mind, and am hoping to do something for them again in the near future. I was and still am intrinsically motivated. I also follow the Time To Change campaign which is foremost about ending discrimination, mostly in the workplace, against people who suffer with mental health issues.

I’ve always considered my own issues to be a personal thing, not one of institutional discrimination or workers’ rights. Nonetheless, to coincide with the national Time To Talk day, I’ve been interviewed by Paul Walsh for the Teachers as Workers Special Interest Group (TaWSIG). You can read the interview here.

The image on the right shows a censored version of my diary note (written on 10 October 2016) listing the 11 times since 2006 that poor mental health has impacted on my teaching career, including 2 trips to the IATEFL conference in Liverpool (2013) and Harrogate (2014).  I have redacted the details to protect myself and colleagues who worked with me or were my line managers at the time.

If the post proves to be popular then I might consider the possibility of speaking about it at a conference at a later date.  I’ve never seen this particular topic presented within our profession but am curious to know if it has been.

Please feel free to comment here or on the TaWSIG  site. I promise to personally respond to each and every one that leaves a message.

*update 6 Feb:  The interview post received hundreds of views in a few days. In the week following its publication, it was shared many times on social media. It inspired at least two other bloggers, Sandy Millin and Elly Setterfield to write their own personal responses to coincide with Time to Talk day, including lots of links and resources on this topic.  I was thrilled by the response and hope to follow this up at a later date.  In the meantime, I am planning on approaching Mind once more to see if they have any work for me.

The Benefits of Volunteering

Window on Norwich Market

Window on Norwich Market

I have just applied to be a volunteer with VSO .  It is only a general enquiry at this stage, no commitment.   I am already thinking ahead to what I might do after pre-sessional work this summer.  I would aim to leave the UK around 1 October and travel overseas to teach, possibly in Ethiopia.  I am not adverse to volunteering, having previously been a nightshelter worker on and off for four years in Cambridge and having started my teaching career by helping out at an orphanage in Tanzania.  Whilst I was a sabbatical officer at Anglia Polytechnic (Ruskin) University, I encouraged other students to volunteer in various ways and promoted the benefits of doing so, not least the ‘work’ experience that can be gained. This can look great on a CV, of course.  Other benefits of volunteering include the positive impact on those communities you work with, the positive feeling you get from doing good things and what it can do for personal confidence.

According to VSO’s Education Page:

You’ll be working alongside local colleagues, helping them develop their teaching methodologies and practices. That might mean helping teachers across several schools to build their confidence in the classroom. It could mean working with education authorities on curriculum development and school management. You might even work to make sure teachers are better valued, developed and supported.

http://www.vso.org.uk/volunteer/opportunities/teaching-and-education/english-language-teachers. Accessed 13.02.14.

Mind Office

Mind Office

I am currently volunteering  with Norfolk and Norwich Mind, the mental health charity, an area close to my heart, at The Forum, in Norwich.  It is more than just a stop-gap between jobs, as I wish to continue doing it once I am back in paid employment, if that is possible.  I am also helping out at a community church in the city’s King’s Street.  Both classes I would describe as informal and ESL/ESOL.  That is, they are free English classes for Speakers of other Languages who have found themselves by choice (being a full-time student at the University of East Anglia) or due to other factors living in the UK.  These other factors include coming to be with a spouse who is already living and working in the city or being migrant workers, refugees or asylum seekers. There is an overlap between the two classes as some of the students attend both, as well as there being one other volunteer who helps out at both.  We currently have a healthy number of Russians, a married couple from Syria, a couple of Iranians, a couple of Turks, a Lithuanian, a Pole and several from Taiwan and China, to mention just a few, but not by name.

If you do not know what the differences between ESL and EFL classes are, or why there might be a distinction, check out this summary of an #ELTchat from 27 February 2013.  It is not the first time I have taught lower levels, but (mostly) the Mind class is my first time to teach refugees/asylum seekers.  Their priorities and needs are different from your average university student.  They have more straightforward, day-to-day language needs.  They are not studying textbooks and are not being taught to test or to pass an exam.  Flashcards are something I have been using a lot of, so far, along with lots of gesture, mime and modelling the target language.  That is, when I am leading the lesson.  Pronunciation is also important at this level, especially for one student who is partially deaf.  It is certainly giving me back my slightly misplaced confidence, following my return from China last October.  In fact, I feel supremely confident once more.  The additional benefit is that it has provided a way back into ‘work’ – I will use this experience as a springboard to doing pre-sessional this summer, which will probably be at UEA INTO, thanks to the contacts I now have, although I am not ruling out Sheffield or other UK institutions.

If you have any experience of teaching refugees/asylum seekers, I would interested to know in the comments box below.

The Forum

The Forum