Wednesday, September 26, 2012

She Was in a Lift with a Priest Who Sneezed

By Dorothy Zemach
ESL Materials Writer, Editor, Teacher Trainer
Eugene, Oregon
Email: zemach at comcast dot net

You may be wondering why that title is important.

I know I am.

And I wrote it.

I found this gem of wisdom in a stack of old conference papers. A quick audience survey—how many teachers (and students) out there have that same stack of old conference papers? You know—handouts and notes you took at sessions at local, state, national, and international conferences. Yours might not be piled in a stack on the floor between two bookcases, like mine (which is not a system I recommend); perhaps yours are in the bottom of a box, or tucked inside folders and filed in a cabinet, or perhaps they’re in notebooks on your shelves.

But I bet you have them. Handouts, often on sheets of brightly colored paper so you’ll (in theory) notice them more. Sheets of loose-leaf paper with your careful outlines at the top, then the notes you wrote to the person sitting next to you halfway down, and finally at the bottom some doodles that might be flowers. Some brochures might be in there, too, for new (at the time) textbooks and CDs, exciting grant opportunities, volunteer teaching abroad programs.

How many years do your stacks go back? Mine aren’t too bad, if only because I moved around a lot, often from country to country, so I could thin things out each time I had to pay to ship my worldly possessions.

But I still have them. A few years ago I got inspired (if you want to call it that) and sorted many of them by subject area; so now I have a folder called “Reading,” and another called “Culture,” and another called “Grammar,” and so on. These are then carefully arranged in a file cabinet drawer. And I go through those folders just as often as go the stack on the floor between the bookshelves.

Which is to say, never.

That’s right. I feel a little nervous admitting this, but I’m just going to make a clean breast of it: I never revisit those folders (unless I am filing more papers into them). I save those papers that I think are important, and when I sort through them, I make that decision again (“This is important! I’ll need this someday!”), and then I file the papers away, and completely forget about them.

They’re not really gone, of course. They’re taking up physical space (a drawer and a half in my filing cabinet, and about 6 inches on the floor), and they’re taking up mental space. Because I haven’t really forgotten them, you see. I’ve forgotten the contents, sure, but not their existence. They live on in my semi-conscious, accusing me, reminding me that I was going to do something as soon as I got the time. Review the International Phonetic Alphabet. Finally figure out what neuro-linguistic programming was all about. Brush up on systemic functional grammar. Correlate state standards with my curriculum outcome goals. Why don’t I just get a Ph.D. while I’m at it? And learn to bake bread?

I remember the year I stopped making handouts for my own conference presentations. It was in 2005, the year I started doing presentations on teacher burnout. Because you know what? I think handouts contribute to teacher burnout. They seem so important! We collect them and cart them home and then carry them around for years, feeling guilty each time we see them because we remember we never did go and look up all the web links in the reference section.

Now, I know some handouts are useful, at least to some audience members. I don’t dispute that for a minute. But for everyone? At every talk? I can assure you too that when I tell audiences that they do not need to take notes, there is visible relief. Isn’t it enough that you’ve given up another weekend (or even week) away from your family and friends and outside interests to come, in a sense, to work? We—presenters—are professional teachers. Can we not say something in an hour that will be inspiring and memorable, without making it a chore or assigning homework?

My policy on handouts now is this: If you want one, email me and I’ll send it to you. Teachers do, sometimes—but then I think it’s the teachers who actually want the handout and who really will do something with it. Fair enough. I do want my presentations to be useful.

I’m sure some teachers reading this will be arguing with me already. “But when I present on X, I need handouts! They’re essential because … ” Well, fine, if they’re essential, by all means create them and hand them out! I’m just asking that you think, really think, about what you need a handout for, and what you expect your audience to do with it. If it has links, perhaps it would be more welcome in an electronic document anyway, where teachers could easily click them. Perhaps it would be easier for your audience to store documents on their computers, so they could search for them later by key word or topic, rather than trying to remember in what city, in what year, they might have heard something about vocabulary.

I see more and more conferences, though, that say things to presenters like “Handouts are expected.” Really? But you don’t know my topic yet, or how I plan to present it. I don’t have any wish to encourage paper collectors who won’t actually be able to use what I give them.

Now, every presenter is different of course, and presents on different topics, and in different ways. I’ve only told you how one person operates—me. So I’m interested in hearing from other teachers who attend conferences. Do you expect handouts? What do you do with your handouts when you get them? How do you store them? How often do you refer to them again?

Do you take notes when you attend presentations? What do you do with those notes? Are they useful to you later? Sometime in about, oh, 2008, I took notes at some conference, and I carefully noted down that title sentence: “She was in a lift with a priest who sneezed.” At the time, it must have seemed important. In fact, it seemed important enough that I kept it for years. But why? What does it mean? I have no idea.

But I know what I just did with it.

I threw it away.

And it felt good.

Comments

Comment from none
September 26, 2012 at 4:34 pm

empty meaningless article

Comment from Tamara Jones
September 26, 2012 at 11:33 pm

Hilarious post! You are right; teachers at many conferences go mad for hand-outs. Just watch what happens when speakers run out! I, for one, do like the hand-outs and I actually do refer back to many of them. (I keep my TESOL notes in a word document so I can easily search for a key word and then find the particular hand out I am looking for. I understand this makes me completely insane. Pity the man who has to live with me!) But, I also certainly wouldn’t have minded emailing you for the hand-out either.

Comment from naleeni
September 27, 2012 at 6:24 pm

I keep mine, so to read at leisure over a cuppa! Sometimes, you’re so caught up, hanging on to every word others speak, not to mention running around looking for the right rooms, things just get stashed away in the hold-all I carry with me.

Comment from Mimi
September 28, 2012 at 9:31 pm

I found this post to be both humorous and liberating! Thank you, Dorothy.

Comment from Claire
October 4, 2012 at 3:17 am

Thank you for your honesty and humor. Your post is perfectly timed as I’m preparing to speak (and give handouts) at our state conference this weekend.

Comment from Jim McLarty
February 17, 2013 at 4:03 pm

I suppose that the fear of forgetting is quite powerful, but if was worth remembering it would still be in our heads. Free your minds and cupboards of clutter!

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