The Year of the Shrew, Part One: Pastime Passing Excellent

When I first heard that SF Shakes was doing Taming of the Shrew, I wondered how anyone could take on this play now, here in San Francisco. Rebecca Ennals makes a strong case for looking beneath the surface anti-feminism and fighting. I can’t wait to see the performance.

Shake It Up


Tim Kniffin (Petruccio) and Carla Pantoja (Katherina) in SF Shakes’ upcoming production of The Taming of the Shrew.

Next week, we go into rehearsal for The Taming of the Shrew, and the season we’re calling The Year of the Shrew kicks into high gear. From the moment when we decided to produce this controversial comedy, I have immersed myself in research of past productions, arguments for and against the play, and my own concerns about how to present it. With this production, I want to reclaim the word “Shrew” and tackle the issues of female dis-empowerment in the play head-on. I hope to find in Katherina a damaged proto-feminist, and in Petruccio a reformed misogynist turned male ally – two prickly outsiders finding their way to each other in a culture full of gender-based expectations. And, of course, I want it to be very, very funny. All this…

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Trigger Warnings and the Problems of Required Labeling

When I was teaching college, I would have argued strongly that college students should be prepared for whatever readings the instructor wanted to assign. Looking back in light of current discussions of trigger warnings, I’m re-thinking my position, but it’s also becoming more nuanced.

Initial discussions of trigger warnings have been met with mockery or assertions that “we would have to label everything because someone might be offended by almost anything.” Yet generalized warnings hardly help. Those of use who spend anytime in California are often treated to (clearly legally mandated) signs asserting “This facility uses chemicals known to the State of California to cause lung cancer.” The problem with this warning is that it’s so broadly applied and so vague that it’s useless. What do I need to do with the information? Am I supposed to run through the facility without breathing? Never go in? Something about warning labels brings out the smart-aleck in me. A more effective warning label hangs in my dentist’s office on the x-ray machine cabinet. It says in English and Spanish, “If you are (or might be) pregnant, please tell us so that we can take extra precautions.” This warning is clearly targeted and connected to an action plan. They defer non-critical x-rays and use extra shielding for essential ones.

The discussion around trigger warnings is starting to move in this direction. A recent (but not yet posted) interview on KQED’s Forum mentioned letting students know about specific topics in specific readings, rather than a general warning. Telling students that a particular work has graphic images of violence or deals with suicide or rape enables them to get support and take care of themselves. Putting the information in the syllabus or course description lets students make informed decisions about whether they can deal with a particular topic in a particular semester. Reading about an older person’s death might be comforting or overwhelming if one is also facing a family member’s death. Russell Smith’s article in The Globe and Mail makes an even stronger case for doing this out of “human decency.”

Best of all, such warnings don’t hurt the literature. Romeo and Juliet carries tremendous power, even if you know they both commit suicide. Hamlet too, and Mrs. Dalloway. Yes, literature is about difficult topics. It helps us face them, think about them, talk about them. Knowing what kind of difficult conversation we’re about to have is not only compassionate, but makes for a better conversation. Let’s continue to showcase good examples of warnings that are specific, targeted, and actionable.


Educating our Children in the Humanities


The late Philip Seymour Hoffman’s will indicated a preference that his son be raised in San Francisco, Chicago, or Manhattan, “The purpose of this request is so that my son will be exposed to the culture, arts and architecture that such cities offer.” As a society, we devote a lot of energy to standardizing education, testing outcomes, increasing STEM content, and generally trying to make education the same for everyone. Yet, Hoffman’s will highlights something we are missing with all the standardization: the danger of making education equally bad and equally pointless.

Hearing Hoffman’s wish for his son made me think about the outside-the-classroom choices that my parents made and the choices my husband and I have made as parents. Growing up in the suburbs of Detroit and then Flint, “culture, arts, and architecture” were a little thin on the ground. There were museums, plays, and the occasional symphony concert, but what we didn’t have was critical mass of people who cared about the arts and talked about them. Despite a wonderful, bright extended family and a few dear friends, we didn’t have that 24 x 7 soup of culture, arts, and architecture. So, early on, my parents started taking us to Toronto. Braving the QEW over winter breaks, we spent more than one snowstorm in Simcoe. But our parents’ objective was to have us experience what a real city was like, one where as a teen I could ride the subway on my own, where there were lots of innovative restaurants, books, magazines, bigger art museums, more people focused on the arts.

That early exposure was part of what prompted me to apply to graduate school in Dublin, a city sometimes overshadowed by London, but with a hugely literate culture. Two (that I know of) the 20 students from my MA program are published authors.  People in pubs had reasoned opinions about literature, contemporary world events, art. Over winter break, I spent my first week in London, where a guy who was very interested in the friend I was traveling with gave us a brilliant tour of the Inns of Court. It wasn’t a matter of a few more museums, or even safe, reliable mass transit (although that made a difference). The critical factor came from just bumping in to people who were well-educated and cared about history, culture, architecture.

Fast forward to my own parenthood. I have struggled to find schools that work well for my child, and after 15 years, finally realized that a combination of homeschooling and community college is the right answer for us. I feel like it took way too long to figure that out and I probably could have saved everyone a lot of grief by doing it sooner. What we did do well, though, was travel. Starting when our child was less than 2 weeks old, we were up in a small plane. We’ve done road trips around the US, hit the history sites in Philadelphia and the Smithsonian in Washington, even been to Beijing as a family. We keep going back to London, though. It’s the place that grounds us because of the “culture, arts, and architecture,” and I would add history. The cultural texture is so thick and so deep there that our child couldn’t help but become immersed in it, developing a perspective that’s informed by history, literature, music, wit, drama.

Education, after all, comes from the Latin, for to lead out. Education leads us out of ourselves, out of the narrow confines of our worldview. Whatever steps we take as parents to lead our children to a broader, more informed worldview enhances their education.Image: London double-decker bus

Really Easy No-Knead Bread

Sliced bread on board

You’ll need a good knife for this crusty bread.

Most of my experiments with homemade bread recently had been dumping a long list of ingredients into a bread machine that produced bread that was only okay and was shaped poorly, unless I had wanted to build a structure instead of a sandwich. But then I remembered hearing about another way to make bread with a dutch oven.

We have a dutch oven that has been taking up space on the kitchen floor. I googled and found a whole blog as well as a column from the New York Times. I lifted the lid on the dutch oven and found–a lump of beeswax and several dead bees. Clearly the dutch oven had been pressed into service as part of DH’s beekeeping project. I got rid of the bees and wax, scrubbed, dried and re-seasoned the dutch oven.

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon yeast
1 1/2 cups water
Mix, let rise overnight. Cook covered in a dutch oven 
pre-heated to 450F for 30 minutes, remove cover and cook 
for an additional 15 minutes.
Risen bread in mixing bowl

Dough is still sticky and wet-looking after rising overnight.

Could a recipe this simple really make good food? Let’s see. The dough needs to proof 12-18 hours, so I resigned myself to not having homemade bread until tomorrow and forged ahead. Because the recipes warned that the dough was sticky, I decided to use the dough hook on the stand mixer. Whisk the dry ingredients. Gradually add water while mixing. Place plastic wrap over the top of the mixer bowl with a rubber band to secure and the dough is ready to sit over night. The next morning, it’s time to bake.

Dough on board

I used about 1/3 cup of flour to keep the dough from sticking as I shaped it. Use flour on your hands too.

Shaped dough on floured board

Dough is holding a rough ball shape and ready to move to the pre-heated dutch oven.

At this point, I had to do a little more thinking. Because our dutch oven was large, heavy, and equipped with legs, I tested to be sure it fit in the oven with the rack in the lowest position. This exercise nearly pulled the heating element out.

Dutch oven pre-heating

This big dutch oven, with its spiky legs, required some re-arrangement of the oven.

I moved the rack up and also made sure that the oven door would support the lid while I put the dough in, since there was no way I was going to carry the dutch oven to the dough and back once it got to 450 degrees.

Using the plastic wrap to carry the dough (which is still loose) was very helpful.

Transporting dough

Simply So Good’s recipe suggests re-using the plastic wrap from the rise to transport the dough.

Drop/slide the dough into the waiting dutch oven.

Lid off crock pot

Make sure you know where you’re going to put the lid before you pick it up. It’s heavy and hot.

Dough in dutch oven

If the dough doesn’t quite land in the middle of the dutch oven, it really doesn’t matter.

I used a wooden spoon to move the dough into the center of the dutch oven, but I think that only made a low spot in the resulting loaf. Next time, I’ll leave it where it lands.

After 30 minutes covered at 450F, it was time to take the lid off,

Dough after 30 minutes cooking

Cook 30 minutes covered at 450 and then remove the lid and cook for another 15 minutes.

giving me the first look at the bread.

Let the bread cool completely on a wire rack. Mine was cool in about an hour. Slice with a serrated bread knife and enjoy.

Getting Across the Mountains in the Winter


Over the last four years, I have made dozens of trips between California and Nevada, mostly in a Prius. I’ve learned a few strategies and gathered some resources for getting safely across the mountains.

Give Yourself Time

If you have to make a flight or a meeting at a specific time, give yourself a 36-48 hour window for travel. The main highways in the mountains don’t close every time there is snow, but if they close in the 4-6 hours before you need to be in Reno, Sacramento or San Francisco, you’ll be kicking yourself for not having left earlier. After a big snow storm, crews work to get the roads open quickly, but it can take several hours to plow the roads and clear spin-outs.
Watch the Weather
Conditions change suddenly in the mountains. It might be fine at 10 am and snowing heavily an hour later. Check the forecast regularly  Check the high point on your route frequently and pay attention what it says about snow levels and temperatures. If you are traveling over I-80 between California and Nevada, here’s a link to a point in Donner Pass.
Watch the Traffic
Friday nights eastbound and Sunday nights westbound are notoriously bad times to travel. Avoid them. If you are working remotely, use that flexibility to time necessary travel so you avoid traffic and take advantage of breaks in the weather. The hours right after a major storm can also be slow, just because of backed-up traffic. Caltrans has a wonderful web site where you can check current road conditions and view videos of current conditions. Here’s what Soda Springs looks like. You can also like Caltrans District 3 on Facebook and to get updates.
Prepare Your Car Make sure that your car is in good running condition and that you have the following accessible in the car:
Warm Clothing and a blanket or two
Window scraper
Washer fluid that won’t freeze (available at auto supply and grocery stores in Nevada).
060/365 Second-hand Snow Chains

060/365 Second-hand Snow Chains (Photo credit: t0msk)

Pack as if you might get stuck and you probably won’t, but you never know when an accident or sudden change in the weather will cause a delay–even if you have planned carefully.
Understanding Chains
Carry the correct tire chains in your car in the winter, unless you have a car with 4-wheel drive AND all-weather/M&S tires. One or the other isn’t enough. N-DOT and Caltrans are absolutely serious about chains. If there’s a chain control notice for I-80, there’s going to be a little booth, with someone checking every car. Just before the booth, you will see chain installers who will put your chains on or take them off (if you’re leaving the chain control area) for a fee. Last year, it was $30 to put chains on and $15 to take them off. Sometimes gas stations just off the highway offer slightly lower rates. I think it’s worth paying a pro to put the chains on. They have the tools, the foul-weather gear, and it takes them about 2-3 minutes per car. I often take my own chains off because it’s easier than putting them on and harder to mess up.
Prepare Yourself
Travel when you well-rested. If it looks like a long drive, share the driving with someone. Winter driving requires more concentration.
Prepare Options
Sometimes, no matter how well you plan, something goes wrong. A bad accident can close 80 for several hours. When this happens, it might be more efficient to take another route over the mountains, or to wait. Check your route ahead of time for rest stops, gas stops, restaurants that are open. Between Kingvale and Colfax, there just aren’t a lot of places to stop. I once sailed through Auburn thinking I would get gas at Kingvale. Driving uphill took more gas (this was in a larger car) than I expected and I was anxiously counting the miles to Nyack. There are rest areas at Gold Run and Donner Summit.
Adjust Your Driving
Slow down, please. Even if you have 4 wheel-drive or chains, it still takes longer to stop on ice or snow. Pull well out in front of trucks when you pass them. Let people pass you if they’re driving faster. If you’re in a chain control area, obey the speed limits. Think well ahead of the car. If traffic is slowing down, gradually ease off of the accelerator, rather than braking. When I’m driving in winter conditions, I try to make the smallest, slowest inputs to the car. I avoid sudden turns, braking, or acceleration. Not only is it safer, but it saves gas.
Safe travels!

Getting Accommodations for the CHSPE as a Newbie Homeschooler

Standardized Test Close-Up

Standardized Test Close-Up (Photo credit: biologycorner)

Homeschool students often find it useful to take the California High School Proficiency Exam (CHSPE) because they want to work or enter community college. If you’re new to homeschooling as we are, producing all the paperwork to be approved for accommodations (for example, extra time, or computer use for the essay) takes a little extra effort, but we were successful. In case it’s useful to anyone else, here’s what we did.

–>Note that when requesting accommodations, all documents have to be in by the regular registration deadline. The regular deadline for the next CHSPE is Feb. 15 for the March 16 test. More info on dates on the CHSPE calendar.

1. Get supporting documentation required for any accommodations you are requesting. This might be a letter from a professional or copy of a 504 plan if your child has recently been enrolled in a traditional school. It must be dated within 36 months (be less than 3 years old).

2. If your student is not yet 16 you will need to fill out and submit a Statement-in-Lieu if you haven’t already filed a PSA
3. Put a copy of your Statement-in-Lieu or of  PSA or have your education consultant fill out the school portion of the registration form.
4. Fill out the test registration form, including verifying student’s eligibility to take test (if student is 16, ID with date of birth meets the eligibility requirement). Otherwise parent as director/administrator of homeschool fills out that section of registration form.
5. Get a cashier’s check for the $110 test fee.
6. Mail/Fedex everything to the appropriate address on registration form.
–>Note that there is a different address if (like me) you are doing this at the last minute and using Fedex.
I Fedex’d everything on the Thursday one day before everything was due and we had the confirmation (by email) of registration within 2 business days and a physical letter approving the requested accommodations two business days later.

London with Teens–A Flexible Approach


We’ve been traveling with our daughter, now 15, since she was less than two weeks old. When a friend recently asked for recommendations about seeing London with teens, it got me thinking about how much we love visiting London with her. Traveling with a child or young adult can really open up your experience, so that you get beyond the tourist attractions and experience places more like a local. All it takes a little flexibility. Here are some tips for having a great visit.

Avoid Summer Holidays
We avoid the summer tourist season, June-September. Air fares are highest then and everything is crowded. Who wants to spend vacation waiting in a two-hour line to see the crown jewels? Apart from the summer, though, school vacations can be a great time to go. If it’s a school holiday in England, there are often special activities for children and teens. Larger castles often have medieval cooking and craft demonstrations during school holidays, or historical re-enactments. Our first family trip to the Tower of London was during Easter school holidays. One of the activities was a troop of actors doing an audience-participation performance of Colonel Blood’s plot to steal the crown jewels, a much more active way to learn history than reading guidebooks.

Consider a Flat, Instead of a Hotel

Hotels can be expensive in London, and eating multiple meals out every day can really increase costs. Look for accommodations that include a kitchen. Many independent hotels have studio or one-bedroom flats with kitchens and small dining areas. With a kitchen, you can buy something inexpensive at the local Tesco’s or Sainsbury’s, or, if you’re lucky, Waitrose. By making your own tea and toast, you can feed everyone for less than what you’d pay for one meal out. If you eat a hearty lunch out, you can make sandwiches at the flat or have tea and cakes for an evening meal. Pick a place that’s close to one or more Underground stations. The hotel web site will tell you the nearest station and walking distance to it.

Get Around Without a Car

The Oyster card works on the Tube and buses

In fact, having a car in central London costs extra. But that’s okay because between the Underground (Tube), the overground, the Docklands Light Rail, buses, and taxis, it’s very easy to get anywhere in London. Not to mention walking, which is often the most interesting way to get to where you’re going. When you arrive at Heathrow, follow the signs for the Terminals 123 entrance to the Tube. Buy an Oyster card for each member of your group and put 25 pounds or so on it. You can pay for this with a credit card, but it’s a separate transaction for each person’s Oyster card. It’s easy to top up cards at any station, as well as many newsagents. Oyster cards work on all of London transport and automatically calculate the best fare for you at the end of each day, based on where you actually traveled. Pick up one of the free Tube maps. The agent who sells your ticket or the one attending the gate will be happy to tell you which line to change to for your hotel. Touch your Oyster card to the reader each time you enter or leave the Tube system. You’ll start out on the Picadilly Line and the trip should take about an hour. If you’ve got a lot of luggage, you can always take a taxi from the Underground to your hotel. There are fast and express trains to and from Heathrow, but they’re more expensive. The people-watching on the Tube is more fun anyway.

Spend a Few Pounds Your First Day

TimeOut London Magazine - cover story is 50 Be...

TimeOut London Magazine – cover story is 50 Best London Websites (Photo credit: Route79)

Roaming charges on your home cell phones can quickly add up. It’s better to purchase either low-cost UK mobile phones or UK sim cards with Pay As You Go Service. Put 10 or 15 pounds on each phone. You can add funds (“top up”) your phone at many of the same locations where you top up your Oyster card. Once you have a cell phone and Oyster card, stop in at a newsagent for a copy of Time Out and a couple of copies of London A to Z (“a to zed”). The listings in Time Out cover a magnificent variety of shows, museum exhibits, festivals, concerts…if it’s happening in London, it’s listed there. Each listing ends with an icon showing the transport system (bus/rail/tube) and the name of the nearest stop. The A to Z lists every street in London with a grid reference to a corresponding map. Copies range from about 5 pounds to 8 or 9 pounds, depending on size. The very smallest ones are handy, but can be difficult to read, especially while walking or riding a bus. I like the second-smallest size. It still fits in a pocket or bag and is easier to read. Oh, and if it’s raining, the newsagent probably has umbrellas for about 4 pounds.

Balance History and Culture with Teen Interests

Rather than trying to cram all the popular historical attractions into one visit, focus on a couple and separate them by a couple of days. Devote the other days to finding less touristy options that match teen interests. London is so full of history, that this strategy is really like hiding vegetables in a recipe for cupcakes. Our daughter’s interest in acting schools led us to two free performances by one of the excellent acting schools in London, at the only surviving Music Hall in London. Her interest in Science Fiction sent us to a special exhibit at the British Library, and to the Forbidden Planet bookstore.  She also chose a wonderful beach-combing walk along the Thames with an archeologist, a Jack-the-Ripper walk with the former curator of the City of London Crime museum, and a walk around Rotherhithe and into the shaft of Brunel’s Thames tunnel with the curator of the Brunel museum.

A great find in Notting Hill.

Shop Around

There are lots of brand-name shops on Regent St. and Oxford St, but if you like searching for bargains, head for The Stables near Camden. This cobblestone collection of shops started life as a hospital for horses that pulled the barges on the nearby canal. Stores range from vintage and steampunk clothing to common tourist stuff, with lots of inexpensive  food options. Walking along the road toward Camden (downhill) from the Chalk Farm tube station, you’ll see several other vintage shops. Just past the stables you’ll come into the oft-photographed Camden shopping district. In Shoreditch, you’ll find the world’s first pop-up mall.The area around Notting Hill tube stop has several stores with inexpensive clothes and shoes. There is a huge market in Portobello Road on Saturday mornings, but it’s extremely crowded, and many shops and stalls are selling the same t-shirts you can find anywhere. If you’re interested in antique scientific instruments, check out the antique shops mid-day during the week. If you’re near Seven Dials, be sure to try the cheese at Neal’s Yard Diary, which used to be in Neal’s Yard, but moved around the corner to Shorts Gardens. And although there is no bookstore at 84 Charing Cross Road, Foyle’s and Blackwell’s are very nearby.

Cabinet War Rooms

Cabinet War Rooms (Photo credit: Iphtjes)

Focus on Special Interest Museums

London is a wonderful city of museums, many of which simply ask you to make a donation. The Science Museum, Victoria and Albert, the British Museum, to name a few. If it’s a school holiday, you will want to stay away from the dinosaurs at the natural history museum, as well as the London Zoo. Both will be mobbed, and they aren’t really any different from similar museums elsewhere. In London, the speciality museums are really worth your time. There are museums dedicated to photography, architecture, medicine, military history, maritime historyurban history. Some of the more specialized museums charge admission, but are well worth it. Walk through the Cabinet War Rooms to see where Churchill and others worked underground.

See a Show

English: Ticket Booth, Leicester Square W1

English: Ticket Booth, Leicester Square W1 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Leicester Square Ticket booth will sometimes have bargains on tickets for theatrical performances, you can even check availability a day or two before you leave. During the season, there are almost always 5-pound tickets for performances at Shakespeare’s Globe, but at that price, you have to stand through the performance and experience it as a “groundling.” Many of the theatre schools in London offer low-cost performances and you might get to see a great actor before s/he becomes famous. Smaller theatres, outside the West End will also have more reasonable ticket prices. These will be listed in your copy of Time Out.

Find Your Local People

Very Normal London People!

Very Normal London People! (Photo credit: Jody Art)

If you or your teens belong to a group, see if there’s a chapter in London. If your teens are interested in computers and there’s a technology show in town, let them go. Even though there’s technology at home, the opportunity to connect with Londoners who share an interest can be more valuable than seeing one more historical marker. If you like French food, go to a French restaurant, or a Chinese or Indian one. Check the listings on lectures to see if there’s a movie premiere or a special performance or presentation. Take a one-day class in Falconry or a horseback riding lesson. If you let your and your teen’s interests lead you, it will be a wonderful trip.

Good Content Strategy: Talk Like a Pilot


Pilot (Photo credit: Barnaby Kerr Photography)

If you’ve ever listened to Channel 9 audio on a United flight, you’ve heard conversations between pilots and air traffic control. The structure of these conversations, although developed early in the twentieth century, has a lot to teach us about content strategy and twenty-first century communications.

Novice pilots are often nervous about breaking into the stream of messages, especially in busy air space like the San Francisco Bay Area. Everyone is talking at the same time, using specialized language, and it’s very hard just to get a word in. Does this sound at all familiar to any content or communications professionals? Flight instructors have a very simple way to break down this challenge for students. They tell us that a correct radio call includes four things: who you’re talking to, who you are,  where you are, and what you want. Pilots evolved this communications structure in the days when radios didn’t work very well. To break through the static, communications had to be simple and clear. Sort of like trying to break through all the marketing messages your prospects are bombarded with.

Answering these four simple questions provides a model for creating clear messages, no matter who you are talking to. Here’s how it works.

Who are you talking to?

Too often, companies produce generic messages. Any comms manager more than a week out of school has had the experience of asking about the audience for a product and hearing the dreaded “Everyone needs this.” Well, no. Pilots who want to land don’t call, “Hey everyone, I want to land.” Everyone doesn’t care. With messages, narrower is better. You’ll get more attention and response from people who actually do care about your product, whether that’s “mothers with newborns in Santa Cruz” or “owners of vacation property” or “Fortune 100 IT managers concerned about securing remote devices.” The more carefully you define your audience, the more you can craft your message to suit them, to get them to do what you want.

Who You Are

Pilots identify their flight/aircraft numbers so that ATC knows who they are talking to and knows what to expect. Familiar voices from large, well-known airlines get abbreviated instructions. They are a known quantity. For marketers, the company brand provides the same function. Your brand identity, voice, and promise tell your customers and prospects who they’re dealing with and what to expect. A message from Apple or United Airlines has the force and values of a large, well-known company behind it. The value of your brand gives you a head start on communications with your customers because they know who is talking to them. Start-ups need to do a little more work in initial communications to tell audiences who they are. Using a distinctive voice, not trying to sound like every other B to B marketing message is one way to do this. If you’re a scrappy start-up, say so. Brands like Groupon do this well.

Where You Are

How does your product or service fit into activities your prospects are trying to accomplish? Not what you want to do, but what they want to do. To belabor the pilot analogy, if I’m landing at San Francisco, I give my position relative to a checkpoint they use; I don’t tell them I’m over the IKEA in East Palo Alto, even if I think they know where it is. I’m asking them to do something for me (give me a landing clearance), so I want to make it as easy as possible for them. Whether it’s getting children into a better preschool or complying with HIPPAA information security requirements, tell your customers how you can help them accomplish their goals. Trust me, they don’t care about your goals.

What You Want

Create a clear, simple call to action. At some companies, the rule is no more than three words. “Click to view,” “Learn more,” “Buy it now,” and “Sign me up!” are good examples. Any of these could go in a very short paragraph (maybe 30-40 words at most), if you want to provide more context. What you really want at this point, though, is to move the prospect to the next step in the conversation, to take an action that gives you permission to continue the conversation.

Using these four questions can also help flag content that is cluttering up your message. Maybe you’re trying to explain how the solution works before you know whether a prospect is interested. If so, save the “how it works” content for later in the sales cycle, possibly with a different audience than your initial conversation.

– – – – – –

In case you’re interested, a radio call (that you might hear on a flight into SFO) goes ” San Francisco, United 930, Woodside, inbound, landing Mike.”  This call translates to: United Flight 930 is over Woodside VOR (a navigation point), heading toward San Francisco Airport and wants to land. “Mike” is the international phonetic alphabet abbreviation for M and means that the flight crew has listened to and understood the current automatic weather report for San Francisco airport, updated hourly with a new letter of the alphabet.

A Social Approach to Learning French–Thoughts on Duolingo

Because we are looking for a way to home-school third-year French, language study has been on my radar this summer.

English Language Lab

English Language Lab (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Learning languages

other than English has always been both too easy and too hard for me. When people ask if I speak other languages, I sometimes say that I can say “Please,” “Thank you,” “Hello” and “Goodbye” in 6 or 8 languages but can’t really speak any other language fluently. Typically, I begin studying a new language to rave reviews. My ability to mimic gets me points from Spanish teachers for getting the ñ and rolling r sounds, from German professors for not turning “ich” into “ish” or “ick,” and from lecturers in Hiberno-English for making the sound between “t” and “th” that appears so often. Having dabbled in so many languages has been great for my vocabulary in English and means that I pick up words in European languages quickly–too quickly. Because I understand the initial lessons, I don’t study them enough to get them set in my brain. Very quickly, the pace of vocabulary and grammar exceeds what I can remember, because I didn’t put in the time with flash cards or written drills to solidify what I thought I knew.

I have been playing with Duolingo for about a month and finding it a very enjoyable way to resuscitate and solidify my school

English: The United Nations Security Council C...

English: The United Nations Security Council Chamber in New York, also known as the Norwegian Room Français: La Salle de réunion du Conseil de sécurité des Nations Unies à New York Nederlands: De Zaal van de Veiligheidsraad van de Verenigde Naties in New York (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

French.  Duolingo’s blog explains that it provides “a free way to learn a language while also translating the web.” So far, it works quite well, especially for those of us who get bored with language drills and move on before we’ve really mastered something. The lessons are short. Most have 20 exercises that introduce a few words at a time and rather than forcing memorization of all the present tense forms of a verb, it teaches you one at a time, along with some vocabulary. One set of exercises will have you listen to, translate, write and back-translate “We drink the wine.” Anybody else drinking the wine comes up in a slightly later set of exercises. The exercises fit into small blocks of time. Duolingo very cleverly brings back terms for review that you have studied, so that you do actually learn them. “They drink” might be introduced along with reviewing the plural forms of animal names. So now, it’s elephants drinking. The balance of new and familiar material works really well. You can make progress with ten or 15 minutes a day. And Duolingo will send you a daily reminder email, although this feature doesn’t always work.

One of the other frustrations in learning being unable to deal with complex ideas until you have several years of language. Duolingo addresses this challenge by encouraging you to translate into your native language at first. Hardly a new idea–United Nations simultaneous interpreters translate into their native languages as this article in Slate explains. The web translation activities give you a chance to stretch beyond the basics from the very first lesson. Because I’m translating into English and am familiar with the style of wikipedia entries, I can translate much more advanced material than if I were translating into French. For example, I translated the French for “disambiguation page” in an article about the term “tube.” That was never on any of my first- or second-year vocabulary lists. Duolingo awards lots of points for translation. I tested out of the lesson on the differences between avoir and etre by translating an article on cholera. Knowing a little bit of medical jargon and having had a friend who worked during the early days of oral rehydration with sugar/salt solutions gave me enough background to work out what the French text had to say.

The cholera article was quite long and I probably wouldn’t have gotten though it without the social features of Duolingo.

English: Infographic on how Social Media are b...

English: Infographic on how Social Media are being used, and how everything is changed by them. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Learners translate articles sentence by sentence, with feedback based on how well their translations agree with others’ translations. For simple articles, there are lots of translations and if you don’t agree with 80-90 percent of other translations, you’ve probably done something wrong, like confusing indefinite and definite articles. (“Oh rats! It said des not les.”) With longer or more specialized articles, though, there are fewer translations and the ability to see and comment on others’ translations becomes very interesting. Duolingo sometimes can’t tell if your translation is correct, but you can see what others have done with the passage.  Sometimes a translation is more faithful to the French but not colloquial English. Sometimes there’s a better phrase in context, for example “contaminated” rather than just “dirty.” In a long article, seeing how others are translating tricky words in one sentence can make everyone’s translations better in subsequent sentences. When I suggest edits and offer explanations on others’ translations, I feel like I’m helping them learn as well. And I get more points.

Duolingo currently supports Spanish, German and French.

Engaging Reluctant Colleagues in Social Media Work

Last week, I had the privilege of attending a workshop on social media for non-profits. During one of the exercises, another attendee asked about getting reluctant colleagues to support social media outreach. She wasn’t asking how to do twitter or how to report out metrics on social media reach, she just wanted to get the folks at the next desk/cubical/office to pitch in, to support the goals of the organization they all believed in.

I’ve been thinking about social media a lot lately, to the point of analysis paralysis in trying to start this blog. For those whose day jobs are not dedicated to it social media gets overwhelming. So many platforms, ideas, tools make it hard to know where to start, what to do and when to stop. All this opportunity creates a challenge in getting colleagues, executives, and board members to “support social media” partly because they’re not sure what to do. In the communications work I do for businesses and non-profits, I see this a lot. A new project gets reviewed in a staff meeting and everyone is asked to support it. Then, almost nothing happens.

But here’s the trick. If you’re the communications person, you can get a lot more support with specific, directive requests. Instead of asking for “help,” give a very small, very specific assignment. Something like “Please like our Facebook page and leave a comment.” “Please follow us on twitter and re-tweet today’s announcement on our fundraising campaign.” The old rule for managers setting employee objectives provides helpful guidance. Make your requests:

  • Specific “Re-tweet”
  • Measurable “today’s tweet”
  • Actionable
  • Realistic
  • Time-bound “by the end of the day”

A couple more thoughts on actionable and realistic. The request becomes actionable when you send the tweet, so tweeting yourself and then making the request works better than asking first and frustrating people who try to re-tweet before you’ve tweeted.  To judge whether a request is realistic, ask in the meeting for a show of hands of those who have twitter accounts. You can discreetly follow up with anyone who doesn’t have an account to find out if they’re willing to try it. Walking them though account set-up, following the organization, and writing a tweet takes less time than drinking a cup of coffee.