Thursday, November 25, 2010

A Nasty Shock leads to New Resolve.

It was with a flutter in the heart that I heard via Twitter about a list posted on Alex Case's excellent TEFL blog, (a terrific labour of love and a great service to the ELT community) of 100 publications that most changed TEFL. I rushed over there as fast as my broadband would carry me and there it was. Rubbing my hands together with delicious anticipation, I scanned from the top. So where had he placed Potato Pals? Had he decided to put one or two serious methodological tomes above them? Had he decided by tossing a coin that Penny Ur's '5 Minute Activities' should occupy the tip-top spot ahead of Buddy and his subterranean chums?

Pulling up the blondes to let in the pale November dawn and sipping on my morning Nespresso, down the list I went. Ho Hum! Not in the top twenty? Thirty? Fifty? All the way down I went. The list even went to 113 but not so much as a Pringle let alone a set of cute stories that teach pre-primary to primary students simple sentences, basic vocabulary, and useful patterns through a unique system of picture cues using 16-page readers that feature appealing potato characters.

Some mistake surely, I thought, so I had a quick scroll back up to the top of the list. But I hadn't just missed them. The popular and innovative materials just weren't there. Absent. My eye was drawn to two more lists below the 'Major League'. The first was Not sure if they changed anything or not. Pleased not to have been on that one. The second was Could have/ should have changed TEFL but didn’t. 'Yes!' I thought. That's where you'll find Chip and his Cheeky Chums, the books that have yet to be recognised by a trip to the Lindsay Clandfield Hall at Buckingham Palace but no doubt soon will when OUP get round to bringing out the third series.

Again though, nothing.

Always the optimist, the rather exciting thought crossed my mind that Alex might be contacting me later in the day with news of some sort of a special section. An all-time winner. A lifetime award of some sort. Maybe I could even put a badge on my blog. Best Young Learners Material of the Century.

But stop. Can you imagine the horror, the absolute horror, the utter and absolute horror when my mouse sniffed out a lower section of the posting and another list. "Were meant to change the world but rightfully had little effect" and there, positioned next to a book described as 'a nice idea but crap content' was 'Potato Pals' (because you can never beat Spot the Dog and Eric Carle)written clearly, in black and white. Alex! Alex! How could you have done this? How could you?

Rightfully...had...little...effect. Rightfully!

I stumbling, dry-retching to the clifftops near my home swearing to end it all amongst the cormorants and spume below. How could Potato Pals have fallen from favour in the eyes of this industry guru who wrote so pleasantly and positively of the books in his review "Potato Pals: A Book I have Used" published in a leading journal only a couple of years ago. Why had he even taken that review DOWN from his blog as if to kick sand over the evidence of his previous flirtation with the tubers?

And then I thought. 'No, Patrick. It's Teachers' Day in Turkey. Remember Ataturk who said "As they have come, so they will go".

More so than the words of the founder of modern Turkey though I recalled the kind words of a Turkish teacher Ms. Esra who said "Teaching everyday language and daily routines are a part of our kindergarten curriculum in my school and I used to teach things we do in a day by using flashcards and TPR. Then, we started to use "Potato Pals" and everything is easier now. There are two sets of the books and each set contains six stories. The characters are very cute potatoes and are all colorful. There is a cue system which helps to repeat the language and my kids feel very comfortable with it because they cannot read but can read the pictures! At the first two or three lessons, we listen to the stories from the CD. The kids pay a lot of attention because there are some sound effects used before you hear the sentences and kids love these effects! The following lessons, we read the story, sing the songs and dance.(I have my own choreography for each song:)Then we play games out of the sentences/patterns we have learnt. My kids really enjoy "Potato Pals" and learn a lot from these cute friends!".

I turned from the precipice and walked slowly homeward. Resolute. Calm even. I knew what I must do and do it I shall. While there is breath in my lungs, blood in my veins and marrow in my bones I will continue to spread the word. I will live with the burden of having created a series of characters that OUP marketing legend, Oli Bayley referred to as 'Nobody really knows what they are". I will never rest until I have clearly explained to teachers the world over that these books can be used as supplementary materials or even the very heart of a young learners curriculum. I will walk the dusty roads singing the 'Good Friends' song until the shoes decay and fall from my feet.

I am Potato! Look me not in the eyes!

As a footnote, it would never have been possible to have pulled myself away from the cliff's edge had it not been for Sarah "Potato Pals changed my World" of The Daily English Show and Jason Renshaw of English Raven who immediately wrote in the comments section of his regard for the spuds. Further thanks to Devon Thagard of Super Simple Songs for bolstering Dean, Nina and Joy's confidence over an ale when he turned to me and said, "Patrick. We really enjoy the Potato Pals Series...I think it's very well thought out; distinctive characters, great illustrations, situations kids can identify with, and it's easy to use with kids of varying levels of English ability...readers and emerging-readers alike. The CD also makes it easy for children and parents to use at home, which I think distinguishes it from a lot of young children's English learning materials."

The Potato Pals can be contacted directly on their Facebook page and would love to meet new friends at this difficult time.


Alex Case said...

Well, I think I made sure that my own blog post wasn't influential with that little distraction!

Sorry about all that. Did you read my later clarifications in the comments? I guess the reason why I later changed my mind was introducing other teachers to both Potato Pals and to classic children's books, and seeing the difference in reactions of both the teachers and kids with the right versions of the latter. Of course, there are plenty of teachers who wouldn't be using any stories without your efforts in writing or publicizing the books...

A couple of inaccuracies here. Actually, all my reviews were taken down about a month or two ago because Wordpress protested when I reached 1000 pages, as explained in a blog post around that time. Hope to get them back up in a different section (and to cope with my changes in opinion about quite a lot of them in some way when I do so). Also, the list was always in alphabetical order

Alex Case said...


Why would anyone be insulted by being told that their stories weren't as good as The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

Diarmuid said...

I'm with the taters on this one. But then, I have to confess to never having used the books, never having taught this particular demographic. It's just a case of standing shoulder to errr...shoulder...with the diminutive tatties. I'm not a big fan of lists like these - they really mean very little to me, yet my heart aches if I'm not on them. Lists *like* this - I had no pretensions that my blog would be ranked as one of the most influential publications in ELT!
In solidarity, I dedicate my potato poem to you. It got to the finals of a BBC Radio 3 competition (but then again, it might be that ANY entry made it through):

[clears throat]

Love and Potatoes

Did you know that our friends the Romans
Used tuber to mean ‘hump’?
My dictionary says ‘fleshy root’ and ‘organ’.
Even uses that word, ‘reproduction’.
To a Roman Tuberosus meant ‘full of knobs’.
Oh King Edward! I’ll look at you with different eyes.

Gavin Dudeney said...

I call on all noble citizens to stand shoulder to shoulder with the tubers at this difficult time...

Lists, eh? Who needs them? I might do a 'Top 100 Blogs which are alright and may have had an influence on someone when they read one of the posts once, although, obviously, this list is incomplete and useless and just annoys everyone' list on my blog...


Kids Online English said...

Us vegetables need to stick together. This was a great read.

Patrick Jackson said...

@Alex! Thanks for dropping by but more so thanks for all the attention your post has generated for the spuds. Like you, I 100% support the movement for using more real books. The best of them are so entertaining (duh!) and in the hands of a skilled teacher there's a lot of fun and language that can be got out of them.

In some senses Potato Pals set out to bridge that gap between real books and texts. They fundamentally have ELT goals but the language is packaged in a way that makes it palatable, ownable and discreet. It was a difficult juggling act but we did our best to fit in as much useful vocabulary, topic groups and daily language as we could. There are a number of gaps which I would dearly like to fill with a second edition and a Potato Pals 3 but, dare I say this, these books are unique and I would argue, innovative. The memory cue system sounds gimmicky but has also been really popular.

One thing I am absolutely shocked about is that you never had the audio CD because that's where it all comes together for teachers and students. Combining the language with the music and movements has taken me to some very special moments in the classroom. Especially when you put on a potato suit. Man! Potato Pals without the music are like potatoes without a knob of butter. Nourishing but perhaps a bit dry.

The readings on the CD with sound effects are the lynchpin of the home study element of the books. I do hope you'll have a listen to some of the songs on the YouTube page and I am contacting OUP immediately with a view to getting you 'with the program' in this regard. Anyway, I am really enjoying this and look forward to educating you in the way of the spud over the coming weeks. You did ask for it!

Patrick Jackson said...

@Diarmuid This is a first! Your kind words and a dedication of this excellent poem with such an important and adult theme has really opened new horizons for us. It should have won the competition but what do you expect from the BBC. Chickens! Probably chose something about the seashore or carrots or something. Anyway, many thanks indeed. Your blog is our greatest inspiration.

Patrick Jackson said...

@Gavin You are a noble citizen indeed. When the chips were down and all. Many thanks and warmest regards from the land of the spud. Potatoes may be all we have soon, the rate things are going here. Anyway, enough doom and gloom. Your support is appreciated and any smart remarks I made while under the influence of poteen regarding your resemblance to Bacon, Shakespeare or Dean should be ignored. The main thing is, you're a pal.

Alex Case said...

Hi Gavin

So, all TEFL lists are bad? How about lists of recommended reading at the back of books (or end of chapters)? How about the lists on Larry Ferlazzo's blog? And from outside TEFL, how about the end of year best ofs that every Sunday magazine will be half full of from now till January? Actually, maybe the last one isn't the best support for my cause...

And aren't the choices people make in deciding what to include and not include in an article or book basically the same as making a list with some kind of ambitary limit?

Also, how exactly could anything anyone writes be other than incomplete? Should I write a list of all books that have ever influenced anyone?? Or a history of ELT that includes everything that ever happened??

I have a terrible feeling that you are yet another one who failed to spot that they were only in alphabetical order

Gavin Dudeney said...


No, I saw them in alphabetical order... I just thought it was a pointless exercise. It strokes some egos, it offends other ones... Where I think your list falls down is in the 'hopeless cases and also rans' category you chose to add - it just struck me as a little bit, umm, nasty, really...


Alex Case said...

Thanks Patrick, you're taking it very well! As I said on my blog, I think that they might be a good alternative to a textbook. As a replacement for other stories, however, my problem is that, well, they aren't stories. I mean that they (mostly?) don't have a beginning, middle and end. They have cute characters and loads of possible language points, but they simply don't have the kick of finding a puppy, hiding under the duvet safe from the bear, Goldilocks fleeing the house, etc. If you don't see your very young learners for long each week, I don't see why every second can't have that kind of buzz.

PS If someone were to send me a copy of the songs (hint hint), I might well change my mind...

Diarmuid said...

I felt that I should point out that my poem was on the set theme of "Love and Potatoes" and that the judge was John Hegley.

Still, as Patrick said, I bet the victor was rubbish. In fact, I recall I wrote another poem based on the outcome which I also dedicate to the Spuds-I'd-Like.


Pyrrhic Defeat
I wrote a poem knowing
it was the best that I could do
and would be better than the efforts
of the usual foppish crew.
But they didn't like my poem
and they didn't let it through.
They gave the prize to some other guy
who wrote a pile of poo.

Gavin Dudeney said...


Your words, as ever, move me to tears...

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