Six tips for those who want to become materials writers

A few months ago I participated in an Instagram live organised by Centro de Línguas Ann Arbor, a well-established language school in Rio de Janeiro. The title of the live was ‘How to write pedagogic materials: one journey, many lessons.’ So the focus of the talk was on what I’ve done and what I’ve learnt for the past 25 years as a materials writer. As there was no time to address all the questions posed by the viewers during the live session, I have since then written a couple of blog posts outlining some answers to the unanswered questions.

The live session was in Portuguese, and so were the posts. In the first post-response, I wrote about the balance between the four language skills in materials development. In the second, I discussed the process of image selection during the writing, editing and production phases of textbook development. The third and final post-response was about my main tips for those who want to become professional materials writers. This post is an English version of the latter one.

Before I move on to my tips, let me give some details about how my career as a materials writer started: it was the early-90’s, I had been teaching English for about 4 years, and together with my colleague Branca Fabrício I developed some ideas for a collection of readers for young teens. We started drafting our stories and coincidently, exactly at the same time, we received a call from Amadeu Marques an ex-teacher of my colleague’s and a well-known materials writer in Brazil. In the call, he asked us if we had any readers to offer to the publisher he was associated with at the time, as they were keen to publish a new series. (In case you’re wondering, yes, there was an element of luck in how my journey started) Buddies, a 12-volume collection of readers for beginner learners of English, aged 10-15, was published in 1994 and since then I’ve never stopped writing.

Below I list 5 things that I consider essential to be kept in mind if you want to be a materials writer. They are presented in no order of priority, as for me they are all equally important.

1 Spend a lot of time learning about teaching materials

By ‘a lot of time’ I mean ‘a lot of time’. Stop and repeat with emphasis: ‘a lot’. And I don’t mean a type of pre-career investment time, one that you need to consider only before becoming a materials writer. I mean, rather, a lifelong time dedication that you need to budget in your working schedule. And why is that?  Because the focus of this learning needs to go beyond teaching materials per se. Most fundamentally, it needs to focus on the pedagogical. And pedagogy changes depending on our times and the contextual issues chacterising these times. It is important to constantly rethink what we understand by teaching and learning, and how it can be done. It is necessary to understand teaching and learning theories and how some old theories can inform the present. It is essential to have a wide range of knowledge about teaching methods and approaches – old and new. But theory doesn’t mean much if we don’t connect it to practice, and that’s why I think my classroom experience, as a teacher, helps me a lot when it comes to writing. I visualize the scene: the space, the resources, the interaction between the three participants in this process: students-teacher- material. And I think: how does the material I’m developing address the theoretical background I intend to follow? What’s missing? How can the material be improved? During this reflection I often go to my bookshelf to read again about a theoretical concept that is relevant to what I’m doing or about specific details regarding the linguistic topic I’m working on. On these occasions I also search the web for recent academic research on the matter.

2 Understand that the materials you develop will be used by other people

In one way or another, every teacher creates teaching materials. Starting with lesson plans and moving on to all sorts of activities, tests, games and many others we produce for our own lessons. Creating modules or units of books or entire books is a somewhat similar process, only on a larger scale. But the moment we disseminate the material we create (whether in a printed publication, or in a blog or social media post, or in any other format), another teacher will appropriate that material and make it their own. The way the material is appropriated by other people may be similar to the way we originally envisaged. That could happen if for example the other teacher works at the same institution and has students who have a similar socio-demographic profile and similar objectives. However, once the materials we produce are out in the world, more likely than not they will reach teachers who act in very different scenarios, with contextual characteristics (geographic location, student profile, educational objectives, teaching modality etc.) that are also different. It seems like an impossible mission, but, yes, you have to think of different teachers and different teaching and learning conditions when you write. If you don’t know the context well (or at all) you’ll need to do some research about it first.

3 Establish a broad network

The justification for this tip is obvious: we learn from colleagues; new opportunities arise when we meet other people; personal satisfaction is enhanced through interpersonal exchange. When I started developing teaching materials, my network of colleagues was restricted to the schools where I worked and to the people I met at conferences and courses I attended sporadically during the year. Always in person, always in my hometown at that time. Then I started attending national and international conferences, and obviously my network became larger. Nowadays we have a completely different panorama of possibilities. We can develop a network of connections around the planet, including people we have never interacted with face to face. I still enjoy participating in national and international conferences – I always learn a lot from them and I love the buzz of having lots of people around me, lots of brains thinking and creating together. Last year was different: there was an explosion of virtual events, and while we could not be in the same room with people from all over the world to talk, listen and learn, we could actually attend more events (lives, webinars, courses and even conferences) than we would normally. Sadly, these events haven’t always allowed us to get to know new colleagues well, or to build solid professional ties, but I think that even with these limitations online events can help us to widen our networks. This has happened to me at least.

4 Seek for and participate actively in Continuing Professional Development (CPD) events

This idea is clearly linked with topics 1 (finding the time to learn about materials) and 3 (establishing a broad network). Participation in CPD events, in fact, connects these two ideas. These events can range from a smaller scale (e.g. an hour long webinar) to a larger one (e.g. an international, 2-day conference). If you are a freelancer like me (and like a lot of, if not most, materials writers), participation in CPD events is a fabulous way of staying up to date with the constant changes in the industry, not only concerning technology but also (and mainly) concerning new ways of understanding teaching and learning in and for the 21st century. This latter idea is very important in my opinion, as I sometimes feel that technology may be seen as a save-all tool that overrides broader notions of pedagogy. To make my point clearer, I propose a metaphor: let’s visualise the teaching and learning process as a construction in progress, supported by scaffolding: technology is one of the building blocks of that construction. The foundations of the construction are surely what make it solid, and in my metaphor this foundation is provided by key concepts both in education in general and in education in the area for which you develop materials. After all this is what we do: we write materials to help others teach and learn. We must never forget that.

5 Look for inspiration outside the box

The bad news for those who develop (or want to develop) teaching materials is that it is impossible to disconnect from our work-mode. Even when we walk, talk to friends and family, visit a museum, watch a movie, engage in our hobby, we are always wondering about how what we do and see and hear could be applied in the materials we write. Well, perhaps the way to go about this is to see this never-ending connection as good news: I must admit that the adrenaline that this brain activity triggers in my body alwyas makes me feel good. And there is another big advantage in having our work mode being on at all times: the inspiration that comes from unexpected sources can be more creative. Museum exhibitions are for me a very important source of inspiration: information about science, arts, history, or any other area can make our material more engaging. A few years ago, in Australia, I visited the Woolshed Museum in Jondaryan, near Toowoomba. It is one of those open-air museums where buildings from the past are relocated: there you can visit, among others, a shearing shed, a blacksmith shop, old homes, a prison, stables – and a school: the Woodview School, built in 1890. The photos below, in sequence, show the direction of my gaze when entering the school.

Woodview School, Woolshed, Australia, 2014 (Photos by Denise Santos)

First, my eyes were directed to the entire classroom, then to the teacher’s desk, for more details. Finally, my attention was captured by a list of rules to be followed by school teachers in 1915. The list is a gold mine of ideas: it can inspire activities for using modal verbs; it can serve as a starting point for a lesson dealing with teachers’ obligations (or the obligations of any other type of professional from the past, the present and even the future); it can serve as a reference for conversations or debates about the role of women in society; about clothing, to name a few topics.

And so ideas pop up, often from everyday situations. I’ve recenty written a post about how a walk by a river in a cold autumn morning led me to think about ways of promoting multisensorial experiences in online classes.

Before moving on to my final tip, let me leave a subsidiary tip here: keep a record of your ideas the moment they reach you, otherwise you may forget them. I usually write down my ideas on my mobile phone or in a notebook that I always have at hand. If I can’t write (if I’m walking for example) I record my thoughts in a voice memo on my mobile.

6 Look at your professional career from a perspective

I believe that my constant, continuous professional rethinking helps me to make my current ideas more refined. I like to rummage through things I wrote in the past, trying to answer: why did I write this? For what pedagogical purpose? What do I think of this idea today? If my thinking has changed, why has it changed? What has been gained from the changes? What has been lost? I try to engage in this type of thinking about the present too, trying to see what I’m currently writing from a perspective. My outside-self keeps asking me: why am I writing about this today, and why am I writing in this particular way? How are my current beliefs and priorities likely to be seen in the future? Is there a misconception or another problem here that I need to consider?

And here are my tips. I hope my thoughts can help you develop new, inspiring, creative, exciting ideas.

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