The English Center: East Bay’s best kept secret?

I am mightily impressed by the English Center in Oakland. It’s a 30-year-old nonprofit preparing non-native speakers of English for full participation in American society. The center offers not only immersion in English language at seven different levels, but also computer training, job-specific test preparation, and employment services.

Lynne Wilkins, associate director for programs, gave me an extensive tour of classrooms and computer labs. The EC’s Jack London Square site is an open and spacious environment, with large common areas where students can gather. I sat in on three different language classes.

In the basic class students worked on verb conjugations: I like books. He likes television. We both like movies. The intermediate class listened for pronouns in the Beatles’ song “Something.” And the advanced class was working on articulation using tongue twisters: She sells sea shells by the seashore. Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. The rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain. “That one’s easy,” students said. Henry Higgins, take note.

But what really moved me was the cultural, and cross-cultural, curriculum. It’s embodied in the diversity of students in every single classroom. Japanese businessman next to Russian healthcare worker next to preliterate Spanish speaker next to Eritrean refugee. Students must speak English to communicate with each other. Cultures bump up against each other, mix, collide. Language exercises are designed to bring these cultural issues to the fore.

In the intermediate class, the students were grappling with social controversies and rehearsing polite phrases for agreement and disagreement. Should men fight alongside women in the military? Should parents stop supporting their children once the children are adults? Should women be married at 16? I feel the same way. / I see things differently. / I don’t agree. I sat with a group of three women (one East Asian, one Eastern European, one possibly Central American) who certainly had some opinions on what women could do! “You can agree, or disagree, as long as you’re respectful,” said the teacher. …I wish everyone were taking that lesson!

Over and over again I heard stories of the students’ lives which moved me. Immigrants who had made it to this country any way they could after a dozen years in refugee camps. Highly skilled professionals who are eager to work here, or to train here and take their skills back home. Students participating in mock elections at the center, engaging in political debates and casting their ballots, safely, for the first time in their lives.

Managing such diverse classrooms demands a lot pedagogically and emotionally from the English Center instructors, so the EC provides training and mentoring to prepare new teachers for this specific environment. And the English Center organization as a whole is also learning and growing rapidly – they’re expanding into providing training for entire companies and union groups. Student enrollment is up by 40% from two years ago.

The center’s programs are tuition based but most students receive financial aid. And, as is typical of many nonprofits, EC’s vision goes far beyond its funding. An interactive whiteboard, a digital camera, donations towards books: any of those would be a welcome fulfillment of the wish list. Volunteers are also needed. You may find me among them!


September 12, 2010 at 1:04 pm Leave a comment

Let it begin with each step we take

Welcome, friends of @havi. You’ve found a blog that I established to help me biggify. So the topics you see here not only represent interests, but areas I’ve been exploring as part of my Next Thing.

So it’s pretty geeky. As is much of my past. But here’s another part of who I am…

If you’re looking for books to inspire your quest, you should totally check out my family’s shop, Fields Book Store, in San Francisco.

Right after artist Shelley Masters* did the ceiling!

No, none of us is named Fields. George Fields founded the store in 1932 (!) as a center for the literati of the day. He was involved in the Gurdjieff Work, a rigorous method of awakening to the Self that emphasizes self-observation and embodied practice. When I first heard of Shiva Nata, it reminded me of the Gurdjieff Movements.

Fields had always served spiritual seekers, but in the 1960s the store fully entered the Aquarian Age and began specializing in books from the world’s religions. Books you couldn’t find anywhere else. Books from small publishers, books from India, first editions, rare finds, scholarly tomes, handmade grimoires. That’s the shop that attracted my husband and me as caretakers. So I say with pride: even in the age of Behemoth Online Resellers, Fields is still standing and serves people all over the world!

Props to my husband David for having a vision of the future. And for being too darn stubborn to quit.

Props also to my coach Dee McCrorey, who helped me realize that it was time to take my esoteric self out into another field. (Ha. I crack myself up.) Dee is a reinvention whiz.

One of the best things I did while working with her was to look through my work history for inflection points – my personal rhythm for when I need to make a change, get a new project, shake things up. For some people it’s every 6 months. For others, it’s 6 years. Stay too long for you and you get stale and start sabotaging yourself. Know your rhythm, and you can keep your eyes and ears open and know where to move next!

See those river rocks in the banner? Imagine finding the next one. Then the next one. And eventually you’ve crossed to where you need to be.

Wishing you all a graceful next transition.

* Update – Long time Fields friend Shelley Masters gave us a beautifully transformed sky-ceiling, from the sun rising over our door in the East to the moon phases circling in the Western twilight. Shelley specializes in healing murals and faux finishes. Splendid work!

September 5, 2010 at 11:11 am 1 comment

From biggification to your new ittybiz

Having spent several years surrounded by challenging and classical spiritual books, I have little patience for hucksterism in the field of self-help. And it’s purely a personal thing, but I often judge a book by its cover. Anything that’s too sparklepony pastel is, well, not for me.

But I do like a sense of playfulness and even wicked humor in the genre.

My buddy @Ealasaid raved about Havi Brooks. (And her rubber duck Selma.) Havi is emphatically Not A Coach, but a Biggified Teacher of Stuff about how to get Destuckified. Sound too precious? No! Go read. Especially anything on Monsters.

Gevaudan Monster

Niiice doggy.

Any tradition worth its salt helps reconcile us to our Shadow. Havi’s playful language isn’t a gimmick, but a strategy. You get the shadow complex and the ego to relax, converse, and meet on common ground. If it’s a tough issue, you may call in a Negotiator to help.

Bonus courage points to Havi for sharing her own conversations with Monsters, and her own process. Every week.

… So all that biggification has got you thinking you could go do something. Up the ante on your work. Leave your cubicle. Establish or expand your solo entrepreneurial gig. Havi’s drinking-and-swearing partner in crime is Naomi Dunford of IttyBiz.

IttyBiz showcases marketing tips, advice, and motivation for microbusinesses with 5 or fewer people. Your web consultancy. My family’s bookstore. I’m sorry to have missed Naomi’s seminar on Marketing for Nice People (with key insights on Turning Your Customers Into Voluntary Zombies).

But there’s lots of good stuff on there. 101+1 Small Business Marketing Questions. 45 home business resources (That Make You Money In Your Underwear). How to love your customers and when to lose the ones that suck your life force.

Or, a rant on the saturation of social media and why you’re not to blame for “doing it wrong”:

Web 2.0 is like a goddamn pyramid scheme.

Limitless growth. Limitless connection. Limitless access, relationships, “friendlies”?

It can’t happen.

I get between 20 and 100 new followers a day on Twitter, and in the grand scheme of Twitter things, I’m a nobody. How can I possibly connect with all these people? I can’t. And if I think I can, it would appear I know absolutely nothing about the true meaning of connection, friendship, or intimacy.

…I can’t keep up.

Neither can you.

When women entered the workforce en masse, the media treated it like the best thing since TV dinners. My God, look how much better everyone’s lives were going to become. Gonna be better for women, men, and children the world over, right?

Who would’ve thought that 30-odd years later, every women’s magazine in America would have the same stories on the cover that they did decades ago?

September 4, 2010 at 5:30 pm Leave a comment

SwiftRiver sorts realtime social media streams

We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it and make important choices wisely.

E.O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge

How can we evaluate citizen media for breaking news? Hurricanes? Earthquakes? Contested elections? Crowdsourced crisis information produces a flood of data. Individuals send emails, write blog posts, text friends, post to Twitter. Popular tweets are echoed and amplified. Eyewitness reports may be reliable, or mistaken – or planted disinformation.

SwiftRiver, an initiative of the Ushahidi project, aims to help humans aggregate and evaluate streams of social media. SwiftRiver is an open source platform for managing realtime data streams. Its services can be combined in different ways to serve the needs of crisis responders, journalists, and so on.

The first such app is Sweeper (now in beta), which intelligently filters data feeds for volunteers who then validate and geolocate the information.

Jon Goslin, TED Fellow and SwiftRiver director, talks about the five services underlying the apps.

  • Natural language processing to extract meaning.
  • Location context: considering how local the source is to reported events.
  • Reducing duplicates, especially those from Twitter.
  • Accounting for popularity separately from accuracy.
  • Reputation management: authority accruing to those for those who have a history of valued posts.

August 31, 2010 at 3:45 pm Leave a comment

From the Working Smarter Fieldbook

This weekend I received the Working Smarter Fieldbook (June 2010 edition) from the group mind at the Internet Time Alliance.

So right now let me get my bookmonger’s gripe out of the way: It’s a print on demand title from, so the fit and finish are ever so slightly rough. Cropping on the cover? Just a hair off. Graphics pasted in from presentation slides.

Fortunately, this isn’t an archival item. It’s a consumable. An “unbook,” never finished, in the authors’ terms. A convenient way of carrying around the-current-state-of-their-thinking, and frequently updated.

So I won’t feel bad about writing in it and dog-earing the pages. A few accumulated tea stains? Not a problem.

(And in that same spirit I’m practicing writing more, smaller blog posts. Working on speed rather than length.)

Today’s bibliomantic gem: Performance Support Trumps Training Every Time. (p. 153)

Post-training drop-off argues for ongoing performance support

This chart (via Harold Stolovitch and Erica Keeps) tells the story. During the training event, performance dips slightly as new ways of doing tasks are learned. After training performance is elevated, but forgetting begins.

Sure, that first post-training sleep helps to consolidate new memories, but other factors swamp the beneficial effect. Intervening tasks: email, phone calls, meetings. Lack of guided practice: the trainer’s off to another assignment. Change in context: how does this work in my job, really?

Here’s Working Smarter‘s bold claim:

An even better (and certainly cheaper) option is simply to cut out the training altogether and replace it with a support environment from the start.

And then they make the case for performance support systems.

Hm. Not convinced of the strong claim.

PSSs are valuable, certainly. I am reminded of early work on “training wheels” computer system designs, where learners begin with subsets of features. Progressive disclosure? Sure. Ongoing support? Sure. Total replacement of training with such systems? I think it’d depend on the domain.

My friend Molly just fininshed years of study to become a radiologic technologist. There’s two years of prerequisites before the program proper begins. Then, during the program, students move gradually from full time classwork to nearly full time clinical rotation. The volume(s!) of anatomy, physiology, and physics students have to learn… how would anyone approach it without classroom hours?

But Working Smarter has some of it right: that classroom knowledge can’t go into cold storage. It’s got to be woven in with application, and generalized across environments as students move from clinic to clinic during their training.

I’m an adult second language learner. I can’t imagine learning Chinese without classroom training, workbook practice, and audio files of simple conversations. I have less plasticity, but more metacognitive capability, than a young child immersed in a Chinese-language environment.

But ultimately I do have to take it out into the world. And it would be wonderful if the world provided some helpful post classroom coaching, rather than humiliation (or sheer incomprehension) when my pronunciation is off.

ADDENDUM: I find strong “unlearning” and “untraining” statements tremendously helpful. They reset my thinking about what learning environments can be. They keep me from reaching for the same tools all the time. So, colleagues pushing for more engagement, more improvisation – I’m looking at you, @webojunk – thank you.

August 22, 2010 at 3:39 pm 2 comments

Your world, with subtitles

Pleco, maker of Chinese dictionaries for smartphones, announces a very sexy OCR add-on for the iPhone. If the final product is anything like the demo, it’ll be blazingly fast. Watch the dictionary entries come up as the phone is panned across the text.

You can also change the OCR window size, varying it from one character to a whole phrase.

It takes advantage of the better video camera on the iPhone 4; I’ll be interested to see how it performs on my 3GS (with iOS4).

Of course they’re demoing the app recognizing text in a book. But you know I’m going to take it out into the world and try it on signage. Product labels at 99 Ranch grocery. Marquees in Oakland Chinatown. Specials on the Chinese-only menu! Pleco Camera Recognizer doesn’t look like an augmented reality app, but it is. Or it could be.

August 12, 2010 at 7:46 pm 4 comments

Tummeling? Yes: designing for conversation

Comedian, talk show host, and “UnPresenter” Heather Gold shows us all how to turn presentations into conversations. In comedy it’s called working the room, or tummeling.

Giving talks that “are more fun, require less preparation, and leave your audience feeling awesome”? Even in large groups?

Bay Area friends, you can see this in action. Heather’s got a free talk and two full-day workshops coming up. BayCHI members get a break on both the August 7 tutorial and the August 8 class.

And here’s a sample. In this Google talk Heather earns her pro status. They’ve only given her a podium mike, so she can’t move around to work the room. Watch her use friendly charm to draw in folks on the periphery.

You want to do everything you can to help people feel like they can be themselves. Because the best way to tummel is to be yourself, to be a really big version of yourself. Tummel means to make noise, to help people bring the noise.

July 30, 2010 at 12:14 pm Leave a comment

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