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Sunday, December 10, 2017

Nice to Meet You!

Instead of a blog post this week, I thought it would be nice to introduce myself to any of tonight's webinar attendees who visit the blog for the first time during or after the webinar. See you again next Sunday!

Sunday, December 3, 2017

I'm Starting a Newsletter

Don't worry, I don't want to clog up your inbox. Every time I publish a literacy activity pack, I email the site coordinators at certain centres where I know there are literacy teachers who rely on those resources quite a bit. Rather than trusting myself always to remember who likes to get which alerts, I thought it would be nice to have a monthly roundup, a simple summary of the topics I've written about on the blog during the prior month. I could also list any resources or activity packs that I published on the website for all to freely enjoy. If I've tweeted about anything I think would be of interest or value to others, I might include a little recap of that. What do you think?

If you would like to receive such a monthly summary, please click the link at the top of the sidebar. >

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Update on the pan-Canadian experiment:

I'm going to give the initiators of the pan-Canadian experiment in pseudo-pedagogy that is called Portfolio Based Language Assessment the benefit of the doubt and assume that they meant well in the beginning. By now, however, they realize that you cannot build a good house without first checking the soil on which you plan to build the foundation. If one doesn't have the time and money to first do lengthy, solid, peer-reviewed research and action research, then one should not undertake an initiative of this magnitude. As database designers and coders say, "Have no late errors." Measure twice, cut once. Follow best practices for bringing large change to large groups. Do your homework, ALL of it.

Some people are speaking truth to power. Some are speaking out about the disastrous impact this is having in many classrooms across Canada. They are doing things such as circulating petitions, contacting their MPs, exposing the weaknesses in presentations, and are attempting to quantify and qualify the impact of this experiment on teachers and learners via a national research project.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Gratitude and and Example of What DOES Work for Me

About eight years ago, I made a change that turned my head and my life around. I took the complaint-free challenge from Patti Digh, who in turn had heard about it from Christine Kane. I sent off for a free purple bracelet from A Complaint-Free World and started the attempt to rewire my brain. I would attempt never to complain, criticize, or gossip. I would attempt not Will Bowen's suggested 21 straight days, but Patti Digh's 37 days without a single slip up. When I slipped, I would move the bracelet to the other arm and begin again from scratch. The first day, I slipped up several times each hour. By the end of the week, I was changing the bracelet to the other arm only a few times a day. After several weeks, I made it to four days straight before a slip. Finally, at the end of about five or six months, I did it. And my neural pathways had been rewired along with my outlook on life.

It's probably time for a refresher course, if I'm to be honest. I appreciate that I work with a crew of teachers who eschew gossip and will tactfully guide me back on track if I go that direction. As for complaining, I should probably clarify and let you know that there is a kind of communicating to bring about change that I do not avoid. Eckhart Tolle explains the difference between the sort of complaining that serves no purpose other than to strengthen the ego and complaining to bring about change (without personalizing) in this video:

Alongside the Complaint-free Challenge, I also took up--for one year--a habit of recording in a gratitude journal five things each day for which I was grateful. This was perhaps as potent as the bracelet challenge in reprogramming my mind. After one year, I was left with a brain that sees reason for gratitude all day long, from dawn to sleep, everywhere it casts its gaze.

That brings me to today's intention. What in the world of teaching settlement English in Canada gives me reason to feel grateful? I could go on for pages, but I'll stick to my old habit of listing five at a time.
  • I work in an organization that values transparency and accountability. Though we may sometimes get off track, there is a process in place through which we can eventually right the boat when it begins to list to one side.
  • There are quality materials freely available to me for use in my classroom, and I thank the TESL professionals who poured months or years of thought, time, and energy into their creation. There is a lot out there that I would continue to use whether the current Canadian AFL experiment is scrapped or made optional.
  • I feel so fortunate to live in a land and particularly in a city that welcomes refugees and immigrants, as well as in a society that sees the value in investing in free settlement English classes for newcomers. Such services are not available in the same way throughout the country from which I immigrated almost 20 years ago.
  • I am appreciative of those who have involved themselves in good faith in the Canadian pedagogical experiment as project leads or resource creators. It isn't your fault that the entire house was designed from the roof down before checking the quality of the soil. Operative words: in good faith. For the others, well, that's not going on this blog post.
  • I appreciate those who, in these strange times, find the courage to speak truth to power.
This week I found myself particularly grateful for a resource my colleague Lucy found on (the new and much improved ♥ iteration of) Tutela.  The OPH-OCDSB Collaborative Team, the acronyms within which stand for Ottawa Public Health and Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, has created a series of health-related lesson plan cum activity books complete with rationale statements, instructor notes, skill-specific activities, assessment tools that can be put in student portfolios, and student self-reflection activities at the end of each module.

Specifically because I have been excused from strictly following the funder's non-negotiables of what we are calling Portfolio Based Language Assessment, I was able to use this resource this week with my seniors class. Although their benchmarks range widely from 2 to 8, they prefer to work with material that is geared for high 2, low 3. Because they are out of the workforce and have vastly different needs from a mainstream LINC student, I feel it is in their best interest to allow them to cherry-pick and help me sculpt a syllabus that is tailored to their very special situation. For reasons such as these, I do not press them to attempt ever higher level material when they do not wish to do so.

In any case, because this class has been excused from trying to chase after 8-10 portfolio artifacts per skill in 300 instructional hours (which turns into more like 170 classroom hours per five-month term at my centre), we were free to move through the lessons in the Mental Health for CLB 2-3 book at our own pace. We were able to stop midway and have a guest speaker. We were able to pause for a Peace Week activity, which nicely tied in to our learning about stress, self-care, and culture shock, actually. I was able to get more sleep knowing someone else had already written a resource that meets my standards for resource quality.

This week, having practiced all the functions, we will use the assessment tools and the learner self-reflection activity and will place those in student portfolios--the big three-ring-bound ones that live at school since they are too heavy for seniors to carry home daily.

So what sets this two- or three-week period of instruction apart from the compulsory PBLA model with which I do not agree? For one, the tail isn't trying to wag the dog. We first did the learning, and only when we felt ready did we move on to the next activity or quiz. We have been given permission to operate under no one-size-fits-all numeric quota for artifacts collected per term. On the contrary, with this one class I am free to truly put the learners' needs at the centre of my practice and move at a pace that makes sense for them. Secondly, everything I need for the module is provided. I do not have to stay up for hours each evening creating or searching for then modifying next resource. Mind you, even with off-the-shelf stuff, I still sometimes have to blow it up on the copy machine for weaker septuagenarian eyesight. But still. This week's morning class planning has been easy peasy.

So thank you, OPH-OCDSB collaborative team! My hat is off to you. I'll be using more of your booklets in the coming months since the seniors' most requested theme is health.

How about you? For those of you caught in the madness of PBLA gone wrong, would you warm to the experiment if you could put your current LINC cohort's unique needs ahead of a predetermined quota of 8-10 artifacts per skill collection period? How about if you had all resources provided, including the rubrics that did not have to be edited in the slightest for that module? If you could assess only when it felt you and your learners had arrived at the logical place to assess learning? If you could have a certain number of hiatus days per term that were free from all assessment so that students could just learn for the sheer joy of it? Or devote entire weeks to grammar just because they want to? I would love to get your feelings on that in the comments section below.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Save the Date!

I just now, on Tuesday, realized that I had forgotten to write a blog post this past Sunday. I was so absorbed in creating a little 10- to 12-page book for my literacy learners that it slipped my mind.

This is probably as good a time as any to promote the upcoming webinar that I am co-facilitating with John Sivell, recently retired from the department of applied linguistics at Brock and mentor to many of the best ESL professionals now teaching in Ontario.

Go to to sign up. Anyone in Canada who is in the field or is planning to enter the field is able to open a free account on

Although the examples we'll offer are for about a CLB 3, the principles and many of the worksheets work for 4 and up, as well. I have used what the Sivells call 'back to the well' activities with LINC 2, and it was with this group that I saw a most convincing transformation.

Hope you'll mark your calendar now for Sunday, December 10th from 7:00 to 8:00 EST.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Lessons for Canada?

The penultimate session I attended on Friday, day two of the two-day 2017 TESL Ontario Conference, was "Task-based Language Teaching Implementation Experiences: Lessons for Canada?" by Yuliya Desyatova of the University of Toronto. The conference brochure's blurb of this presentation says:
The Belgian experience of introducing Task-Based Language Teaching (TBLT) is analysed with the goal of drawing parallels to the implementation of Portfolio-Based Language Assessment (PBLA). Participants are invited to discuss benefits and challenges of different implementation models. Opportunities for further participation in a research project on PBLA and TBLT in Canada will be offered.
If you did not get a chance to see Yuliya's presentation and would like to see the slides, they can be found HERE.

Yuliya starts with a Venn diagram that highlights a few of the differences between these two projects and the one thing they have in common: tasks. One big difference that wasn't given much focus, one that I want to add here and now, is that in Canada the vast majority of settlement English teachers had been trained in communicative methods and task-based learning. I believe that TBL was already the norm in Canada before PBLA. It would seem that in Belgium, this was not so. Their big TBL project had the goal of helping teachers shift away from a teacher-centred model that focused on grammar and toward TBL. 

This is an important point, since it is not TBL itself with which I and many others take issue.

I was intrigued to hear Yuliya relate to us the vast amount of empirical research that was done in Belgium before classrooms were disrupted. All materials and syllabuses were developed before the classroom piloting began. There was no train-the-trainer model in Belgium, and for that the DSL students and their instructors should be eternally grateful. Experts were brought in to the "several hundred" school teams to do the training, coaching, supporting.

From Yuliya's report, it sounds to me as if the entire implementation process put the teachers and students in the driver's seat. There was room for a cycle of action and reflection, feedback and adjustment, at many points along the way. In other words, teachers were recognized and respected as the experts on our own classrooms that we are. In the end, the role of interaction between teacher and learner was acknowledged as key.

I hope that everyone reading this will help Yuliya with her research project.

Now, then.

On Friday my supervisor and her boss reached out to me to see if I wanted to send some feedback along to someone high up in our organization in another city, someone who will be attending an NLAB event in December. Through no fault of my superiors, I was given notice at 1:20 with a deadline of 4:30 to submit something in writing. 

At first my heart was pounding. This was the chance I'd been waiting for! Why didn't I have something all typed up and ready to go in my back pocket? I raced against the clock, grateful that it was computer lab day and that my literacy students are almost completely self-sufficient now once I get them logged into Spelling City. I was also feeling thankful for that grade 7 typing class that gave me my 60 wpm keyboarding speed.

It wasn't until after I'd typed and sent that I went back and re-read the printout of the email that had been left on the desk in front of me. I saw the words "send us your feedback based on the following categories..." and "recommendations to better support the successful implementation and continued use of PLBA...."

My heart sank. I realized that once again, the type of feedback I and so many others want to give does not fit into any of the categories. They only want to hear how to make this sustainable. Nobody wants to hear from you if you believe it is not sustainable and for good reason.

I suppose that going forward I need to specify that there are two types of feedback, and I am only comfortable at this time giving one of those two types. At this time, I am not interested in talking about the materials we need, although of course we can always use more. I am not interested right now in talking about better compensation, although of course there needs to be an immediate stop put to the practice of expecting teachers to spend so much off-the-clock time propping up PBLA that we end up working for minimum wage or less. We do deserve regular raises matched to inflation and cost of living adjustments. But that will not make PBLA right. I am not interested in talking about training unless you are open to ditching the entire train-the-trainer model. Your patient is bleeding out, and you are talking bandaids.

I believe that the "bucket" of psychological impact, stress, work-life balance and morale issues fit into the second category of feedback. If you really want to address these problems, then you must be willing to stop limiting feedback to only that which "contributes to the sustainability" of this experiment. You must be willing to say, "Tell us what is happening to your classroom and to your life under PBLA EVEN IF what you tell us does not "support the successful implementation" of this (broken) model. You must be willing to say, "We care that much about you and our mutual clients, the newcomers."

In short, I want to know where the panel of stakeholders is that is willing to talk about the cracked foundation of the entire project. Who is willing to sit in a room and watch Yuliya's slides? Who is willing to watch Norm Friesen's talk and open up the floor to discussion with a good cross-section of teachers, not just pre-chosen representatives? Who is willing to send out a survey to all teachers in Canada that does not shoe-horn us into questions that only fit a narrow set of pre-determined categories? Who is willing to admit that this entire misguided experiment must be put on hold until all the parts are in place, starting with solid, peer-reviewed research? And who has the gumption and integrity to start talking about the notion of conflict of interest in this whole thing?

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Thoughts on the 2017 TESL Ontario Conference

For the second year in a row, my employer has somehow found the funds to send all of us teachers and teaching assistants to the annual conference in Toronto (though not all were able to come for other reasons). For this I am grateful. I wonder how we can do it while most other agencies are still limited to 20% of their staff per year getting funding to attend.
Mary Ritter - More than Hearing

This year I discovered that many teachers who have used my stuff without leaving a comment on the blog will not hesitate to let me know in person that they appreciate what I do. Naveen thanked me before sprinting through closing elevator doors at her floor. Ben from Kitchener approached me at the end of a workshop we'd both attended. Christine from Kingston had nice things to say, and I embarrassed myself by not recognizing her again minutes later in the foyer. Sheesh. Maria and other teachers at our London branches acknowledged the many worksheets of mine that they adapt and use in their literacy classes. And one woman whose name I don't remember was nice enough to speak up when 'helpful websites' was being projected onto a screen to say to everyone, "And Kelly's website!" This resulted in my running out of MOO cards and resorting to scribbling the URL on the back of a few of the webinar flyers I'd had printed up at the Staples on University Ave.

The change in lodging pleased me. I found the smaller Marriott to be cosier and its staff warmer, able to give more personal attention to guests than folks at the Sheraton, where several conferences might be taking place simultaneously, bringing with them a lot of hustle and bustle. I also thought the food on site was better than that offered at the in-house restaurant at the Sheraton. Although I don't really want to be caught dead eating at a hotel restaurant, food court, or chain while in one of the culinary capitals of the world, I will settle when I'm exhausted after a flight or lengthy train ride that deposits me in the city late at night.

One unexpected perk of this new location is its proximity to a lovely public labyrinth, a fact that I shared with others attending Lisa Manary's "Self-care for Empathic Instructors" after we had enjoyed a sampling of stretches, breathing exercises, and a guided meditation to help the more empathic among us deal with the psychological and emotional demands of our increasingly stressful jobs.

As for the conference itself, I'm of course appreciative of all the work that goes into it, as I am of all the volunteers--from door monitors to presenters. I'm pleased that dedicated ELT professionals who go above and beyond the call of duty are singled out for recognition, such as this year's Sparks of Excellence recipient, Diane Ramanathan. Congrats, Diane!

I'm sad, though, to see how much the conference has shrunk in size since my first years in the field. What is happening? Even the Twitter feed seemed unusually quiet compared to prior years, with @TESLOntario, @JenArtan, and @StanzaSL (Svetlana Lupasco) doing the lion's share. I remember when the publishers' exhibit was enormous. There were years when our registration fee included a luncheon catered on the premises. Also, I never appreciated our past ability to pre-register for workshops because it never occurred to me that this convenience might ever be taken away.

Another thing I appreciate this year is that there were 20-minute gaps between sessions, meaning that I could put my bag and coat on a chair in the room of my next session and still have time for a washroom break. However, on two occasions I was still not able to get into my workshop of choice due to the fact that the room was way too small to accommodate everyone who wanted in. In one case I had even darted immediately from the room right next door the minute my prior session ended and STILL was not fast enough to get a seat in that session. I am baffled as to why we were told that break-out sessions were being held in larger capacity rooms this year. Clearly that was not the case at all. Note to organizers: sessions about teaching listening will always be popular. Perhaps organizers could use a polling tool such as Google Forms or Survey Monkey next year to better predict which sessions need to take place in rooms with lots and lots and lots of chairs.

The sessions I did get into, with only two exceptions, proved to be very valuable to me. I am planning to dedicate another whole blog post to discussing two of them in more depth, both of them tied to the topic of PBLA. So stay tuned for that.

My partner drove up on Thursday to join me. Chuck and I are both very comfortable navigating the city using subway and streetcar. A native of Detroit, he has been coming to Toronto since he was a young adult in love with Canadian society and TO's jazz scene.  I'm so happy that I learned my way around several neighbourhoods while getting my OCELT at CCLCS and living in a homestay. Saturday was 'two ride for one' day if you get a day pass, so we did that.

We love to dine and poke around in Chinatown, and he always buys a big box of Chinese pastries for me to take back to the seniors.

After Chinatown, we explored Kensington Market, too. One of these days I'm going to bring a nice dress for the opera house or to see a show. I would like to have made time to see The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, a Mirvish production.

How about you? Did you attend your area's annual conference this year, or will you next time? I'd love to hear why you do or do not value such an experience, or whether your attitude has changed of late.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Parallel Paragraphs

Before I began implementing Back to the Well in my classroom a few years ago, my usual practice would have been to spend some days scaffolding a pharmacist-patient role play and other days on the use of modal auxiliary verbs using pages from an Azar grammar book.

Now, however, the audio or written text of authentic language becomes the basis of further linguistic exploration. That one text can give us semantic exercises, syntax practice, discourse activities, pronunciation and prosody lessons, as well as being a springboard for presentations, posters, field trips, and invitations to guest speakers.

One of the discourse activities that John and Chirawibha Sivell mention in their article "Sending Them Back to the Well: Slowing Down, Turning Fewer Pages, and Engaging Learners More Deeply" in the Summer 2012 issue of Contact Magazine is parallel writing.

I have had success using this activity with the seniors. During one module on home remedies, we read a chapter in More True Stories by Sandra Heyer about the strange foods that are believed by some to cure ailments and keep us young.

(c) 2009 Pearson Longman

After reading the story and doing the five or six activities that are provided in the book, I asked the students to use the bones of the paragraph to write their own article about a weird health concoction they knew of. Through colour coding with markers while the passage was projected onto the board, I helped them notice which words they would need to replace with western allopathic over-the-counter remedies and which vocabulary they would replace with their own unusual cures.

It took a few runs at it before they completely grasped that they were to re-use the syntax and function words in the same tense as in the original while changing out only the content words, but once they got it, they were thrilled to have a model that made their compositions sound so natural.

The students were very engaged, motivated perhaps by a wish to share with me and their classmates folk remedies that had been passed to them through generations. Their essays were so good that we ended up turning them into presentations for the class. Our pet name for this activity is "hanging new flesh on old bones." It is a fun way to get learners re-using lexical chunks of English at the discourse level.

Update: I was asked to give another example, so...

Last week, as part of our Canada theme and on the topic of Canadian culture and cross-cultural friendships, my multilevel class read this section of Joan Acosta's Best of the Reader Series - Canada:

The following took place over a period of twelve classroom hours.

After reading this every way we know how (chorally, individually, writing in the C-V link lines), doing the activities that come with it, and playing this game with it, I asked students to get into groups while I wrote discussion questions on the board to get them thinking about whether we have a similar program in our community. In fact our new Conversation Cafe initiative did come up in conversation. I added a few questions to the board to encourage comparison and contrast of the two programs.

They crowded around the one student who had attended that inaugural meeting to find out the details of her experience. She felt like a rock star, I'm sure.

Next I passed out blank paper and showed them how to make a Venn Diagram. We brainstormed; I elicited from them the ways the two programs differ and are similar.

Finally we were ready to write our parallel compositions using the existing format, structure and a lot of the language from Joan Acosta's article. Together we decided which bones to keep and which parts of each paragraph / sentence would need to be replaced with our own ideas about Conversation Cafe.

After students worked on their individual compositions and those were reviewed, we compiled the best ideas from all of them to publish one story to share with the whole school.

What do you think? Might you give parallel writing a try in your classroom soon?

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Take Them Back to the Well

Here is an activity you can do with your learners to allow them to get more ROI from a text they have already studied, including having done any and all activities that were included with a given written or audio text.

This activity requires no paper, just one die per group of 3-4 students and a board on which to post the directions. You can modify the requirements of each roll of the die depending on the level you teach.

Remind students to ask their peers in the group for feedback after they have completed the task on their turn. Play proceeds clockwise.

One thing I like about this game is that it has an element of choice and an element of chance.

How do you guide learners back into a familiar text to take advantage of their having crested the initial cognitive burden of learning all the new terms? Do you think it's important to do that as a rule?

If you would like to know more about taking learners 'back to the well,' consider joining me and John Sivell on December 10th from 7 to 8 p.m. for a webinar on the topic. Save the date. :)

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Connection, Collaboration, Creation!

I don't believe that planetary alignment has any bearing on human activity, but if I DID believe that, then I would be asking myself right about now, "what is going on up there?"

Lately I'm feeling a lot of shifting, shedding of old, opening up to new, and lots of connecting.

In my personal life, I just finally--after 32 years--reconnected with the Japanese woman who was my best friend during the year I lived in Sapporo on the northern island of Hokkaido.

On the professional front, I'm feeling more connected each and every day to my peers in the field of language teaching--not just locally but also globally! For example:
  • After hearing two of my morning students rave about a wonderful class they took at WWWWIW over the summer, I contacted the instructor to find out what sort of magic she is working in her classroom. She generously shared a detailed run-down of a typical lesson structure. I copied this structure on Thursday, and the lesson was more engaging than usual.
  • Two new teachers at my agency are finding useful materials on my website and have thanked me for that.
  • One teacher in another province who has found my materials helpful has reached out to me to see if our two classes--my literacy and her CLB 1--might become pen pals. I'm thinking Flipgrid!
  • I have joined #LINCchat on Twitter two times in a row! It helps that the day and time has stabilized (every other Tuesday at 9:00 p.m. eastern), which is a time I'm usually free.
  • The TESL Ontario Conference is right around the corner. I feel so grateful that my employer is sending every teacher who wishes to go. Conferences put new wind in my sail.
  • Someone in a Facebook group I've just joined called Global Innovative Language Teachers shared a link to an article called "Principles for Resource Writing." It's good to share ideas with other language teachers around the world.
More and more teachers across Canada are letting me know that they use and appreciate the resources I share freely, the links I have curated, etc. Yay!
The verb TO BUY
Speaking of sharing, today I published an activity pack to complement Bow Valley College's ESL literacy reader "Food from Home." It's under LITERACY - FOOD on my website. I am also one step closer to finishing my alphabet line customized for adult settlement English learners in Canada. I finished D today, which means four down and at least 22 to go since I hope to do one card for every letter, plus one for a few of the most common digraphs.
D is for DOCTOR
How are YOU doing, dear reader? Surviving you-know-what?

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Get More Bang for Your Lesson Planning Buck

One thing that I love about the principles of Back to the Well is that both teacher and student get something out of it. If you're interested in what the students get out of it, you can read a whole whack of posts on this blog under the category label of 'Back to the Well.' You can also read A Year of Slow in the Spring 2015 issue of Contact, an article I co-wrote with John Sivell, recently retired from Brock University's Department of Applied Linguistics.

What I want to talk about today is one of the reasons it is teacher-friendly, namely that it increases the ROI of my lesson planning time and energy.

This week the seniors, for example, were studying The Battle of Vimy Ridge. This topic was being explored in response to their request for more lessons about Canada. They also have requested more field trips, and I thought that studying an historic event like the victory at Vimy would be a great way to prepare for a trip to Jackson Park, where they will encounter many war memorials and monuments.

I invested my time in the creation of a short text about the battle. It is a simplified combination of two texts I found on the Internet. It was not easy for me to get the story down to five short paragraphs with pictures. It took the better part of an evening.

But now that we have it, there are so many ways we are able to milk this text for many types of linguistic affordances. Here is how our week played out in a class. (It is for the most part a listening/speaking course.)

Monday we did a KWL warm-up followed by my pre-teaching new vocabulary and introduction to the text. We did choral repetition, which they repeatedly ask me for. I threw out some discussion questions to give them their daily dose of oral practice and to up the student talk time.
Tuesday they read the text again individually and for a partner. After break I circulated some trench image cards that I had been able to download for free from the Internet over the weekend. In groups of 2-3, students had to ask one another, "What's happening?" The lower level students were able to participate easily since pictures were of familiar activities (a soldier is cutting his friend's hair in the trench; a soldier is eating bread in the trench; the soldiers are washing their feet in the trench).
trench image cards - soldiers in the trenches engaged in daily activities

Wednesday I distributed one trench image card to each student and gave them 15 minutes of dictionary time. Next I gave them ten minutes to practice telling a partner about a photo card. Finally I had each student come to the front of the class to tell about his/her card. NB: I took all cards away from students so that they would give their full attention to the person at the front of the room instead of nervously continuing to look at their translators, study their card, etc., in preparation for their turn. As each student came up, I held up his/her assigned photo card for all to see.

Thursday before the break we went back into the text with two discussion questions and two vocabulary exercises:
1) When we studied Confederation, we learned that Canada's birthday is July 1, 1867. So then what did Brigadier-General Ross mean when he said that at Vimy he had seen 'the birth of a nation?'
2) Can you think of a historic event that contributed to a sense of nationhood for your first country? What is it? (Not all compatriots will agree.)
3) Choose 3-5 useful words or chunks from the text and use them in new sentences.
4) Choose one interesting word from the text and look up its synonyms. Can any of the synonyms be substituted for the original word? Discuss your answer with a classmate.

Higher level students tackled all four items while lower level students skipped the abstract discussion questions and did the vocabulary study.

After break was a dictation with short, simple sentences on this now very familiar topic. For example: The trenches were cold, muddy, and full of rats. Soldiers could get trench foot. German prisoners helped carry out the wounded. And so forth.

After taking up the dictation, I then had them do another activity with the same sentences. Students got into small groups and I gave each group of 3-4 students one die.

On the board I wrote, "Start with the first sentence. Take turns rolling the die. According to your roll of the die, do one of the following:
1 - Read the sentence.
2 - Change positive to negative / negative to positive.
3 - Change the tense of the sentence.
4 - Make a question that the sentence answers.
5 - Change one word in the sentence to a synonym that works as well as the original word.
6 - Say "Really?" and then the sentence with surprised, questioning intonation."

Friday we had to postpone the field trip due to rain. Instead students used Flipgrid for the first time. I enticed them to give it a try by offering them a video tour of my apartment that I had created on the weekend. Each student recorded an introduction under that thread and then moved on to reflections on the week's learning. I wish there was a quick and easy way to convert the URL of our grid to a QR code for inclusion in their portfolios.
Seniors can use Flipgrid!

In short, not only does going 'Back to the Well' allow students' brains to make more neural connections with the lexis, but it frees up many evenings for a teacher who wants a life outside of eternal lesson preparation.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Google Slides for Quick and Dirty Desktop Publishing

I am so OVER using a word processor to quickly create newsletters, Language Experience Approach (LEA) books with literacy students, and multi-page worksheets for my classes. Thanks to Tony Vincent and his Classy Graphics course that I took over the summer, I now turn to Google Drawing for one-page worksheets, handouts or posters. Google Slides can be used in the exact same way when you need a document to have several pages.

To use Google Slides to create a series of worksheets or a booklet, you simply change the page settings to 8.5" x 11" or to whatever your page dimensions need to be. One reason I love using these tools in the Google suite of tools is that I no longer find myself searching through a bunch of (not very intuitive) menus to find the setting I'm looking for. I'm tired of fighting with Word over headers and footers that need to start after the cover and inside front cover, or which need to be different section to section. I'm a smart person who has taken MANY classes, and after twenty years, the software should NOT still be giving me headaches. The interface in the suite of Google tools is easy to learn to use. It's more intuitive than a word processor and makes editing or making small and large changes to layout a breeze.

A few features that I enjoy in Google Slides and Google Drawing include the following:

  • Images stay where I put them. I can easily resize using handles.
  • Double clicking an image allows me to CROP IT IN PLACE! (Be still, my heart.)
  • Columns of text stay where I put them, do not run onto the next page when my back is turned!
  • I don't find myself needing to turn on REVEAL CODES to see why my document's content is 'acting up.'
  • All my creations reside on my Google Drive, available to me from any computer hooked to the internet. No more carrying around a flash drive!
  • I can easily share with my colleagues and with you.
  • By embedding the document in my website, any improvements I make to the original on my Google Drive automatically feed through to the one on my website!!! (This is so time-saving since I am a tweaker.)
This week I used Google Slides to create a variety of activities to enrich an upcoming field trip to Jackson Park / Queen Elizabeth II Gardens that my multilevel seniors class has requested. 

If you teach LINC in Windsor's downtown core (or just want to see a booklet that was created in Google Slides), you can download this activity pack for use with your own class. With Bloom's Taxonomy in mind, I provided at least one activity for each level of this pedagogical hierarchy. This week I will show my students the choices and allow each student to choose the task with which he/she feels most comfortable and which promises to boost his/her engagement and challenge language use the most. All of this ties into the theme of Canada and Canadian history, which got a large number of votes during our recent needs assessment.

How do you use Google Docs, Sites, Drive, Drawing, Slides and other tools in the suite with your classes? If you don't yet, are you tempted to try?

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Getting into the Swing of Things

I'm holding to my resolutions. The first two weeks were a bit rocky in terms of good self-care, I'll admit. But we're now two weeks into the fall term, and it would seem that I'm getting better at not allowing lesson prep to fill all available free time. I've hung this print over my desk at home just to keep myself on track.

This weekend, because I corralled my lesson planning and sourcing of materials into a smaller time slot than I would normally, I was able to devote more of my weekend to restorative and fun activities by myself and with my partner. It also REALLY helps that my agency has negotiated us some PBLA prep days throughout the term. Friday I was able to spend the entire day--minus an hour lunch break--in an empty school building marking rubrics and organizing myself for another term of PBLA implementation.

Saturday I took myself to an artisan's fair, visited two of the artists on the Open Studios tour, puttered around the yard, and read for pleasure. Saturday evening I made time for a movie with my sweetheart. In the morning, he was pleased that I made time for a late and leisurely breakfast at a spot where service is slow and the food worth the wait. He was even more impressed when I let him come over Sunday, which usually would stress me out. Because I was letting done be better than perfect,  I even agreed to our making dinner from scratch and watching another movie.

This feels good.

I like having a life.

As for PBLA with the seniors, I've decided to make that a completely client-centred and client-driven operation. They will decide how often to collect an artifact and what they want marked. They will collaborate with me on creation of assessment tools, on decisions around criteria.

The needs assessment revealed that they want to focus more on Canadian history, culture, and law. They also want to get to know this city better, especially the important landmarks. We already have two field trips planned for October.

Each school term brings something that renews my enthusiasm for teaching. This term I have at least three new sources of inspiration. The first is a building full of new faces! I have new colleagues who will be bringing their fresh ideas to our next department meeting. Secondly, I have a literacy class made up of students with higher speaking and listening skills than any group I've taught before. They are a lot of fun! Thirdly, there's some new technology entering my sphere that I'm having fun with: an Instagram account for sharing with my PLN, Flipgrid for giving me and the students a new way to assess their listening and speaking, and the gift that keeps on giving--knowing how to use Google Drawing and Google Slides (thanks to Tony Vincent) and Google Forms (thanks to Jen Artan). I'm finding that Google Drawing is now my go-to platform for a one-page worksheet while Google Slides works for multi-page booklets, such as the literacy class' LEA stories. I prefer it to Word for many reasons, but the main one is ease of use and ease of editing. When I place a picture on the page, it stays there. When I create three columns of text under my BINGO grid, they stay put. I never have to scream at Google Drawing. After Jen Artan showed us via a webinar (available for viewing as a webcast on how to use Google Forms, I immediately tried it out as a way to tally the seniors' votes regarding themes and also types of activities they prefer so that we could all get a clear visual representation of the results.

These new tools are absolutely making my job easier and less time consuming. Maybe I will have time for another printmaking class, after all!

How about you? Have you mastered the fine art of work-life balance? Are you good at self-care?

Monday, September 18, 2017

I'm on Instagram !

"You can't teach an old dog new tricks."

That's a saying the seniors and I have been having a lot of fun with lately.

We are discovering that you can, indeed.

We are just in the midst of our needs assessment for the new term, which means we have to choose which themes and topics are of greatest interest to us. We'll be setting goals and plotting courses for reaching those goals.

Friday is the day when some seniors peter out, so to speak. A five-day school week is quite a load for an octogenarian, you have to admit. And yet, I have to get them through that door somehow. So Fridays have traditionally been the day on which I offer something extra, something special. At times that has been an hour in the computer lab after break, at other times it has been a pronunciation lesson or short, easy (and amazing) true story that we read and digest together.

Now it seems that nothing I do is quite enticing enough. I have to get out the big guns. The seniors have asked me if I would please take them on more field trips. So the first two I have scheduled on Fridays. Is that wrong of me?

Oh, but I digress. This isn't even what I wanted to blog about this week.

Over the weekend I managed to open and begin using an Instagram account. You can follow me; I'm JOYofESL. I think I'm going to enjoy Instagram even more than Twitter. I really love snapping pictures in the moment and sharing them quickly with just a word or hashtag or two.

I was keen to share my discovery with the seniors. I turned this Friday into a bit of a tech tasting party. We watched this video about a Korean grandfather who now has an Instagram account with a huge following. Seeing this prompted one student to get out her phone, open Instagram, which she already had installed, and follow "drawings_for_my_grandchildren."

We also played with the Google Cardboard units I ordered over the summer. Don't tell anyone that I got knock-offs from China for $3 each, okay? The students loved them. One was keen to order her own for her family. My student who has macular degeneration can play ping pong but cannot read worksheets even when I use a 24 pt font. But he WAS able to visit the Eiffel Tower using the virtual reality viewer. Cool! I wonder what might happen if I turned a team loose on an assignment to teach the rest of the class about Google Cardboard? Hmmmm. Project-based learning, anyone?

How about you? What were your first weeks like back at work / school? I would love to hear!

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Change Happens

Tomorrow is the first day of the new fall term at the agency where I teach two LINC classes. It feels to me as if this term will be different in many ways. I'm going to see many new faces. I'm entering my second term of trying to comply with the PBLA mandate while balancing work with good self care. And I'm hoping to open myself up to new ways of teaching.

New Staffing
We underwent quite a bit of turnover during the summer, something that would have been unheard of when I joined the organization in the spring of 2010. Back then I was told that you had to wait for someone to die or hit 65 in order to squeeze your foot in the door. A person just did NOT give up a LINC teaching position once she or he had secured one.

That doesn't seem to be the case anymore. Seems like just the other day I was the new kid on the block, and now I'm going to be one of the oldies. I look forward to meeting all my new colleagues tomorrow and seeing the fresh energy and ideas they bring with them.

Developing My Teaching
How do I want to change how I do my job as I embark upon a new school term? I've had the entire summer break to read pedagogical books and articles, such as Ellen Langer's Mindful Learning, Dellar and Walkley's Teaching Lexically, and countless articles brought to my attention by my PLN via Twitter, such as the great blog posts over at The Cult of Pedagogy. And I've had time to look over the end-of-term feedback forms my students filled out in June.

How do I plan to evolve? In what ways do I hope to show growth? What do I want to do better than before?

There are three main areas in which I want to shake things up a bit: the curriculum of the seniors' class; the way PBLA is used with CLB 1L; how I use my time 'off the clock'.

Before the end of last term, the seniors conveyed to me that they would like more projects and would appreciate taking more trips off site. They benefited from a field trip we took to acquaint them with the free open-air ping pong table in Kiwanis Park as well as the trip we took to the Windsor Sculpture Park. These clients are long retired and do not need a syllabus that revolves around getting them into the workforce. Those days are long gone for them. Many of them, however, want to volunteer in the community. They want to better understand Canadian culture. They wish to engage socially with the people around them. I hope that by reading, talking to other teachers, and staying involved with my PLN on Twitter, I will think of ways to give the seniors more of what they value.

As for my literacy class, I will attempt to nail down exactly what is expected of me in terms of implementing PBLA at that level. On the one hand, we now have the ESL for ALL Support Kit. This should make it easier for me to help literacy learners set achievable language goals and measure progress. On the other hand, I still feel as if we are conflating formative and summative assessment with these rubrics and checklists. To me these marked artifacts feel like a summative assessment that is assembled over time. I would like to test out a system of instant feedback, such as the one my former coworker Maria employed with her foundations learners using a green/yellow/red light system that let the learners inform the instructor on the spot whether they were ready to move on.

Work Life Balance
Finally, I want to reexamine how much time I'm spending on lesson prep and whether I am spending that time wisely. My tendency toward perfectionism means that I too easily let lesson prep eat up almost all my free time. This year I must make myself a solemn promise not to let that happen. If ever there was a time for me to double down in my commitment to Back to the Well, it's now. I have to remember to trust the (audio or written) text. It's imperative that I demonstrate the courage of my conviction by guiding students back into the same language sample again and again in many ways, exploiting it for the myriad affordances it offers us. As for the students, they deserve a chance to deeply explore the language at a mindful pace.

As for me, I deserve bike riding time, time to take in cultural events with my partner, time for a good night's rest, time to cook and digest a healthy meal without rushing. Why should summer be the only season during which I find time for a printmaking class or a short road trip?

And so I return to the job I love with new resolutions, eager to see what my learners and I manage to co-create.

How about you?

Sunday, September 3, 2017

ESL Literacy Clients Deserve Better

Canadian ESL literacy instruction represents a tiny and often overlooked corner of the world of teaching English as a second or additional language. If you serve these clients, you know how difficult it can be to find appropriate resources and classroom materials of the same quality as what our colleagues teaching mainstream settlement English have at their fingertips.

When I was hired for the literacy class that I now teach, the materials I was expected to teach from consisted of a binder a colleague had put together on her own initiative. Had it not been for that, I would have had nothing but one shelf in a cabinet full of dusty, yellowed, outdated materials that fell far short of meeting what we know today as best practices for working with pre-literate and semi-literate ESL learners.

Slowly, by mining the internet every evening and weekend for many months, I began to curate a decent collection of resources on my computer. I found HandsOn!, Making it Real, and the treasure trove of materials and instructor handbooks at Bow Valley College Centre for Excellence in Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement.

But it wasn't enough.

I began creating my own activity packs to complement the wonderful Bow Valley College readers. I went shopping online, and my employer purchased some of the Talk of the Block sets, a few resources from Grassroots Press, and a few more books each fall at the publishers' expo at the TESL Ontario conference.

Yet even when I was turned loose in Toronto with a couple hundred bucks in my pocket and permission from my employer to beef up the ESL literacy section of our resource library, there wasn't much for me to buy. There still isn't. When I visit my local teacher supply store in hopes of finding an alphabet line for my classroom, I come away having settled for something that was designed with NS children in mind.  I don't want the S word to be star, which begins with a blend. I want a pure S followed by vowel sound. I don't want any of the images to be words my newcomers will not need in their vocabularies for another ten years; I want words that are relevant to their lives now. O is for octopus? How about O is for on / off with a picture of a light switch? Now that's English we can put to use immediately!

On my last post, Cintia Costa left a profound comment. Central to her teaching philosophy is Love. Yeah, big L Love. I also believe deeply in the value of Love. So much flows from Love: respect, growth, trust, community, a safe space.

Love, if you ask me, is in the details.

How can we claim to respect our ESL literacy clients if we do not pay attention to the details? I, for one, am not satisfied putting materials in front of them that are not designed for them. Would you use a magazine containing violent war pictures with a group of refugees just arrived from war-torn areas? Of course not. You would pre-screen what you use and would set aside the resources not appropriate for them. You respect them. You care about the experience they have in your classroom.

So why are we okay with an alphabet line that was made for little Canadian children? To be honest, it's probably because we have no choice. Materials designed for pre-literate and semi-literate ADULT newcomers to Canada are very hard to find. It's a tiny niche market, so what publishing company is going to bother developing these things?

The good news is that it's becoming easier all the time for you and me to stop waiting around for someone else to make these resources. I'm ready to make them myself. A is for apple, B is for baby, C is for a cup of coffee. D is not for dog, but might be for door or doctor.

I'll let you know when the set is ready for free download. ;)

How about you? Do you think we teachers of ESL literacy have to take it upon ourselves to create what we need?

Monday, August 21, 2017

What's Your Philosophy?

After my first seven-week session (full time) at CCLCS, the Standard I students had their TESL Canada certificates and all the practical tools under their belts that they would need to teach English at local "visa" schools or in places like Thailand, South Korea, and Costa Rica. After a seven-week break, I returned to Toronto for the remaining seven-week session that would--if I passed--make me an Ontario Certified English Language Teacher. We settled in to learn in more depth the history of the teaching of second languages, the various second language acquisition theories--from Krashen to Chomsky. We wrote research papers peppered with our newly gained lexis of the field: L1, L2, interference, comprehensible input, ZPD. We had heated classroom debates on whether the existence of certain words in a native language allowed the speakers to entertain the concept while NS of languages without the words were unable to think in the terms provided by the existence of the word itself.

I still remember how I answered an important essay question on an exam. The question dealt with which SLA theory or theories I found to have the most merit and how that might inform my classroom practice. I answered that I did not feel able to conclude with absolute certainty which theory was the "right" one, nor did I find them to be mutually exclusive. I found some merit in bits and pieces of many of them, and therefore I planned to take an eclectic approach to classroom practice.

And so I have.

I enjoy delving deeply into certain pedagogical works and authors more than others, but always like to make time during summer break and--to a lesser extent--throughout the school year for reading that (hopefully) makes me a better informed instructor.

How about you? Do you enjoy reading books whose target audience is comprised mainly of teachers of English as a second or additional language? If not, why not? Are you an auditory learner who prefers attending workshops or webinars and watching videos on YouTube? What other ways do you enjoy expanding your knowledge and improving your teaching skills and repertoire?

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Playing with Flipgrid

At the end of Tony Vincent's six-week course in Google Classroom called Classy Graphics with Google Drawing, I was the lucky winner of a year of Flipgrid premium! I truly enjoyed using Flipgrid as a student in his class and am eager to see how I can use it with my PLN and with my students this fall.

I find Flipgrid to be very intuitive and easy to learn to use. If you would like to play around on one of my Flipgrids, leave a comment here or email me. So far I have recorded one introduction and have invited three teachers. One of those teachers has already recorded a video and I have recorded a response to her.

Want to try it?

Sunday, August 6, 2017

My First Blog Needs Assessment

I am really feeling at a loss this week regarding what to write about in this space. So let me ask you, my readers, what you would like to read about here, what information you wish ELT bloggers would share, what you feel is lacking in what you are getting from your network of fellow teachers.

Just to help you start to think about it, I will start the brainstorming.

Your turn!

Monday, July 31, 2017

Reflections on Having a Professional Learning Network (PLN)

When I first started this blog, I had hoped it would result in my becoming more a part of an online community of like-minded ELT professionals in the same way that having a personal blog had led to my entering a community of kindred spirits, many of whom--over a period of seven years--I ended up meeting face to face. I was quite frustrated in the beginning that there didn't seem to be the same code of reciprocity among professional bloggers as I had experienced among personal bloggers. You comment on my post, I will come comment on yours. You list me in your blogroll, I'll list you in mine. Oh, well. I blog as much for myself and for the benefits of reflection as for community building, so it's all good.

Today I am feeling very glad that I stuck with this blog, posting weekly whether anyone was reading or not. One of my earliest readers ended up being a coworker and now will, I'm sure, be a lifelong friend. Another online ELT peer ended up inviting me to visit her in Toronto during spring break and is arriving on the VIA today to give me an opportunity to return her gracious hospitality. It may have taken a bit longer for me to begin to feel a sense of community in the TEAL corner of the blogosphere, but it is now starting to gel.

When I first used Twitter, I hated it. I mean that I really just did not get it. I found it boring and pointless. What could anyone possibly say in 140 characters or less?

It may have taken a few false starts for me to "get it," but now I am so glad I decided to open and maintain a Twitter account. Twitter is where I can participate in regular online chats with other TEAL professionals. There's a different chat for everything from educational technology to LINC! Twitter is where I stay abreast of the latest ELT research in a convenient digest format, thanks to @ResearchBites. It's where I get ideas for new classroom activities and book recommendations. It's also where I found out about Tony Vincent's Classy Graphics course, which has propelled me from the stone ages into the stratosphere when it comes to designing and creating my own materials, classroom posters, and marketing materials.

One common misconception about maintaining Twitter and other social media accounts is that it's time consuming or overwhelming. Well, it can be if you let it be. But I'm here to tell you that it's not an 'all or nothing' choice. Of course if you are trying to launch a career that will require a large following of people, you'll need to be consistent. But if you, like me, just want to stay abreast of the news and research, share a few ideas of your own, pass on a link to a good article now and then, benefit from others' ideas and free offers, you can easily do all of this by checking in for a few minutes here and there throughout the month.

How about you? Do you consider yourself to have a PLN? In what way do you feel included or not included, up to speed or not? How valuable do you perceive it to be and why?

Friday, July 28, 2017


It seems I forgot to write a blog post this past Sunday. I remembered on Monday and meant to come do it. Oops! I remembered again on Tuesday and intended to come write. Oops! Here it is FRIDAY.

I will try to make up for that with some added value this weekend.

In the meantime I have been deeply immersed in both professional and leisure activities, as well as healing from major surgery.

I have been:

  • Working on a Back to the Well 2.0 webinar with John Sivell.
  • Completing my week five assignment as part of Tony Vincent's Classy Graphics with Google Drawing course (see poster below).
  • Patronizing the Windsor-Walkerville Fringe Festival
  • Taking good care of my container garden on the deck and the veggie plot out front.
  • Harvesting purslane and kale for healthy smoothies.
  • Reading fiction, a delicious indulgence for which I never seem to find time September to June.
  • Getting ready for a houseguest next week and the return of my mom a couple weeks later.
Here is the poster I created for my week five assignment to create an infographic or a cheat sheet of some sort. I'm not sure this poster for my classroom wall really meets that definition, but it was something I needed in the real world, so I used that need to motivate myself.

To help you understand the backstory: I voluntarily run a hospitality station in one corner of my classroom that is open to all 200+ students in our school. I give everyone access to my room only before 9:00, during the two official breaks--one morning and one afternoon--and sometimes during the one-hour lunch break if I am around. But it can be challenging conveying to newcomers with limited English what my expectations are for the coffee and tea station. It is also hard to get the message across that my employer does not subsidize the cost of the coffee, tea, creamer, sweetener, sugar or the $250 I shelled out for the purchase of the huge water boiler. Another concept that can be hard to communicate is that disposable cups are not earth-friendly, so use the same thrift shop sourced mug daily, keep it clean, and don't grab a cup that has another person's name on the bottom.

Tony challenged us to imagine we were being charged $100 for every word used. He stressed that a picture is worth 1000 words. And I decided to include a photo of my face on the poster after having heard of this study. This is what I came up with. 
What are you doing this summer?

Sunday, July 16, 2017

More Classy Graphics

I can't blog about anything else because I can't think about anything else right now.

My mom is an artist. It was a single-parent household, and we didn't have a lot. But there were always art supplies. Mom was thrilled if either my brother or I showed any interest in her latest medium of choice. I learned how to make linoleum block prints, carving away from the body so as not to gouge myself. I learned to cut coloured glass and silk screen a tee shirt, and draw with hot wax on silk fabric that would later be dyed for a Batik design.  Mom showed me how to throw and fire a clay pot. She tried to teach me to paint, but that was an utter failure. I ran crying from the studio at the first mistake. Miss instant gratification, miss perfectionist. I didn't have the patience to try and try again.

Mom envied me my drawing ability. She would come to me and ask me to sketch the dove for that year's embossed holiday cards. She claims to this day that the cartoon strips I created were imaginative, original, the characters so expressive! She mailed me a batch of them recently; all I could do was wonder where that Kelly went--the one with an original bone in her body.

I've never--in my adult memory--been able to come up with original ideas or artwork. I trace. So while Mom is the artist in the family, winning prizes with her watercolours, I've always been drawn more to graphic design and illustration. But I've never taken a class, never answered that soft little voice that pipes up whenever I see a well designed bill board or handsome window display with a limited palette and crisp, clean lines. The voice says, "You want to do that."

And now, about to turn 54, I've finally signed up for a class. I'm only halfway through the six-week online course and already I feel as if there's nothing I cannot whip out in an afternoon or two. Graphic design has taken over my brain. I dream about it, can't drive down the street without deconstructing every billboard and restaurant awning.

I'm very glad that John Sivell has reached out to me to propose that we do a webinar this coming winter on Tutela because it has given me the drive and motivation to learn to use and apply each tool that Tony Vincent teaches us to use in Google Drawing.

Here are some things I've made while playing around today and yesterday:

pictogram for "good attendance"
reach your goal icon
could not find a Google Drawing icon - made my own

One of the best aspects of the class is getting to see what each of my classmates comes up with. We leave each other comments, constructive suggestions, kudos.

I can't wait to see what weeks four, five and six have in store.

Update: I forgot to say that one important driving motivator behind my signing up for this class was my wish to know how to present an online class using Google Classroom. I'm keen to know how we teachers can give workshops to each other without the need to be hosted by one of our universities or professional associations. So far it looks very promising!

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Making Worksheets Just Got a Whole Lot Easier

It was the early 1990s. I had just moved from a library clerking job (where only the guys were being sent to learn about computers and database building) to a job as library technical assistant in the academic library of a vocational college where I was guaranteed opportunities to learn computer skills. Mine was the noon to closing shift. Quiet evenings found me immersed in the many magazines that had been ordered to support students of courses ranging from robotics to nursing to secretarial.
My favourite magazine was about using WordPerfect; my favourite section was the macro of the month. These were the days when one still dealt with a DOS prompt to talk to others around the world using this crazy new thing called Internet Relay Chat (IRC). 

Macros fascinated me. You could copy lines of code from a page of the magazine into a special hidden 'backroom' area of the word processing software, then click a button and watch as seventeen keystrokes were executed in a 1.5 seconds. Without money for real database software, I controlled the entire magazine and DVD inventory using WordPerfect's mail merge feature. It was sort of like trying to build a house using Crackerjacks toys.

Such skills helped me get a better job. Soon I was office manager of a little independent bookstore where I wore many hats--from payroll clerk to A/P to A/R, shipping and receiving.
WordsWorth Books & Co. going away party for Kelly
In 1999 I moved from Little Rock, Arkansas to Waterloo, insurance capital of Ontario. Insurance companies were hiring, so my versatile liberal arts degree once again came to my rescue. Soon I was roving the aisles of the computing section of the many bookstores in that university town, plunking down large amounts of cash for four-inch-thick 'teach yourself' books and John Walkenbach's book on power programming Excel using Visual Basics for Applications (VBA), which became my dog-eared bible. I took a course in basic database building in Access. Within five years I had changed jobs again and was using VBA to customize MS Word, Excel, Outlook and creating business tools for my coworkers and supervisors with lovely graphic user interfaces, pretty buttons to push to run reports, to print out insurance certificates, to calculate the age a client will be on the birthday nearest a policy's maturity date. My apps even had little pop-up messages to remind the user to put the special paper into the printer when it was time.

All of those quasi-technical office skills have served me amazingly well in my new field of English language teaching. But if you have ever made your own classroom materials in MS Word with tables or columns, you know that the application can be a bit cantankerous at times. Even if you know the magic way to see the invisible code that tells the software where to start a new page, a new paragraph, a bulleted list, or a set of columns, it can still be a product that many times leaves you pulling your hair out--especially if you're trying to whip something up right before class or late the night before. It's not terribly intuitive. Mastering it requires the memorization of the placement of scores of commands that are hidden within dozens of menus.

Here are some worksheets and games I use that were created using MS Word:

BINGO game card

Board Game from Val Baggaley

Word Map
Okay, now for the drumroll part. Having heard about the course on Twitter, I've just enrolled in Tony Vincent's course called Classy Graphics with Google Drawings. Oh, heavens, this is going to be a game-changer. It is going to revolutionize how I make classroom materials. I can already see that it's going to save time and is also going to vastly widen the range of possibilities for what I can create for my students or teach them to create for themselves. 

I'm only on week two of six, but here is a sneak peek at some things I've created so far.

In place of the word map above, here is a word map created in Google Drawings:
Now if you're not familiar with Google Drawings, you might not be aware of the vast difference between the two because the biggest difference here isn't in appearance so much in ease of creation and editing. If I want to change the Word version, I have to go into a convoluted menu system to do so. If I want to change the Google Drawing word map, I need only to grab edges and corners of shapes and drag them into their new spots. GD will tell me when something is perfectly centred. I can easily duplicate a box to get another and another of exactly the same dimensions. I can nest one inside the other. I can ask GD to align shapes for me, distribute them evenly. And this course is only just getting started.

Here are some other fun ways Tony has gotten us to play around with Google Drawings. In week two we learned about designing in black and white. I created some custom sticky notes (there's a template with light grey lines inside which you stick six bright sticky notes before printing your designs--minus the original grey guidelines--onto the stickies).
I can't really put into words how it feels finally to have the right tool at my disposal or how much time this is going to save me as a teacher who loves to create her own stuff. It is a bit like the experience of getting my first real database software package after three years of making do with WordPerfect's mail merge tools used as a database. Yeah, it could be done, but my penny wise pound foolish employer was paying me for five hours of labour for every one hour inventory management would have taken me had they just purchased me FoxPro or Dbase.

How about you? Have you ever used Google Drawings? Do you like it? Are you using your summer to take any online classes or attend any webinars? I would love to hear.