Return to my website.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

End of Term Thoughts...and a New Book!

The 2016-2017 school year has ended on some very good notes for me, even though two of my colleagues won't be there when I return in September. Maria is off to get an advanced degree at McGill. She hopes that she will have more clout and ability to influence and shape policy after she gets her master's degree. My other departing coworker will return after maternity leave.

A few days ago my copy of Teaching Lexically arrived in the mail, and I am engrossed. This is going to be the most highlighted of all my TESL books. The glossy covered book will look like a flower, what with all the coloured sticky flags protruding from between the pages on two of the four sides.

What I'm reading accords nicely with other teaching approaches I believe in, such as Dogme and Back-to-the-Well. Just 35 pages in, I already know that my current projects, such as a webinar I'll be co-presenting this winter, readers I'm creating, and activity packs I'm readying for upload to the website, are going to undergo re-thinking and redesigning in light of my new understanding of lexical teaching.


The feedback my morning students gave me during their student-teacher conferences already has me excitedly imagining how I can better meet their needs next term. They unanimously and resoundingly voiced appreciation for the CCAC book I wrote. It helped them grasp the concepts and practice the language needed to understand eligibility criteria and use of the services of the Community Care Access Centre. Although the book was based on Erie-Saint Clair CCAC's website, teachers in other parts of Canada may find it useful--especially for a class of older learners--since there are equivalents to CCAC across the country. Query your favourite web search engine about home and community care in X community.

Almost all of my morning students requested that I bring the target level down and do more "everyday English" as well as more repeating and revisiting prior lexis. This latter request fits in perfectly with what I'm already reading in Teaching Lexically.

So, yeah! I'm excited.

I'm also happy that an open, honest dialogue about the flaws of the current PBLA roll-out is taking place in the comments of Sridatt Lakhan's recent blog post there.

Speaking of PBLA, there's a fact that has only just recently crystallized in my thinking. That is that there are two sub-camps into which the PBLA backlash can be divided. There are those, like Claudie Graner and Norm Friesen, who would challenge the quality of the research used to justify this enormous expenditure and retooling of our programs. They might suggest that the emperor has no clothes at all. Then there is another group: they are the teachers who would be willing to give PBLA a good old college try provided they were paid for their time to do so.  But they are being asked to do the impossible: create the content, create the assessments, and mark the assessments without watering their pay down to minimum wage or lower. They are angry at their employers for not pushing back on their behalf, for not advocating for their rights under labour laws, for not simply doing the right thing. Some are quitting or going to part-time while looking for a workplace that does not subscribe to PBLA.

Eternal optimist that I am, I expect something to give soon. The fact that public dialogue is starting to take place is a step in the right direction.

What's up for you this summer?

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Norm Friesen's "PBLA: Claims and Controversies"

Professor Norm Friesen (Wikipedia entry here, blog here) sat in on an open chat at BC TEAL, took notes, and gave this talk in Manitoba last month.

https://vimeo.com/220251988

If you are questioning the validity of PBLA, if you are feeling demoralized, if you are being called a whiner and complainer, if you have been reprimanded at work for speaking out, this presentation is worth 28 minutes of your life a thousand times over.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Time for a little Fun!

Because it was our goal to wrap up all artifact collection before the start of Ramadan (and also early enough to leave time for binder review, student-teacher conferences, progress reports and data collation by admin in June), I get to spend the last three weeks with my learners just exploring language in fun ways with them without the stress of another assessment around every corner.

It feels so good.

Also, the weather is now perfect for field trips.

And so I find myself so full of ideas, I can't plan or execute them all fast enough. One of the ideas that is blowing my little mind comes from a recent TESL Ontario blog post by John Allan entitled, "Change the Routine without Disrupting the Class - Take a Virtual Field Trip."

Have you heard of Google Expedition? I had never heard of it before I read John's post. I already have three Google Cardboard viewers en route to my home. I'll have the whole summer to play with them and think up ways to incorporate their use into English lessons.

In the meantime, while I dreamt about those little viewers being shipped to me, I've been working on lesson materials for an upcoming trip to Windsor Sculpture Park, an open-air art gallery stretching for ten kilometres along the Detroit River. My class will visit a small sampling of about a dozen works close enough for a self-paced walking tour that takes no more than two hours to complete, even with rest breaks at shady picnic tables with water and snacks.

I've spent today putting together a little booklet of activities, including a jigsaw. I'm looking forward to tomorrow!

If you are a Windsor teacher and would like to use this booklet, give me a shout.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

First Term w PBLA Fully Implemented

This novel-length blog post is for anyone who feels I am being too negative about PBLA or simply am resistant to change. I want to lay it all out point by point so that there is less room for misunderstanding of my position. Specifically, I would like to address the questions that I see batted around again and again wherever critics dare speak out.

1) Standardization
Q: Isn't standardization good? Isn't this better than before? What else would you suggest for bringing all publicly funded ESL classes into alignment with each other?
A: Yes, I believe that having a system of levels is good in that it allows us to talk to each other in a common language and pass students back and forth with clear understanding of what level of communicative ability they have reached. (Not all scholars agree with me re the CLB; I speak only for myself here.)

Q: So what's your gripe?
A: I am personally not seeing an improvement in consistency under PBLA. At my agency, we have some students leaving our school because we are complying with the funder's non-negotiables. Some of the exiting students are seeking out schools that are softer on PLBA. There are other schools where the roll-out has been such a complete failure, with teachers up in arms, that they have been given special dispensation to delay implementation. Before PLBA, there were always some centres with competent management and good teachers; there were always some with incompetent management and poor teaching going on. PBLA does not change that. In my opinion, PBLA simply introduced a new and different sort of inconsistency. Also, I still occasionally see students arriving from the assessment centre with wildly inaccurate benchmarks, meaning that teachers still have to use their common sense in order to best place the client. (Please do not take away our ability to do that!) I am for anything that teachers can realistically accomplish while being fairly compensated that truly improves the quality of service delivery for the client, that truly enhances a client-centred model of service delivery while making efficient use of taxpayer money.

2. The learner-centred model
Q:  PBLA makes our programs more learner-centred! Don't you believe in that?
A:  Where I have the privilege to work, the program was more learner centred before PBLA, not less. I was already conducting regular needs assessments because that's how I was trained at CCLCS. I was using the Canadian Language Benchmarks and all the available documents when creating exit tests. I was keeping portfolios of work samples for all students and passing those on to the next teacher when students progressed. Although portfolio artifacts received a lot of weight in my decision, I was also free to use common sense and keep the wellbeing of the client in mind when making decisions regarding class placement. Formative assessment was a natural, regular, and ongoing part of my delivery of instruction because, again, that's how I was trained.

Now, with the current incarnation of PBLA, we are less free to put the needs of the clients before bureaucracy and dogmatic imposition of a one-size-fits-all prescription. I'll give you three examples.

Example one:
We once had a teaching assistant who went from class to class supporting students struggling to learn to read by giving them one-on-one tutoring in word attack skills, phonics, etc. Almost all her time is now taken up with helping teachers with PBLA housekeeping. The struggling new readers have lost their tutor. THAT is taking a needed service away from clients who need it and thus is less learner-centred.

Example two:
Next door to my class we have been blessed to employ, for just one term before she sails off to do post-graduate work, Maria Margaritis. If you've had the good luck to attend one of her workshops on PTSD in the classroom, you know why I say that our centre is fortunate to have her. Because she has a degree in psychology and has worked in other settings with clients who share some of the same challenges, her literacy classroom has become the safe and welcoming haven for: clients experiencing PTSD and its impact on ability to acquire second language; clients with acquired brain injury; clients with serious learning disabilities; clients needing extra patience and support due to physical disability.

Maria welcomes them all and even encourages other teachers to send her such students. She is amazing with them. And yet, in spite of her formal recommendation to excuse these clients from the rigours of artifact collection at a rate of 8 x 4 per term, she was not able to procure such relief for them. So, she has done her utmost to show them that the formative tests are not tests of their ability but simply feedback on her teaching. Only because of her gifts has she been able to turn the situation into one that does not add to their stress and nightmares. When she goes away to graduate school in the fall, there is no telling whether her replacement will be someone as gifted at that delicate dance of collecting work samples without further traumatizing and needlessly badgering these special clients. They have their own way of learning, their own pace of learning, and there should not be a bureaucratic requirement forced upon their class. We have all met those newcomers who will probably never hold jobs, except perhaps in sheltered workshops. We have all met those who will never make it to level 3 or 4 or be able to pass a written citizenship test. Well, imagine them all in one class. That's a class where the instructor should be allowed to put her allegiance to the code of ethics of her profession before the still young "rules" of PBLA implementation. Eventually the funders will have received enough feedback that they will realize some classes deserve exemption or should be allowed to modify PBLA. Until then, some teachers are faced with not knowing whether defiance in the name of protecting their clients will result in punitive measures or dismissal. It all depends on whether they work under administrators with the courage to stand up to the funders and say, "We have a situation at our agency that merits special consideration."

Example three:
I teach a multilevel ESL class for seniors. Most of them found my class by word of mouth and have stayed because of how very learner-centred it was (before PBLA). Through regular needs assessments, I was able to learn why these older clients had migrated to my classroom and then tailor English instruction to their very different set of needs. They told me, for example, "We don't need to learn how to write a rΓ©sumΓ©," and "we already know how to write an essay." Because I believe in the learner-centred model, we have changed the class and do not spend an equal portion of our time on each of the four skills. Rather, we focus on reading or writing only when it is a natural part of that particular module. For the module on air travel, we learned to fill out a Canadian customs declaration form, for example.
Seniors teach each other to use iPads.
The class welcomes seniors with any level of English language ability. At one point the range spanned literacy to CLB 7; we somehow made it work. Currently the reading ability ranges from CLB 2 to 6 while the speaking ability goes from CLB 3 to 8. Before PBLA, this vast range in abilities was not an issue for me because their benchmarks are not the focus of the class. They have not come to me because they want to eventually pass the citizenship test or get a job. Their goals are social integration, combating isolation, learning to navigate every aspect of their lives in Canada without help from a child, grandchild, friend or neighbour. They love to be self-sufficient!

These clients--in their sixties, seventies, and eighties--do not progress through the levels the way their much younger counterparts do; they do not move on to other teachers. Over time, receiving feedback from them through a series of needs assessments, I have tweaked and sculpted the curriculum in order to give them what they need and nothing extraneous. They are gaining a treasure trove of knowledge about their communities and are mastering the language needed to: call 911, 311, and 211; become volunteers in their community; join a hobby club; avoid scams; report a crime; or communicate with every medical professional they encounter throughout the year.

This past five-month term of PBLA has been very interesting for us. From an aspect of PBLA implementation, it has been an utter failure. Each of these seniors has a Language Companion, and they are free to leave it at school or take it home. They take it home one or two nights when they first receive it and also during summer break. Otherwise, they find it to be a cumbersome burden (some of the clients weigh under 100 lbs; one uses a walker). Because I was collecting artifacts before our official PBLA launch date, each one of them has well over the required 8 per skill between benchmark changes. However, each of them does not have 8 artifacts at the "challenge level," so to speak. That would have required me to create 8 x 4 tasks for H at the 2/3 level, 32 tasks for N to see if he has moved from 7 to 8 in speaking, and so forth. Did I spend hours at home creating assessments spanning CLBs two to seven when these clients do not care about their benchmarks? No, I did not. I collected 32 work samples in a five-month term, each with a marked checklist or rubric attached in order to be able to say that I attempted to comply with the funder's mandate. I was honest with my group about this. By the way, I did once use a multi-level rubric when Rana Ashkar at the Centre for Canadian Language Benchmarks provided it as part of a pilot. Although still not appropriate for a group of people whose L2 abilities have mostly reached a plateau, I would use one again in a mainstream settlement English class that spans just two or three levels.

So this brings me back to a question that an unidentified PBLA defender recently asked me in the comments section of this blog: what do I mean by unethical and unfair? I will present many reasons for that characterization here today, but here is one: I believe it is unethical to force special demographic groups such as Maria's special ed class or my seniors' class to jump through a hoop that has the strong potential to shine a light on their failure to move up in benchmarks over time. It is unnecessarily demeaning and demoralizing to repeatedly point out to a client, "No, your x skill still hasn't improved. Once again, there's been no change." Instead, I propose that teachers of speciality niche classes be given the freedom to use their intimate knowledge of their clientele along with good old common sense in order to design formative assessment methods that give the teacher needed feedback while NOT adding to the clients' stress levels, not demoralizing, not framing progress in terms of benchmarks in classes for which benchmarks are not and should not be the main focus.

3) Not fair?
Q: What do you mean by 'unfair?'
A: I will provide what I consider to be the most salient reason that the current iteration of PBLA implementation is unfair to teachers, and you will find on this blog post a few reasons why it can be unfair to students, some of them already mentioned above.

When this first rolled out, we were expected to continue to create the content of our courses while taking on the new responsibilities of creating all assessments and assessment tools, be those simple checklists or complex rubrics, as well as marking those 32 artifacts per client per term. As Patrice Palmer pointed out on an earlier post on this blog, many of us have been in the field close to ten years and have rarely seen a raise in pay. In seven years I have received, I believe, three raises--all of them around 1 or 1.5%.  So while our workload has just increased exponentially, we are all actually having our pay reduced year after year. The costs of food, fuel, utilities, etc. have all risen dramatically since I entered this field. The Ontario government has raised the minimum wage an average of 4.5% per year over the past ten years. At the same time, my pay has not come close to keeping pace with the increased cost of living.

While I have been told by a coworker that our original contract considered our hourly rate to cover a certain amount of off-the-clock prep time, I have never been told how many minutes of prep this rate is supposed to cover. But I can tell you that when I first started trying to implement PBLA in a way that made me feel proud of the work I was doing, I was not being fairly compensated for all the work I was doing at home. I was cranky and sleep deprived, as were my colleagues.  I'm told there are some schools where teachers have flat refused to give of their own personal time in order to meet these impossible new demands. My hat is off to them! If the rumour is true, this has left a bottleneck resulting in students unable to progress for lack of marked artifacts. THAT is unfair to the clients.

To roll out PBLA before all the supporting resources have been developed is unfair. To threaten teachers with dismissal and characterize them as "resisters" when they dare to speak out about a workload that has suddenly become ten or twenty times what it was when they agreed to the job description is wrong, unfair.

4) Solutions
Q: All I see you people doing here is complaining. Where are the suggested solutions?
A: I have a few suggestions, and I'm sure we'll get some more in the comments section below this post.

  • Put a moratorium on this entire project until more research has been done. And if you cite other instances where portfolios or passports have been used, know that the comparison loses validity if the other study was done with K-12 instead of in adult settlement. Apples are not oranges.
  • Put a moratorium on mandatory implementation until all supports are in place. This means teachers have at their fingertips all classroom materials and course content as well as ready-made assessments and assessment tools for each module within each settlement theme.
  • Pay teachers fairly for after class / before class work (module writing, content resourcing, materials creation, marking).
  • Give all settlement frontline workers paid sick leave and extended health benefits as a show of investment in them, the most valuable resource in helping newcomers settle and integrate into Canadian society.
  • Do away with dogmatic requirements regarding HOW portfolios are to be kept. Do not spend taxpayer money on an impractical 2-inch binder that is made unnecessarily heavy by housing together both the portfolio and reference book. Provide students with a 1" binder (or let them provide their own) for carrying class work home each evening, as was the perfectly workable case before PBLA. Allow for materials that do not need to go home each night, such as past assessments and reference materials, to remain at home or at school when not in use.  This would be MORE client-centred and more fair to frail seniors, expectant mothers, those who have to wrangle strollers onto city buses, etc.
  • Do not continue to spend taxpayer money on the printing or development of the Language Companion in its current form. Poll teachers to find out how many times they (or students on their own initiative) reference it, and collate these data by level. It is highly likely that, at least for literacy instructors, it is a complete waste of money that could be so much better spent.
  • Allow school administrations, in consult with teachers, to designate certain special classes as "pre-PBLA" or "post-PBLA." These teachers would be free to adopt a lighter version or an adapted version of PBLA that truly serves their clientele.
In closing, I will let you in on what my plans are for my second term of supposed 'full' implementation. 

I haven't said much about my literacy class. With only 10 students, marking is not a burden. However, I do not feel confident that my assessments are valid. All of the literacy teachers at my centre need time to sit down with the new ESL for ALL Support Kit so that we can (one can only hope) design assessments that better reflect a learner's progress from Foundations and up through the sub-levels of literacy learning. Until then, I will continue to use needs assessments, checklists to mark tasks, learning logs, and other things that help prepare students for the PBLA routines they can expect to encounter in subsequent classes. None of the teachers at my agency has found time to revisit students' goals individually at mid-term. We will probably begin to use the T.A. for that (formerly the reading tutor).

As for seniors, I have pointed out to my supervisor that all of these students now have accumulated in their portfolios well over 20 artifacts per skill since their last change in benchmark.

May I therefore slow down on the formal artifact collection and rubric marking for that group? Yes, I was told that I may do so. I'll switch almost exclusively to self-assessment and reflection, such as you see here on three assessment / reflection tools used with the seniors class.



I will, as always, provide seniors with as much marking of their work as they want. I always give them a choice between handing in work for me to take home and mark or going over answers in class so that they can check their own work. They have told me that taking it up on the spot is more valuable to them. The size of this class is limited to 15, so when it comes to marking, once again I get off easy compared to my colleagues.

To sum it up, I will continue to advocate for the clients. I will continue to protest any framework that is imposed in a dogmatic and overly bureaucratic way that does not make room for common sense consideration of individual client needs. I will do what I've always done in order to sleep better at night.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Callan's Flashcard Set - a Review

Out of the blue, Nancy Callan was nice enough to send me a free sample of her new set of matching flashcards for beginners (28 illustration cards, 28 word cards), so I thought I would share my impressions.


The cards are a nice size at approximately 10 by 13 cm or about 4 by 5 inches.  Mark Perrault has done a lovely job on the illustrations. The grey scale images are well drawn, clear, and attractive. 

Three details immediately impressed me: illustrations of people represent a variety of ages and ethnic backgrounds; the illustration for the word map does not centre around North America; the font is one that even literacy students will find easy to read--with no squirrelly lowercase a or g to confuse them.

My only reservation in fully recommending the card set stems from wondering how well the cards will stand up to repeated classroom use over time. At my workplace, we still have a flashcard set that has been in the teachers' lending library since the 70s and has no stains or dog ears because of the sturdy, laminated material on which the cards were printed. Callan's cards are printed on a nice glossy heavy stock; I expect they will withstand a lot of handling. Still, I wonder how much it would add to the cost for her to offer a laminated version.

The set is listed at $16 CAD on the ESL Jigsaws website along with a companion BINGO card set that sells for $14. CAD. I will leave a comment under this blog post once a few teachers and I have tested these out with our learners.

What do you think? Might you use these?

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Outdoor Classroom Day

For two days I have pushed up sweat-slipped eyeglasses with the back of a soil-dark hand. The back of my neck is sunburned, and muscles are so stiff and sore that I will barely be able to get out of bed tomorrow. But the Early Girl and Roma are in the ground, empty cages waiting above them for vines that will branch and climb. Nasturtiums (shouldn't the plural be Nasturia?) and Marigolds guard the Dinosaur Kale and Rainbow Chard, seedlings all. A three-inch promise of Zucchini sits atop a rich, black mound.



Covered in rosebush scratches, I know that I am alive.

I'm told that May 18th is Outdoor Classroom Day. The educators who thought up this annual event probably had K-12 in mind, but I think outdoor time could be good for adult learners, too. What do you think?

Tomorrow is not May 18th, but the seniors' class and I are hopping on the city bus in order to check out the recently donated open-air Ping-pong table in Windsor's Kiwanis Park. This follows a module on free and low-cost things to do in Windsor and another module during which some students taught the rest of us how table tennis is played.

If I remember to take pictures, we can turn these into a Language Experience Approach (LEA) story afterward. I've never used LEA with any group other than literacy. This will be a good way for us to go materials light and will save the day after teacher spent all her lesson planning time holding a pitchfork. I wonder how seniors will like LEA, whether it will prove to be a valuable tool worth using again.

How about you? With the interminable wet and chilly weather finally abating and the sun smiling down, are you thinking of ways to combine an ESL lesson with a bit of fresh air? I would love to hear.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Happy 50th, BC TEAL!

I'm envious of my friend Claudie (@thespreadingoak), covetous of her recent trip out west for BC TEAL's conference and anniversary carnival. I've followed some of the weekend's Twitter activity. 

Sounds like I missed juicy stuff. Were most workshops recorded? Any chance I can read someone's notes or watch a webcast?

One of the workshops I would like to have attended is "PBLA: Boon or Bane?"

Claudie tells me that she encouraged some folks this weekend to look up this blog. If you're here for the first time, welcome!

If you're interested in reading the ongoing discussion of PBLA and want to join in, anonymously or not, in the comments sections under each post, you can access them by clicking the PBLA tag in the word cloud on the sidebar. ---->

Alternately, you can use these links:

PBLA with Literacy Learners

Fleshing Out a Module

My PBLA Triumphs and Tribulations

PBLA, Time Management, and a Culture of Sharing

A Speaking Assessment Set-up My Students and I Love

Addressing PBLA Challenges

PBLA -- More Thoughts

PBLA and Back to the Well

New Year's Aspirations

PBLA with Literacy and Seniors

An ESL Literacy Teaching Habit (for some reason, a big PBLA discussion took place in the comments in spite of the fact that this post is not about PBLA)

"Unbelievable Waste"

My Week (and Free Stuff for You)

PBLA Drove Me to Better Self Care

Blogger Unblocked

PBLA - Six Week Update

Thank You, IRCC (at the bottom of the post, re the rubric toolkit)

A Little Knowledge is...

If you do choose to comment anonymously, I hope you'll sign off using some sort of pseudonym so that readers and I know whether it's one person or several commenting. Happy in Halifax? Prof in the Prairies?   :)

Thank you for dropping by. I hope you'll come back.

Monday, May 1, 2017

International Workers' Day

Today is a day when we honour the the workers, the millions and millions who keep this world turning with their labour.
Teachers spend unpaid hours marking.
How did you commemorate it?

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Teaching Each Other

The seniors spring to life when asked to share their knowledge and expertise. It's sad that in this society we do not more often tap into this amazing resource that is our senior population. They know how to knit, crochet, mend and alter clothing as well as sew their own. They can teach you how to prune the suckers off a tomato plant and how to cast your bait into the school of White Bass when it runs through the Detroit River in springtime. They can teach you to hold a ping-pong paddle and how to tilt your pelvis upward for the first stance of 24-step Tai Chi.

This past two weeks we have been sharing our hobbies with each other. The first week was spent on vocabulary building, skill building, exploring ideas, making posters, and planning the presentations. The second week we had the presentations.

The class broke into three groups and chose to teach: 1) three basic knit stitches 2) the basics of fishing, and 3) how to play ping-pong. Each group created a poster; some made videos; others brought in photos. Their presentations were the best I've seen in three years. Nobody stared down at a script or mumbled unintelligibly. Everyone made eye contact with the audience, spoke slowly and clearly. It was evident that this time they had practiced several times beforehand.

I have to remember to do this more often. It seems that they enjoyed themselves, made progress in the area of fair distribution of work, and actually succeeded in interesting classmates in a new hobby.

The success of these past two weeks leaves me wondering how far we could take this idea. Could we write our memoirs and get them published at the library? Should we learn to create e-books? What about doing something in collaboration with the on-site childminding department? I'm sure the children would be thrilled to get a hand-made toy or book from the seniors.

Do you have ideas for our class? I would love it if you would leave those for me in the comments section below.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Those Blasted Gadgets!

"How do you get them to put down the dictionaries?"

It was at a recent city-wide professional development day for IRCC-funded frontline workers. A colleague who teaches at another centre the same niche demographic that I teach (seniors) approached me with some questions about how my class is going. This was the question foremost in her mind.

Any ESL teacher can tell you that for some of our students, the attachment to their little devices is like an addiction. We are baffled by our inability to convince students to put them away even for a few minutes, especially considering that these same students BEG us for help improving their speaking and listening skills.

So what have I tried that hasn't worked, or hasn't completely solved the problem? Hmmm, let me think back.

We spent several weeks on a 'listening boot camp' in which we learned to:

  • guess words from context
  • focus on content words; not stressing over all the reduced and thus hard to catch function words
  • practice prosody in order to train our brains to tune into it while listening
  • practice linking in order to train our brains to recognized linked words

I gave them the passage called "The Shillibog," full of non-words intended to: a) thwart their hunt for them in the dictionaries and b) teach them, in a real way, what is meant by guessing from context.

I have spoken to them ad nauseum about the need for a balance between the grammar-translation method they grew up with and more communicative ways of getting their brains to acquire new lexis in the second language. We talk a lot about strategic competence and include it as a criterion on speaking and listening assessments.

"Can you always pull out your dictionary on the streets of Windsor when using English with strangers?" They laugh sheepishly. They know I am trying to help them develop some new muscles and that--just like a new workout at the gym--it's not going to be comfortable at first.

"Do the uncomfortable until it becomes comfortable!" I say to cheer them on.

The list of things we have tried could fill a few blog posts. I'll stop here and just tell you the ending of the story. None of it has worked. They are still just as addicted to their gadgets as on day one, still resist setting them aside even for one minute.

One day I realized that I had to take a new approach. I finally admitted to myself that I'm not going to break this addiction of theirs anymore than I'm going to shame a student into stopping smoking. Instead, I started to work with the fact that when they don't have those gadgets at the ready, when they are not permitted to look at them and scribble translations onto their papers, their level of anxiety starts to mount. The longer they are without them, the more anxious they feel.

Having surrendered to that reality, here is what HAS worked in my multilevel classroom.

  1. As often as I can do so, I offer them the written text that we'll next be dealing with at the end of the previous class period. This allows them to use the dictionary at home overnight and come back to school with all the translations scribbled in the margins and between the lines.
  2. Announce ahead of time when a 'no dictionaries' activity is coming and ask them how much dictionary time they would like beforehand. Often they ask for more time than I'm willing to give, and so we do our best to reach a reasonable compromise. Example: I hand out a sheet on which there are five discussion questions (or I write the questions on the board). In order to get compliance on the 'no pencils, no dictionaries' rule during convo time, I allow ten minutes of quiet dictionary time before students are to get into discussion groups.
  3. I walk around during 'no dictionary' activities and remind those who have fallen off the wagon that they are wasting precious 'student talk time.'
That's about it. That's how I answered my colleague. My students and I laugh about their dependence on the technology. We joke. We bargain and barter. We compromise.

How about you? Do you try to limit students' use of the translators or not? Why or why not?

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Canada with CLB 1L

I don't usually teach "Canada and Citizenship" at the literacy level. However, this time around I, without giving it much thought, used an off-the-shelf pictorial needs assessment document instead of the usual one that I have customized for my learners. The one I got from a resource on Tutela.ca includes Canada as an option; of course that was the students' top pick.

Somehow, as a result of a mix of desperation and serendipity, I found a way to make the lessons come to life.

For the first week's module, we made a little six-page reader with the basics. I projected the book with blank lines up on the board and elicited the language, helping with grammar. Then students copied our sentences under the pictures in their own booklets.

This was the last time this group used primary penmanship lines. Our next module we graduated to regular lined sheets without the middle dotted guideline. They were pleased.

For week two, we took a little break from the map of Canada in order to incorporate a real-world task, map skills. This was done for the sake of an artefact for their portfolios and turned out to be an engaging module heavy on kinaesthetic means of learning; we turned the classroom into the streets and avenues of downtown Windsor. Students became fluent in giving and receiving directions to a few key landmarks around the core.
Back to the bigger map of Canada, learners made posters to help them remember which industries and foods are produced in each region.
We also started practicing offering, accepting, and declining food--a useful language function as newcomers make their first friends in Canada.



After days and days of practice with the rather large set of new terms, we made a video of our "Touring Canada through Food" party. The final test was closer to CLB 2 than 1, and all the class veterans aced it! Thirteen questions with NO images to support. They rocked it.

To finish off the theme, we picked out tourist post cards for one another, wrote little messages on them, addressed them to one another (for real), and asked the kind teacher to mail them.

A typical message went something like this:
Dear Ali,
Today I visited Niagara Falls. It is beautiful.
Your friend, Marwan.
Perhaps not this weekend, but very soon I will try to get the materials and checklists/rubrics for PBLA assessment onto my website for you to download and use.

Meanwhile, I have just uploaded other free materials for teaching housing HERE. Scroll down to "A Crack in the Tub."

I hope you're enjoying your teaching week. I sure enjoyed mine!

Sunday, April 2, 2017

A Little Knowledge is...

If you read my last post, you know I was feeling good about filling some gaps in my knowledge around use of Conestoga College's new CLB-aligned rubric templates. Well, my optimistic feelings about this tool have now been dampened a bit as I sit here looking at a stack of finished marking and the results of a reading assessment I gave to my seniors' class this week. It's a multilevel class to whom I usually give CLB 3 material, not at all challenging to the higher level students. This week was one of those times when I cater to their needs and teach a bit higher.  The module went very well; the reading assessment did not. If anything, the level 2/3 students did as well or better than the 6/7s.

When students who I KNOW have CLB 5 or higher reading skills get 30% on my test, I know that the problem wasn't with them. The problem is that I have no business designing and scoring such tests when I have only had a few hours of instruction (workshops and TESL training combined) in this sub-specialty of ELT: test design.

I am not using materials / texts that have been graded. I'm using authentic texts such as the guide to eating safer fish from the Detroit River, which is immediately relevant to my learners' lives.  Once upon a time long, long ago I ran across a tool that allowed me to paste in text, click a button, and receive analysis of the level of text based on how many words came from each tier of the first x thousand words language learners understand. If I ever find it again, or if you do, let's remember to link to it on Tutela or here, shall we? In the meantime, I gave it my best guess. What about my test questions? I THOUGHT I had used phrasing that was easy to understand, AND we went over the questions quickly the day before the assessment. Only when I marked the tests and saw that many students misinterpreted the same questions did I start to see the flaws in my design. Test designers have the benefit of being able to pilot their tests before live roll-out. My poor students are continual guinea pigs.

I will explain all this to them, apologize sincerely, and do what next time? I don't know yet.

In the meantime, I am starting to become privy to evidence, anecdotal though it may be, that my agency is taking this whole PBLA thing a lot more seriously than many other schools are. Have you yet started to receive students from schools that are supposedly already doing PBLA? What do these students' binders look like, if they bring them at all? Are they filled with spelling and grammar tests instead of skill using and real-world tasks? Have they even had the plastic taken off the guts? Has the other school entered into our shared database the fact that the student was issued a Language Companion?

There was a time not so very long ago when the teachers at my agency had a word-of-mouth reputation so strong among newcomers that our waiting lists were the longest in the city. Now? I fear some are leaving us in favour of schools that are "softer" on PBLA.

If this is indeed the case, then I am ready to consider mandatory use of ePortfolios whereby all agencies mandated to implement PBLA also be required to use the SAME electronic portfolio system. When a student transfers, she brings the password to her ePortfolio with her. We can see which school issued her LC, the name of the instructor who last promoted her, the work on which that promotion was based.

Without some sort of uniform and consistent accountability for schools and instructors, this whole PBLA initiative is nothing but a contest to see which agencies can fudge the best. Sorry if I sound peeved, but I am. I feel as if good teachers and schools are being punished for true compliance while those not taking it seriously face no repercussions. If that is the case, what's the point? It also feels as if good, passionate teachers are getting snagged in a dragnet that was initially created to catch out the lazy and incompetent.

That's my rant for the month. By next week I hope to have lots of juicy free stuff uploaded to kellymorrissey.com from my seniors' module on safe fish, my literacy module on Canada, and the seniors' module on using 211. Let's hope!

Monday, March 27, 2017

Thank you, IRCC !

The closer it drew, the more I'd been looking forward to the change of scenery a day-long professional development event would provide. The conference was funded by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada; the organizing committee, made up of people from each of several service agencies around the city, didn't disappoint.

Paul Huschilt warmed us up for the day and got us feeling silly with the Seven Humour Habits for Workplace Wellness; he was an absolute riot. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend him to anyone planning a conference.

Morning sessions focused on the wellness of the frontline worker; that's us. Since I have completed a course in Reiki, I thought "The Healing Arts for Personal & Organizational Wellness TM " might be a bit redundant. I've attended Maria Margaritis' recent webinar and am lucky enough to have her right in the next classroom from mine, so I chose to let someone else have a seat in "Practical Approaches to PTSD." Compassion fatigue isn't a concern for me right now, so I kept reading on down the list of options. The last workshop was "Live, Love & Laughter," which sounded a tad cheesy, but online political squabbles have me feeling in need of some lightening up these days. I enjoyed Rosemary Heenan's session a great deal. I appreciate that she made us do the work rather than just explaining the benefits of such things as deep breathing, visualization, and counting one's blessings. The last few minutes were spent on laughter yoga.

As always, the culinary arts students did a great job on the luncheon. And anyway, who doesn't appreciate a free meal?

I had not read over my program completely and was surprised when the MC announced that Lieutenant-General, the Honourable RomΓ©o Dallaire was giving the keynote address! I had never had the privilege of hearing him in person before, and wow! He was riveting. I don't know how HE avoids compassion fatigue after all the years he has spent watching people slaughter each other, watching children starve, and all the other types of senseless mayhem that U.N. forces go in to mitigate.

After his talk and the question period, we had break-out sessions based on sector. All the English teachers went to "PBLA-Aligned Assessment Toolkit" by Adrienne Horvath Cortes of Conestoga College and two colleagues. I was pleased to get to attend this since I hadn't been able to get into the same session in Toronto this past fall yet have been trying to muddle through figuring out how to use their bank of ready-made rubric templates for a few weeks now.

I'm happy to report that all my concerns and questions were answered. I now fully understand how to use them. Even before today, I was finding that the more I use them, the faster it goes getting them ready. Now I know that I've not been doing everything in the optimal or intended way, so I'm looking forward to correcting those errors the next time around. The best news? Yes, they are working on a set for literacy: foundations, CLB 1L, 2L and 3L. Yay!

Today's mini-conference was one of the best organized PD events I've been to. So thank you, IRCC and organizers. Encore, encore!

Sunday, March 19, 2017

PBLA - Six Week Update

I got myself into a bit of a panic this past week when I realized I am NOT on track to meet the artefact quotas I've been handed for my classes: a morning class (multi-level for seniors) and afternoon class, which is CLB 1L adequate reaching for the beginning stage of 2L. I am supposed to have about eight artefacts per skill by the end of this term. Actually, we've been asked to have them in the portfolios by the end of May so that some auditing, etc., can be done by the lead teacher in June. Well, if I continue at this same rate, it looks like I'll get about HALF that number by the deadline in order to make decisions about promotion.

I was feeling a lot of stress and resentment over this fact, almost feeling as if I've been given an impossible task. That was until I sat down with my calculator and did the math. The whole number of artefacts notion is based upon the premise that it takes about 300 hours of instruction to move a benchmark level.

Now I am feeling comforted a bit by two facts:
  • With the term having begun on January 30th, by the end of May my students will have had about--and this is an optimistic estimate--just 164 instructional hours;
  • Not all demographics make progress toward a benchmark at the same rate. Goodness knows new arrivals still getting settled, missing a lot of school due to myriad appointments, make slower progress. And we all know that those over the age of 60 AND do not fall under and should not be placed together with those under the same umbrella as mainstream settlement English learners.
So, a) I am on target if you consider that our term really includes just over half of 300 instructional hours. And b) at least in the case of my morning class, I have a strong case if I choose to argue that they should not be subject to this artefact collection quota in the first place. Let us collect examples of our best work at our pace since no promotion ever takes place. I'll let you know if this plea of mine ever bears fruit.

Other notes:

With seniors and to some extent with literacy, Back to the Well and Martine's Rule Number One continue to cut down on the ridiculous amount of time I once spent on lesson prep. Both classes seem to benefit from my turning work over to them that I once would have done. Example: literacy students can help me make flashcards, seniors can create dialogues that I simply check, seniors can go 'materials light,' etc.

Better self care continues to contribute to a drastic lessening in my stress levels.

I do not mind creating detailed module plans when there is already one in the Manitoba Module Planning Framework for me to riff off of for that topic and level. It takes me only 5 minutes to go through and take out what I'm not teaching, substitute what I am. Otherwise, the module plan all typed up with every single one of those 36 boxes filled (some with multiple levels of detail) feels like busy work, duplication of information that can be found on my rubrics/checklists and monthly report, a cruel bureaucratic hoop I'm made to jump through, and VERY time consuming.

I continue to find ways to help the students become more independent of me when it comes to classroom and school routines, housekeeping, etc. Below are two examples of classroom management innovations that I believe save me precious time when it's all added up. They are:

1 - Keep a box in the classroom where students returning after an absence know to look for prior days' worksheets. I always make exactly the number of copies as there are students in the class. After passing out papers, I jot down the names of absentees on the tops of the extras and put them in "the box." It then becomes 100% the responsibility of that absent student to check the box and collect all missed worksheets upon her return. Teachers who consider writing the names a burden might consider having a helper do this part.

2 - I keep a wall calendar where I colour all "no class" days in orange highlighter. Events are also written there, such as Health Access Day and other school-wide events. I will announce upcoming events and closures at least once and will write them on the board, but the students have the ultimate responsibility to keep an eye on those orange squares. This cuts out time wasted on multiple unnecessary repetition of announcements. I often see students referring to this, pointing out dates to their peers, all without the need for me to get involved.


3 - A third classroom routine I'm hoping to introduce this week in order to establish a boundary that will help me with my sanity is the reporting of a classmate's absence. I just realized last week that my seniors are lacking when it comes to some tiny issues of common courtesy; one of them revolves around being dismissed, and the other is knowing how to politely interrupt someone who looks busy (that's me before 9:00). I am planning to ask that they change how they report the classmate's reason for absence to me. I know this is going to sound cold-hearted, but that time before 9:00 is mine. Because of how my brain works, I need that period to be as free from interruptions as possible, and I get a very anxious and impatient feeling welling up in me when I am interrupted and then have to smile politely while my student slowly, with many pauses, tries to convey the message. They do not first ask, "Do you have a second?" or "Is this a good time?" No matter what I'm right in the middle of, they launch right into their agonizingly halted explanation. That's my bad. I have failed to teach them how to politely interrupt someone.

My idea is to give them three options:
  1. They can ask me if it's a good time and then act upon the answer; 
  2. They can wait until 9:00 and then let me know either aloud from their seat or by approaching me and whispering; 
  3. They can write the message on a sticky note for me to put inside the roll book and later convey to the administrative assistant. I will explain that if it's before 9:00, the sticky note should be passed to me wordlessly or put into my roll book without a bid for my attention. 
Perhaps this problem is specific to a seniors' class; I don't see too many teachers with loads of students who arrive more than 15 or 20 minutes early every day. There are certain prep tasks that I cannot accomplish anywhere but in the classroom. So I am going to attempt to teach them about my need for this boundary.

How about you? Are you doing well with work-life balance? How is PBLA going? Does your admin have a reasonable artefact quota collection schedule that you can comfortably meet? Would love to hear.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Blogger Unblocked

This is going to be a bit of a messy blog post, I think. The four-day delay, by the way, had two causes. I didn't post on Sunday or Monday due to a last-minute decision to travel to Waterloo and Toronto to blow off some steam during March break. The additional two-day delay has been due to writer's block.

A comment I got on my last post left me feeling paralysed. Don't get me wrong! ALL comments are welcome here. But that one forced me to say out loud something I know about myself but am not terribly proud of. I'm glad that anonymous commenter prompted some introspection on my part. I haven't reached resolution, but today I am ready to share with you the thoughts I'm working through.

Maybe I'm not the only person on earth who sometimes feels they are comprised of more than one personality. I was born a people pleaser and remained a painfully conscientious child until adolescence. That's when rebel Kelly pushed her way out of the shell and tried to find her voice. It wasn't always pretty, a fact to which my dear mother can attest. But even during those rebellious years, I had secret corners of my life where a certain teacher could still bring out the good kid in me. That kid was so good that other kids often pressured her to stop being such a keener. (And stop setting the darned curve so high, will ya?)

Today the two personalities reside inside me and compete for air time. I'm proud of the rebel, the revolutionary, the strong woman who has on occasion fought to right an injustice or walked into the CEO's office uninvited to protest an unfair policy or illegal practice. I'm not as proud when zeal verges on bootlicking. But I understand how Goody Two-Shoes came to be. I have compassion for her because I know how her perfectionism, OCD (yes, I've been professionally diagnosed) and the disease to please came to be part of her survival arsenal.

The advent of PBLA has brought out at least two instincts in me.

First, it pings my injustice radar. Something is rotten in Denmark. We are being asked to comply with requirements that put undue stress on us, all of which may or may not be of value to our particular clientele, and which require us to do more than can be accomplished on the clock. We are already a group that is easily exploited for our kind and caring hearts. Our "donated time" has been taken for granted for years. Most teachers also dig into their own pocketbooks for supplies, realia, etc., or spend free time sourcing realia and otherwise working to take their lessons from what is minimally required to enriched. Many of us are at our wit's end trying to meet the artefact quotas without resorting to fudging, without compromising our personal integrity.

Some of the other personae that PBLA awakens in me, none of which clashes with my usual work persona, are: the keener, the problem solver, the fixer, the sharer, the rescuer. When I figure out a shortcut or innovation, when I create a tool, when I hear of a misunderstanding whose clarification means less stress/work for us, I just want to carry that gift out to every teacher across Canada who is struggling with PBLA.

I feel bad when I learn that the beneficiaries of my standing up and speaking out feel betrayed when the other me gets her airtime.

So that's where I am. I have to say that being the fixer is a lot less lonely. When I share, I get instant gratification knowing a resource that otherwise would have languished in my file cabinet is going to be used by another teacher. An idea is going to save someone time. Being an advocate for suffering teachers considering leaving the field due to unrealistic expectations that they are not finding a way to fulfil has not, so far, brought with it any rewards. Very few other teachers have been willing to join their voices in solidarity with mine. It's lonely in the rebel constructively critical camp. I KNOW there is an entire back channel buzzing with criticism and desperate cries for help, but that barely reaches me.

So that's where I'm at.

I hope you're enjoying March break and are treating yourself to some precious and very needed down time. πŸ’š πŸ’š πŸ’š

Saturday, March 4, 2017

PBLA Drove Me to Better Self Care (and other good news of the week)

No black cloud is without its silver lining. At the end of 2016, I was about ready to start a work-to-rule protest due to how much extra stuff I was expected to do as part of my job. I was expected to continue creating the content for my courses and was simultaneously expected to take on the new responsibility of meeting artefact collection quotas while creating all the tools, forms and trackers that should have been handed to me with the roll-out of Portfolio Based Language Assessment. As you might have noticed, I nearly snapped.

I love the organization that I work for; in the end I chose not to stop my main volunteer activity. However, I knew I was stressed out, testy all the time, sleep deprived, and not taking proper care of number one. With January came the idea of making some self-care resolutions for 2017. Here are some of the promises I made to myself two months ago:

  • Adhere strictly to Martine's Rule #1. For the morning students, who can handle it, adopt Back to the Well like never before.  This will free up time and energy for the new bureaucratic demands of PBLA.
  • Bring a balanced, healthy lunch and enough healthy snacks in my lunch bag to keep my blood sugar even throughout the day, to keep my brain functioning well and my moods level.
  • Stay hydrated. I'm very bad about not doing this if my only choice is water. Lately I've treated myself like a princess by indulging in RISE lemongrass kombucha. Talk about feeling pampered all day! (No, I'm not being paid to say that.)
  • Wear comfortable footwear every day. I'm not the only teacher who wears Blunnies. And no, I'm not being paid to say that, either.
  • Wear non-binding, soft, comfortable clothing every day.
  • Ask for help when I need it, including from the students themselves.
  • Ask maintenance crew to help me rearrange classroom furniture so that I once again have a desk of my own (instead of cramming my stuff onto one corner of the students' picnic-style tables).
  • Ask administrative assistant for any and all supplies that will make teaching easier or will make it easier for me to stay organized.
  • Go to bed on time, get up early, get to school well before class starts (I hate feeling rushed).
  • Do not allow anyone--not students, not manager, not colleagues--to steal that before-class time from me. It's mine. Lock doors, be firm at the risk of appearing rude, but guard that time.
  • Eat lunch in a quiet space and do not multi-task. Chew slowly. Do not rush.
So! I am happy to say that two months out I have stuck to all of these resolutions with only a few minor instances of relapse, quickly getting back on track when I slip. The result? I'm a different teacher. I'm smiling again, breathing again, teaching well again. 

Seniors are doing fine with my materials light-light-lighter approach and their new responsibilities. In fact, two of them wrote on a recent learning journal entry that they felt they had benefited from learning how to break down and simplify a difficult text. (Simplifying/grading an authentic text is one of the things I would have done for them using hours of my own time at home before PBLA.)

Other good news from the past week:

πŸ’š  I finally found an iPad app that looks promising for my student with low vision. I'll blog about that on a separate post after we've used it for a week or two.
πŸ’š  One of my literacy students, a super keen Syrian man who has taken charge of his own learning, asked about ordinal numbers while we were discussing the date. He wanted a list of them. I was able to direct him to the Language Companion's Helpful English section. He didn't take it home, but was very pleased and thanked me. So, yeah, LC came in handy in literacy for the first time. I hope it's not the last time.
πŸ’š  I had a week (in literacy) in which I can honestly say that PBLA had a positive effect on my teaching, at least on the organizational aspect. I managed to get every duck in a row: module objectives, dates of assessments, tasks and accompanying assessment tools typed up and ready to go well before assessment day. This means I was able to show students the checklists several times, reminding them of the expectations and practicing for success. The difference between the dry run and assessment was that they didn't know WHICH bus route they would get on test day, which time of day would be used in the role plays, etc. (No two students had the same route schedule = no cheating.) Best of all? With the exception of a very new student, they all achieved the task without assistance and ended up feeling VERY proud of themselves. (By the way, all the materials for these assessments are free to download from my site.)

So, yeah. Things are good. How about you? Are you doing good self care and minding your work-life balance? How important is that for you in staving off burnout?

Sunday, February 26, 2017

My Week (and Free Stuff for You)

Let's get to the good stuff first. I have added a new sub-section to the FREE - BLANK TEMPLATES page of my website for any PBLA templates I create for myself. You are free to download them, modify them (they are in MS Word), use them if they help you. Scroll down. They are at the bottom of that page. Feedback would be lovely. Is there a template out there you wish were tweaked in a certain way but you don't have the skills or time to do it yourself? Let me know!

Because I often find myself having forgotten in the heat of the moment to update my master inventory list as the students are recording assessments on theirs, I have moved mine to the inside cover of the folders I carry home for marking.
I hope my new system helps me stay on top of this chore.

The stress I feel, when I feel it, in beginning to fully implement PBLA with literacy and seniors, usually can be traced back to two causes:

  1. I'm often overwhelmed by the number of books, documents, training manuals, workshop handouts, etc., I have to keep up with. I would give a limb for a master index.
  2. In certain situations, I feel as if meeting contractual obligations and putting my students' best interest first are mutually exclusive. That's a crappy feeling.
In the first instance, it helps to have a supervisor who reminds me that many of us are overwhelmed by the same thing. She tells me to forget about certain trackers. My colleague next door commiserates. She also tells me when she finds the exact thing we've both been searching for.

This week I have examples of the second scenario. In seniors class, we just finished up a rich series of modules (or one long one?) on the Erie Saint Clair Community Care Access Centre, a topic the students begged me to cover in spite of the fact that we would have to create all our own materials to turn their website and patient guide into ESL lessons. Everything went well. The students came away with a very comprehensive grasp of that community agency's mandate, services, how they can access those services, how likely it is they will be eligible for the services given a variety of health crises, and so forth. They now have the language to talk to a PSW, request services, or rent a walker.

When it came time to represent their learning in the form of artefacts for the binders, some of it felt contrived to me. Since students, divided into teams, had spent a week parsing 2 pages each of the patient guide and reporting on their part to the class, we considered digesting the guide as a real world reading task. Their presentations are proof they understood the content. So the presentations can be used as both reading and speaking artefacts, in my mind. No issue there. But then the speaker came to visit us. Feeling pressured to squeeze in another artefact, I tried to get each student to ask one question OR ask the speaker for clarification on something. Epic fail. What should have been an enjoyable Q & A session became Kelly the ringmaster trying to make students jump through hoops just to get one more gosh-darned artefact into those bloody portfolios. One student flat out refused to ask a question. When I reminded him it was for the binder, he shrugged. He's no dummy. He knows those artefacts accumulating in the binders are meaningless for the seniors class. It's the language and knowledge they want, not the pieces of paper with checkmarks.

Lesson learned? Assess when it feels natural to assess, don't become an artefact collecting machine. The same lesson presented itself to me this week in literacy class. Because my group has been whizzing through material very quickly, I told them it was time to raise the bar a bit. Having just finished a week of Mursal on the Bus (all skill-building, no RWT), I chose Farid Takes the Bus as a reader that would recycle all the language they had just mastered and add several new terms. I also thought we could try basic concepts related to Transit Windsor maps and schedules, which I have successfully used with a CLB 1L class before.

It was a four-day week due to Family Day. While the students did well with the longer reader and were keen to learn the four directions and words like "weekdays, holiday, schedule," and "map," they were not ready for assessments by Friday. Before PBLA, this would not have been a source of stress for me. I would either have abandoned the objectives as too high (my bad), or decided to spend another week building toward successful assessment. I still have those choices, but there is always the black cloud hovering over me, the little voice reminding me that I only have so many weeks in which to collect eight to ten artefacts for each of four skills. Tick, tick, tick, tick.

My decision is to do what is right for the students. They should not pay for my having misjudged their level. They also should not pay for the fact that the powers that be sending us our PBLA obligations are out of touch. PBLA should not be viewed as a one-size-fits-all framework, equally applicable to CLB 4 and to students still trying to figure out which way the paper goes. So I breathe and say: I'll get them when I get them. If I make the quota, I make the quota.

Again I have to remind myself that I only have max 15 a.m. and max 12 p.m. My troubles are minor compared to others'.

Speaking of PBLA, I got a wonderfully candid anonymous comment on this blogpost last week. Thank you, whoever you are, for being so forthright, and for others who continue to be supportive of the questioning contingent.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Having Fun with Graphic Tablet

The first time I tried illustrating my own ESL worksheet, I used the free software that came with my computer (Paint or something similar) and my finger on the trackpad. With these two tools, I was able to create rudimentary line drawings for my activity pack for Mo Stays Warm.

But as I bounced from application to application, joining user forums while going through tutorials multiple times, I continued to struggle with concepts like layers, smoothing, etc. My fantasy was that someone would just GIVE me Photoshop and send a digital native to my house for my personal tutoring sessions each evening.

Then by some serendipitous miracle, I learned of the existence of an affordable ($99 CAD) graphic tablet. I watched a few online demos of a lovely woman creating impressive oils, pastels and watercolours using nothing but her little stylus and some free (with the purchase of the tablet) software. After that, there was no hope for me. I had to have it.


I'm pleased to report that this little tool is my new best friend when it comes to creating my own settlement English materials. The software (ArtRage Lite) is super intuitive. Within hours I had succeeded in replicating the pastel in the tutorial.


I experimented with tracing a photo using the felt tips and some watercolour.


Some features stumped me at first, but I relied on user forums for help, though trial and error is more fun.
And now, several weeks later, I am using the Intuos Draw and ArtRage Lite whenever I need graphics for my classroom materials.

And that's my happy joy joy post for this week. How about you? What floats your boat as an English language teacher?

Sunday, February 12, 2017

"Unbelievable Waste"

I guess it's time for a little update on my implementation of PBLA in both my morning and afternoon classes. I also want to share a bit of what I'm hearing around me.

My morning class consists of 15 people over the age of 55. Most are immigrants, four are refugees. They do not change teachers. Their stated goals involve social integration and being able to live independently, navigating our healthcare system, the banking system, shopping, and other activities of everyday life without having to depend on their grown children or grandchildren for help. They want to be able to talk to and understand healthcare professionals. Because I am a champion of the client-centred model, they have sculpted and tweaked our class until it is exactly what they want and need. We do very little writing, focusing mostly on their weakest areas: speaking intelligibly and listening comprehension. Though there are exceptions, most have a long way to go when it comes to strategic competence. So that's something we focus on, as well.

I'm not quite sure how to handle my PBLA mandate when it comes to this group. They do not care about their benchmarks. They never progress to a "next level." So for now I am in a sort of "cover my ass" mode, entreating them to humour me as I administer assessments of their skills. I resent having to lead them through a process that brings into the light the fact that their skills have plateaued. I do not want to demoralize them. I look for ways to emphasize what they CAN do, not what they still cannot do. Therefore I have moved to checklists instead of rubrics, have designed the assessment tools in such a way as to highlight what they have learned to do and not the fact that the benchmarks seldom change.

But I do attempt to stay abreast of what my peers are learning. I am trying out the Conestoga College rubrics; I recently volunteered to field test a multi-level module plan with assessment tools. In a bid for the students' buy-in, I told them that all my colleagues across Canada were learning how to use rubrics (some multi-level) and other assessment tools for the purpose of PBLA. I told them it wouldn't be good for me to fall behind and not gain these skills. What if I one day had to teach a mainstream class again with focus on the benchmarks? I wouldn't want to be lacking in this area of my professional development. So would they be so kind as to serve as my guinea pigs? Would they play along with all these assessments that have little value to them? Yes, they said.

What wouldn't they do for me if I asked? But boy, do I ever feel like a schmuck for taking advantage of that.

The literacy students seem to like being assessed, like putting artefacts in their big white binders that we keep in the cabinet. No, they don't go home. And that brings me to what others around me are saying. One thing I hear over and over is: what an unbelievable waste!

The Language Companion for the literacy level seems to be geared for a CLB 2 or 3L. Maybe not even L. The level two teacher covets it. Goodness knows the LC 1-4 is way too high for her students. I've heard of some schools that have removed the LC part of the binders, locking all that paper up in a storage closet somewhere. It's useless to the lower level learners. I am feeling envious of the teachers at the schools where permission has been granted to gut the damned things and make them light enough to lug home and back.

Another teacher cries to me about the wasted money. Imagine, he says, all that printing, all that ink, all that paper multiplied by all the schools across the nation. That's a lot of money that we could have used on something we really need.

Yet another instructor comes to my class just to show me what she just finished printing: inventory sheets times four skills plus About Me for her two classes. "That's JUST the inventory sheets. That. That much paper!!!"
Inventory sheets
I know there is little to no chance any of this is going to change, but do you know what? It sure would help my morale and that of a lot of teachers I know if someone at the top would just acknowledge that not everything PBLA is coming up roses. Not all teachers are pleased with the wasteful aspect, just to name one problem. A simple acknowledgement of that would go a long way in my book.

Okay, rant finished. I'm not even going to ask for comments anymore. I've pretty much given up hope that teachers across Ontario or Canada are ever going to coalesce into a vibrant, mutually supportive online community.  And many struggling with or critical of any aspect of PBLA seem afraid to speak out. So I'll just keep on doing my thing over here.

P.S. This week I added a page to my website: Literacy - Health. There you will find a whole whack of free printable worksheets to accompany four different CLB 1L resources. If you use them, I hope you'll let me know.