Return to my website.

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.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

A Canadian History Resource for CLB 4 and Higher

Do you--or do your students--sometimes find history to be boring?

My class was anything but bored when we undertook the gargantuan task of studying the history of Canada beginning with the early migrations of the people we now refer to as First Nations and Inuit and ending at Confederation. We certainly could have kept going, but we were worn out!

The class was a multi-level seniors class, a group that loves to take things slowly and really delve deeply into the subject matter, not just memorize key dates for a test.

With their goals in mind, we decided to create a timeline. Each student took responsibility for one or two events, never racing ahead to historical events not yet covered in class. The timeline started out with a cluster of pictures at the far left end followed by a vast expanse of blank paper. Week by week, the learners sourced images, wrote captions, and decided where on the butcher paper to place their contributions.

Using tiny 3M Command® Hooks and equally tiny bulldog clips, we hung our very long timeline on the classroom wall near the ceiling. This allowed us to review what we'd learned in prior lessons while building on that knowledge as we inched our way through the decades. The photos you see here were snapped much later--after the project was concluded and the timeline was about to be rolled up and put away.

We took this series of units, which included reading a little book about Laura Secord, at our own pace. None of the seniors was in any hurry to pass an exam. They wanted the opportunity to acquire the related language and concepts--the knowledge.

For me the most fascinating chapter in our journey back in time was the unit we did on L'anse aux Meadows. I've shared about that on this blog before (December 2014), but I think it's worth sharing again now that I have a few more readers.

The centrepiece of our lesson was a rather long documentary about the national historic site L'anse aux Meadows. I found it fascinating. If you would like to watch the video and then take the Ted Ed lesson that I designed to accompany the video, you can do that HERE.

If you want to download the little quiz my students completed while watching the video, you can find it on my website under FREE - Settlement Themes - Canada.

If this blog post inspires you in any way, I hope you'll leave a comment.


Monday, June 26, 2017

U of T PhD Student Seeks PBLA Research Participants

Yuliya Desyatova says:

I am a PhD student at the University of Toronto and a LINC teacher. In response to numerous calls I have heard about the need for independent empirical research, I am starting a research project on how PBLA affects teaching and learning. How big of a resonance the project will make will depend on the number of participants. If you or anybody you know would consider joining – you can e-mail me for more details at

Thank you.

Friday, June 23, 2017

What's on the Walls?

A member of my PLN, Cintia Costa, will be starting a new job this fall as an ESL literacy teacher. She asked me for ideas on decorating her classroom. There isn't enough room on this page for me to share all the ways I can think of for doing this. But I'll start a list of ideas with the hope that some of them will spark Cintia's imagination. Others can add more ideas in the comments.

Although this doesn't get you started on day one, I would say that having the students do the decorating is a wonderful way to make them feel at home and to instantly convey the notion that it is their class, their space. Their work is the focus; their work is valued.

Another thing to consider is whether you want stations, or want a classroom that can easily be reconfigured to accommodate learning stations (a table with iPads, a table with art supplies and paper, a table with letters that can be manipulated, a sand tray to help students with learning disabilities and kinaesthetic learners, a table with flashcards). I am a strong believer in self-paced, self-directed learning and think every school week should include at least one or two hours in which students choose their activity and pace--even if you have to narrow the choices down to only two: Puzzle or iPads? Peer reading circle or illustrating and colouring today's terms?

Each unit you teach will produce something that can be displayed on the walls.

Maria Margaritis incorporated students' colouring pages and stickers in a quiet alcove.

Students love to see their own work displayed on the wall. Everyone benefits from seeing what the other teams came up with. Our walls are a constantly changing gallery of learners' work.

When you succeed in creating a sense of community in your class, the learners will feel empowered to take over many tasks, such as throwing birthday parties for each other.
An alphabet line is invaluable. The many ways we use ours would take up an entire blog post. Try to find one whose illustrations are items that will be familiar and relevant to the learners (x-ray, not xylophone) and not babyish. You might even want learners to cut out their own pictures from magazines to create a custom alphabet line to laminate.

In one corner of my whiteboard, just under the day's date, I write any announcements, such as "Friday: no school." Students learn over time to keep an eye on that part of the board in order not to forget important events and information.

Students in my class also quickly learn that retrieving prior days' worksheets after an absence is their responsibility, not mine. I find that students of both my classes TRULY appreciate this system.

You may want to keep an easel chart at the front of the class for a list of words that you will revisit throughout that week's module.

Students remember the lexis when they have illustrated the new terms. These posters stay on our classroom walls for a week or two and then move to the computer lab for the rest of the school to see.

Some teachers post frequently needed phrases and gambits on a bulletin board, along the wall near the ceiling, or keep them at the ready for certain activities.
Some literacy instructors use word walls. For a while I had one poster for every vowel sound we learned to decode in CVC and vowel team patterns, but I found that over a period of a year or more, this system did not render much bang for our buck.
One thing I can think of that is really important to have on the wall is an exemplar of what the expectation is for a particular task. I put up a copy of the rubric or checklist we'll be using to measure success on a task as well as what success looks like. For example, this is uniform printing. This is not. These sentences each have a capital and period. These do not. And so on. (I seem to have lost the photo of my printing exemplar poster. Sorry!)

Oftentimes our walls are a reflection of what our classroom has become that week. Is it a doctor's office with magazines on a table in the waiting room? A family's dining room during Thanksgiving? A grocery store with aisle signs? A bus stop with schedule posted for weekdays and holidays?

One of the first activities Maria Margaritis did with her Foundations learners was on names of the colours. Their pastel creations soon covered one wall and instantly transformed a sterile little room into a safe and welcoming space.

From musical instruments to construction paper, from live plants to cooking utensils to cameras, the sky is the limit on what your learning space can contain. Cintia, I cannot wait to see what you do with your classroom as you and the learners form relationships and organically co-create the learning space and experience.

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.

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 résumé," 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 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!