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Sunday, October 15, 2017

Connection, Collaboration, Creation!

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Get More Bang for Your Lesson Planning Buck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Google Slides for Quick and Dirty Desktop Publishing

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Getting into the Swing of Things

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

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

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

This feels good.

I like having a life.

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 18, 2017

I'm on Instagram !

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

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

We are discovering that you can, indeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Change Happens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How about you?

Sunday, September 3, 2017

ESL Literacy Clients Deserve Better

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

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

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

But it wasn't enough.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 21, 2017

What's Your Philosophy?

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

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

And so I have.

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

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

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Playing with Flipgrid

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

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

Want to try it?

Sunday, August 6, 2017

My First Blog Needs Assessment

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

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

Your turn!

Monday, July 31, 2017

Reflections on Having a Professional Learning Network (PLN)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 28, 2017


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

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

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

I have been:

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

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

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

Sunday, July 16, 2017

More Classy Graphics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Making Worksheets Just Got a Whole Lot Easier

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

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

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

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

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

BINGO game card

Board Game from Val Baggaley

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

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

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

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

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

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.