Return to my website.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Grammar Gal

My friend Lucy taught me the saying, "A change is as good as a rest." This week is proving to me the truth of that expression.

Two weeks ago the makeup of my morning (seniors) class changed rather dramatically. This change couldn't have come at a better time. I was feeling stagnated with that group, as I've had some of the same students for three years. I do my best to mix it up, but the truth is that we've been together so long that in some ways it doesn't feel healthy. They push their luck with me, and I sometimes feel that they receive my rockstar lessons and my mediocre lessons with equal satisfaction.  Being pushed to do my best feels good. I don't feel good about myself when I am lazy in my prep. I've felt like taking a break from it, like asking another teacher to trade classes with me for a term.

Then along came three students who are accustomed to a very different sort of class: one with more structure and discipline, for one thing. Since their first week with me was during our needs assessment, I got a lot of requests that I haven't had in a long time. They want me to teach them the English articles system. C-V linking. Gerunds.

These requests have put some fresh wind in my sails. For one thing, I MISS teaching grammar. I've studied ten languages as diverse as Japanese and Latin, German and ASL, and minored in linguistics.  Teaching grammar makes me happy because I get comments from the learners like, "Nobody ever explained it like that before. I get it now."

So this week was devoted to gerunds. I used a combination of the Azar blue book and materials I'd made in the past. The week went something like this:
  • Warm up by talking about our hobbies
  • Pull up city's Activity Guide, go over some of the classes offered (swimming, dancing, etc.)
  • Small group discussion about these activities
  • Grammar lesson on the white board with students practicing orally
  • Gerund as Subject lesson (worksheet on website)
  • Azar blue book - sentences 1 through 16, but not the table of preposition combinations
  • Take up first half of homework (class time was provided)
  • Now the big reveal: provide the table of verbs and the prepositions with which they colligate
  • Oral practice
  • Hand out page with the rest of the gapped sentences, 17 through 25
  • Take up.
  • Chat using gerunds with question prompts for A/B pairs (change partners every 6 min and repeat)
  • Gerunds and prepositions board game

That's it. That was the week. All the materials mentioned above, with the exception of the Azar grammar pages, are available for free download from my website under FREE - GRAMMAR.

I sure had fun digging into long-forgotten folders on my flash drive. I feel alive again. A change really is as good as a rest.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

One Week, One Handout (almost)

Anyone who knows me probably knows I have a keen interest in methods such as Dogme and other materials-light approaches. You might also know that I recently joined a Facebook group called Global Innovative Language Teachers, led by Dr. Gianfranco Conti. Well, the other day a member of the group posted a comment in which she expressed appreciation for a graphic organizer she had gotten from one of Dr. Conti's books and which had proven very useful for her language class. Others seemed interested, so (with his permission) I recreated it in Google Drawing--first in A4 for all the European teachers in the group, and then in 8.5" by 11" for those of us in the U.S. and Canada.

You can find it on the FREE - BLANK TEMPLATES page of my website. If you have a Google account, you can click the name of the worksheet to be taken to the master, copy it over to your own Google Drive, and edit for your purposes. If you like it as is, just click the image to download the PDF.

Anyway! I showed it to my morning (seniors) class and they were keen to take it for a test drive. I introduced the form this week, but didn't introduce it on Monday. First we talked about our recent student-teacher conferences that ended our fall/winter term on January 26th. Many people told me that seniors cannot learn the same way young people can. They want even MORE reviewing than I have been giving them. (I admit that over time, I tend to drift away from some good practices and have to be reminded.) They said that as seniors, they learn three new words Monday and forget two on Tuesday.

So I decided it was time for a trip back to our easel chart--where each page full of topical lexical items represents one module we've covered in the past. I flipped back to the very beginning of the pad of paper and asked the first student to choose one useful word* from the sheet. I asked a new student who was brand new to our class and whose English is more developed than most in the room, to be my secretary--writing each word on the white board as I flipped pages. She was great--a good speller with lovely large handwriting.

I flipped to the second page and had the student next to the first one choose a word. Thus we took turns and ended up with about 20 previously studied words on the white board.

"Now take out a piece of paper. You can do this with a partner or on your own, as you wish. I want you to write a short story and incorporate as many of these unrelated words as you can." As usual, I advised Ss with lower writing benchmarks to try to incorporate 4-5 words, while higher level writers could try to incorporate almost all of them. And then I sat down with my tablet and pen to work on the same task while they did it.

We ended up with some really wonderful stories, and I was amazed at my students' creativity. (They have asked me to focus on L/S, so I rarely get to find out if they are creative writers; some really are!) I came around to check papers and point out errors that needed correcting before they shared their stories aloud.

In a subsequent lesson that week, I introduced the Connectigram. I filled in one as an exemplar and projected it. After talking about the whys and wherefores of my use of these connectors, the students took turns trying to put together their sentences. Students discovered that "while" and "since" both have temporal connotations as well as definitions that refer to to causal or logical relationships.

Remembering Conti's admonition to provide students not only with practice on focused processing but also with thorough processing, and recalling that he considered "odd man out" activities to be helpful with this, I created a multiple choice worksheet to complement the Connectigram.

By this time we were at the end of Thursday, as we did some work on our beginning-of-term needs assessment along the way. Friday morning we took up the answers to the quiz, and debated the answers until everyone was satisfied. I then asked the students to take out their stories from earlier in the week and select a few sentences or passages to re-write using their new connector words. This was the point at which I really got to see who understood and who did not. One student had even used "whereas" in place of the temporal "while." See? This is why we have to go Back to the Well. They cannot finish the trial-and-error process without time to test out hypotheses and have them checked.

We finished by watching the three-minute film from the National Film Board's Canada Vignettes, The Log Driver's Waltz. We ran out of time, but Monday we will try to talk about the plot of the little film using some of our new words. Can you say something about the plot using "nevertheless?"

I ended the week feeling very good about how the class had gone. We had successfully (I hope) integrated two new and very different types of students into a class whose chemistry had been cemented for months if not years. We now have equal numbers of Mandarin speakers and students who speak another language, meaning I can now give my Mandarin speakers a partner every week with whom they cannot fall back on their L1 to communicate. The best part was that my prep was minimal. I hope you can make use of these resources--the way I created them or customized.

*I use the term word to mean unit of meaning, whether it be an idiom, phrasal verb or other lexical chunk.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Live Worksheets, a Cool New Tool

Thank you, Christine, for telling us about I cannot believe how quick and easy it was for me to open an account and create my first worksheet, then try it as a student. Wow.

Victor Gayol is the creator and site administrator. Thank you, Victor! Why didn't anyone think of this method of automating worksheets before? You can upload any worksheet (please don't violate copyright laws) and then drag text entry boxes on top of the worksheet in order to allow your students to enter the answers online. You--the teacher--enter the correct answers when you create the text boxes, which allows the software to give students instant feedback, turning correct answers green and wrong ones red. Your students will even get their total score circled in red in the upper lefthand corner of the worksheet.

It's this easy.

I can't wait to use this new tool with my literacy learners soon. It will provide students with a chance to review a worksheet we did during the week, perhaps one they did not do well on the first time.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Claudie Graner on Using Humour in the Adult ESL Classroom

As part of better self-care in 2018, I spent time today sewing and invited my friend and fellow ESL instructor with over 17 years' experience teaching English (who also got her OCELT from CCLCS, we discovered after we met) if she would be my guest blogger this week. She agreed. Hers is a perspective usually missing from this blog: that of the teacher of upper levels. Take it away, Claudie!


I eat, sleep, drink, live and love with humour - never leave home without it. So, of course I teach with humour.

A. In my Adult ESL/LINC classroom I use my own shortcomings (I am short)  to laugh at myself, to set an example for the students, and to minimise the "distance" between teacher and student that they often come with. My goal is to create a very relaxed, friendly atmosphere in the class.  I get feedback like: "She's strict", "She pushes me/us",  but it is tempered with: "I like this class is friendly", "She's fun." I am a notorious ham - and I also like to draw on the board - often with unexpected results. The Olympic torch  "See?" "A carrot?" comes back. Laughter when I show them the real thing.

B. I use movies (including comedies) and sitcoms to introduce the students to popular movies so they will start to understand the references and build up cultural capital.  Sure, it is also for comic relief, but I am very aware that what is considered "funny" in one culture may not be "funny" at all in another.  In the classroom we can discuss why Mr. Bean is sidesplittingly funny to some but not to others, (and that includes to native born Canadians.) By the way, most students love the "Merry Christmas, Mr Bean" episode.

When I show a movie or a video it is always connected somehow to a theme or topic that we are discussing in class:
Family Roles and Responsibilities: Mrs. Doubtfire or "Baggage"  episode from Everyone Loves Raymond;
Culture clash: My Big Fat Greek Wedding or (again) Everyone Loves Raymond "Fish or Fowl";
Gender issues: Bend it like Beckham (shown again during the World Cup!!)

It just occurred to me that most of the movies I show over and over again are comedies.

Sometimes I can show a whole movie at one sitting, maybe on a Friday afternoon. However, I always make sure that the students know that they will be expected to follow the movie/episode and answer the questions that are on the worksheet. Sometimes I will show the movie over a few days: “What do you think happens next?"

I don't usually pre-teach a lot of vocabulary for movies, but I usually give them a list of the main characters.  Then as the story unfolds I stop at predetermined points, and the students "work" on the worksheets, or we discuss the scenes and the relationships together. I often give a synopsis so the students get an idea of what is happening. The worksheets check for understanding. I can teach in the moment if it is necessary.


While I preview the movie, I write down words and expressions and a short summary of the scenes.
Then I create the worksheets…..
Here's the moment when I give a shout out to where I "learned" to do this.

C . I use "funny" clips from Youtube.  Preparing lessons with movies is a lot of work, so I find I am using YouTube clips more frequently now — a lot of them with humour so as to engage the students, e.g. a compilation of award winning ads, and I used the "Canadian Fridge" ad before Canada Day. Again: preview, write down vocab, issues, create a worksheet.

I used Anita Renfroe's "The Mom song" (YouTube) for Mother's Day and had the class in stitches.
For this I used a simple fill in the blanks (cloze exercise) of the lyrics. Then we sang the song together with the clip.  Great satisfaction when some students told me they had shared the video with their

TEDTalks has a filter "funny”; that's how I found "The Magic Washing Machine"! (Which I have used for International Women's day and World Water Day)

D,  I teach "knock knock" jokes as part of a pronunciation lesson, however sometimes it is hard for students to see the humour in the double entendres.  Reading headlines and understanding headline  vocabulary is often difficult because of the punning. Sometimes the students get it, sometimes not. When they do - smiles and giggles. (Vocabulary in Use, Upper Intermediate, has a good unit on Headline English.)

E.  I collect and post comics and cartoons (e,.g. to illustrate Small Talk/"Ice Breaker".  Guy standing on the deck of a real icebreaker: "What's a nice girl like you doing on a boat like this?"
Also political cartoons when an election is taking place!

Soooo....Lots of ways to introduce humour into the classroom without losing control and decorum.
(Oh, okay, okay, so I lose a little control and decorum for a while - laughter is the best medicine.)

I think I have to end with this.  Some of the most hilarious moments in the class have come from the students making jokes and/or laughing at their own mistakes, or REALLY hamming it up in role plays.

It is always about laughing with each other and not at each other.  The laughter brightens my heart and lightens my day, and I hope it does for the students as well.

Claudie and I leave you with this note: January 24 is Global Belly Laughing Day. 

Sunday, January 14, 2018

One Door Closes

My friend and mentor, Dr. John Sivell, who prefers to be addressed simply as John, has decided it's time for him to shift his attention and energies to new projects and endeavours. It's a sad time for him, for his students, and for all of us who looked forward to hearing from him at conferences. 

With his enormous intellect and huge heart, he has given so much to our profession, to teachers in training, to former students, and to me. This last one was something I could only have dreamed of without ever expecting it to happen. I was not even one of his students at Brock, yet he suggested that we co-present at the annual TESL Ontario conference. I was nervous and doubtful, freaking out over every detail while he calmly finished his lunch just minutes before we were to go on.

All of John's emails bear a signature quote at the bottom: The highest good is like water... - Tao Te Ching: 8. I never asked him about it because I instantly understood. I saw that he lived that way. When asked to travel four hours to co-present with me for my affiliate chapter of TESL Ontario, though we could only offer an honorarium that barely covered lodging and gas, he gladly came. He and his wife, Daeng, supped with me and my partner. When I stopped in at his home on my way to Niagara, Daeng prepared a wonderful Thai meal.

John taught me much, and I know I'll never have another friend quite like him.

While John is looking forward to devoting more time to travel and fiction writing, new doors are also opening for me. ATESL has reached out to me in response to a member's request to have us (now just me) repeat the Fast Equals Slow webinar. Right about the same time as that invitation came in, I also got an invitation to be the plenary presenter at the spring conference of another affiliate chapter of TESL Ontario. Of course I have accepted both and am already immersed in thoughts about how I want to change the scope and content of what was once 'our' presentation. Now it's my baby, and my brain is flooded with ideas.

On a completely different note, tonight I finished a 19-page activity pack to complement the Bow Valley College ESL Literacy Reader Mary Gets Sick. It took an entire week of evenings and much of my weekend to create. I think parts of it could be used with CLB 1 and 2 as well as with CLB 2L. I hope that anyone downloading it from my website (LITERACY - HEALTH) will leave me a comment.

Be well. Let me know what you're up to.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

What's Up at Joy of ESL?

There is a lot going on right now for me as a language instructor, perpetual student, blogger, webmaster, and creator / illustrator of learning materials! Since everything I'm doing right now leaves no time for a separate blog post, I thought I would simply write about what I'm up to. Would you like a peek under the hood?

The thing that gives me most pleasure is illustrating. When I first started making activity packs to complement literacy readers, I did not know how to easily create illustrations. My earliest attempts were simple black line drawings done in the free Paint application that came pre-loaded on my computer. I drew a scarf, hat, and boots using my finger on my laptop's trackpad.

Fast forward a couple of years, and I am using Google Drawing to create images such as this medical form and health card. I can't say enough good things about the online "Classy Graphics" course I took in Google Classroom with Tony Vincent. Without that class, I would not know how to use Google Drawing at all. Anyway, the image of a blank piece of paper on a clipboard was free for the taking on I send them a donation after every 20 or 30 images that I use.  I also found the caduceus on Pixabay and simply shrank it down to fit in the upper left corner of the piece of paper. The rest of the form was created using text boxes in Google Drawing.

The image of a health card was created almost entirely in Google Drawing. I imported only Maria's face, which I drew using a Wacom Intuos Draw graphic tablet and Artrage software in trace mode over a photo from the reader.

The walk-in clinic image started with a photo of an actual clinic in downtown Windsor that I believe my students are familiar with. I traced the sidewalk and greenery, made the canvas transparent, exported that as a PNG file, and imported it into Google Drawing in order to create the building, doors, and signs using shapes and text boxes.

For some images, I don't open Google Drawing at all, but just use the graphic tablet, such as was the case with this depiction of the nurse who calls Maria in from the waiting room. When I was originally given permission to create activity packs for the Bow Valley College readers, I was told I could not use their images. Yet one cannot follow best practices for the creation of materials and worksheets for literacy learners without images! So hopefully the number of images I replicate with modification falls within the scope of what in Canada we call 'fair dealing'.

So! Literacy teachers can look forward to my publishing this new activity pack before too long. It is my hope that you will notice the quality of my materials improving over time.

My own literacy learners are reaching the end of their five-month term with me. Many will be moving on to a mainstream CLB 1 or 1/2 class at the end of this month. I'm so proud that they can now tackle this level of reader and are asking for more challenging material all the time.

Second on my plate right now, aside from teaching itself, is keeping up with the research and latest developments in our ongoing effort to get the powers that be to listen to us, believe us, and respect us when we attempt to inform them of things that are wrong with (or are going wrong with the roll-out of) Portfolio Based Language Assessment experiment. Many problems are inherent, other problems are the result of certain employers' interpretation of the 'non-negotiables.' Either way, we still have a dire need for open, honest, mutually respectful and fruitful communication between front-line workers and the big fish at the top of the food chain. Since I was losing track of all the links, I decided to dedicate a page of my website to the curation of these resources, links to research, and so on. It is HERE. If you have suggestions for better wording or other links, you can comment below, email me, or message me on Twitter.

Thirdly and lastly, I am SO JAZZED that Tony Vincent, the one who taught me how to use Google Drawing, is offering a new course called Classy Videos in February. It's not too late to sign up. It's six weeks, but you do NOT have to be at your computer at a given time on a given day. You always have a week to watch the video and do the (optional) assignment.

All of this has me excited about the new year. How about you? Are you excited?

Sunday, December 31, 2017

10 Steps to Better Self-care

Right about now many of us are thinking about including better self-care in our resolutions for the new year. Teachers, all of us, from those who teach K-12 to those of us in adult education, are known for donating our energy and personal time in order to give our students an enriched classroom experience. Self-care has never been easy for those of us who've chosen this field. But these days in Canadian settlement English programs--with the roll-out of Portfolio Based Language Assessment--good self-care has become even trickier and more elusive for many of us.

Below are ten ways that I attempt to arrive at the end of the work day or week feeling there is still some energy and time left for me, for my hobbies, for exercise, for family. These are things you may or may not already have thought of or made part of your life. Some of these tips relate to physical well-being, others to mental, spiritual, and emotional wellbeing. I hope you come away with at least one new idea to try in the new year and will take the time to use the comments section to share with us how you feel about this topic.

(1)  Reduce the cognitive load. Or rather, be mindful of where you and your students may be spending cognitive resources that you could free up via routines and wiser organization. Work smarter, not more.
    file folders on computer drive - very organized
  • Keep lists. We only have so much working memory. To feel less stressed throughout the day, I find it helpful to keep a written list of things I have to do. At school I maintain a tiny corner of the whiteboard for the things I need to remember, such as printing out my time sheet for my site supervisor or calling my dentist.
  • Keep well-organized files, both soft and hard. My day is easier and less stressful because I know exactly where everything is. If I need a resource on the topic of citizenship to use with a CLB 3/4 class, I know it's on my flash drive under Canada - Citizenship, which is in alphabetical order along with Canada -  Geography, Canada - Government, and Canada - History. In case you're not already annoyed at my having my ducks lined up in a way that would make Martha Stewart proud, I'll add that establishing a logical file naming convention is another thing I'm very glad I thought of at the beginning of my teaching career. For example, files to do with the ESL Literacy reader "Food from Home" are named Food from Home crossword, Food from Home word shapes, Food from Home activity pack, etc. This way they all end up together on the storage drive.
  • Use routines. Routines free up cognitive real estate for the content of the lesson, and this applies to both student and instructor. When students know what to expect, they can help you more easily. My students know that as soon as they enter the classroom after an absence, it's their job to check "the box" for the worksheets they missed. With routines like this one, the class can practically run itself, which means less stress for me than I would experience in a class where students were continually asking for direction.
woman sleeping - illustration(2)   Get your sleep. I am absolutely amazed at how much better I feel after going to bed early and getting those proverbial eight hours. I smile more. I let go of little annoyances more easily. I remember to breathe.

(3)   Nourish yourself. Stay hydrated and bring healthy meals and snacks every day. This has been a hard one for me, especially hydration. I've found ways to incentivize these new behaviours until they becomes habit:
  • Buy or upcycle a pretty water bottle; maybe even infuse some cucumber, lime, lemon or mint leaves in it. Most of my morning students nurse a little jam jar of green tea with goji berries all day long. They set a great example for me.
  • Buy or make an attractive lunch bag. I had to go online to find one I liked. I make up the first two or three lunches on the weekend and later mix in some leftovers or a Luvo organic frozen dinner for days when I've run out of homemade meals. If you think you don't have time to make healthy meals, let me tell you about grain bowls. I cook up a batch of brown rice or quinoa in my little rice cooker, then open and rinse a can of garbanzo beans, lentils, or other legume. These form the base of my grain bowl. From there I add in something crunchy, such as sunflower seeds, something green, such as seaweed or barely wilted baby spinach leaves. You might like to toss in a soft-boiled egg. Finally, add a dressing of your choice. I just mix up a tiny bit of sesame oil and vinegar. I divide this up into three lunch containers and...Bob's your uncle!
(4)   Guard your breaks. Take breaks away from clients and, if you're an introvert like me, away from colleagues, too. Retreat to a quiet room or close and lock your door. Don't stress out over being perceived as rude. Folks will get over it. If you have to, make a sign for the door that says, "I"m on a legally mandated break. Back at X:00." Do whatever restores you, whether that be deep breathing, cranking up some music, playing a game on your phone, whatever! I see too many of my colleagues spending their entire break and the first fifteen minutes after class trying to be their students' social worker.  That may work for them, but for me it would be a recipe for burnout.

(5)   Take a load off.
  • Follow Martine's Rule Number One. This one ties into 'routines' above.  Remember to delegate to students everything that can be handed off to them. If you didn't have time to make that wonderful graphic organizer, project an exemplar and pass out notebook paper. I did this recently when we needed a Venn Diagram graphic organizer. One student grabbed the tea tin off the hospitality station and started passing it around, as it was the perfect size for our two circles. Literacy students can make flashcards.
  • Strategically place quiet work. I was listening to a podcast from Jennifer Gonzalez / Cult of Pedagogy the other day on the topic of what she calls Grecian Urns. You have to listen to the podcast to find out how she arrived at the term. That's her name for an activity that takes up a lot of time and might be fun, but has no real educational value. She warns us away from them, of course. That being said, even she admits there can be times when you consciously choose to give students an activity that will get them out of your hair because, hey, you can't be ON all the time. This is the point where I admit to you that I embed a quiet activity in the lesson most days at 2:40. That's when my literacy learners and I are worn out. We've been working hard on listening, reading, writing and speaking. They need a break, and I need time to clean up the hospitality station. So that's the point in the day when I give them a puzzle. Yes, the puzzles have SOME value. But honestly? I need twenty minutes of quiet.
(6)   Wear sensible shoes and comfortable clothes. I know this is a hard one for my colleagues who like to wear high heels, but in the end you are going to have to decide which you value more: how you look or how your feet and back feel after hours of standing, walking, and stair-climbing. I find that I enjoy going to work more when I can spend my day dressed in clothes made from natural fibres that breathe and that are tailored to allow for easy movement. I am a big fan of Lagenlook. As for shoes, I've tried many brands and have found I can rely on Joseph Siebel and Blundstone for their comfort, support, and longevity.

(7)   Be authentic. It takes a lot less energy to be yourself than it does to wear a mask all day long.
Not very long ago, I was experiencing the emotional and physiological vagaries that accompany menopause. Because my students and I have an honest, real relationship in which I am a human being who happens to be the facilitator of their language learning and collaborator in shaping their curriculum, I was able to be candid with them regarding what was going on with me. During an especially difficult morning, I whispered to one of them, "I need to step out. Can you lead the lesson for five minutes?" I indicated to her what was going on. The transition was seamless. I knew I could trust the students to carry on without me. Because we are real with each other every day, this was no big deal. I also need to note that our way of being together also empowers my students to be their fullest selves. The student in whom I confided is a retired OB/GYN. I was honouring what she brings to our group--her expertise as a physician specializing in women's reproductive system--when I chose her to receive my whispered 'I need to step out' and my reason for needing to do so.

(8)   Work smarter, not longer. Weave in some Back-to-the-Well. Cut your marking time in half. Go materials-light at least some of the time (see also Dogme in ELT).  By following recommendations for the teaching of vocabulary or lexical chunks as outlined by Gianfranco Conti on his blog and in this week's blog post about a shift from focused to thorough processing, I believe you will end up making life easier on yourself while becoming a more effective language instructor.

(9)   Advocate for yourself and for your team. The number of signatures on this petition says to me that settlement English teachers in Canada are facing a crisis in their agencies and classrooms. If you are happy with Portfolio Based Language Assessment as it is being implemented at your workplace, then scroll on; number nine is not for you. If you are unhappy with what is happening, find a way to connect with others in your field. At the very least, get your head out of Canada and join a group such as the Facebook group Global Innovative Language Teachers, where trends and fads such as this one can be put into a wider context.

(10)   Protect your capacity for joy. If doing your job well and having a life outside of teaching have become mutually exclusive, it is time to re-evaluate. Life is too short to live it in such a way that you turn down play dates with children, don't ever walk in the woods, never find time for a day trip, no longer have time for hobbies. Decide now, before the new year begins, where you're going to draw the line. What will be your signal to yourself that enough is enough?

Done is better than perfect - illustrationWhen my lesson planning is corralled and self-care managed to the extent that I have time and energy for an evening class one or two nights a week, date nights with my partner, and blocks of unstructured down time throughout the week, I know I am achieving work-life balance. If not, that's when I know it's time to step back and see what's going awry.

How about you? Are you making resolutions to do with self-care in the new year? Do you have self-care strategies to share with me and with our peers in this field? We would love to hear.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Take a Break!

I'm drinking hot chocolate by the window. Kelly's Cafe is hopping. The juncoes, cardinals, tree sparrows, house sparrows, and even the odd song sparrow are enjoying my smorgasbord of finch seed mix, peanut splits, black-oil sunflower seed, suet, and the heated birdbath that never freezes over.

How are you spending this time when all the stores close and things are quiet and still? Do you have snow where you are? I would love to hear what you are up to.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

FREEBIE! Winter Break Wordless Picture Book

It's nice to have the webinar behind me. I can go back to what I enjoy most: illustrating and making learning materials! I spent today revamping a little 8-page wordless book about winter break that prints two-sided and folds in the middle for stapling. The whole book requires just 2 sheets of 8.5 by 11" paper. It uses only a tiny bit of colour ink and also prints well in grey scale. Some images were intentionally left as line drawings so that students may add the colour if they see fit. I keep a box of coloured pencils in my cabinet for those days when we just need a short break from the cognitive heavy lifting.  Colouring is also therapeutic for those experiencing PTSD. Margaret Margaritis and I have both observed students having better focus and lower affective filter during and after about 20 minutes of colouring.

As for the webinar, I suppose it went pretty well, but I have since thought of several things I'll do differently if we are invited to repeat somewhere. For one, I think we should have been more explicit in our directions. Teachers were to look at the graphic organizers and come up with specific ideas for how the initial collection activity could be a springboard to further study of one of the parts of speech. I've created a space on my Flipgrid where anyone curious about Back-to-the-Well or anyone who already believes in slowing down, turning fewer pages, and engaging learners more deeply can drop in with questions or ideas. Hey, if nothing else, just stop in to see how Flipgrid works! It's SO easy that even my seniors AND literacy learners can use it. There's nothing to register for, no email address required. Come on, you know you wanna. ;)

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Nice to Meet You!

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

Sunday, December 3, 2017

I'm Starting a Newsletter

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

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

~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~

Update on the pan-Canadian experiment:

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

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

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Gratitude and and Example of What DOES Work for Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Save the Date!

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Lessons for Canada?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, then.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Thoughts on the 2017 TESL Ontario Conference

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Parallel Paragraphs

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

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

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

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

(c) 2009 Pearson Longman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Take Them Back to the Well

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Connection, Collaboration, Creation!

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Get More Bang for Your Lesson Planning Buck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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