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Sunday, March 19, 2017

PBLA - Six Week Update

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

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

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

Other notes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Blogger Unblocked

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So that's where I'm at.

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

Saturday, March 4, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Other good news from the past week:

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

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

Sunday, February 26, 2017

My Week (and Free Stuff for You)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Having Fun with Graphic Tablet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 12, 2017

"Unbelievable Waste"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 5, 2017

An ESL Literacy Teaching Habit

This past two weeks I have had no choice but to turn my classes over to supply teachers. The first day I was able to leave a detailed lesson plan for the literacy class, but then fevers swept over me, robbing me of my mental clarity. The best I could do, rushing to get my email typed before the next fever hit, was send a link to one of the Bow Valley College readers along with my corresponding activity pack. The supply teacher would have to write her own lesson plans, but at least she would have more worksheets than my students could possibly need in one week.

I inserted little 8-point font notes on some pages. "Teacher, Ss should be ready for this by Thursday," and so on. I mentioned that we usually practice a given story multiple times throughout the week, sometimes even reading it together in 15-minute increments two or three times on the same day.

A strange thing happened. One of the supply teachers reported to me that the students, on Thursday, were completely mystified by the Yes / No quiz. They were not able to do it. They didn't understand all the words in the questions.

Now it could just be that the material I had chosen was too high for the group. Three new students joined the class while I was away and one moved up. So it could have been that. In any case, it got me to thinking about how I teach ESL literacy. Is there anything that I do that comes so naturally to me that I might not even think to mention it to a newer teacher whom I'm mentoring? Since Beth Beardall has just posed a question on the TESL Ontario Blog about literacy teaching tips, I have decided to try to put into words a teaching habit that I think benefits my learners and helps them get to fluency and mastery of one story by week's end.

Before I get to the tip, let's get some basics out of the way.  When introducing a new story, I not only activate prior knowledge of the schema but pre-teach the terms that are new to the learners.  I use pictures, realia, and also try to personalize a new term on the spot. So if a new vocabulary item is the word son, we will go around the room asking one another, "Do you have a son?" We'll talk about how many sons and daughters we each have. If a new word is bill, we will talk about the various bills we pay. I don't start the story until most students are getting at least 65-75% accuracy when I ask, "What's a bill?" "What's a dentist?"

So now we're looking at a week that we will spend learning to read, for example, Mark Goes to the Dentist. We'll spend the week going back and forth between the whole and the parts. We'll do activities involving the meaning of the language, such as: dialogues and role plays, sentence unscramble, paragraph unscramble, peer surveys, T/F quiz, and my verbally quizzing them on meaning. We'll do other activities that focus on the parts of language, such as: spelling dictation, word shapes worksheet, categorizing by sound, hidden word, etc.  I will usually also find space in the week to assess a real-world task, such as filling out a form, role playing with the receptionist, and so forth.

Okay, so here's the tip.  Never waste an opportunity to reinforce either ability to read aloud (and pronounce), the ability to spell a new term, or the ability to show comprehension. Below are some examples of what I mean.
  • If a student comes up to the board to write the answer on a worksheet where meaning was the focus, never let her sit down until she has read the sentence aloud.
  • If you are the scribe calling on students for the answers as you write them in the spaces, don't settle just for the word. Have the student spell it to you as you write it in.
  • If you are taking up a worksheet where the focus is not on meaning, just on the spelling or shape of the word, before you erase the board, go back over all words--this time asking the class to say the word and give the meaning.
  • Never erase anything without having students read aloud/pronounce the words one last time. If they can say it, you erase it.
  • If you've been using sentence strips or flashcards with partners, don't let them just put the items back into the envelopes or paperclips. Make a new activity out of that: "Everybody show me 'The drink is cold.' Put 'The drink is cold' back in the envelope."
In this way, day by day, students build up their abilities to read all the words aloud, read the sentences aloud, spell all the words, define all the words. And don't think that I put students on the spot for these performances. Mine is a low risk, safe classroom. All are free to pass and know they will be encouraged when they are ready. However, I don't let strong students take easy questions! Those are reserved for the less confident students. With a quick glance in their direction, I give them the chance to signal me when they feel ready.

When we play Sentence Unscramble, I do not tell them if I think the sentence is right or not before I hit SUBMIT for them. I ask the class, "Everybody, is that right?" Through peer coaching, they eventually get the syntax right. I keep a poker face. Make the students do the work.

I fashion the end-of-week Yes/No quiz in such a way that most are easy and just one is tricky. One question requires the student to not only understand the new language, but also to be able to use it in a novel context.

Mark has a drink. 
The drink is hot. 
Mark has a toothache.
Mark gets a filling.
The bill is $1,999.
Kelly is a dentist.*

The same notion of cycling through ability to read aloud / ability to spell / ability to understand meaning can come into play in a simple game of BINGO. My students make me play it till I'm sick of it, so I jazz it up by switching from calling the words to calling out the spelling to making them guess the word. "This is what Mark gets. He can't pay it all today." They say, "BILL!" I say, "Yes, how do you spell bill?" Or, at other times, "What does B-I-L-L spell?" Also having a student play the teacher in this game allows peers to correct poor pronunciation. 

So to summarize my ESL literacy teaching tip: there should be no moment when the teacher is writing something and students are just sitting there staring. When the teacher is writing, the students have a job. When the teacher is erasing, the students have a job. When a student is at the board, the other students have a job. Chances to reinforce the language are EVERYWHERE. And keep your formative assessment feelers up at all times. 

How about you? Have you left a comment for Beth on her blog post?

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Sorry No Blog Post

Update: I never thought I would be out of commission this long! Teacher Kelly is never sick. She is never absent. I hope you are able to avoid the viral enteritis that has been going around this city and our schools. It is not a fun one.  Wash your hands a lot.  Remind students of the importance of good hand hygiene.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

PBLA with Literacy and Seniors

PBLA with Seniors
Day One: Seniors did a warm-up activity to gently get them back into English after the two-week break; it was not related to PBLA.

Day two: I discussed with seniors my plans to continue restructuring our course to better meet their stated needs (e.g., more listening practice). I will be testing out some different types of activities on them, such as Dictogloss, which I think will really help them focus on capturing meaning, not every word verbatim. They are keen to help me field test techniques and give feedback.

Seniors explored the Language Companions in more depth than before. We did some poking around in them, some reading in the introduction. After break they got their requisite student talk time in the form of some small group discussion questions. During the last 15 minutes of class, I surveyed the groups for the results of their discussions. They pleasantly surprised me.

Discussion questions:
  1. Is the LC useful to you? Overwhelming majority said yes.
  2. Have you ever taken it home? Majority said yes, at least once. All but one student limits this home use to holidays and breaks. One student keeps his at home and TRIES to remember to bring it on Tuesdays (the day T passes back marked work).
  3. What is the most useful part? Students were most excited about the Helpful English section, followed by My Canada.   CLB and Where I Live tied for third place.
  4. If it were lighter / more slender, would you take it home daily? All said yes and had many suggestions regarding how this could be achieved. Some suggested the LC (all content except their dossiers) be bound into one volume, others thought each section should be bound separately to allow for convenient portability. 
  5. Do you like learning about PBLA? Why or why not? At least 50% said yes, they want me to teach them about portfolio-based language assessment and do some teaching from the Language Companion. This contradicts what they had conveyed to me during previous needs assessments. (They normally vote for health, health, and health, in that order.)
Day three: We read Jan's New Binder and did the associated activities as a way of warming up with material that is not in the least intimidating. After break is always less teacher-centred with opportunities for group work or discussions. Seniors like to take things VERY slowly, breaking everything into baby steps. We don't always have a complete PPP pattern in every 2.5-hour session. Do you?
Our lexis for the module is on an easel pad.
Day four: With a true dictation the day before for comparison, we attempted our first Dictogloss using a paragraph about PBLA. Well, we didn't do it exactly right, but we will learn from our mistakes. I am always honest with them when I'm trying something out and ask them to give it three or four tries before we decide if we want to stop or continue.  Personally, I really liked it and hope we are able to hone our method.
After note taking, Ss collaborate to reconstruct the dictated passage.
I dragged a poster out of dormancy to make the CLB concept less abstract.

PBLA with CLB 1L
Day One: Not everyone showed up to an already small class, which was awkward. Did a gentle warm-up activity before break; after the break we started familiarizing ourselves with the four skill sections of the portfolios. We decorated and colour coded the dividers so that in the future we might not continue to confuse "reading" and "writing," which sound a lot alike.  This idea came from Jean Campbell's webinar on PBLA with Adult Literacy Learners (ALL).

Students' drawing for his reading divider

Our easel chart

Student's illustration for her writing divider
Day two: We took pictures to illustrate a reader that we will co-create about our Language Companions and associated routines and the purpose of them. Used TPR to help Ss get familiar with sections (put your pencil under the binder, in the back of listening, at the front of speaking, close your binder, give your pencil to Farhia, open the rings, close the rings, etc.) One key to successful TPR is to keep them on their toes; don't let the next command be easy to anticipate. You have to mix in crazy commands like "put your binder on your head." This ensures they truly listen to the words. I have to fight to keep my eyes and hands from giving away the meaning since I normally use a lot of pantomime and gesture for their benefit. In TPR, it's counterproductive to do that.
Picture taken to illustrate student and teacher reviewing artefacts

cover page of our book

a page from the book
Day Three: We worked on hard C and hard G using the book This Really Works (possibly out of print). I usually give them about 90 minutes of explicit phonemic awareness / decoding lessons each week. I especially appreciate when we are learning vowel sounds in CVC words and later vowel teams.

We also working on reading our new book, "My Big White Binder" and did some activities with the component lexis, such as hangman, flashcards, and more TPR. NB: Ss LOVE reading a book that is about THEM with pictures of THEM doing stuff. It makes the language come to life.

Day Four: We finished up the hard C / hard G activities. Played Sentence Unscramble on using words and sentences I had pre-loaded from our story. We then did a sentence unscramble worksheet that matched the sentences in the game. Played the flyswatter game. Since we had an odd number of students, I volunteered to go up against a student. He happens to be about 6'2" and 200 lbs. We decided it was a fair handicap since I know all the words but he can block me from reaching the words. The others collapsed in tears watching 5'3" me and my fancy footwork as I tried to sneak under and around.
flyswatter game board
We did not manage to get to the Yes/No quiz; not sure if I'll incorporate it on Monday. Its' another four-day week.
We take up the answers to a worksheet.
Friday: No class due to PBLA training session #9.

P.S. I highly recommend Jean Campbell's series on teaching ESL literacy. The first one is over, but you can still watch the webcast on Tutela. The second one is in February, I believe. Oh, and my colleague Maria Margaritis is giving a webinar on PTSD in the classroom Sunday at 1 Eastern. Be there or be square!

Sunday, January 8, 2017

What Do I Mean by Materials Light?

If you watched the video on my last post, you might be wondering about my reference to dogme.

I have not gone through extensive training nor have I immersed myself enough in the forums to be able to say that I know what dogme in English Language Teaching truly means. I can't claim ever to have fully implemented dogme in a classroom. I do own the book Teaching Unplugged by Thornbury and Meddings, and my copy is covered in coloured stickies and is has suffered the indignities felt the love of my yellow and pink highlighters. The idea is very appealing to me; as someone who has studied over ten languages and has reached fluency in one or two, I can say that I believe I would enjoy being a student in a dogme classroom.

I did stick my toe in the waters of dogme when I had a conversation class that met for one hour four times per week. There came a point when my informal 'lunch and learn' session was whittled down to about three keeners, and we felt free to be spontaneous, not text-driven. (This was a period of time when the Russian, the Ukrainian, and the Chinese student really sprang to life and thanked me profusely for focusing on the exact English they needed for what was happening in their lives that day.

Other than that, I have not felt free to take a so called vow of chastity for an entire term. Or perhaps I had the freedom but was too lazy to try it. In any case, not ever having fully implemented a dogme approach doesn't mean I don't believe in stretching a teachable moment into an impromptu lesson. I do! Those often turn out to be more effective than what I conscientiously took two hours at home to plan. Might not hardcore dogme proponents insist they always do?

The week before winter break in my morning class, a multilevel group of seniors, a 'materials light' lesson presented itself.  I had come in grumbling about two business property owners who had not yet--even after six days and TWO snowfalls--shovelled the sidewalks adjacent to their buildings / plazas. Students and I got to griping, fervently nodding, and asking one another what we should do about it.

This authentic topic pertinent to our lives in the immediate real world took precedence over what I had planned when I saw that students were also upset and grumbling about the sidewalks. So what did we do on the spot? I reminded them of the city's 311 service. We agreed we wanted to report the delinquent businesses. We brainstormed, we talked about salutations, introductions, body details, conclusions, contact information, and the format of emails and letters. We then wrote letters to the City of Windsor by-law enforcement office via 311. I collected them and put about seven of the students' sentences on the board. Two had no errors, five had errors. I gave the students the task of figuring out if there were problems with any of the grammar. The most fascinating opportunity to arise came from the sentence. "Nobody cleaned it until 12:00." I knew the student meant, "When I passed by there at 12:00, nobody had yet cleaned it." She had no idea that the sentence implied someone did come by at 12:00 and shovel. A wonderful lesson on the difference between simple past and present perfect emerged, complete with a lot of peer scaffolding.

Anyway, this did not even take us off track for our quota of portfolio artefacts, as I am able to count the letters as writing artefacts. I will be using the new rubric templates uploaded to Tutela by Conestoga College.

The best part? I emailed their concerns, and the sidewalks were cleaned within 24 hours.

How do you feel about dogme, Back to the Well, and other approaches that either reduce the need for texts and copy machines or do away with them altogether?

If you would like a copy of the controlled activity that I threw together for them at the break, you can download the MS Word document from my website, Settlement Themes - Government and Community Services.

Friday, January 6, 2017

New Year's Aspirations

This is what I'm having fun with during winter break: learning to use my new Wacom Intuos and ArtRage Lite software. The picture pinned in the upper left corner of the screen was my reference. The picture in the middle is what I created using the pastel tools. Not bad for my second tutorial!

Oh, and I made a video for you all. It's my first!  
For for information about terms and concepts I reference in the video, watch in YouTube and look in the information section under the video. (You may have to click "MORE...."
Happy new year!

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Remembering to Breathe

My teaching practice is changing. It started when my workplace was able recently to add several more literacy classrooms and teachers. I am no longer responsible for meeting the needs of foundations and CLB 1L learners in the same class. That's a good thing.

In September the little alcove-like room next door to my class was transformed from a childminding space to a room that (I still cannot believe) accommodates eleven or twelve students and a desk for teacher. It is the only classroom with a little foyer in front of it where shoes can be removed, which adds to its mysterious grotto-like feeling. My new colleague Maria did not even wait for her first day of work to begin transforming the space with inviting details such as a WELCOME wall decal in the entry, and a tiny soft carpet in a recessed niche that once held the toy box. She has filled the closet with her teaching supplies, but also with alphabet stickers, stacks of coloured paper, paints, markers, and oil pastels.

Because Maria has a degree in psychology and professional experience both with PTSD and with adolescents who have behavioural challenges, I find myself stopping at her door to share both triumphs and failures as I attempt to deal with the higher maintenance clients.

Maria is a good listener. She is generous with her advice and expertise, and I usually leave with something concrete that I can try to put into practice the next time I am at a loss for how to deal with clients experiencing the aftereffects of war, culture shock, the stress of being a refugee in a strange new land, or when I don't know how to support a client with (suspected) attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder.

Maria has been using colouring and art in her class and has noticed that it has a positive effect on learning--both by lowering the affective filter and increasing students' ability to focus, understand language, retain language, and follow directions immediately after a short period of an activity such as colouring.

On hearing of Maria's success with this, I have decided to experiment with colouring and other creative activities in my own class. I am starting mostly with drawing and colouring, introducing them in both a structured and also in a non-structured way.

First of all, I have created a station at the back of the room where students are free to sit whenever the mood strikes them. There are iPads with educational apps they enjoy, such as sight word recognition games. There is a box of markers and coloured pencils, a stack of pictures that can be coloured, as well as a pad of plain paper.

Additionally, I have begun including in my regular lessons an opportunity once or twice a week for us all to spend about 15 minutes colouring. Before this idea struck, my usual habit was to use teacher-made worksheets to accompany existing readers and Learning Experience Approach (LEA) books based on photos we take in class or on field trips. For this experiment, I have begun to include one or two images that are simple line drawings to be coloured or blank boxes to be filled with an image drawn by the student. This week we were in our holiday theme, so the cutting of snowflakes served a similar purpose.
I have not done this enough times to be able to report any results or trends, but I can tell you that *I* very much look forward to the sudden hush that falls over the room as soon as the scissors or markers and pretty pencils are passed around. This is a very good thing, especially in light of the fact that my agency's PBLA ramp-up has me quite often forgetting to breathe. I have felt torn between the duties of Portfolio Based Language Assessment and my duty to the learners to create and maintain a safe space. (That means a calm space; it means a space in which the teacher is not frequently rattled, anxious, or ready to snap.) When we are all colouring, our breathing slows. My voice comes back down from anxious to steady.
Coincidentally, I decided to clean out a bookcase today and came across an old favourite of mine called Radical Presence: Teaching as Contemplative Practice by Mary Rose O'Reilley. As I started to skim the first chapter, I got a subtle but uncomfortable sense that I have of late drifted away from my grounded self, from the me who remembers to breathe.

This thought prompted me to dig out the ebook Maria sent me several weeks ago by the name of Creativity in English Language Teaching, edited by Daniel Xerri. Very soon I am planning to print out this ebook so that I can sit in my favourite coffee shop and read it with a highlighter in hand.

A good book hooks you with the first sentence. This one had me at the foreword:
It matters now more than ever that these stories from creative teachers are shared. Partly it matters because examination boards, publishers, language policy makers, government advisors and Ministries of Education tell us that it does not matter, that our priorities must lie elsewhere. Teacher narratives such as Appel (1995) in Germany, Aoki, Sunami, Li and Kinoshita (2004) in Japan, Doecke, Homer and Nixon (2003) in Australia, show teachers generating their own theories of good practice, often in contradiction to those externally imposed. Whilst our own burning debates as professionals cover a wide spectrum including, for example, learner needs, the changing language, multiple literacies, reflective practice, the language-culture interface, the dominant public rhetoric describes education as a deliverable commodity rather like crates of cargo.... The more that external agencies are anointed to audit, measure, and quality assure, the less are we trusted to self-regulate, reflect and develop for ourselves: and it is this internal development that gives us a lifetime of growth as educators. ... This book offers resistance to mediocrity and compliance.
I would love to have your comments.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

PBLA and Back to the Well

For those of you who only care about the practical stuff, you can scroll down to the CLASSROOM APPLICATION sub-heading. :)  You're welcome.

All week I have been communicating with stakeholders at every level of this PBLA puzzle. The more I talk to other teachers and the more I listen to national and regional project leaders, the more I become convinced of three things:

  1.   Those of us who are more conscientious, tending toward perfectionism, are feeling an extra dose of stress as we attempt to learn to implement PBLA while continuing to be responsible for the day-to-day delivery of lessons. It's like asking a career quality control officer to design a plane while flying it. In addition to feeling overwhelmed by the multi-tasking challenge, we balk at the ethical conflict of subjecting our passengers to a risky flight aboard an unproven aircraft.
  2. Many teachers--whether they weren't 'ready to understand,' as Joanne Pettis has put it to me, or whether unintentionally misinformed by their trainers--have been operating under certain assumptions that are now being contradicted. I am talking about exactly which elements of PBLA are non-negotiable and which are flexible, as well as how flexible we can be.
  3. There has never been a better time for teachers who are struggling with PBLA to consider slowing down, turning fewer pages, and engaging learners more deeply, i.e., "Sending Them Back to the Well."
To those teachers for whom the first point above resonates loudly, I want to say to you that your mental health, your work-life balance, and the wellbeing of our clients come before the forms pushed on us by bureaucrats. We MUST speak up when we feel something is ethically wrong for our students, for ourselves, for our classrooms. Only by speaking up are we ever going to get answers, solutions, compromises, acknowledgement of our right to do what is best for our clients.

That brings me to point two. I am beginning to feel cautiously optimistic and believe that I as a classroom instructor am still free to use my judgement when it comes to assessing my students' skills and making promotion decisions. Yes, I will certainly strive to collect the quota of artefacts to support and back up my decisions, but I am going to make sure that the assessment timing and methods are compatible with cultivating a safe space where learners' confidence is built up, not eroded. I will do whatever it takes to shield my clients from unnecessary test anxiety. I will set them up for success, not failure. I will assess my seniors' competencies in a way that does not demoralize them or bring to their attention the fact that their benchmarks seldom change. I will design assessments in such a way that a literacy learner with a (suspected) learning disability is not made to feel stupid; rather, I will test in such a way as to bring out each student's strengths and acknowledge ways in which they learn to compensate for areas of cognitive difference and/or differences in which their brains process language. I will not create a classroom in which excessive focus on testing exacerbates existing levels of PTSD. I will first do no harm.

Thirdly, I want to recommend that everyone--whether you teach literacy or level eight--read John Sivell and Chirawibha Sivell's article, "Sending Them Back to the Well" in the summer 2012 issue of Contact Magazine. Additionally or alternatively, you could read "A Year of Slow: One Teacher's Implementation of 'Back to the Well,'" the article John and I wrote for the February 2015 issue.

Just today John wrote this about the subject:
" relation to respecting students’ right to receive intellectual and affective satisfaction – I’ve recently been thinking about a very old idea from S. Pit Corder (Introducing Applied Linguistics, 1973), which I learned about a long time ago: it stuck in my mind and, on reflection, it now dawns on me that it has a potentially useful connection with BTTW – viz. his idea (although since then I think others have claimed it) of ‘surrender value’.  His analogy is to life insurance: if you buy a whole-life policy and then decide to cash it in early (before dying), how much is it worth? … i.e. what’s its surrender value? The idea is that we ought not to hold up the great benefits that will eventually result if a student continues studying until (say) CLB 8, because we know very well that nearly all of them will ‘cash in’ their studies much earlier, say at CLB 3-4. On the other hand, if we focus on making sure that students learn (cognitive) and feel good about (affective) something worthwhile right away, every single day, we take honest account of the reality that what learners really need is a reward now, not at some distant time. By going back to the well consistently, we can provide students with what they deserve (cognitively and affectively), which may well not only assure that they trust in the early surrender value of our lessons every day, but also that they might decide to hang in there and ‘cash in’ their studies later than they might otherwise have done.
Thanks for that, John!

And that brings us to...


To give others an idea of how I continue to go Back to the Well with my students, I have started using the #BackToTheWell hashtag on Twitter, and I invite you to do so, too! Also, I'm going to start providing links to the materials we used in class to revisit the same lexis in a gazillion (ha!) ways, leaving it up to the students as to when we move on to a new text. I assure you that students like to feel they have really come to own the new language.


Having finished a series of modules covering the journey of a newly diagnosed diabetic patient from initial appointment to lab to follow-up visit to pharmacy, the seniors and I then extended the last module by examining those colourful auxiliary labels found on prescription bottles and boxes.

To see all the ways we worked with those labels, visit my website - FREE - Settlement Themes - Health. Scroll down to PHARMACY at the bottom. Within those free printable sheets, we do not even come close to exhausting all the meaningful linguistic encounters we can facilitate for the learners.

Finally, on lab day, seniors learned to use Spelling City (which I normally only use with my literacy class) to practice spelling of our week's words and syntax of our sentences. This provided them with yet more opportunities to gain mastery over that week's lexis.

So what's the bottom line? Since learning to implement PBLA is taking up some of my precious cognitive real estate, I now have even more incentive to utilize a 'do more with less' tactic in my classroom. As counterintuitive as it is, I find that students do not get bored with repeatedly revisiting the same text in myriad ways. Rather, they appreciate the opportunity to gain intimate familiarity with a given set of terms and phrases--from collocation to connotation, from prosody (sentence stress, intonation, word stress, linking) to parallel paragraph writing. It all adds to their sense of mastery and thus to their confidence levels. Over time, students are able to lead activities themselves--freeing up some of the teacher's time and energy for writing / adapting new assessment tools, marking, and other new duties under PBLA.

What do you think?

Sunday, December 4, 2016

PBLA - More Thoughts

Each of us is so different, and so are our responses to the new demands of our job--namely the adoption of Portfolio Based Language Assessment. Since last week's post brought a comment from a teacher who is finding PBLA to be helpful rather than a reason to tear her hair out, I have spent a week pondering the mystery. What makes one teacher take to PBLA like a fish to water while others have already started perusing the job ads, seriously considering leaving their beloved field?

Here are just some of the many factors that might come into play:
  1. whether one is part of a unionized or non-union workplace
  2. whether one has a supportive or oppressive leadership team
  3. whether one believes one is well compensated for prep time and has enough of it to cover the extra work that PBLA ramp-up and early years of implementation necessitate
  4. the level taught (with the exception of Literacy Foundations, low levels may prove easily tractable, as might very high levels)
  5. the demographic makeup of the class (learners with uninterrupted formal education do not need much time or teacher intervention to get used to organizing work in a binder)
  6. the degree to which the class is multi-level (all are to some degree, as we know)
  7. number of students in class(es)
  8. whether school has separate class for special needs students
  9. whether school is experiencing a wave of refugees with PTSD
  10. the amount of freedom the employer gives the teacher to adapt and mould PBLA in a way that is less dogmatic and more respectful and responsive to the particular needs of the group
  11. the number of years the teacher has been teaching the same level (and therefore has built up a reservoir of 'go-to' materials for that class)
  12. the degree to which the teacher is tech savvy (can easily download resources from the web, participate in forums such as #ELTchat, etc.)
  13. whether the teacher has a perfectionist personality, preferring to perfect a new skill before using it as opposed to being able to flow with on-the-job training without experiencing anxiety
  14. whether the teacher is an introvert or extrovert (this introvert is cognitively and emotionally depleted after each class)

And this brings me to a factor that had been in my blind spot until this week. That is...


Almost all of us are familiar with the concept of cognitive load. An understanding of cognitive load is the reason I play the same game with my literacy learners every Friday. It is just one reason my students and I love Back to the Well. It's why I try to stick to a rather predictable (but hopefully not boring) set of routines with literacy learners and with seniors.

And yet...

I had not stopped to consider the implications of my own cognitive load limitations!

That was my EUREKA moment this week. It's not just that PBLA is taking more of my time and physical energy. It's this: I am someone who regularly teaches at the brink of my cognitive load limit. That's my thing. That's who I am. I am always looking for ways to make the upcoming lesson, module, or set of modules even more engaging, authentic and effective for my learners.

I am also someone whose brain is not particularly good at multi-tasking. Weak short-term memory runs in my family. I write on my hand. I send myself emails or log items on my smartphone to later be transferred to a paper calendar at home or at work. I write notes to myself in the corner of the whiteboard. I ask students to remind me of things: "Guys, don't let me forget to give you this handout before you leave."

Okay, now PAIR my cognitive idiosyncrasies with the fact that I do not want to be that lazy teacher we have all run into at some point. You know the one I mean: the one who fails to plan before class, sleeps in late, and just photocopies a page from a book and rushes into the classroom five minutes late expecting to be able to wing it. Please shoot me if I ever become that teacher.

I have been, from the beginning of my TESL career, the kind of teacher who is committed to giving my students real-world tasks with authentic materials and realia. This is not easily done. It takes time to gather everything. It takes energy. The planning and execution of such lessons and units requires a lot more of my available cognitive load than if I were teaching out of a text book--pages 22-23 on Monday, pages 24-25 on Tuesday, etc.

When I combine awareness of my teaching style and my idiosyncrasies, what I end up with is this realization: I am continually operating right on the brink of my cognitive capacity.

At the recent TESL Ontario conference in Toronto, Joanne Pettis said to me that she often recommends that struggling teachers give themselves about three years to get into a groove with PBLA. I take that to mean it could take me three years to reach a point where PBLA is almost second nature. Like my literacy students on BINGO day, I won't have to dedicate any of my precious cognitive capacity to the form of teaching; it will all be freed up for the content.

But in the meantime, until I get to the top of this learning curve, something has to give. I have already heard from some teachers on this topic. They have shared with me where they feel they must cut back in order to make time, physical energy and cognitive energy for PBLA. Some are starting to 'work to rule,' abandoning field trips, cultural lessons involving extra shopping, and volunteer time to facilitate clubs for students. Others have been sacrificing family time. I have heard of incidences of stress leave, a few resignations, an increase in alcohol use, more stress at home among family members, and so on.

I don't know yet where I'll cut, I just know I have to cut something. I don't want to continue living like I am right now. When I finish work at 3:00, there's no mental capacity left for an hour at the nearby coffee shop with my library book (my brain can't process any more language at that point). I cannot currently enjoy certain hobbies, such as sewing, because following a pattern requires too much thinking.

Anyway, I'm not going to pursue this topic here on the blog unless others in the same boat care enough to join in the conversation. I don't fancy being a lightning rod. For now I am going to go back to focusing on what I can do instead of on what I can't do.

I can continue to share links to good resources as well as resources I create that might make all our lives easier, such as this checklist I developed tonight for my end-of-term writing assessment for my CLB 1L class. I'll add it to the activity pack for the last housing module in my free literacy materials area.

Also, I can continue to simplify the ways in which I execute my PBLA duties, and can develop routines in order to reduce the portion of my cognitive load that PBLA saps. I will continue to advocate for and try to assist those who are struggling--including some who are in an earlier training cohort than my own.

Take good care. I hope you'll leave me a comment.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Addressing PBLA Challenges

I've just returned from attending one day of the TESL Ontario Conference where I made new friends, saw old friends, gained knowledge, handed out a few of my cool new MOO cards, and did A LOT of listening, thinking, listening, some talking, and more listening to others' questions and concerns regarding the roll-out of Portfolio Based Language Assessment (PBLA).
Kelly with John Sivell
I was deeply honoured to be one of the two 2016 recipients of the Sparks of Excellence Award. My morning students emailed me congratulatory notes. My partner and I stopped in Chinatown Saturday to buy a load of treats. I'll bring in some red tea Monday to go with the big white box of red bean paste buns and such, and we'll hang up my framed certificate next to my other award certificate.

Okay, let's move on. The task before us is so large and multi-faceted that I think a good place to start would be to mark off what I--with my little blog--can tackle and what I should not try to take on. The many blog and Twitter comments, emails and private messages I received after writing this blog post can be divided into roughly two groups: those concerning the validity of PBLA itself (e.g., Was enough rigorous research done before decision to adopt? Will there be studies on ROI?), and those concerning practical challenges of implementation.

I have no doubt that PBLA has a lot of value to offer certain classes and something to offer almost all classes. Whether or not it was a good idea to make it mandatory for all IRCC- and MCII- funded programs is a question that will take a long time to sort out. For the foreseeable future, PBLA is not going anywhere. Because I am drawn more to detail work than to big picture work, and because I neither have a degree in education nor am inclined in that direction (applied linguistics floats my boat), I am going to focus on the latter category of concern, though I do hope someone somewhere will continue to pursue the theoretical questions.

Okay, so now that I've narrowed the mandate of what can be tackled in this space, we have to parse that into its component pieces. Within each area of concern, we have to be willing to talk openly and honestly about the troubles some teachers are facing. If we do not do so, we are only going to compound the problem and possibly lose some more very good teachers. (Some have already quit.)

Here are a few areas of difficulty that I was able to identify while listening to presenters and fellow attendees during my admittedly brief one day of participation at the conference:
  1. Many classroom instructors have one set of ideas regarding what is expected of them while workshop presenters and project leads respond to certain questions by shaking their heads in awe, mouths wide open, on hearing what teachers have been told is required of them. (This could be good news; you may be knocking yourself out to do something that is not a requirement of the funders.)
  2. Many teachers feel that their concerns are not truly being heard or are being dismissed or met with a set of scripted comebacks intended to keep them in line, treating them as "resisters" to be conquered instead of gifted educators trying to offer valuable feedback regarding what is actually taking place on the front lines. E.g., can you please stop reframing all our concerns as "growing pains?" It's dismissive. 
  3. Some at the top of the chain seem out of touch and are making assumptions about the teachers having the most difficulty. This includes not having a realistic picture of settlement English classrooms, which are constantly shapeshifting as immigration patterns and refugee-producing conflict around the globe shift and change.
  4. Some (not all) at the top are glossing over the very real problem of the paucity of materials and supports, including pay and benefits, required for the fair and realistic implementation of PBLA.
  5. Feel free to add to this list by commenting below. (It is possible to comment anonymously; not even I will be able to see your real name or email address if you do not give them.)
So with a few of the areas of breakdown having been identified, let's see if we can brainstorm some solutions or at least places to start looking for solutions to these problems.


It is meaningless for us to debate about the pros and cons of PBLA if we are not even all on the same page regarding what it means, what it entails, and what it does not entail. I heard more than one project lead say that PBLA is meant to be more flexible than many attendees indicate has been communicated to them by their lead teachers. I am very literal-minded. Please tell me where I can go to see which elements are flexible and which are non-negotiable.

1a) collection of artefacts
I watched as teachers began debating back and forth over how many artefacts must be collected per classroom hour for each skill per term. Does this vary depending on the funder (IRCC or MCII)? Of those artefacts, what portion of them, if any, can be skill building activities and how many can be skill using activities? 

In order that we all clearly understand what the funders' requirements are for federally and provincially funded programs, I suggest we create (if there is not already) a central location--such as a wiki or a spot on the new and now usable Tutela 3.0--where all requirements are clearly delineated, perhaps in table format.

1b) choice of assessment tool(s)
Some teachers, myself included, were under the impression we had to develop rubrics. That got us into a discussion of the definition of a rubric versus a checklist or other type of assessment tool. A true rubric that includes a holistic section and analytic section with criteria copied straight out of the CLB tables with (possibly weighted) scoring is not something you can whip up in five minutes. It's time consuming. I had been using rubrics for my end-of-term exit tests before the advent of PBLA. I created them in MS Word based on good examples found online and used criteria lifted straight out of the Canadian Language Benchmarks document. I subsequently attended a TESL Ontario conference workshop a few years back entitled "Happiness is a Good Rubric," which I loved. In that workshop I learned how to simplify my rubrics. (Can I still call them rubrics after I greatly simplify them and go from numeric scores to checkmarks, or are they now checklists even though they still have multiple columns for degrees of achievement?) Instead of needing a second page in order to fit in the holistic section, I started using a final row in my table for an overall "the purpose of the task was achieved" criterion that receives double the weight of the analytical rows. That's my simplified holistic section.

I can create an assessment tool using my intuition and common sense, written in language my students can understand, in five or ten minutes. But that begs the question of accountability and alignment with the CLBs. I know that I referenced the Canadian Language Benchmarks when designing my assessment tools, but how do my colleagues and superiors know I did so when the assessment tool has been so drastically changed in order to make it meaningful and comprehensible to (low level) learners?

I shudder every time I have to use a full sheet of paper per student per assessment and jump at every opportunity to simplify this process while reducing paper and toner usage. So I would like to see it spelled out somewhere how often we must use actual rubrics. Are they only required for Real World Task (RWT) assessments?

I notice a lot of teachers coming across very testy right now. Some of us are cranky and not always managing to be polite and diplomatic. If you are a project lead or lead teacher or administrator or member of the funding body or government and you are taken aback by negativity, I ask you to reflect on how you are coming across to us. Are you practicing good active listening? Are you talking at us or are you asking us questions and really listening to our answers rather than planning your next retort while we are speaking? I predict that if you talk to us like the adults we are--some of us with masters degrees and degrees in education--we will respond in kind. When someone tries in good faith to bring up a concern and feels as if she is being stonewalled, a natural reaction is often to become louder and more negative, go around the obstacle, go underground and become passive aggressive, or give up and start looking at those office or overseas job ads.

By the way, props to the presenters I witnessed being empathetic, patiently informative and open to feedback of all types. You will be our partners in finding solutions. I give you a 😃 .

We need a forum where we can voice concerns about how PBLA is being implemented, how it is affecting us personally, and what we can do about the biggest stressors. This forum needs to have an option for anonymity in order to protect the livelihood of those teachers who do not feel they can speak freely without reprisal.

Readers, please offer suggestions. I am thinking about a bulletin board I saw in an organic grocery store once. The proprietors put out index cards, pens and a box with a slot in the top so that customers could anonymously write questions or complaints. The store owner would read these and pin them up the following day with his response below on a separate card. It would be great to have a similar forum for PBLA questions and concerns that might eventually make their way into a FAQ document posted on the new Tutela 3.0. I don't think the initial forum can be hosted by Tutela because of the need to log in as a member. This precludes the option of anonymity.

We may also need DIFFERENT or more balanced surveying. I heard from some teachers that whenever they get a survey asking them about PBLA, it doesn't include enough questions designed to collect feedback about problems. We may need to run our own survey. I don't have an education in survey design, but I am very adept in the use of Survey Monkey. We may want to collaborate in designing our own feedback tool.

Never have I felt so unseen as while trying to advocate for teachers who are currently considering leaving this line of work due to the stresses of attempting to fully implement PBLA with two classes of up to 24 students each.

At one point a project lead said to me that the teachers currently feeling overwhelmed must certainly be those who were not following the CLBs before. No. No and no and no again. Just no. When I come to you and say that I know of teachers in my city who are sleep deprived and working themselves down to minimum wage with the extra hours they are putting in trying to fulfill all their obligations under PBLA, I am talking about teachers who are some of the most competent I've ever met--teachers the Canadian Language Benchmarks board could hold up as role models for how it always should have been done.

How can we show the project leads everything that we are dealing with in our classes and how different each cohort is, each class is? Here are just a few factors that influence the degree of stress I might feel when faced with implementing PBLA:

  • Continuous enrolment: thanks to our administrative assistant, new students join only on Mondays, but they can appear at any time during the term, including in the middle of a module. It's hard enough getting them up to speed on the content, much less figuring out how and when they will get their orientation to the binder, fill in "My Story," etc.
  • PTSD: many of our refugees are exhibiting signs of PTSD. We are seeing psychological and emotional regression, which is something that some of us feel completely ill equipped to deal with (there is a reason I chose not to teach high school). I'm referring to constant bickering, hyper-competitiveness, more than usual absences, spacing out, crying, talking back, sexually inappropriate behaviour, bullying, teasing, etc.
  • Undiagnosed learning disabilities and behaviour disorders: I am currently dealing with this to the best of my ability. Try getting twelve CLB 1L or Foundations learners to file an artefact in their binders in the right place and copy the title and date onto their inventory sheets while a behaviour disorder is in full flare-up.
I'm sure there are many more points you could add to these. Please do.

To the funders, administrators and project leads, I want to suggest that you read "Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard" in order to get an idea of where you are falling down in the manner in which PBLA is being imposed. It's been a long time since I read it, but the chapter that stays in my memory is called "Shape the Path." If you want a group of people to change their behaviour or adopt new practices, you have a much better chance of success if you make the new way easier than the old way. An example of this is placing the waste bin next to the washroom door if you don't want germ-conscious people throwing the paper towel on the floor.

Rolling out PBLA before providing all the tools is asking for failure. Some of the teachers John talked to said something to the effect of, "I don't want to attend another damned webinar on how to do this, not even if you pay me for that time and certainly not if it's my own time. I want some in-class help, a warm body."

Some teachers will disagree with me on this, and I welcome that dialogue, but I for one would love to have a quality text to use with each level. I liked the old LINC Classroom Activities for 1-4 and 5+, as did my students, but there were not enough of them. That being said, it's the tired me that reaches for off-the-shelf content. When I'm well rested and have extra time, I produce content that is tailor made for the exact needs my group has communicated to me that week. I think I'm a better teacher when I'm giving a lesson that is free to expand or contract, twist or turn organically by the day and by the hour according to what happens in the classroom. It's almost alchemical. It's the reason teaching is an art and not a science. It's the reason some of us feel this field is a vocation, a calling, and not just a way to pay the bills.

I realize not everyone--especially not those who question the validity of PBLA itself--will see this as an answer, but I know teachers who are THRILLED that Conestoga College is working on a bank of ready-made rubric templates. And Rana Ashkar is piloting some multi-level module plans with ready-to-use assessment tasks and tools as well as lesson ideas. They are building a bank of multi-level modules!

So basically what I'm saying is this: there are only so many hours and minutes in a day / week. If I'm to come up with all the content of my courses, where am I to find the time to also come up with all the assessment tools while also doing more marking?

On a related note, if your hourly wage is supposed to include your prep time, do you know how many minutes per classroom hour you're being paid? That is something I personally would like to know. What is the industry standard in Ontario? In other provinces? Are you unionized? Do you think being in a union or not has an effect on how PBLA is being instituted at your agency?

Whew! Okay. That's enough for today.

Thank you for sticking with me through this enormous blog post. I hope you'll leave your comments below, with or without your name. If you comment anonymously, perhaps give yourself a nickname by which we can all refer to you. For example, "Drowning in Durham" or "New Teacher in a Prairie Province."

*As always, please alert me to typos and grammatical errors. The dancing back and forth between American and British spelling (analyze, practise, etc.) is the fault of my American upbringing and the fact that spellcheck for Blogger hasn't learnt yet that I wish to be Canadian through and through.