Sunday, March 17, 2019

Cool Hand Luke

This week I have a little of this and a little of that for discussion.

First I want to share Yuliya's update on the state of PBLA research. Here is her recent missive.

Dear Colleagues,

Here is a very brief update on our PBLA implementation research and a new project invitation for literacy teachers, from a colleague at theUniversity of Birmingham.

I continue to present on the project that you participated in order to stimulate further discussion, more research, and, ultimately, policy changes.
Three major conferences are approaching: Metropolis National Conference in Halifax, BC TEAL, and ACLA/CAAL 2019 in Vancouver. Hoping to see you there if you are close to any of the conference sites.

Good news is that other research projects on PBLA are underway, and both are researching PBLA impact on beginner language learners: Dr. Marylin Abbot is working with learners of refugee background in Edmonton, and Esther Karasova is inviting literacy teachers to share their experiences with PBLA implementation at pre-CLB and lowest CLB levels.

If you could share the invitation below with your colleagues, it would be very much appreciated. Insightful and practice-relevant research can not be conducted without teachers' input. Esther’s survey is short, focused, and can be completed in about 10 minutes.
Thank you for your consideration!

Best regards,

Secondly, I'm happy to announce to literacy and low-level ESL teachers that I've just published a new ESL literacy reader with activity pack. It's aimed at about a high CLB 1L to 2L or a CLB 1 class and is called The Library. You can download the PDFs of the book and activity pack from - LITERACY - School and Library OR you can click either the book image or the activity pack image on that site to go directly into the Google file in order to edit it before use. The book itself is not city-specific, but the activity pack does have Windsor street names and our late fines. So the activity pack would need to be edited before use by teachers in other cities. Please email me if you find a typo or have any feedback.

Lastly, I would like to address myself to those commenters whose comments have not made it past the new screening process in the past week or two--not that any of you would be back here to read another blog post! The rule as is stands, having been put to a vote by readers, is that the anonymous commenting feature is intended to be used only by those whose comments could get them fired or blacklisted. If you want to take potshots at the PBLA skeptics and critics, use your name. If you want to call us whiners and wallowers in negativity, do so under your own name. If you want to make the point that the issuing of new PBLA guidelines means we now have no excuse not to all jump back on the bandwagon, shut our traps and just put the damned pieces of paper in the binders, you may say that; just sign your real name.

I think that is where a lot of debate is going to centre now. What do the new guidelines mean for everyone? For some, it could mean an end to a lot of bullying and power grabbing by supervisors who had been using their twisted version of PBLA to make teachers' lives a living hell. That's yet to be seen. But for some of us, the new guidelines do little to change our stance. I don't have Claudie's gift for spelling things out; I'm fond of metaphors and allegories.

My PBLA lead teacher, after a round of inspecting binders in anticipation of a visit by an IRCC binder auditor, said to me: "I don't know why you have such issues with PBLA. You know how to do it. You're doing it fine." She said something to that effect. I responded, "Just because I can follow some steps doesn't mean I think it's in the best interest of stakeholders. You could set up a ladder and ask me to climb to the top and back down 17 times. I could execute that perfectly. It wouldn't mean I agreed with having to do it."

Suddenly a scene from an old movie came to mind.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Worker Rights and Organizing in Windsor, Ontario

The questions of the week are whether an employer can pay a full-time ESL teacher and a part-time teacher at a different rate of pay, whether the employer must reveal the wages paid, and where to turn for help with such issues.

You may know more about this than I do. Please use the comments section to educate me if you do. To find answers to these questions, I turned to the Internet and to my friend Paul Chislett of the Windsor Workers Education Centre on Ottawa Street in Windsor. If you happen to lunch at Taloola Cafe on a Sunday, you are likely to see him there with his wife Mireille Coral, founder of WWEC's sewing cooperative.

Going online, I found out that Ontario has a Pay Equity Act that covers pay equity between men and women doing the same work. But that wasn't what I was looking for. I was trying to find out whether employers are legally required to pay part-time teachers the same as full-time teachers if they are doing the same job.

Interestingly, between April 1, 2018 and December 31, 2018, there was a law requiring equal pay for equal work regardless of employment status! It looks like Premier Doug Ford repealed that provision. However, this website says that one may still file a claim if one's employer did not follow the law while it was in effect. You may have back pay coming to you, if nothing else.

While researching, I discovered the Collective Agreements e-Library Portal, which is where you might look to find the pay scales for various positions at a given institution if your employer refuses to reveal what others are paid.

Paul Chislett was happy to meet with me to talk about steps teachers can take when employers break the law. You can just imagine how quickly the conversation turned to PBLA.

In most cases, Paul pointed out, everything depends on status. "How are you classed? Are you classed as an employee of the organization or as a contract worker? That is key," he said. Employees may fall under a collective agreement while contract workers do not.

Paul is not a lawyer and neither am I, so we cannot give legal advice. The Windsor Workers' Education Centre does, however, educate workers on how to organize as well as referring people for legal help. One such lawyer who has helped WWEC referrals in the past is David Deluzio, whose office is on Goyeau. If his caseload is too full, he can refer clients to another lawyer. Paul remembered one such case in which the worker had to travel out of town to meet with the lawyer, but the outcome was positive in the end.

"What do you think of asking someone from the Ministry of Labour to speak at one of our PD events?"

"That's a great idea," Paul said, adding "I've always had good experiences with employment standards officers." Paul said they have an office right here in town, though it tends to be understaffed.

"Of course, they can't advocate," Paul started.

"But they can inform, educate..." I said.


Mireille returned to the cafe after a walk around the block in gale-force winds to find that our conversation had turned to the broader topic of adult education and PBLA.

"It's not by accident that ESL and related activities are crippled," Paul said. "Because the next step [after empowering students] would be critiquing the system, and the ruling classes are not interested in letting that happen."

If you are interested in learning more about employee rights or cooperativism, you can follow @chislettshakeup on Twitter or drop into the Windsor Workers' Education Centre at 2034 Ottawa Street.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Assessment Successes and Challenges, Eh?

Claudie Graner brought our attention to this address by Anne Senior of the Centre for Canadian Language Benchmarks. If you don't have time for the entire thing, Claudie thinks the following points are especially interesting for those of us questioning the validity of our PBLA artifacts as a means of deciding progression, among other reasons:



Sunday, February 24, 2019

Resources for Black History Month in Canada

Barely squeaking it in before the end of February, I have just updated the LINKS page of to include the resource links that Irene Moore Davis gave to attendees of her presentation to TESL Windsor, "Creative Strategies to Teach Black History in ESL Settings."

Hopefully we will all remember that they are there when February rolls around again in 2020. Or perhaps we won't limit ourselves to only covering African Canadian history one month of the year!

Do you have any good resources to add to that list?

Friday, February 22, 2019

Two Project Ideas

Is this Monday's post four days late? Or did I miss that one, in which case next week's is early? In any case, ...

I have a couple of interesting projects on the horizon and want to get your input on one of them before I dig in.

I did not do anything with either of my classes for Black History Month this year. I do, however, plan to cover local Black history in some form or other before this term is over. The reason I did not want to study Black history with my students in February is that I want to go on a walking field trip to the Tower of Freedom Underground Railroad Monument in downtown Windsor as part of the unit. Neither my students nor I wish, however, to navigate treacherous sidewalks to get there. We will go when the weather warms up a bit.

Did you know that Windsor has one half of this international monument? The other half is in Hart Plaza, Detroit. At a recent TESL Windsor PD event, Irene Moore Davis told us that the sculptor designed the monuments so that the companion sculpture's pointing hand lines up perfectly with our sculpture in Windsor! You can prove it with a laser beam.

The day of our PD event, Irene Moore Davis provided us with a handout that includes links and references to a lot of good material. My problem is that this material is a bit beyond the reading ability of my class. I would love to create something for LINC teachers in the Windsor area to use with their students. It looks like I am going to be able to do that. I plan to write and illustrate something biographical with tie-ins to the monument and to people such as Mary Ann Shadd Cary. I am bad about biting off more than I can finish in a month or two. But I would rather do something really nice and not have it ready this school year than to do a rush job.

My question to Windsor area teachers is this: what would a booklet and activity pack need to contain in order for you to use it with your class? Would you use a level three text if the accompanying activity pack included level-appropriate activities for higher CLBs? Or should I publish three versions of the same book: CLB 1/2, 3/4, and 5 plus? Please leave me ideas in the comments.

The other project on my plate--one I can begin this Sunday at Taloola Cafe--is to interview Paul Chislett and get his ideas regarding the steps a teacher can take if he / she suspects an employer is not compliant with the new legislation that requires equal compensation for equivalent work regardless of the employee's full- or part-time employment status. I will post that interview on this blog soon.

What are you up to this week?

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

A Troll Poll

Here are the characteristics of an internet troll.

To take the Troll Poll, you do not have to leave your personal info or email. I am relying on the honour system and the assumption that teachers are far too busy to go around sitting at multiple computers just to skew results.

Multiple times over the past two years or more,  I have wanted to set a rule for this forum so that only those whose opinions could get them fired or reprimanded are to use cover of anonymity.
The only reason I ever allowed for anonymity in commenting is that this blog is the only forum in Canada where teachers are free to express their opinions of PBLA without fear of reprisal. I never intended the anonymous commenting feature to enable PBLA defenders to snipe without revealing who they are, which in turn  would reveal any conflicts of interest or ulterior motives for coming here. There are plenty of other venues where we can go if we feel like being attacked on an uneven playing field. If it's up to me to make the decision, I will not publish comments from PBLA proponents who do not identify themselves.

But it's not just my blog, it's your forum. So I'm leaving this decision to you all. I hope you'll take the one-question survey.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Food for Thought

I don't have a specific topic for you this week, but there's a lot of food for thought swirling around right now.

For one, there is the discussion that has taken place in the comments on New Reader Has Lots to Contribute.

I thought that one of the most telling comments was from a PBLA Lead who signed herself "Norma." She addressed herself to a former school teacher who likes the structure PBLA provides:

Linda, if you’re still reading, I’m honestly interested in what you have to say. I was a strong advocate for PBLA—until I was introduced to the CCLB’s grossly inadequate and unprofessional training materials (I’m a PBLA Lead) and to add insult to injury, we were told that THERE ARE NO RESOURCES to implement this thing. This is contrary to what is explicitly stated in their own practice guidelines that “sufficient resources” will be provided. Due to the number of “artefacts” required, classes have become testing centres and stress has increased exponentially for both learners (especially refugees—unforgivable!) and instructors. PBLA implementation has been a negative experience for every teacher I’ve met. You are the first that I know of who has spoken so positively of it. That makes me curious. It is demanded of us that we be “Champions of PBLA”. If this methodology is so wonderful, why does it need championing? It should speak for itself! Why are those who raise valid concerns in an objective and professional manner labeled “laggards”? Why are there NEVER anonymous surveys of instructors and learners? What is the CCLB afraid of? That the emperor has no clothes is my bet. PBLA takes a heavy toll. I sincerely wish you good luck in keeping your head above water. How can it possibly help learners to have exhausted unhappy teachers? How can it help them to push through 32 assessments or they languish at the same benchmarks. Incredibly badly thought out flop of an experiment with disastrous consequences. Please tell me how you’re able to do three assessments a week? Is this a full-time class? —Norma
Other food for thought this week came in the form of two things Yuliya retweeted. One was this article in The Atlantic by Rahm Emanuel about education reform.

The other  was this meme, which I also saw retweeted by @YuliyaESL.

I hope everyone is surviving winter.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Amplify, Amplify

I've deleted my post about Back-to-the-Well and PBLA Survival. Other things are more pressing right now.

There are two items this week that we can all mail off to the folks on our PBLA CONTACTS list. One is Yuliya Desyatova's latest publication, a brilliant article in the TESL Canada Journal. The other is a news article that appeared two days ago in The Star.

Yuliya Desyatova's latest article is "Batting the Piñata and Swallowing Camels": Teachers Learn to PBLA in the Absence of Dialogic Interaction in TESL Canada Journal, Vol. 35, No. 2 (2018): Special Issue - The Shifting Landscape of Professional Self-Development for ELT Practitioners. Reading it helped me understand why I feel the way I do about PBLA, the training model and so-called PD we have received and continue to have shoved at us to date. Brava, Yuliya! This is your heftiest work yet.

The news piece, posted to Twitter, is entitled, "Refugees Hoping to Become Citizens Face High Bar to Achieve Language Benchmarks." It was written by Sarah Schulman for the Toronto Star. Schulman, a sociologist, brings up many points that I believe spell out discrimination. We are erecting barriers to citizenship for those who will never--no matter how hard they try--be able to reach that magic status of achieved CLB four.

Shouldn't OCASI and other organizations advocating for refugees' rights have an interest in the way PBLA is affecting refugees' wellbeing? There are so many ways PBLA is damaging, especially when you consider factors such as trauma and learning disabilities.

Let's add OCASI to the list of contacts, shall we? But I don't want to be guilty of being Ontario-centric. Do you know of a similar organization in your province that might take up our cause?

Monday, January 28, 2019

New Reader Has Lots to Contribute

I had a blog post up this morning, but I decided to hit 'revert to draft' and save it for next week. This week a new reader (or perhaps more than one?) left a comment on each of several posts, and I found the insights to be worthy of a blog post. Here is what this teacher, who recently quit due to a toxic PBLA training and enforcement environment, has to say:

Hi Kelly, thanks for your great work. You are brave in the toxic atmosphere created by PBLA. I am happily no longer teaching PBLA after many years of experience teaching English. The people in charge of this charade have not only caused untold amounts of stress for those remaining, but have chased many professionals out of the field. I decided that I would no longer tolerate being insulted and in essence told to shut up when I had even a minor criticism of PBLA. I don't need to work in a toxic workplace where I am disrespected every step of the way. Especially when I don't think those who made this monstrosity were teachers at all, or not good ones, that's for sure!

Hi Kelly, interesting that one of the notes on your blog by a former PBLA teacher said that she got out of pbla due to 'an integrity thing.' Wow, that is exactly what I have thought about it. It is actually unethical to waste huge amounts of taxpayer money to achieve poorer results now than we used to pre-PBLA. I was looking at some notes for an old class of mine and I realized that I am using a textbook for CLB6 that I used to use for CLB3!?! Shocking how poor PBLA is in teaching students to speak English! Many of my students in CLB6 still struggle with the basic verb tenses and yet, I've been yelled at by incompetent administrators for teaching grammar, even though my students beg me to teach grammar in every needs assessment. PBLA is a failure, pure and simple! on Where is Our Ally?

Unfortunately, there are some administrators and lead teachers who are hardline pbla believers and accuse others of being unprofessional while treating teachers with disrespect. In one of our staff meetings, both leads and the coordinators attacked a sweet teacher who dared to question the orthodoxy. Having been attacked the week before, I had vowed to not say a word, but I was ready to walk out, though I knew that I would be done if I did (both she and I have left the worst school I have ever worked at because of PBLA). I believe PBLA is actually unethical in that plenty of money is wasted on achieving poor results (students don't learn very much compared to real teaching). I call it fake teaching.

The creators of PBLA should be held accountable and must account for the mess." Isn't that just Joanne Pettis? Hear, hear! Someone definitely should be held accountable for this disaster (Pettis, Holmes, etc.). If what was done before was 'loosey-goosey' then why were the results better then than now with PBLA? Pre-PBLA I was using materials with my CLB3 classes that I now use with my CLB6 classes! To me, the bottom line is that PBLA is a miserable failure on teaching students how to speak English!

When I complain about PBLA around PBLA true believers, they always say things like, "Well, it's better than what we had before. We need accountability." But the fact remains that PBLA is less effective than the old way. A study by a researcher named Watts from about 10 years ago, claimed that it typically took 250-300 hours to move from one benchmark to the next. Nowadays, it takes 400-500 hours or more for benchmarks to change, thus requiring students to remain in each level for 2 or 3 semesters. I also find that students now are much weaker in the levels they are in than before (my school used to do TOEFL readings in CLB5-absolutely impossible now). That sounds like failure to me. It cannot be 'fixed'. It needs to be scrapped and teachers need to be able to teach as they know how. I have never in my life learned anything 'the PBLA way'
I've talked to several teachers in the regular school system who were forced at one time to teach pbla. They all roll their eyes and say the workload was ridiculous and they are certainly happy that that failed experiment was finally ditched

I enjoyed the comments from the person who says they just teach the way they know how and hide that fact from the PBLA police. I've tried to do this, because I truly want to help the students improve their English, but unfortunately, my school monitors what we teach in the classroom and freak out if the students happily say they are learning grammar and love it! The lead teacher goes in and talks to the students behind our backs to find out what we are doing. Needless to say, the atmosphere at my school is toxic!

I have learned almost nothing from any of the pbla training events at my school because the leads don't understand it either. Even 5 years in, they stumble around like Keystone Kops, or at my other school, they are Nazis who follow what they claim are the rules, to a 't'

My school definitely weeds out those who are not perfectly pbla compliant (actually they weed out anyone who even questions it mildly). You are attacked in meetings and thus, most who undergo such treatment quit. Or you are undermined by the administration and leads who tell the students behind your back that you are not a good teacher (one of my favourite students warned me that the lead would speak to certain students when I was on break who would thereafter be hostile to whatever I tried to do in class). It is an effective way to get rid of people without having to fire them. I was furious, but I had no direct proof that she had undermined my teaching.
Whoever you are, I hope you'll leave a comment to give yourself a pseudonym. Otherwise, I'll refer to you as "Got Out."

Monday, January 21, 2019

New Activity Pack, Revived Newsletter

Last week I said I was only going to blog every other week, yet here it is a week later and I'm blogging. Go figure.

Over the weekend I got my graphic tablet and ArtRage software up and running again with the new laptop. Did you know that I completely BLISS OUT when I am sketching on my Wacom Intuos Draw? I do. And it was the perfect weekend to stay inside and create materials. When I stepped out just to the store for soup ingredients, I instantly regretted it. Once I had the soup stuff, I was content to sit by the window and work on the Andres Needs Gas activity pack.

I'm not planning to make worksheets in MS Word anymore. I've noticed that older activity packs in Word do not maintain their formatting well when opened in subsequent versions of Word. Also, there can be an issue with fonts, particularly KG Primary Penmanship font, required for penmanship lines. A document created in Google Drawing, on the other hand, is very easy to set up and save as a PDF. Every once in a while, I'll get a request from a teacher somewhere out there in the world who wants me to open the Google doc for editing. In that case, I just point out that it's not necessary for me to share editing privileges with them. Anyone can go to FILE - Make a Copy. I learned all of this from Tony Vincent.

How many of you are enrolled now in Tony's spring course, Classy Graphics? I still use what he taught me weekly if not daily.

Not only am I having second thoughts about limiting my blogging to biweekly, I'm also thinking I may continue the newsletter. When I sent out a farewell edition, I got feedback encouraging me to continue. It doesn't take much for me to reconsider. A little positive feedback goes a long way.

With that said, here is what I worked on this weekend. You will notice I am not as stuck in perfectionist mode as before. Once upon a time, I felt that all images had to be in the same style. I would never mix clip art with photos with my own sketches. This time I did. I don't like it, but I'm going to live with it this once because a) I needed the activity pack this week and couldn't wait for perfectionist Kelly to spend an hour on every sketch; b) do the uncomfortable until it feels comfortable.

You can download the Andres Needs Gas reader from Bow Valley College School of Global Access website. You can grab my activity pack from - Literacy - Transportation. I also linked to it under Literacy - Community because Andres visits many places around town: the library, bank, grocery store, etc. In fact I think I will follow this reader with my "Around Town" unit.

If you know someone who would like to receive the monthly round up and reminders of free resources created that month, point them to the SUBSCRIBE link in the sidebar. ---->

I guess I'm getting a second wind!

Tuesday, January 15, 2019


The topic on tonight's #CdnELTchat on Twitter is Resolutions in English language teaching (ELT). I could stay up long enough to join in, but then again, that would be breaking one of my personal resolutions. Last fall I decided to make an earlier bedtime a part of my self-care plan. Bedtime for screens is an hour before that, something my naturopathic doc recommended.

The Twitter chat topic is, nevertheless, a great one for me to steal borrow for this week's blog post. I'm taking it in an unusually personal direction.

My life is going through some big shifts right now. A few months ago, I had what Carl Jung once referred to as a "big dream." I've only had about five such dreams in my lifetime. The meaning of the dream was clear. I was giving birth to a new me. This new Kelly is going to be able to state her needs like never before; she will be able to go after what she needs to be healthy and whole.

Shortly after this dream and the reverberations through my psyche, my six-plus-year relationship with my beau fell apart. It had been coasting on fumes for a while, but we had the long overdue conversation that ended it.

Two more events have recently impacted my life. I feel like a planet being pelted by one asteroid after another. The shake-up is good! First I met someone new, someone who is modelling excellent self-care and clear, no-nonsense communication. Second, I got a session with a Jungian life coach (there isn't such a thing; I made that up to describe my gifted friend) that has helped dissolved a complex that had been crippling me for decades. Since the lifting of this complex, I've found myself free from my usual anxiety, once diagnosed as Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and beginning to feel much freer of perfectionism, which has also plagued me my whole adult life.

Yeah, I know. I don't usually get this personal on a professional blog, do I? But this tangent is going somewhere, I promise.

Things are shifting in me. Everything is starting to feel healthier, but I don't think this story ends well for my blog or newsletter or cute little MOO cards that I once passed out at conferences.

Six months ago my laptop broke and I couldn't afford at that time to replace it. I discovered that there is life beyond ELT and the hours I was putting into my prep and extracurricular activities. In the beginning, I felt anxious and guilty much of the time. But after a few weeks, I discovered that my students enjoy and benefit from lessons that include more 'Back to the Well' and fewer worksheets. I thank my lucky stars that seniors are not expected to do full-blown PBLA and that my other class consists of just eight CLB 2L learners. That is to say, PBLA is not crushing me the way it is so many of us.

On a personal level, It feels now as if I'm teetering on the brink of something (potentially) very big. A different life is calling me (though not necessarily a different job). My new direction involves art, and not just illustrations for ESL booklets.

I want to give myself space to figure out what is calling to me. That sounds like a great resolution. I hereby resolve to give myself space to hear the still small voice. I also declare this blog a bi-weekly publication. I won't be surprised if it is one day a monthly publication. I'm not steering right now so much as being carried along. It feels amazing.

How about you? Did you participate in this week's #CdnELTchat on Twitter? Do you feel yourself at a crossroads of any sort? Do you have resolutions for this year, professionally or personally?

Monday, January 7, 2019

How to Deal

In December, Claudie Graner made a comment on the "Where's Our Ally?" blog post asking the following:

Kelly, I was wondering for the start of the new year if you wouldn’t mind creating a practical blog post about ways to deal with the perpetual stress and tension, especially in those minute by minute interactions we have (“The binder failed?Whaaat!” “The assessment was no good? Why?”) Invite others to share. I’m going to need something as we start “implementation”....Being in constant PBLA crisis mode is unhealthy for us all...
I agree that being in constant PBLA crisis mode is unhealthy.

While we are all in the same boat, some of us have life jackets while others don't. Each of us is at a different point in the roll-out of PBLA. We belong to different cohorts. How our respective administrative teams enforce PBLA varies wildly from one agency to the next. I know of more than one place of employment where teachers are completely stressed out trying to please a micromanaging supervisor. One SPO director is--rumour has it--even using artifact quotas to create a bottleneck to keep classes full. At the same time, I have also been told about a college where the supervisor, someone who understands how stressful this entire mess has the potential to be, has said, "I am not going to check any binders." This supervisor has made an executive decision that I think is ethical and admirable. Hopefully this person is also advocating on behalf of staff whenever the opportunity arises. Most of us fall somewhere in between these two extremes.

Claudie is asking for all of us to chime in with ways to deal with the stress and tension, the overall stress but also with the day-to-day difficult interactions with students around those artifacts, binders, progress reports, and progression decisions.

I will get the ball rolling by sharing what I do while acknowledging that what I do will probably not work for someone in one of the more dire situations.

To begin with, I do my best to put my self-care first. If I am not taking care of myself, I'm going to be stressed and come across as stressed. I'm going to break in front of students or perhaps even snap at them. If that day comes, I'm in the wrong job.

In order to lessen the probability that such a scene could manifest, I am authentic with my students. They know exactly how I feel about the binders and they know they are free to have their own opinions about this assessment framework. Some of them may like it or even adore it, and that's fine. (I haven't met that student yet, but my learners understand that there's room for all opinions.) Some of them may not like it or may not have an opinion, but we all understand that for now the government could take away our funding if we don't do it. So we make the best of it and make artifact collection as painless as possible.

Besides eating well, exercising, meditating and getting enough rest nightly, one thing I do to ensure PBLA will not drive me to a nervous breakdown is to stay organized. In my file cabinet I have folders labeled: About Me, Inventory Sheets, Goals, Needs Assessment, etc. In each folder I keep plenty of copies of each form. When one type of form is running low, I always replenish after school rather than letting myself get caught without a needed form while class is in session.
Staying Organized - OCD helps ;)
One of the best decisions I ever made was to compartmentalize and corral PBLA so that I'm not continuously interrupting the week's lessons to pass back marked papers, etc. My students know that binders must be at school every Tuesday and only Tuesdays. That's when I pass back marked assessments. I keep two file folders in my valise: orange for literacy and blue for seniors. Things to be marked go into those two folders all through the week, but I always know I have until Monday night to complete my marking.

Because paper pass-back is always on a Tuesday, students get used to the ritual. Even literacy students can follow along. Once they have binders open on their desks, I first announce the skill and write it on the board in the corresponding skill colour. We have colour-coded our binders, so this is helpful for literacy learners. Next, under the skill, I write the date and assessment title for students to copy onto their inventory sheets, e.g., "January 7, 2019 | Call 9-1-1". I also tell them which box to tick of the four competencies. As I come around the room and pass back the artifact with rubric stapled to the top, I point out the date on the rubric and the task title on the rubric. They are the same as what I've written on the board. So everyone is copying the same info at the same time. After some months, this becomes a really a calm and orderly process. Once everyone has finished filing that assessment in the binder and is giving me his or her full attention, I erase what's on the board and we start the whole process over with the next skill. At the literacy level, I really don't have any issues with arguments over scores or progression. Those not ready to move on almost always know it and don't want to move. Those making good progress toward promotion generally know it and are not stressed.

Higher levels are another story altogether.

I know that many CLB three and 3/4 teachers are having a very difficult time with students who are stressing over that magic level 4 achievement for citizenship. I cannot offer suggestions for how to defuse these confrontations. I know colleagues whose students have threatened them or become violent. Someone else will have to speak to that.

How about you? Do you have any wisdom to share with fellow teachers just now starting to implement PBLA, or to those who have been doing it for a while but are struggling with the questions Claudie posed above? Let us know in the comments.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

New Year, New Focus

Happy new year, readers!

To start 2019, I have finally followed through on a very old intention to provide us all with a central location for email addresses and internet links that may be useful to us in giving feedback to those in positions of power to alter the course of the implementation of PBLA. It is my hope that by making ourselves heard at the top of the food chain, we might be able to persuade the powers that be to pay attention to the research of Yuliya Desyatova and Terry Vanderveen.

I have changed the name of the page from Canadian Experiment to PBLA Activism. There you will find a new section at the top called CONTACTS. Please send me suggestions for additions to this list. I would especially appreciate it if you would first do the leg work and find the actual address, email address, or telephone number that you suggest be posted there.

By the way, the penultimate blog post, Where is Our Ally?, has garnered 52 comments to date. It's a powerful dialogue, I think.

What will your focus be in 2019?

Monday, December 17, 2018

Winter Break for Literacy Class

My literacy class this semester is pretty high. Usually they can handle an ESL Literacy Reader in the range of levels C and D from the School of Global Access. It takes us five days to get from vocabulary introduction to fluent reading of a book. But this teaching week has only four days, one of which will be eaten up by special activities on the last day before winter break.

I asked students if they would like to tackle a very low level book and practice that language for three days. They agreed, so I printed out the newer version of my Winter Break book, which can be downloaded from

Today we did warm-up activities to activate schemata and prior knowledge. Basically, that means we had a big chat and wrote words on the board, pulled up images from the internet, and got oriented to the concepts. We talked about the fact that there is free outdoor public skating downtown and that one can borrow skates at the church across from the skating rink. With that discussion as a springboard, I segued into projection of the images in this book. We talked about each picture and began to formulate sentences about each one. Finally, I gave each student a copy of the 8-page book (it requires only two sheets of paper) and started to print our co-written sentences on the projected version on the board for them to copy. I guess most students are ready for that break, as they did not opt to create long sentences or anything extra.

I'm glad that I left some images without colour. By passing out boxes of pencil crayons, I provided fast finishers with something to do while they waited for slower classmates to finish copying the sentences.

A tool I could not teach without is SpellingCity. At the start of the week, I load our 10-12 new words and customize the sentences so that learners encounter the same words and sentences in all the games. They are the words and sentences from our reader of the week. Once I've invested that time in loading the sentences, I can pull up games in the classroom, assign spelling tests and games to be done in the lab on lab day, and print a variety of worksheets all week long--such as word unscramble, sentence unscramble, missing letter, and a worksheet for matching sentences with missing words.

Tuesday we will conduct a peer survey to find out how everyone plans to spend the 17-day break. Here is the peer survey template in case you would like to have it on your own Google Drive to print or edit.

Our usual routine is to follow a peer survey by making oral sentences about each other. This is when we get practice with third person singular and plural, negative and positive statements. Finally, students turn their peer survey forms over to find that I've provided them with a page of blank lines on which to write sentences. Together we come up with sentences that summarize our peer survey results, always making sure we have at least one example for third person singular positive and negative, and at least one for a plural subject, positive and negative. Language is so much easier for the brain to retain when we personalize and talk about ourselves, not about Kim and Ben in some far-off place called Hill Street (though I do appreciate those books, too).

For the rest of the short week, we will continue to read our little book in a variety of ways. Sometimes we'll read chorally or repeat after the teacher. At other times we will read silently or in a small peer reading circle. By the end of the week, most students will be ready to volunteer to read entire pages aloud for the class. Nobody is ever forced to. It's always okay to pass.

In years past, I have been very ambitious. Once the class even made gingerbread! Not this year.

How is your class gearing up for winter break?

Monday, December 10, 2018

Where is Our Ally?

Well, that's pretty embarrassing. Last week I accidentally posted to my classroom blog instead of here. Oops. This is what I'd written last week:

Sunday I took myself out on a date. I dressed up and everything. As I sat down to enjoy my fig yogourt shake and bakery item by the sunny window in my favourite cafe, the woman at the table behind me stood up and came over.

"I know you're Kelly," she said.
I remembered having seen her at local PD events over the years. She said she had gotten out due to PBLA. "An integrity thing," she said. Was I still teaching, she wanted to know. Yes, but also advocating. I mentioned the newest research.
"What can I do to help?" she asked.
What do YOU readers think this former teacher with some time on her hands can do to help? Can we put together a page of names and contact info for people to refer to when they have time to write letters? What else could be helpful?
But perhaps it all worked out for the best, because we continued to get powerful testimony in the comments on the previous post. I find it alarming that one school board or service provider organization (SPO) can follow the spirit of the law when it comes to the PBLA support coach's role (and LIMITS of that role) while others can get it so wrong.

Putting aside for a moment the fact that I believe PBLA does more harm than good to our profession and students, at least I can be grateful that at my SPO the PBLA support person / coach is just that. She helps us figure it out. She is there if we need ideas. She is there for us if we have questions. Yes, she checks a sampling of our student binders (they are not even true educational portfolios, we now know thanks to researchers like Yuliya Desyatova), but the result of that checking is just "you are doing great" or "you have this, this and this down; next term you can shoot for mid-term goal check-in." It's coaching. It's support. It's not someone else passing or failing my students' binders. It's not being threatened with firing.

Good Lord, what sort of Frankenstein have we let loose on the TESL / TEAL world? Petty bureaucrats are full of themselves, having been given a bit of power to use well or abuse. How many are abusing it?

And the bigger question: what can we do? Sure, let's put together a page of email addresses. But that probably won't prove any more effective than the petition. How can we band together to make our voices heard when we are in various unions and no union?

A colleague of mine in a different part of Canada sent me this video because s/he feels like the lion. But where is our ally? (Trigger assessment for animal lovers: it ends well for the lion.)

Monday, November 26, 2018

Kool-Aid Drinkers

Today I'm feeling deflated and defeated.

How is it that I can talk to my peers from across Canada and find absolute agreement with 95% of them when it comes to PBLA while those who are in a position to benefit from the government debacle continue to be utterly tone deaf, stubbornly obtuse?

It is beyond frustrating.

I have so many gifts to offer this field. I can illustrate. I can create materials. I can program in HTML and VB. I have designed, built, and implemented databases with idiot-proof GUIs. Of course I fantasize about being approached by a publisher or benefactor who understands what I could create if I had the funding.

Alas and alack! The only folks approaching me with proposals are the ones interested in exploiting the fact that IRCC / MCI and the CLBB THINK that PBLA just needs a little tweaking or a bank of resources (shoddy or not) to salvage it and save its reputation.


My Twitter feed is full of links and articles shared by ELT professionals who care whether their classroom practice is informed by solid theory. I long to live and work among such people.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Striving to Include Aboriginal Perspectives

The seniors voted to study Canada, among two other themes. Never has this class really delved deeply into the topic of Aboriginal perspectives. Yes, at Thanksgiving, I posted THIS VIDEO to give them something to think about and us something to talk more about. But--with their permission--I wanted to try to do more than that.

We started the unit by brainstorming what we THINK we already know about the indigenous peoples of Turtle Island, on which most of us are settlers or descendants of settlers. Could we even say, perhaps, occupiers? The brainstorming session revealed that we think of native people in the past tense. So we talked about that and about the five or six most common stereotypes to come out of Hollywood and mass media.

Since I have a multilevel class and since the previous week's material had been quite challenging for some, I decided that a nice overview and starting point would be Joan Acosta's Best of the Reader - Canada's Aboriginal People. 

I've extended the content with the Heritage Minute about Chanie Wenjack and Gord Downie's short film The Secret Path.

Trying to find a suitable film created by an Inuit, First Nations or Metis individual on proved daunting. There are too many for me to preview them all! I chose to show To Wake Up the Nakota Language. We also used Our Home on Native Land interactive territory map.

I think a good final project might be for us to create a poster for the lobby acknowledging that our school is on land that is the traditional territory of the Attawandaron, Anishaabeg, and Haudenosaunee peoples.

As we work our way through this material, I provide opportunities for discussion and for deeper processing of the language we encounter as we read and listen.

You can find more helpful resources, especially for higher levels, on my LINKS page under Indigenous Perspectives / Reconciliation. If you know of other resources that should be listed there, please let me know.

How about you? How do you try to incorporate indigenous perspectives and the topic of reconciliation in your teaching?

#PBLA P.S. Check out the many powerful comments on my penultimate post.

Monday, November 12, 2018

PBLA Article in Contact Magazine

The news this week is that Terry Vanderveen of Abbotsford, BC, has had this article published in TESL Ontario's Contact Magazine.

You may wish to send the link to your admin team, MP, MPP and to everyone else who needs to be aware of the mounting case for a moratorium.

Also, if you would like to help me build a list of people and email addresses for such times as these, please leave the names and contact info in the comments of this blog post.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Okay, Okay, Let's Talk PBLA

My blog only gets comments when I talk about PBLA. So let's talk about that.

A lot of my friends and colleagues in the field made it to the TESL Ontario conference last week. Everyone I spoke to said it was worthwhile. Yuliya Desyatova was given a room that seats about forty (typical for a research presentation), and there was standing room only! My coworker who attended came back very fired up by the findings. She found it very validating to see charts and graphs and quotes from veteran teachers confirming things she already knew to be true.

Another friend said that there was a noticeable change of attitude from the bigwigs. Instructors' critical comments were not always met with that same old brick wall of dismissive or patronizing retorts and platitudes.

On another note, I've decided not to restart the newsletter. It had been on hiatus over the summer along with the blog. There are two reasons I've decided not to continue it. For one, it's redundant. I was not using the newsletter for any purpose other than to recap what was published here weekly. There are plenty of other ways for readers to be reminded of blog posts. The lowest tech, most old-school way to do it is just to mark your calendar. Ha! The second reason I want to let the newsletter go is that I've just agreed to rejoin my local TESL Ontario affiliate chapter in my old role as techie. When I take on something new, I always ask myself how I'll fit it onto my plate. What must I cut out? The newsletter offered no added value. It was simply another one of those things that I did because I'm an experience junkie. I started it just to see if I could do it. Hmmmm. I wonder how many of my life's endeavours fall into that category?

As long as I'm updating you on my continued efforts to maintain work-life balance, I'll say that it's going really well this term. My laptop died over the summer and I've still not replaced it, as I'm saving up for another MacBook. That means that for now all blogging and other computer work is done outside my home. Know what? I'm finding this routine to be in many ways healthier than when I had easy access to my work emails, work server, shared drive with materials and my lesson planning templates in my living room. Now I am forced to compartmentalize and contain. Home is for sewing, cooking, sleeping, playing. This building downtown is for lesson planning, photocopying, and getting things ready for another work week.

I like it.

What are you up to this week? If you're in Ontario, did you attend the conference? What did you think? If you're not in Ontario, can you tell us about your annual TEAL or TESL association's conference?

Tuesday, October 30, 2018


I'm still mulling over the five questions Geoff Jordan put to teacher trainers via Twitter about a month ago. After I wrote this blog post, he commented expressing an interest in hearing how my beliefs play out in my classroom practice. So I then spent two more blog posts writing about the rather special demographic that I teach each weekday morning for 2.5 hours and how I try to address their needs.

While my teaching style can seem a little loosey goosey, there are principles that guide me. Two of these concepts are closely related: comprehensible input (which obviously is followed by lots of output) and the idea that less is more, which has been a topic on which I've presented or co-presented six times.

Regarding Comprehensible Input (CI)
In my TESL course, we did spend a lot of time on what our prof called grading our language. Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) was mentioned only briefly, but without using the i +1 terminology, we were still dwelling a lot on this notion of not speaking over students' heads, of making ourselves understood, and of not giving our learners material for which they were not yet ready. When I walked into the LINC 2/3 class where I was to do my first practicum and addressed Tanya's learners for the first time, my mentor said I'd got it bang on. She said it was very unusual for a teacher in training to nail that from the very first utterance. Maybe I get this right because I've tried to learn ten languages and have traveled through areas of the world where it was a struggle for me to communicate my needs. Or maybe teacher-speak is one of my languages; slipping into it is akin to code switching, as I did Saturday when I received a phone call from a political candidate's father back in my home state of Arkansas. Without any conscious effort on my part, I found myself parroting the elderly man's deep southern drawl.

As long as I'm on this topic, I want to say that I believe there is a helpful way and a wrong way for us to grade our language, especially with literacy learners. Leaving out the function words, as if speaking to a dog or toddler, is not--in my opinion--a good idea. Examples: Bad dog. or Stove hot! That isn't natural language. For nine years I've been speaking in full, grammatical sentences with my literacy learners without any puzzled looks on their faces. When I make the content words long, slow and clear, the listener's brain filters out the (relatively) quickly uttered function words until they, the learners, are ready for them. I can say "My NAME is KELLY," where the words my and is are barely discernible. This maintains the natural rhythm of English while allowing the listener to easily focus attention on the words NAME and KELLY as I point to my name tag. By the end of a term in a program with continuous intake, that same learner will have heard me utter this sentence hundreds of times. Don't program unnatural language; that's what I'm saying.

But I do not feel we got a lot of explicit training in creating what Martina Bex calls the comprehensible classroom. That is to say, HOW exactly do we provide lots of aural and written CI and how do we then push the output? That's an area where I'm floundering and searching on my own.

Tangent over.

Called into Question
My blog post of October 15th left off with a note about pedagogical ideas that I'm still toying with but am not yet ready to write about. That's where I want to pick up today. Which principles or ideas am I leaving behind because their validity is being challenged in the literature, and which ideas are catching my attention these days?

Let's talk about the things we were taught that are being called into question. A few come to mind right away:

  • TTT-STT ratio (Teacher Talk Time / Student Talk Time)
  • No L1 in the classroom / how much value is placed on translation
  • The banning of devices
  • learning styles (visual learner, auditory learner, kinesthetic learner)
  • Everything we know about teaching listening
Although I have not yet arrived at firm beliefs regarding what's valid, I do feel it's important not to swallow what I was taught hook, line, and sinker. My responses to each point above are:
  • As long as it's for the right reasons, perhaps there are times when it's okay for me to talk for more than 20% of the class period. 
  • As for first language use, I have come to believe that it has a place in our classes and is a very valuable resource. Lately I've been paying attention to the TPRS movement that is getting a lot of traction in American K-12 language classrooms; translation to the L1 is an essential part of the method. 
  • I no longer ask students to put away their devices unless I see that they are texting friends or checking every Facebook like. If their device use is enhancing learning, I want to work WITH that, not against it.
  • I'm glad the notion of learning styles has been debunked lately. That being said, as far as I know, it is still true that learners do better retaining newly learned material or language in multisensory environments.
  • I'm questioning everything I was ever taught about the teaching of listening. Gianfranco Conti has made me aware of the need to stop giving short shrift to the bottom-up skills, such as the ability to recognize word boundaries.
I can't yet write about these things beyond saying that I'm discarding old notions and exploring new ones. When I feel more confident about my grasp on these ideas, I'll surely let you know.

How about you? What ideas from your TESL training have you come to question or outright reject? Why? How has such a realization informed your practice?

Monday, October 22, 2018


I was very pleased to be asked by my local TESL affiliate to present at their fall PD event this past Saturday. It was fun, and I got a bit more mileage out of some slides that I had put A LOT of time and energy into creating--slides that had only been shown twice before.
TESL Windsor Fall PD Event
As happens at so many of our PD events these days, the subject of PBLA came up. "Cover Less, Uncover More: the Transformative Power of Slowing Down" was the title of my talk. (I offer apologies to the late great Leo van Lier, whose words I've borrowed.) How can I possibly slow down, one attendee wanted to know, when my manager is breathing down my neck to do one module after another and get those artifacts into the students' binders? Had I not got us back on topic, might the entire 90 minutes have been swallowed up by venting and commiserating among frustrated and disillusioned educators?

The annual TESL Ontario Conference is right around the corner, and for the first time in nine years, I'm not going. I'll miss breakfast at The Senator and hopping on the subway to get to whichever restaurant I've decided to try that year. I'll miss wandering up and down Queen Street West, stopping to smell the Johnny Fluevogs. But when I look at the conference program and see workshop after workshop after workshop on PBLA, my heart sinks. I miss the field as it once was and wonder what is to come for our profession.

It's absolutely wonderful that Yuliya Desyatova is doing her PhD research on the impact of PBLA, but what will become of that? Will anyone listen? Will they care? Is there a light at the end of this tunnel? Speaking of that, I hope those who are attending the conference will attend her presentation. I certainly would support her in that way if I could go.
Seen on Queen St. West
In more ways than one, I feel I'm in limbo. Even my presentation felt a bit stale to me. I'm ready for something different. The conference used to offer that. Ken Lackman was always there with something to get my gears turning, like his C.A.T.: a Framework for Dogme. There were so many good workshops that I would lament not being able to clone myself in order to be in three places at once! I would return from Toronto on fire to try new things with my learners.

I'm sorry this isn't much of a blog post today, but I'm not feeling it.

How about you? Where are you at now?

Monday, October 15, 2018

My 'Principled Eclecticism'

My afternoon class is literacy--refugees either learning to read and write for the first time in any language or learning the Roman alphabet for the first time WHILE learning to speak and understand English. That is a whole other can of worms. I'm hoping to do an online class soon on what works for me with that group of learners. So let's not talk about them today.

Let's talk about an average week with the seniors, the group I blogged about here last week. In that blog post I mentioned some things that have not worked very well.

No more fighting the translators
Because so many of them have set-in-stone study habits when they emerge from forty years of grammar-translation style second language education, I have abandoned all attempts to pry the translators from their hands. I have read and heard a lot lately about the value of those electronic dictionaries, so now I am working with instead of against them. By compromising and allowing a lot of prep before activities designated as 'no pencils, no dictionaries,' I'm seeing much better levels of cooperation when I ask students to put the machines away just for a little while.

What Happened to PPP?
In response to this post, Geoff Jordan said he was happy to hear about some aspects of how we teach settlement English in Canada, but was "not so pleased to hear that [we] were given the PPP lesson plan as a model." You know what? I am feeling vindicated right about now because within about six months of landing my first teaching job, I was starting to feel like either PPP was unrealistic or I was a defective teacher. I remember trying to get students to the 'free practice' part of the lesson by the end of the class period, and in the case of my lunchtime pronunciation class, that meant get there in under an hour! I did it in the beginning, but it never felt quite right. When I landed the job as teacher of a class full of senior citizens who were always begging me to slow down, I made an executive decision to stray from that model.

So if I am not following Presentation Practice Production or Controlled practice, semi-controlled practice, free practice, then what am I doing every day? That's a good question. I'm not sure I really know or can articulate it well. I know that I am continually listening in on what other teachers do (such as by participating in #CdnELTchat on Twitter, being an active member of Global Innovative Language Teachers on Facebook, attending webinars, reading books, and listening to podcasts by people like Joe Barcroft and Scott Thornbury. I bring all sorts of ideas to the classroom and try them out. Some become part of our routine and others don't withstand the test of time. Following are some of the ideas and practices that have stuck, at least for now.

The Structure of a Module
Everything begins with a needs assessment. Not only do I conduct formal ones at the beginning of each five-month semester, but we often do impromptu votes to help me with minor decisions all through the module.

Secondly, I plan out a module on a particular topic that satisfies one of the needs expressed by the students. For example, students voted to study health. Topics voted for included talking to medical professionals, making appointments, etc. When I mentioned meeting a naturopathic doctor over the weekend at a How to Fair, students perked up. "Would you like me to invite him to speak to you?" They were keen. So we are now doing a module on naturopathic medicine as we gear up for his visit.

I decide what the objective of the module is: have the background knowledge and vocabulary to understand Dr. Oake's talk, to ask him a question or two, and to make an informed decision on whether to seek a consultation from an ND. From there I do task analysis: what skills do we need to build up between now and the presentation? That's what I try to give them over a period of one to two weeks. This particular group has requested no writing and grammar only as the need arises. So I plan some listening, speaking, and reading lessons.

For every module, we make a vocabulary acquisition plan. We keep an easel chart at the front of the class where that module's vocabulary is recorded--often colour coded and grouped by part of speech. We are mindful of which terms promise good 'surrender value,' as Gianfranco Conti calls it. We may quickly turn to COCA to check frequency of use and pencil a number next to the term.

A Lesson
Every lesson begins with a warm-up. Cognitive science tells us that it's helpful to prime the brain for the topic. I use a variety of activities to accomplish this. It could be a brainstorming session where I'm secretary with marker standing at white board, or it could be "think, pair, share" or a KWL chart. I like to activate prior knowledge. My class is made up of engineers, doctors, scientists, pharmacists, etc. They have a lot of knowledge to share with me and with each other.

I would say that from there, things get a little intuitive on my part. I have my very rough plan scribbled out in front of me, but it's not unlike me to completely scrap the plan if I start to feel that it's not going over well. I try to tune into the learners and get a feel for what they need next.

As for that old PPP model, I haven't forgotten it altogether. I loosely follow the idea behind PPP if you consider that early in the week I am asking students to do something with that week's text (audio or written) that is more 'controlled.' I'm trying always to be mindful of the cognitive load of a given activity. In his book Input-Based Incremental Vocabulary Instruction, Joe Barcroft points out that if we cognitively overload students during the initial phase of new lexis exposure, we can actually inhibit uptake / long-term retention of new language! Sometimes I just let students have a block of quiet time with translators. Often I give examples of usage; I pantomime, draw pictures, and pull up Google Images.

I would say that my teaching style is very activities-based. Once I know what is to be achieved in a particular stage of the module, I reach into my grab bag of activities and choose one that I think fits the need while matching the current mood and interest of the class. If we just did a Dictogloss last week, I probably won't repeat that one this week. Some of my go-to activities are:

  • Each one teach one (Divvy up new vocab two terms per partnership. Each pair produces a small poster with definition, pronunciation, example sentence, illustration. Partner A stays with poster while partner B circulates around room as a student, then As and Bs switch roles.)
  • Jigsaw
  • Dictogloss
  • Conversation groups with photo prompts
  • Extemporaneous speaking (E.g., Students line up As across from Bs; I give each A or perhaps both sides an index card with a topical question and they begin to chat. I ring the bell and Bs move clockwise.)
  • Read aloud with focus on good prosody (linking, phrasing, sentence stress, intonation), remembering that English is a stress-timed language a la Cows Eat Grass.
  • Back to the Well with graphic organizers I developed with John Sivell, Professor Emeritus, AppLing, Brock University.
  • Read or tell a short interesting story then do 'circling,' i.e., yes questions, no questions, which/binary questions, wh- questions
  • projects, presentations, posters
  • role plays
  • pair work
  • group work
  • guest speaker
  • one hour of computer lab per week (buffet-style choices, self-directed)
  • field trips
Team 3 - Teaching us how to fish
While I'm stitching together this patchwork of activities with more scaffolding at the beginning of a module, there are certain principles I'm attempting to adhere to. The whole thing might appear to an observer to be heavily influenced by dogme.  Even though it was just my undergrad minor, I feel confident when it comes to applied linguistics. Having studied ten languages and having aced advanced English grammar courses, I feel able to respond in the moment to intriguing questions about a grammar point or even a trivia question. I try not to let these raised hands hijack an entire 2.5 hour class, of course! I check in with the students to see if the majority want the tangent. If not, we may put it in the parking lot for a dedicated lesson. But if it's desired by the majority, I often give 'pop-up' grammar or pronunciation lessons.
field trip
Within the last year I've become aware of The Learning Scientists' website and materials. I've shared them with my students and together we've made it a goal to incorporate the six strategies for effective learning in my teaching and their practice. So for example, instead of three solid weeks of health, we did a week on reviewing parts of the body and organs followed by a week of their second chosen topic, Canadian culture (Thanksgiving), then a return to health. That's interleaving. We also have two fun games we play for big review, a way to revisit past pages of that big easel chart. Supposedly this is going to help us get new language into long-term memory!

You will notice that not once have I had to mention Portfolio-based Language Assessment. That's because I wrote a proposal asking for the seniors to be exempted, and this was granted. :) We still have the big white useless binders that I force the seniors to lug home over the summer break. We maintain the About Me section and sometimes even create artifacts--not an easy task since their abilities span CLB 2 to 8.

In putting together modules for my learners, I tend to create or find one simple audio or written text and use it in a gazillion different ways throughout the week. I long ago learned to, as Leo van Lier once said, "cover less, uncover more." That one text could be from the LINC 1-4 Classroom Activities binder/pdfs or from the Citizenship Resource. It might be a true story about me or a set of pharmaceutical labels. Sometimes, though not often, I do give an explicit grammar lesson, but it is always driven by a need that has arisen while we were using the language, and I always allow students to vote on whether or not to pursue the grammar formally with rules and exercises and all of that. I'd say we agree to that about twice a year. Otherwise, we focus on grammar in context.

Edited to add: I wrote this quickly without much revision or proofreading. Please point out my typos or errors. Also, I notice I didn't say anything under PRINCIPLES about comprehensible input or bottom-up listening activities. These concepts have made it onto my radar but are not yet a fully-formed conscious part of my teaching approach. I'm still studying. I will attempt to blog about emerging practices and principles very soon.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

This Teacher, These Students, What Hasn't Worked

Last week I said I would write about how principled eclecticism plays out in my classrooms. The more I thought about what to write, the more I realized that there is SO MUCH a reader has to first understand about my very special group of students. I think it's too much to try to talk about both of my classes since they are so different from one another. So for now I'll just talk about the morning class of seniors, not the literacy class.

Much of the reasoning behind what I do is based upon my discoveries of what did not work with my groups when I tried it. I suppose that while I'm at it, we should also look at the experience, perspective and biases I bring to the table. My beliefs about language learning and their way of approaching language learning both come heavily to bear on what my classroom practice ends up looking like on a given week.

First let's talk about me. When I was in high school, I discovered a facility for language learning. After raking in top prizes and awards in German, I decided to see if I had the same ability to master Spanish. Yes, I won blue ribbons in poetry declamation and extemporaneous reading in both languages at an annual state-wide foreign languages festival in the same year. I became a ravenous student of languages--studying French at university during the day and classical Latin, Demotic Greek, Italian for Business and Travel as continuing education courses at night. Portuguese I studied on my own using Berlitz records. Yes, vinyl LPs!

In each case, I did my best to find a friend who was a native speaker and then offered this person something in exchange for just hanging out with me speaking his/her mother tongue. In some cases I traveled to a country where I could practice. At the age of 21, I went to Japan where I lived for a year with a Spaniard. I insisted we have a completely traditional Japanese household without chairs or forks. In keeping with "when in Rome, do as the Romans," I offered my subway seat to any male I saw standing. I was all in, as they say. I wanted the experience of full immersion. Because Xavier was a graduate fellow at the University of Hokkaido, I qualified for free Japanese classes every week day. I was a student of the same sort of classes I teach today. The Japanese we learned was intended to help us learn to navigate life on campus. We learned to say things like, "Where is the cafeteria?" and "Go past the engineering building and turn right. It's just past the library." The text book was excellent. It came with a set of cassette tapes that I listened to over and over at night in the small apartment we rented on the low-income side of town.

In case you haven't guessed yet, my approach to language learning is obsessive. I want to listen to target language (TL) radio, watch TL television, and learn the lyrics to TL songs. If I run into compatriots in public, I refuse to speak our common mother tongue. That's me. I wonder what biases spring from this perspective and how those inform my approach!

And what about my students?

The LINC Seniors' class was mandated by the government to be one of the specialty niche classes warranting a lower student-teacher ratio--about ten students maximum per class instead of the 20-25 found in mainstream classes. In that way it's not unlike my afternoon literacy class.
Getting library cards
For the past four years, the class has been comprised of at least half immigrants from China with the rest being refugees from Iraq. The Iraqis tend to be risk takers with solid listening skills and good strategic competence; their weak area is often the mechanics of writing. The Chinese students arrive with set-in-stone study habits (such as a compulsive need to copy into their notebooks EVERY SINGLE WORD I write on the board and EVERY SINGLE IMAGE that I doodle next to any word). I suspect their English is the product of forty years of grammar-translation method. They can write well punctuated sentences with lovely spelling, though I note more than a little L1 interference--such as dropping of the copula or subject pronoun, or a sentence like, "The goes-everyday-to-Tim-Horton's man is my friend." They know their metalanguage inside and out and sometimes challenge me as they peer into their electronic translators. I'll say, "Yes, beyond can be a preposition, but in this sentence it's an adverb. Do you want me to explain why?"

Through a series of needs assessments, I have learned which settlement themes and topics they want us to explore. I've also discovered that the Chinese students do not want me to spend any class time on writing. "We don't need to know how to write a composition anymore," they tell me. "We don't need to write resumes," they add. It's why they've migrated here from another school where they were integrated with younger students.

What DO they need me for? The Chinese students want me to help them improve their listening skills and pronunciation. And the Iraqis? They seem content to build their vocabulary and gain the knowledge imparted during a typical semester of settlement English: how to use a bank machine, what is considered polite and rude in this culture, that sort of thing. The entire class enjoys daily opportunities for oral practice. Neither the Asian nor the Middle Eastern seniors want me to spend much time on explicit grammar lessons. About once or twice in a semester we do a sort of on-demand week of grammar. Last term it was a four-week course on the English article system woven in among topical lessons. This semester it was causative verbs and passive causative after one Dictogloss team had written on their chart paper, "M's uncle took his prostate out."

So my big challenge is helping the Chinese students improve their listening skills. Now before I tell you next week what I am doing in class these days, let me tell you what hasn't worked. My attempt at a "Listening Boot Camp" pretty much failed in every way. You can read about that using the following links:

The Listening Skills Dilemma
Listening Boot Camp - Week One
Listening Boot Camp - Week Two

Okay, well that's enough from me for one week! Next week I hope to share not which practices and approaches I've abandoned, but which techniques I'm now employing and how that's going.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Our Teacher Training

This morning my attention was drawn to a tweet by @GeoffreyJordan asking teacher trainers to read and respond to five questions at the bottom of this blog post.

The problem, Jordan says, is that the most prominent teacher trainers seem to be paying too little attention to the questions "what are we doing?" and "is what we're doing effective?"

He goes on to cite research supporting the importance of implicit as opposed to explicit learning. I'm thinking he means language being taken up as a result of buckets of comprehensible input as opposed to months of grammar lessons from a coursebook.

It's always interesting to me to follow these debates in global and British circles of English as a second (or additional) language teachers since almost all of these educators do teach from a coursebook. We settlement English teachers in Canada do not, as a rule--though many of us find useful coursebooks on Amazon Marketplace or at conferences when we steal away to browse the publishers' displays. Pages from those squirreled away books might end up being useful on occasion, but our mandate is to sculpt a syllabus where topics are drawn from regular needs assessments, objectives are task-based, and the approach is communicative.

Let's fast forward to the five questions at the end of Jordan's blog post and see if we can answer them from the perspective of teachers reflecting on our own training. How were we taught to teach? How might our trainers answer the five questions?

Q1. How did our trainers transmit their views of the English language to us?
Q2. How do we think people learn a second language? How was language learning explained to us?
Q3. What types of syllabus did our trainers discuss with us? Which type was recommended to us?
Q4. What materials did our trainers recommend?
Q5. What methodological principles did our trainers discuss with us? Recommend to us?

Okay, so I'll get the ball rolling and others can chime in using the comment box below.

A1. My principle trainer went to great lengths to maintain a poker face and not reveal her biases, if any, as we undertook a survey of the most prominent SLA theories. I got a distinct feeling, however, that she agreed with Chomsky on the existence of a universal grammar and looked down on Krashen and the Krashenites. It was made clear, however, that I was to survey the literature and draw my own conclusions. One of the essay questions on our final exam dealt with this very thing. Which theory did I believe and how would that inform my teaching? I remember responding that I didn't feel able to conclude that one theory was 100% valid and the others rubbish. I said I would use an eclectic approach and hope that something might hit the mark.

A2. It was explained to me that L1 acquisition is different from L2 acquisition in that there is a window of plasticity that ends at around the age of puberty. If you don't get to the child with the L2 exposure by that age, then the child will never achieve native fluency. That's what I was taught. I do NOT recall getting a lot of information about any of the comprehensible input streams. That I've had to find out about on my own.

A3. We read a book about syllabus design and discussed it in class then took a quiz on it, I think. I remember it was a slender little green and black book, but that is all I remember. I kept the book and referred back to it after landing my teaching job, but I could not tell you right now any of the contents. We were taught how to build a unit / module backward from the objectives by doing task analysis. That's what I've had to know how to do. Everything in LINC (Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada) starts with the needs assessment. Every semester is different.

A4. My trainer brought in a variety of books for us to examine and discuss--some more communicative in their approach than others. I remember seeing the Azar grammar books at one end of the spectrum, Grammar Dimensions, and a few others. We were tasked with choosing one to use in a class and defend our answer. With our trainer's heavy emphasis on communicative methods, most of us concluded that Azar made a nice supplement for assigning grammar homework, but that it wasn't appropriate for daily use. In the end, we all knew we would have to make each lesson and the materials from scratch.

A5. My trainer really drove home the obsolescence of the grammar-translation method while ensuring we understood the Canadian Language Benchmarks. My training (beyond the bachelor's degree) consisted of around 360 classroom hours. Half of those were theory and half practical. We learned how to create a PPP lesson plan and how to divide the allotted time among the three stages: presentation, practice, production. We learned how to let students learn inductively or deductively--what each of those lessons might look like. We learned how to create and conduct listening, speaking, reading and writing lessons that follow one another and how to assess using a rubric. When it comes to assessment, I learned some principles that are very important in assessment creation, such as face value.

I'm so glad that Geoff Jordan has raised these questions because the area where I feel my training and teaching has been most lacking is the area of effectiveness and the link between current / emerging SLA research and my practice. I feel as if I've sort of been thrown to the wolves. It's up to me to sift through all the journals, books, and articles and figure out what is likely to give my students the biggest SLA bang for their buck (time spent in class).

I have purchased MANY books with my own money and have read them with highlighter in hand and tried then to apply some of the ideas in my practice. These include but are not limited to:

  • Teaching Unplugged by Luke Meddings and Scott Thornbury
  • Uncovering Grammar by Scott Thornbury
  • Teaching Lexically by Hugh Dellar and Andrew Walkley
  • The Language Teacher Toolkit by Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti
  • Input-Based Incremental Vocabulary Instruction by Joe Barcroft
  • Fluency through TPR Storytelling by Blaine Ray

Yes, blog readers, I owe you a lot of book reviews!

In all of my reading of both the books above and countless scholarly articles, I have one question in mind: what really works? What is the most effective way for my students to acquire second language in the time we have together, and how can I help them?

I also spend a lot of time reading about and listening to podcasts about cognitive theory in general and how it informs teaching of any subject. For example, I'm following the Learning Scientists and have begun to share their principles with my morning class as well as employ such things as spaced practice and interleaving in my teaching.

Thanks, Geoff Jordan, for bringing this up!

NB: This is blog post #2 of 2 today. Scroll down for the first one.