Sunday, December 27, 2015

Still Seeking Non-Traditional Families

Two families have volunteered so far for my project to put together some LINC classroom materials that reflect the full diversity of Canadian families: one child-free by choice couple and one same sex couple who love their doggies!

I would like to have four or five families before I put the booklet together. Since I do not yet have any transgendered individuals nor any children yet in the selection of families, it sure would be nice to find families that reflect those facets of our beautiful Canadian society so we can introduce those individuals' faces and stories to our newcomer English language learners.

If you live in Canada and would like to volunteer for this project, please contact me. Helping is easy. All I need are a couple of high-definition photos of your family doing whatever it is they do--like engaging in a favourite hobby or relaxing together on the weekend. I also would appreciate a short blurb about the family. Whether you mention what it is that makes your family different from the gender binary heteronormative stereotype is entirely up to you.

If you're not up for having your picture seen or your family portrayed, you can still help by printing out and posting my flyer on a bulletin board at your workplace, church, mosque, synagogue, community centre, university, etc.

The flyer can be downloaded from HERE.

Thank you so much! I hope you're enjoying your winter break, if you get one.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Will PBLA Address My Frustrations?

If you teach in a program funded by Citizenship and Immigration Canada, as I do (the program is called LINC--Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada), then you are already using Portfolio-based Language Assessment in your classroom or soon will be. At my centre, we have begun training and will do our first pilot modules in the new year.

In one of those training sessions recently, we were fleshing out plans to incorporate PBLA practices into our teaching, such as:

  • needs assessments
  • the setting of language (for life) goals by the learners
  • the identification by the learner of steps to be taken to reach said goals
  • formative assessment by the teacher
  • learner reflection (such as journaling re achievements every Friday)
As I was sitting there working on the task analysis of a sample lesson with the colleague who will be paired up with me to pilot a module, it began to dawn on me how useful some of these tools might prove to be with my morning class of seniors (see last week's post). Indeed, it seems that their biggest problem is an inability--tucked tidily into their blind spots--to make the link between a lack of progress in a given area and their failing to stretch outside the comfort zone of the small set of learning tools they brought with them to this new setting after spending five decades in a teacher-centred academic system steeped in the grammar-translation method of language learning.

That's what I'm up against. Add to that the fact that most of them are not comfortable reaching out, initiating conversations with strangers, or taking risks in the language.

But while I was sitting in that PBLA workshop, I began to envision a new kind of conversation between us in the new year. What exactly IS my goal, I want them to ask themselves. I want them to reflect on whether the tools they are currently using are or are not bringing them closer to those stated objectives. I am hoping that through reflection and self-assessment, they can begin to see that some of their tools are proving only moderately effective, while others lie in the toolbox untouched.

Well, I actually couldn't wait for the new year to begin. Since we had a short teaching week before winter break--too few days to tackle a whole topic--I decided to get them started thinking along the lines of goals and strategies. First, I threw out some discussion questions for them to address in groups of three to four, such as: 
  • Why do you come to this class?
  • What do you hope to achieve?
  • Do you feel you are making good progress?
  • What do you do to work toward your language goals?
After small group discussions, we had a plenary discussion about goals, progress and strategies. I gave them a few examples of strategies that I use when learning a new language. (I have studied about ten languages ranging from Latin and Greek to German, four romance languages, Japanese and Farsi.) I told them that when I set my mind on learning a new language, there are a couple of things I never fail to do. For one, I do whatever it takes to spend time speaking the language daily. If I can't find anyone wanting to be my friend and hang out, then I pay a tutor either with money or by bartering English lessons for their tutelage. Secondly, I label every item in my environment in the second language and read those sticky notes every time I pass by. Third, I immerse myself in the language by tuning my TV and radio to L2 content, picking up magazines and newspapers in the L2, and talking to myself in the language everywhere I go.

Some nodded agreement at these ideas while others laughed sheepishly, knowing full well they are resistant to such immersion.

With that I introduced them to the Strategic Inventory for Language Learning. They could take it home for a couple of nights to tackle all the big words with their electronic dictionaries, then we would start going over it before the break and continue in the new year. I think that's a very good place to start: with raising awareness of all the strategies we COULD add to our arsenals to give our brains many more ways to make connections.

As we were going over the first few strategies on the list, I did my best to illustrate when something wasn't clear to everyone. For example, I took a tin of jasmine green tea out of the cabinet and passed it around the room. "As you breathe in this scent, repeat the word jasmine ten times." To illustrate another strategy, I had an Iraqi student teach me two new words in Arabic. I acted both of them out (eat and walk), but one of them I also wrote on the board in Arabic script. I left it there five minutes before erasing it.  After the break, they tested me. I still remembered the word for walk, which I'd written. I couldn't remember the word for eat, which I'd only chanted while acting it out.

So! We are getting friendly with the idea that strategies matter. Some work better than others, and each of us is different with regard to what works and what doesn't. I am very much looking forward to more work with goals, strategies and reflection in the new year!

How about you? Are you implementing PBLA in your teaching? If not, are you using any of these elements in your classroom? Why or why not? And if so, are they working?

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Addressing My Frustrations

I love my morning class. This group of about eleven Mandarin speakers and four Arabic speakers--all over the age of 55--is the light of my life.

And they constantly express to me how happy they are with their class, especially since we've overcome the Chinese students' reluctance to participate fully in needs assessments and what I call classroom democracy. No, they are over that. Now they boss me around, which is wonderful. They adore their little English class that I tailor to their expressed needs.

And yet...

I don't feel I am helping them nearly as much as I could be or should be. Before I get into what isn't working, let me share...

Some things that ARE working: 

  • Through a 'Back to the Well' approach, I can provide lots of rich 'affordances,' meaningful encounters with the same lexis so that their brains can latch on, integrate, build connections for long-term retention of new language.
  • With regard to pronunciation, by focusing more on prosody (stress, rhythm and linking) rather than on segmentals, we are noticing an improvement in intelligibility.
  • I make compromises which allow Asian students to indulge in habits left over from their upbringing in a teacher-centred academic culture, such as providing all handouts at least one day before they are to be used (students can go to town with their electronic dictionaries the night BEFORE the lesson).
I'm ashamed to admit that after three years with this group, however, I'm just now starting to wrap my head around what isn't working. My students, with a couple of exceptions, are NOT meeting their stated goal of increased social integration. They are not becoming risk takers. They are not breaking their addiction to the little gadgets. They are not practicing English outside the classroom, nor even at break time. In fact, a recent speaking/listening assessment that came on the tail end of two plus weeks of preparation for it left me crestfallen.

The task seemed simple enough to me. Start a conversation with a stranger. We practiced and practiced. We paired up with each other in every conceivable way in order to get ready for this test. We used photos as cues and role played these scenarios ad nauseum. The test had a few criteria, which we went over ahead of time, pulling up the rubric on the projector board. One of the criteria involved strategic competence. 

"I will use a word you don't know," I warned them. "You will be expected to use the strategies we've been learning in order to repair the communication breakdown."

The Arabic speakers had no issue with the task. When they entered the room to be assessed and saw me hit the RECORD button on the iPad then point to the photo of the neighbour shovelling out a driveway buried under a foot of snow, they chatted me up charmingly. When I used the word squalls to see if they could recover from encountering an unknown term, they used effective strategies.

The Mandarin speakers, on the other hand, floundered. The fact that they can ace grammar tests blindfolded with hands tied behind their backs isn't doing them much good if they can't carry on a simple conversation with a smiling stranger at the bus stop, especially in light of their stated GOALS. Sigh.

So! (This is where you, dear reader, come in.) I need a new attack. I'm going to try to find everything I can find on two topics, to start with: teaching strategic competence and teaching English to Chinese students specifically. I've already found one scholarly article online indicating that being raised in a culture steeped in Confucianism can indeed hobble an ESL student in some aspects of their ESL progress. Fascinating stuff.

One thing I may do is give them the Strategic Inventory for Language Learning. This might help raise their awareness of weak areas while showing me where we need to focus more of our energies. 

Can you help me out? Can you give me ideas and suggestions and paste into the comments area links to every resource you know of that could help me build a different and more effective curriculum for this special demographic of ESL learners in the new year? I need help!

Monday, November 30, 2015

Teaching Small Talk

My multilevel class of a dozen or so Chinese and two Iraqis--all over the age of 60--has embarked upon the task of learning how to chat up strangers.

We began the unit by defining small talk and brainstorming together why we do it, when / where we do it, and HOW.

They correctly guessed that we use this superficial blather to break the ice, fill silence (with which we in this culture are not always terribly comfortable), and offer a bit of chatter to pass the time at the bus stop, train station, in line somewhere, in our apartment building or office building elevator, and so on.

We spent a couple of days learning these conversation starters, but in order not to be overwhelmed, decided to select no more than FIVE conversation starters, making sure we had at least one for a party, one that could be used to comment on any sort of weather, and one to use while strolling at the riverfront this summer when we encounter people with pets or babies in strollers. We noted that many of these could be used in multiple situations by substituting the word RAIN for SNOW, and so forth.

The next couple of classes were spent mastering TAG QUESTIONS, since they are so often incorporated in small talk. (Nice day, isn't it?)  Our reference text for this was Azar's blue book.

It wasn't difficult for me to find some nice colour photographs on Google images for us to use as practice prompts. I found a woman walking her Golden Retriever, a well-dressed man standing alone at a cocktail party, a man with a stroller at the park, someone with an umbrella waiting on a train platform, a fellow shovelling the snow from his driveway, a woman waiting for a bus, and a young lady basking in the sun at a park. These I distributed to groups of 3-4 so they could practice starting conversations in each imagined encounter.

Another grammar point I tied into this unit is that of situational ellipsis

"Do you think Canadians always use full sentences and full questions when engaging in small talk?" The learners let me know that they are completely aware that native speakers often communicate in one- and two-word phrases, but they don't know how to do it themselves.

This was a great time for us to delve into Scott Thornbury's little dialogue called "The Train to Oxford." The students had little trouble adding the punctuation and needed only a bit of help with intonation. (Up for Y/N questions such as "Married?" and down for wh- questions, such as "When?")

They took turns performing this role play for the class, then we spent about 20 minutes of paper and pencil time trying to reconstruct the elided elements. It was fun comparing the various versions of re-built grammar. Some turned "Oxford!" into "Oh, we've arrived at Oxford Station!" while others preferred, "This is the Oxford stop." It's all good.

For their next task, I chose to put together a dialogue between two strangers engaged in small talk at the park using artificially complete sentences and questions. If you would like a copy of this, just visit my website - Free Resources - Grammar and scroll down to Ellipsis (grammar points are arranged alphabetically).  Their job is to strip it down as far as they think possible while remaining natural or NS plausible.

After taking up the worksheet, we went back again to the photo prompts. These seniors really like to take things slowly and revisit the same material in various ways. In order to change things up a bit, this time we moved the tables and chairs out of our way and stood in two rows of seven.  I gave each A a photo prompt. We stood face-to-face, seven As and seven Bs. I explained that Bs had to initiate the conversation with this stranger, and that after about a minute, I would signal Bs to move up the row on person, with the last B coming around to talk to the first A. We did this until each B had visited every A. Tomorrow we'll repeat that, switching roles. Also to add a bit of variety, I threw two new photos into the mix: a woman with a child in a clinic waiting room and an older person with arms full of grocery bags.

I hope you can use these ideas with your group. Let me know if you do. :)

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Box

Do you ever find yourself running back to the photocopy machine for one more copy of a handout for that student who is returning after one or more days absent?

I never do.

During my TESL training in Toronto, I observed how my second practicum mentor kept an 8.5" by 11" cardboard box in one corner of the room. She put extra copies of worksheets in there, and students returning after an absence knew to look in there for any materials they had missed.

I've taken that system one step further. To ensure disorganized students don't inadvertently double dip, I always make the exact number of copies needed for my class and write the names of absentees at the top of their worksheets. The responsibility falls to the student to look in the box before class upon his or her return.

I love how this practice minimizes classroom disruption and allows us to get on with the task at hand: learning English!

How about you? Do you do something similar in your classes?

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Holidays are Coming!

With the holiday season just around the corner, I've started units on shopping and gift giving in both my morning and afternoon classes.

My multi-level seniors have expressed a desire to learn more about Canadian culture, so I thought a lesson about culturally appropriate gifts might interest them, and it did!

I was pleased to find a good resource for our warm-up discussions at ESL Jigsaws. It was easy to segue from that to a virtual shopping trip. To each group of 3-4 students I gave a small stack of holiday flyers and catalogs (Sears, Costco, Williams Food Equipment). I provided them with a graphic organizer on which they could either jot down gift ideas or glue/tape pictures from catalogues. (My Chinese seniors are not very kinesthetic in their learning style; they chose to copy the names of the items.)

For the entire unit plan, my graphic organizer in MS Word, and links, simply go to my website {} and then under FREE RESOURCES - Settlement Themes, click the Canadian Culture panel.

Previous year's door decoration

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Store Returns (Part II)

As our unit on store returns (see last week's post) has unfolded, I have developed some materials that you can use. It's all Canadian content, using slightly adapted versions of actual returns policies of Canadian stores (Canadian Tire, Zehrs Markets, etc.).

Just go to my website and then from the drop-down menu at the top, FREE RESOURCES - SETTLEMENT THEMES.  Click the "Commercial Services" panel and you will see a link to the worksheets and unit outline as a hyperlink under SHOPPING - RETURNS.

Would love to hear if you end up using this with your students.


Sunday, November 1, 2015

Store Returns (Part I)

My class of 15 seniors (over the age of 55) are currently doing a unit on returning something to the store. We like to take things very slowly, doing a LOT of skill-building, visiting and revisiting the same lexis again and again in an engaging variety of activities.

Our first week's worth of lessons were built around LINC 3 Classroom Activities - "Returning Faulty Merchandise." This material provided a great introduction to the needed vocabulary. We took it nice and slow, so we are going into next week just now feeling ready to write our own customer-clerk role plays.

Friday is always a bit different. The students have unanimously voted for an "easy, interesting story" that ties into the topic. The text should be so easy that they can focus entirely on the prosody and pronunciation while reading aloud without being distracted by unknown words (narrowed cognitive burden). So I usually pull something from our school's LINC 1 teacher's cabinet, such as Very Easy True Stories. The lower level students in this multilevel class appreciate having a text closer to their level, and those who read at a level 5 and up are not bored since we are focusing on pronunciation.

This week I wasn't able to find a related true story, so I cut up a picture story for pairs to order, coming up with their own language for the story of a woman who buys a shirt that is too big for her husband and has to exchange it. Picture activities are IDEAL for multilevel classes.

After the break, we adjourn to the computer lab. Here are the listening links I provided this week relating to store returns. I especially love the video on the English in Vancouver blog.

Once we have written some very simple dialogues and acted them out, the next step will be to study some real stores' returns policies. I have already photocopied the returns policy that was included last week in a delivery I received from The Hudson's Bay Company. I distributed that before the weekend--retyping it in a much larger font for compliance with the OADA. The fourteen Chinese students in the class appreciate having a text at least a day ahead of time so that they can go to town with their electronic dictionaries. I like that they do their dictionary work at home, as this frees up class time for speaking and listening practice.

At this point I envision that the culmination of this unit will be a role-play activity in which the class is divided into roles of clerk and customer, as follows:

  • Each clerk will be provided with a store returns policy.
  • Each customer will be able to choose among three scenario cards.
  • The scenario card will state what was purchased, the date it was purchased, the tender used (store credit card, other credit card, cash, debit, etc.), and the problem with the item.
  • The problems will range from spoiled milk to shoes that proved to be poorly constructed after a week of wear. Some items will be eligible for refund, others for exchange, and still others will not qualify for any action on behalf of the supplier.
  • Desks will be re-arranged in a big U shape.
  • Clerks sit on the outside of the U and remain stationary.
  • Customers sit on the inside of the U and move clockwise.
  • Teacher will facilitate the movement, allowing about seven minutes for the first pairing, but speeding things up as the students move around the U, becoming ever more fluent at expressing their ideas.
  • The whole exercise will be repeated the following day with former customers becoming clerks and vice versa.
Mind you, this is going to take A LOT of prep and skill-building as I do the task analysis and break it into its component competencies. We will need to learn many chunks of language, focus on pragmatics and much more to achieve this goal. Right now I'm not even sure if this will take one or more weeks. In my usual habit of letting formative assessment shape the unit as it rolls out, the students and I will work together to determine how far and how to break down the objectives.

I'm looking forward to it!

How about you? Do you have any suggestions for me as I enter week two of our store returns unit?

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Mindfulness for Teachers

Yesterday TESL Windsor hosted Jennifer Elizabeth Alexander for a workshop on mindfulness. It was powerful.

Today I am acutely aware of ways in which I am not going mindfully through the day, as well as ways in which I am.  Yesterday I made a commitment to do one thing mindfully this week. I chose "eat breakfast mindfully." So this morning I made sure that I ate my oatmeal sitting down without the distraction of a newspaper, computer or smartphone. I closed my eyes and smelled the oats, flax and berries before taking a bite. I savoured each mouthful slowly. Also, I remembered to acknowledge that I am grateful to have a nourishing breakfast today.

What do I do to bring mindfulness to my classroom? Here are three ways I try to bring mindful presence to my class:

No matter how rushed I feel, no matter how many more things I feel pressured to finish before the (figurative) bell rings, if a student addresses me to ask a question or say good morning, I look up from what I'm doing and make eye contact, smile, and respond. Then I return to what I was doing. That is my intention, anyway, though I am human and know I sometimes fail.

An unspoken classroom rule in any space in which I am facilitating the lesson is: when one person is speaking, the rest of us are not speaking. We give the speaker our undivided attention. In order to attain silence and respectful attention for the speaker, I simply stand and wait for chatter to abate, then cue the speaker to continue. This is done with a pleasant expression on my face. I am not angry, rather patient--and perhaps at times a bit amused.

We begin on time, end on time and take breaks on time. One reason I respect the schedule to the minute is that it allows us to focus fully on what we're doing when we're doing it. A student who is distracted by the fact that the teacher is going over into break time is just that--a distracted student. I would rather that we be fully present for our breaks and fully present for the lesson time rather than having muddy, chaotic boundaries between them.

After posting this, I will put on my boots and take a walk on a nearby woodland trail. I need to give my soul some nourishment before embarking on a new work week.

How about you? Do you practice mindfulness?

Monday, October 19, 2015

Favourite Advice for Teachers?

What are your three favourite pieces of advice for (new or experienced) teachers?
Needs assessment in literacy class

I'll go first while you think. :)

  1. Watch your TTT/STT ratio. That's Teacher Talk Time / Student Talk Time. Ideally, we shouldn't be doing more than 20% of the talking. For me, the TTT is much heavier during the presentation part of the lesson or unit, as I'm explaining new terms and helping students with pronunciation. By the "free practice" part of the lesson, I should be able to exit the classroom unnoticed. I love getting to that point!
  2. Be authentic. There are teachers who do not share anything about their private lives with their students, and there are those who are completely transparent. I happen to fall into the latter category. In my opinion, authenticity helps build trust, helps create a safe space for learning and risk taking, helps the students build community with each other, and is just more fun. For me, authenticity could even be considered a form of respect.  Not only that, but I recently came across some research indicating that authentic teachers are more immune to burn-out! I can think of two colleagues who have burned out during my five years in the field; both are the type to have two personae, one for their private lives and a sort of "mask" for the classroom.
  3. Do not forego the needs assessment. Even if you think you know what the students need, do it anyway. For one, you may be surprised. Secondly, even if they choose to study the exact same topics you knew they needed, having voted on it will increase their sense of ownership of their learning and boost engagement. (Check out the ASSESSMENT section of my FREE RESOURCES area on my website if you need materials for this.)
How about you? Think of that good teacher in your school who would be EVEN BETTER if she/he just did one little thing differently. What advice would you love to give him/her?

Monday, October 12, 2015

Learning Through Doing

Although it takes a bit of planning and preparation, I find that lessons built around a real-life activity are a hit with my literacy learners. For our unit on food, we spent a couple of weeks skill building so as to be able to talk to clerks and read signage on an upcoming field trip to Food Basics.

Having purchased (via a team scavenger hunt) the ingredients for the one of the simplest pumpkin pie recipes I could find, this week we focused on the recipe and ended the week before Canadian Thanksgiving by baking a pie at school. Fortunately, we have a kitchen equipped with an oven!

I'm a bit tired of teaching food words right now, so I think we'll take a two-week break from that topic in order to squeeze in our unit on using the library before it gets too chilly to walk there together. Then we'll write a Language Experience Approach book around the photos I took of the students working on our pumpkin pie and will spend a little time each day working toward being able to read it fluently.

If you would like to use any of the worksheets I created to teach this unit, leave a comment and I will clean them up enough to post them in my freebies area.

Do your students enjoy learning through doing?

Monday, October 5, 2015

LINCchat -- A New Forum for LINC Instructors!

Want to get to know other LINC teachers in Canada? Want to share ideas and resources while supporting each other through the trials and triumphs of settlement English teaching? Then the new weekly Twitter chat #lincchat may be of interest to you.

To join in the weekly chats, you will first need a (free) Twitter account. You can sign up at

If you have no clue what I'm talking about, you may want to watch this great introductory video to Twitter and Twitter chats by Nathan Hall of LISTN.

Next, you will need to log into your Twitter account just before the chat time.

The next lincchat will be held October 6, 2015. The topic is "Pragmatics and the CLB." Moderators will introduce the topic and get things rolling with some questions to stimulate discussion.

Also, once you log on, a moderator will likely post a link to a platform that makes posting and reading the thread a bit easier. Just click the link. This app will even add the hashtag to the end of each of your tweets for you, so you never need to worry that you might forget to do so.

Hope to "see" you there!

Monday, September 28, 2015

What did YOU teach this week?

Having a bad cold is really no excuse. If you want to build readership of a blog, you need to stick to the promised schedule and post regularly. So I apologize.

The fact is that I had hoped to publish a post about tackling pronunciation in the ESL classroom, but the post grew so long that I'll now have to publish it in two instalments. I'm still working on it. In the meantime, why don't I just tell you what I taught this past week and which resources I found most useful?

My morning class asked to learn how to shop online. I used the English for Financial Literacy documents by the Toronto Catholic District School Board found on the wiki. The volume for CLB 3-5 was VERY helpful.

I also found a presentation on called Shopping and Banking Safely Online, which fit our needs perfectly.

One student began using as a result of what we learned during this week-long unit. However, they chose to get into a different (though connected) topic next: how to get and use a credit card.

My afternoon (LINC Literacy) class had just finished a week of learning some language to R/W/L and speak about food staples. Our second week of the FOOD unit was spent setting up the classroom just like Food Basics--our only supermarket in the downtown core. After learning shopping vocabulary such as shopping bag, shopping cart, list, aisle, frozen, canned, fresh, dairy, meat and produce, we practiced short dialogues.

For example, this was a chain drill that snaked around the class, with A holding a plastic bag and B holding a reusable bag.

A:  Do you need a bag?

B:  No, thank you. I have a bag.

We also practiced:

A:  Excuse me, where is the _______?

B:  It's on aisle ____.  (Or: It's at the back; it's in dairy; it's next to the milk; it's at the front, etc.)

A:  Thanks.

B:  No problem.

After a tour of the store, students set off in teams of three to complete a scavenger hunt. Each team had a different set of items and prices to find.  The T.A. and I took pictures of the field trip so as to be able to put the photos into a Language Experience Approach booklet. The students will add the language then learn to read it fluently over the course of a week.

I am really looking forward to the week preceding Thanksgiving. We will use the items we purchased at the supermarket to make a pumpkin pie. Yum!

What did you do with your class(es) this week?

Monday, September 21, 2015

Martine's Rule Number One

Muffled inside my backpack, the ring of my cell phone was just barely audible as I walked from my parking spot to the building where I'd just been hired to teach for four hours a week--a lunch hour pronunciation class.

I grappled with the zipper pouch in the middle of the sidewalk and managed to answer before it went to voice mail. It could be one of my colleagues calling me to supply for them, I thought. Covering for absent teachers was another role for which I was hired at the same time. My third hat was that of teaching assistant, which was why I was headed into work hours before my class time.


"Kelly?" A weak and raspy voice came through from the other end.


"Can you cover for me today? I woke up with a migraine."

"Sure I can," I said, already starting to feel ill at ease with the notion of zero prep time. "What's the topic?"

"Oh, there's no particular topic. Do anything you want with them."

"Thanks a lot," I said, hoping my voice didn't betray any trace of sarcasm.

She had given me no advance notice nor had she prepared anything like the other instructors always did. There wasn't even a topic to inspire me. Fortunately, I had spent a recent weekend compiling a few emergency lesson ideas for just such a circumstance. I would try out "student-made tests."

Thank goodness I'm a nervous Nellie an early bird; I had time to grab a ruler and create a simple table-style graphic organizer and make twenty copies. (Grab the free template on my website.)

After introducing myself and explaining their teacher's absence, I polled the class to find out what grammar points they had been covering over the past week or two. As they all began to chime in, I scribbled quickly, capturing their answers on the board.

Next I asked them what topic they had covered. They told me they had just finished reading The Piano, a slender chapter book abridged for ESL learners. Great.

I explained that their task would be to think up six good questions to test their classmates on the material covered over the past week or two: three about grammar and three about the novel. I would come around, I said, to help them find any errors in their questions. I then would circle what I thought were the best four out of six, and they were to copy those onto the graphic organizer.

That took us to break time.

After break, we pulled half the chairs from outside the U of tables to the inside so that pairs were facing each other.

"Partner A has five minutes to ask partner B four questions. When you hear my beeper go off, it's time to switch roles: B then has five minutes to quiz A. Then I'll ring the bell and Bs will move clockwise while As stay put. Got it?"

They got it. With five pairs, this took exactly fifty minutes, leaving us ten minutes for a debriefing before the end of class. They were supposed to rank their classmates and report at the end who had done the best job answering each question. But during the plenary discussion, something serendipitous arose from this technique. The students all said they had come to understand the material so much better. Their classmates had elucidated formerly cryptic grammar points, helped them understand the book's plot twists, and had taught them new words or given them a fuller grasp of terms already touched on in class.

As the students filed out into the hall with smiles on their faces, still abuzz with the energy of the activity, I heard the voice of my TESL prof in my head. "RULE NUMBER ONE," she said so many times that it can never leave me, "Whenever possible, have the students do the work."

Yes, Martine. I think I see what you meant.

The next time Martine's rule echoed in my mind was when I was acting as teaching assistant, observing and helping the literacy teacher. The class was about to play BINGO. How many times had I toyed with the idea of using this game in class only to reject it as too time consuming for the teacher? After all, each BINGO card has to be different since you can't have every students shouting BINGO at the same time. But this teacher did something that had never occurred to me. He put the bank of twenty-four words at the bottom of the sheet and had the students COPY them one by one into the BINGO grid, reminding them not to copy them in order starting with the top left cell, but encouraging them to scatter the words around the grid in a random way. Not only did this save the teacher prep time, but these students got an opportunity to practice copying--a skill most of them were still developing. Value!

That was over five years ago.  Now I have two classes and continue to remind myself several times a week of Martine's Rule Number One. Today in literacy class, for example, I decided to start our food unit in a way I never have before. Instead of warming them up, activating prior knowledge, yada yada, and then presenting twelve food staple words of my choosing, I passed out grocery store flyers and had the students cut out five items they buy every week. From posters each team of two created, I then told them they had to decide on the twelve terms we would learn and practice with this week. Well, we ended up with a list almost identical to the one I usually give them, but I noticed that the level of engagement seemed much higher than usual. These are the words THEY chose, the ones THEY say they need when shopping.

So, how about you? How do you feel about Martine's Rule Number One? Do you embrace a similar philosophy in your teaching? If so, how? And if not, why not?

Monday, September 14, 2015

Free Library Resource

When our newest teacher asked me the other day for a copy of the "Using the Public Library" worksheets, puzzle pieces, and unit plan that has been passed around among several of my colleagues since I developed it, I was surprised to find that I'd never posted it with other freebies on my website. That was probably because it included a transcript of an audio lesson I did not have permission to replicate or upload. So I've deleted that part, making the whole thing sharable under a Creative Commons license.
Literacy student using her new card

Literacy students comparing borrowed items
Now is a great time to plan a field trip with your students to the closest library branch. At my school, we're fortunate enough to be within easy walking distance to the main branch. I take my literacy class there each spring and fall, avoiding the walk during the broiling hot and bitterly cold months.

A unit plan and photocopiable materials for CLB 3 and up are under FREE RESOURCES - Settlement Themes - Community and Government Services. For literacy level, we spend a couple of weeks skill-building, then write a Language Experience Approach story around our trip, which we learn to read during the week following the field trip.

How about you? Do you take your class to the library to teach them how to access resources and get a free borrower's card? If you do, I really hope these materials are useful to you. Please leave a comment if they are.

Monday, September 7, 2015

That Summer Feeling

Camping and birding at Rondeau, summer 2015
As my colleagues and I greet each other in the halls the first day back after a ten-week school closure, we inevitably remark how RELAXED we all look. Some of us travelled, some had more time just to get down on hands and knees with their children or take them to the park every single day. Worry lines have disappeared from around our eyes. We are glowing with the renewed energy that comes from two straight months of far less stress in our lives.

"Do you think we can carry some summer forward into our whole year?" one new teacher muses at the copy machine.

"I sure plan to," I reply.

And I do.

A long break helped me see what a workaholic I can be. It showed me the value of taking time just to sit by the water with my icy beverage and library book. How can I carry a bit of that into my teaching year?

For a long time I've recognized in me the need to work smarter instead of working more. This year I hope to follow even more faithfully Martine's rule number one: whenever possible, have the students do the work.

So far, I'm on target. On the first day, instead of having spent any part of the prior evening dreaming up peer survey questions like, "Where did you go this summer," I had students brainstorm the questions they wished to ask one another. Instead of spending my prep time at the copy machine, I put a sample graphic organizer on the board and passed out notebook paper. The students made the peer survey grid.

I'm not sure I would ever go so far as to have students cut up pieces for info gap and unscrambling activities, but shy of that I believe there are many ways I could cut my prep time while simultaneously allowing students to take over jobs from me in ways that have value to them as language learners.

Outside the classroom, meanwhile, I intend to carry forward that summer feeling by taking more day trips, carving out weekend time for more bike rides, more walks in the woods, more live music in small venues, more open mic nights, more fiction, more movies and just in general more ME time.

By living a life with more balance, I trust my students will benefit by having a rested, relaxed, happy teacher in the classroom with them.

What about you? How do you work on a good work-life balance?

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

And the Winner is...

Argh. When I sat down to do this, I was already thinking ahead to how this was going to look rigged if the person with 1/6 chance of winning beat the person with a 5/6 chance of winning. But there you go. It happens. To choose a winner, I wrote out the first entrant on line one of my notebook page, and the second entrant, with five entries, on the subsequent five lines, numbering them all one to six.

Next I Googled "random number generator" and checked out the first site offering this service, which was RANDOM.ORG. Of the choices they offer, I thought "dice roll" was perfect since I needed a number one through six.

I rolled the dice and...voila.
Congratulations to Maria. I will get that gift certificate out by email right away. 

Thank you to my two sleuths who helped me clean up a lot of mistakes and broken links on the blog and website. I appreciate it.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Desirable Difficulties

John Sivell just sent me a link to this video of Robert Bjork talking about the importance of what he calls "desirable difficulties" in helping students not just to learn and quickly forget material but rather to retain it over the long term.  I take it as a validation of 'Back to the Well' principles and feel vindicated in one aspect of my teaching philosophy as he urges teachers not to jump in and answer their own posed questions after only four or five seconds. Amen!

It is under six minutes long. I hope you'll take the time to view it and comment below.

P.S. The contest for the $50 Amazon certificate is still open (read prior post).

Monday, July 6, 2015

Win a $50 USD Amazon Gift Card

I am on summer break, and it looks to me as if most of you are, too. Since things are a bit slow around here, I'm thinking this is a great time for me to take a summer break from blogging while leaving you with something to do!

Between now and September 1, I am inviting you snoop around my blog, website and worksheets looking for errors for a chance to win a $50 USD Amazon Gift Certificate.

Rules: To have your name put in the hat, you have to find an error (typo, misspelled word, grammar mistake, broken link) in one of these three places:

  • in any post in this blog (
  • on any page of my website (
  • on any of the worksheets that I have created and made available for download on my website
When you find an error, simply leave me a comment on this post. As long as you don't comment anonymously, I will be able to track you down via email while other readers will not be able to see your email address.

For each mistake that you find, your name will be entered once in the draw.

My thanks go out to reader Maria who pointed out to me a download link that was pointing to the wrong worksheet. Mind you, there is a particular bug in Weebly that makes it quite likely that more such errors exist on Since Maria inspired this competition by finding a broken link, I've already put her name in the hat. The winner will be decided in September by numbering all entries and using a random number generator to choose one.

If you are the winner and reside in a part of the world where you are not able to take advantage of an gift card, I will work with you so that you receive a book or item of the same value--even if I have to mail it to you myself.

Since this blog only has about five readers in the whole world, your chances of winning are quite good. So happy hunting, and see you in September!

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Board Game for Vocabulary Review

I am indebted to Val Baggaley, ELL Instructor at the Centre for Excellence in Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement for sharing this great board game template. In this version that I'm sharing in the BLANK TEMPLATES section of my free resources area, I have inserted royalty-free clipart images as sample placeholders. If you have a newer version of MS Word, you can simply right-click on any image and choose "Change Picture." The new picture that you insert will then automatically size itself to fit the cell. How cool is that?

I am in love with this board game. I use it with my literacy learners either by filling it with images from the unit they have just finished (e.g., furniture and parts of the house, articles of clothing and weather) or by leaving in one item for each letter of the alphabet. The alphabet version is especially useful when we have new learners join the class who are still familiarizing themselves with the alphabet and related sounds. This is why, as you will note in the sample template, the five vowels are represented by words beginning with the short vowel sound and not the long. (Otherwise I surely would have used ice cream for "I" instead of igloo, a word my learners will perhaps never need.)

One reason I find this board game especially valuable is that it accommodates a multi-level group, as my literacy class seems always to be. Students roll a die and move coloured markers from START to FINISH. After landing on a square, the learner must at least name what is in the picture. Students are encouraged by me and by their peers to use as much English as they can muster in talking about the picture. Other players can encourage them with questions regarding colour, like/dislike, etc. When that player has run out of ways to talk about the picture, play continues clockwise.

In addition to finding this game a fun way for literacy learners to review sounds and vocabulary, I have had success using it with the seniors class. Their speaking/listening skills are at about CLB 3 while their reading ability and grammar knowledge are much higher. In general, my morning class does not like to play games, but they make an exception for this one. Well, they don't like using the dice or markers, but they readily grab copies of the game board and sit in small groups to quiz each other on the terms of the unit we've been covering. Whatever works!

For game pieces, I find that plastic-covered paper clips work wonderfully since there are many colours in a pack. I just bend one part so that it is perpendicular to the other part. This way the paperclip has a foot to rest on and a little handle by which to grab it and move it around the board. If you have game pieces from board games picked up at yard sales, all the better!

Tip: If you have a group that tends to rush through this too quickly, announcing "teacher, finished!" before another group has even made it to the halfway point, give that group a penny instead of a die. Heads = move 2 spaces; tails = move one space. Heh, heh. ;)

If you end up using Val's board game, please leave a comment to let us know how it went over with your learners, what level they are, etc. If you come up with successful variations on this game, let others know!

Monday, June 22, 2015

Critical Thinking in the ESL Classroom

On a recent Friday evening in Windsor, fifty plus ESL educators were gathered for the 'Back to the Well' workshop that I co-presented with John Sivell. While most attendees went home with new ideas on how to give their learners' brains richer conditions for second language acquisition, the participants at one table grappled with a challenge of a different sort.

John had given us a brief history of Second Language Acquisition theory, ending his crystallized overview with a description of emergentism, then had yielded the floor to me.

I had then recounted some of the ways that I have been implementing John and Chirawibha's ideas in my classroom(s), to great success. We had then distributed the 'toolbox' handout to each participant, one set of graphic organizers for each table of four, and one or two copies of a text based upon the CLB level for which each table indicated a preference.

Shortly before the workshop, I had gathered what I thought was a good variety of texts (several written and one transcribed audio) spanning Phase I adequate literacy all the way up to CLB 5+.  My sources were a free sample from a literacy series, The Ontario Reader, The Best of the Reader by Joan Acosta, and a couple of other texts recommended by a colleague. Topics were ones I assumed teachers would find familiar: David Suzuki, Canadian history, and so on.

It was hoped that at each table, teachers would take a minute to examine the text, read through the 'toolbox' handout for ideas, and then begin to brainstorm together as many ways as possible they might find it valuable to take students back again and again into that same text. Could they stretch it two days? Three? A whole week? Could it remain as engaging on day four as day one?

At most tables that is just what began to happen, but not at all of them.

At one table close to me, the intended process didn't get very far. Instead, another important issue was broached, though not very comfortably. Before discussing how to explore the language with a class, one educator felt a need to question the text itself (a CLB 3 text about Kanata, the origin of the name of Canada). This teacher was concerned about the effects of presenting such a text without encouraging some critical analysis by the learners.

What are we doing, she wanted to provoke her fellow teachers into thinking, when we teach a text like this without challenging the socio-cultural norms and structures that allow it to stand as the prevalent version of the story? 

What I think she was getting at is this: might students presume there is no version aside from this quick and simple blurb that glosses over all nasty details regarding such things as oppression and genocide? And is it our job to take the time to explore that with our learners?

That's not my role, someone else at the table may have said.

Well, that certainly is MY role, said the teacher who wanted to trigger deeper thought.

And then there was an impasse, an uncomfortable detente, a mood killer for the table, a failure to bond.

In thinking about how I wanted to bring up to you, my readers, the subject of critical thinking in the ESL classroom, I came upon this helpful article by Andy Halvorsen in the Internet TESL Journal. To be honest, I've attended workshops on critical ESL that left me feeling completely overwhelmed by the proposed task at hand, ill equipped to implement the approach. This article, on the other hand, not only gives me hope but makes me feel that I am already doing most of what is suggested.

When I invite my learners into a text, I try always to remember that nothing is written in a socio-cultural vacuum. Every story has a perspective. Are we viewing the story from the point of view of those in a position of power and privilege? If so, what might other perspectives sound like? I do believe it is of utmost importance for us as educators make such questions a regular part of classroom discussion. Why? Well, if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem. Do I want to live in a stagnant culture that does not progress in terms of equal rights for all? Do I want to bring my learners' attention to such realities as ageism, sexism, racism, ableism? Rhetorical question, clearly.

Getting back to the frosty mood at table one, how might the participants have proceeded? Maybe we could first have students try to imagine how the text might sound if written from the point of view of First Nations people? Could different teams come up with a few perspectives? One team might even take the point of view of the trees that looked on as events were transpiring. Then the groups could come together to examine the most interesting (worthy of study) nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs that all groups used in their versions.

In fact, one of the activities John and Chirawibha recommend is one in which students categorize words as having either positive, neutral, or negative connotation. This can lead to much debate. Think about it.

The word "institution" may be neutral to you, but has a strongly negative connotation to me since that is where doctors wanted to put my baby brother when he was born with spina bifida. The word "school" may be positive for my literacy student who is over the moon being able to attend classes for the first time in her life. But what about First Nations elders alive today who were forced into residential schools as children? This one graphic organizer is in itself an exercise in critical thinking.

How about you? How comfortable are you prodding your learners to probe assumptions and question the values imbedded in the texts you present to them? Do you worry that you'll trigger conflict among the learners--conflict that will spiral out of control? Or do you, like my friend the provoker, feel that it is part of your job to help students think critically about the text that has been set before them?

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Hook

My first TESL gig was a four-hour-per-week pronunciation class that met over the lunch hour. The afternoon that will stick forever in my memory is the day I brought my African drum to school. Having just recently hired me, my supervisor had advised me that he wanted to sit in on one of my lessons just to get a feel for my teaching style.

Fresh from my TESL course, I dutifully put together a lesson plan with all the requisite parts. Since it was to be a lesson on syllabification and stress, I thought that my drum would make a nice hook. I would set the drum atop my desk and leave it there in plain sight as learners arrived and took their seats.

"Why might I have brought this drum in today?" I could ask them. That would be a great hook.

So much about my teaching has changed since those first months. And though I don't always remember or bother to start each lesson with a hook, I probably should. Certainly I notice a deeper sense of engagement on the part of the learners when I pull it off well.

Tuesday, the antepenultimate school day before summer break, was to be sports and activities day. There would be floor hockey and dance lessons in the auditorium while my classroom space would host board game stations.

I figured there were two ways I could go about preparing my students to open our space as a game room. I could greet them from the front of the class with that typically nasal teacher voice: "Today, class, we are going to learn to play some North American board games."


I could try to hook them.

The fact that my morning group has expressly requested that we waste spend zero time playing games helped me decide which approach to take. Before anyone arrived, I removed some game pieces from their boxes and placed them at students' places around the room. On the board I wrote a few questions:

  • How many people can play this game?
  • What is the object of this game?
  • How do you play it?
  • What are the rules?

I then left to finish my photocopying, ensuring the students would have some time in the space to ponder the objects and questions without me there. I like giving curiosity time to mount.

How about you? 

Do you believe that starting with a 'hook' makes for a better lesson? If so, is there a favourite way to get that instant engagement that you'd like to share with other teachers? I'd love it if you'd leave your idea in the comments.

By the way, games and activities day went really well. The supposedly games-averse seniors really got into Tangoes and Quarto. Two men enjoyed their Scrabble match so much that one asked to borrow the board so as to be able to play with his wife over the summer.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Families Come in All Colours, Shapes and Sizes


As you know, I have begun the journey of learning how to make my classroom (and help my agency become) a saf-ER space for newcomers who are members of the LGBTIQ2+ community. During a recent meeting with others engaged in the same process of education and self-assessment, I mentioned that I had created some materials for my literacy learners in which non-traditional families such as those with two moms or two dads were part of the lesson. One person helping to facilitate the workshop I attended expressed interest in having me share these materials and how I use them with other instructors.

Before I would feel comfortable or confident sharing what I've created, I would want to flesh it out A LOT. So I had the idea of creating a series of vignettes of some less traditional family models. So! I need some families living in Canada who would be willing to write a little autobiographical blurb about the members of the family OR tell the story of their family. The subjects are free to focus on the thing that makes their family less traditional or not mention it at all, rather talking about family members' hobbies or the like (or a bit of both).

I would like to offer students of settlement English an illustration to go with each family bio. While I prefer a high resolution, quality colour photo or two, for those families not comfortable with that, we could perhaps produce a line drawing based on a photo or substitute stock photos that resemble the family members.

As for names, I would ideally like to be able to use first names and province, but I am open to publishing some "names have been changed" stories as well. As Erin--one of my consultants on this project--has helped me to see, varying degrees of willingness to out oneself in published photos is in itself a reflection of an aspect of Canadian society that our newcomers can learn about.

If you feel that the kind of family of which you're a part is under-represented or not accurately represented in teaching materials and you would be willing to star in this little book I'm putting together, then it's you I'm looking for.
Aaron and Steph, Childfree by Choice

I am still in the brainstorming / collecting stage, so perhaps the material I receive will dictate the direction in which I take this.

To initiate email correspondence, you can leave a comment on this post or use the flying envelope (contact me) icon at the bottom of the ABOUT ME page.

Thank you so much!


Sunday, May 31, 2015

Peer Surveys

I promised a while back (after posting a peer survey template in my freebies area) that I would blog about how I use them.

Peer surveys are a mainstay of my classroom practice. They work for any level from ESL Literacy to CLB 7, and can also be used in EAP courses. With a peer survey, you offer your learners an opportunity to use the week's target structures or concepts with a number of their classmates. I always participate in the surveys, so this gives students a chance to converse one-on-one with me, as well.

So what is a peer survey? Since a picture is worth a thousand words, take a look at a sample peer survey for the literacy level below.
This survey was part of our unit on food staples. We had learned words such as rice, tea, milk, eggs, bread, chicken, fish, and juice. We had learned to ask, "Excuse me, where is the _____?"  We had taken a virtual tour of the local grocery store and had set up our classroom with aisle signs identical to the ones found in that store. We had practiced telling each other on which aisle we would find tea, rice and pop. We had learned to write out simple shopping lists.

Then we had learned "Do you like _____?" along with affirmative and negative answers, practicing them as a chain drill around the class, or in a more random and fun way by passing a ball around the classroom to tag each other. 

Once students feel confident in their ability to ask and answer a couple of basic questions relating to the week's topic, I give them a graphic organizer like the one you see above. I provide the questions just above the table, e.g.,

Question 1 - 
A:   Do you like chicken?
B:   Yes, I do.             OR            No, I don't.


They know they are to walk around and talk to five classmates. They know I don't want them simply to copy classmates' names onto the form, but rather want them to ask each other, "How do you spell your name?" They know, too, that they should be able to spell their names aloud for their classmates. Weekly peer surveys ensure learners get lots of practice with this function--one they will need daily as they navigate doctor visits, school enrolments, and so many more activities of daily life in Canada.

Peer surveys can also be used with higher levels in so many ways. I recently experimented with using them to give my intermediate learners an opportunity to use lexical chunks (expressions, idioms, phrasal verbs, etc.) that we had encountered in that week's text. The text was about how to use an Automatic External Defibrillator or AED. This activity was a huge hit! (See below.)

The best part of this activity is the energy in the room when it's going on. Students seem to really enjoy the interaction and chance to put the new language to use. When the surveying is done, I help them digest what they've learned. For literacy learners, this can mean producing sentences in the third person to capture what they learned about classmates. For more advanced levels, this can mean the teacher asks students to summarize what they learned about others.

This is also a great activity for speaking assessment time. The teacher can mill about taking notes on rubrics while students circulate and complete their quota of five or however many peers they are to survey.

Do you already use peer surveys? If not, I highly recommend you give them a whirl. If you try them out and/or use my template, I hope you'll leave a comment to let me know how it went.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Time for Self Care

Although I enjoy presenting, life suddenly feels so carefree now that an ESL Literacy webinar and a TESL Windsor presentation are behind me. My body feels like it's floating.
My reading spot
Yesterday my partner and I went out for a late breakfast and spent the next hours simply strolling through Windsor's Walkerville area, popping in and out of antique shops, vintage boutiques, and the new independent grocery. It felt amazing not to have to look at my watch nor to have a little voice in my head urging me to get back home to work on lesson plans, Power Point slides, or participant handouts.

Thursday was an interesting day. Wanting to return the favour of a home-cooked meal that I'd received on visiting the Sivells for one of our TESL Ontario conference presentation planning sessions in their town, I had invited them to dinner during their two days in the Windsor area. (Our 'Back to the Well' presentation was to be the main attraction for the TESL Windsor spring PD event.) I was thrilled when the Sivells accepted the dinner invitation, not as thrilled with myself when I realized that I was presenting part two of the webinar 'Creating an ESL Literacy Blog Step by Step' for the ESL Literacy Network that same evening. As the disclaimer I've given to my boss and colleagues a zillion times goes: "My brain doesn't do calendar."

Fortunately, it all worked out just fine. My culinarily talented mate agreed to prepare the salad (his freshly whipped up balsamic vinaigrette is to die for), the lightly steamed asparagus, and the brown basmati. I was able to get the Roasted ChickenProvençal into the oven ahead of time and excuse myself very briefly from the pre-webinar sound check just long enough to baste it halfway through. Our guests were conveniently a tad late arriving, and all was well.

The webinar seemed to be a hit with those few people who showed up. Most ended up with a new blog for their classes, and one participant taught us all how to embed a sound file on Blogger, not an easy feat since Blogger doesn't have a built-in tool for that!

Our presentation, "Sending Them Back to the Well: from Theory to Practice" seemed very well received by the more than 50 educators in attendance. I think our slides have improved since Toronto, and we are learning how best to support each other as presenting partners. Perhaps we'll even get another chance to further tweak and improve this workshop. I'd like that.

But I learned a lot from the past several months leading up to these two PD events. As an avid birder, I was dumb to commit all of my free time (lesson planning takes enough of it already) during the spring months. Although it's hard for me to say no to sharing ideas with peers, I'm going to try to limit my volunteering to fall and winter events.

That said, I think it's now time for me to turn off the computer and go outside. An oriole just found the orange slices that are hanging up in the suet cage, so I'm off to the market to buy fresh ones.

How about you? Do you do a good job of balancing work and downtime? Are you good at self-care or do you often feel like a hamster in a wheel? If you are given to workaholism or have trouble with over-committing your time, do you have a plan in place to remedy that soon? I'd love to hear from you.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Help ! Need Strategies for Multilevel Classes

Last week in my multi-level class for seniors, a student had a meltdown. This person is one of the minority who functions at the lower end of the CLB 2/3 to 5/6 spread in the class. Because the students had asked for dialogues around diagnostic imaging, I got out the old LINC 4 Classroom Activities book (yes, the old one from 2001) because it has a wonderful section about CT scans, MRIs, ultrasound and nuclear medicine.

I warned the students that we would be tackling level four material, but only for one week. The following week, we could focus exclusively on building and practicing some doctor-patient dialogues using our new vocabulary.

In spite of this disclaimer, I found myself with the unfortunate first of having made a student break down in tears. "Difficult, difficult," she exclaimed as she buried her face in her hands. I crouched in front of her and stroked her shoulder, assuring her next week would be easier.

Most of the time I think I succeed in meeting the needs of the lower level and higher level students. This past week I did not. Sigh.

As if my multilevel class bad mojo were contagious, I also had a very unsuccessful day with the literacy class that afternoon.  Just by happenstance, all my stronger students--those who will be ready to graduate from our class within another few months--were absent at the same time.  I had nobody in class but the newer students. And that is when a big spotlight was shone on something I hadn't till that point noticed. The material I'd been giving the class is too challenging for these students.

How had I not seen it before?

I've never had more than one foundations student at a time, and the teaching assistant is usually available to take that person out for one-on-one support. But now it seems I do have several students who need foundations activities and materials, not Phase I material.

It would be lovely if our school were large enough to have separate classes for the various ESL literacy phases, but we don't. They are all in the same class together, and it's up to me to provide a quality experience for both the Phase One (developing and adequate) and the Foundations learners.

What about you? Have you ever had a class in which you struggled to meet the needs of a group with a wide span in ability? What advice can you give me?

Monday, May 11, 2015

This is an LGBTQ+ Positive Space

 Cisgender. Cissexism. Pansexual. Last week I learned a few new words and updated my knowledge of others.

On Tuesday, I sat in one of those nice, cushy board room chairs around a table with a dozen other front-line settlement sector workers to educate myself on the barriers commonly faced by LGBTQ+ newcomers. The all-day workshop was part of the Positive Spaces Initiative, whose website I encourage you to visit if you want to learn more.

When it was my turn, I answered the three questions on the facilitator's Power Point slide: my name, the pronouns I would like used when others refer to me in the third person, and any hopes or fears I had going into the workshop. Gosh golly, I'd never thought about it before. Everyone has always referred to me as "she/her," but not because I'd asked them to. I'd be just as happy in Iranian culture, where everyone has always been "Ou," or in Sweden, where they've just introduced a new pronoun that liberates people from the binary he OR she construct.

Why do you suppose we were each asked to give our preferred pronouns, Erin asked. We sat and blinked at her. It's so that whenever there is someone in the group whose preferred pronoun isn't obvious will not feel singled out in having to request that.  I knew then I was going to like the presentation and presenter.

I've long felt strongly about making my classroom a safe space where I am an enthusiastic ambassador for the Canadian values of tolerance and multi-culturalism, where newcomers of all religions or none can sit side by side to learn the language of respectfully disagreeing.

For the literacy students, it could be a while before they sit in a level three class and learn "I see your point," "in my opinion," and "as I was saying,...." Nevertheless, it's not too early for me to begin to introduce some socio-cultural realities of their new Canadian lives.

In our unit on the family, I stand at the whiteboard with my markers in hand as we brainstorm together the meaning of "family." Inevitably they begin to shout out "mama," "daddy," "children." Sometimes they have enough language before the unit begins to add "grandmother" or other extended family. Because we are only in the warm-up stage, I rely on my artistic ability to convey concepts.

I draw a couple with no children and ask, "What about this? Can this be a family?" They begin to debate, turning toward each other with their conflicting yeses and nos.

"How about this one? Is this a family?" I point to the two fathers with a child.  Next I've sketched two mothers with three kids.

When their YES NO debates have died down and all that remains is the pregnant pause of their curiosity, I do not answer. I stare back at them with an amused smile and let the tension build just two degrees more.

"In Canada," I explain with a sense of pride in being able to welcome them to such a wonderful society, "THIS can be a family. And THIS can be a family. And THIS can also be a family."

If any student seems dubious, I may erase stick figures to make way for Google images. We see wedding cakes topped by two tuxedoed male figures. We see a Gay couple kissing while a priest stands close by. There are flowers. The rice is flying. I search out an image of Kathleen Wynne, premier of our province, flanked by her same-sex partner at a public ceremony.

The point at which any remaining vestige of confusion on faces melts away is when I remind them of the reason most of them feel safe here. Here we can live side by side, Christians and Muslims and all. Many of them have come here fleeing chaos, persecution, violence triggered by intolerance. When I bring this up, they get it. They smile. "Yes," they say. "In Canada, no problem."

To be honest, they usually have only one real concern or question. With their very limited language, they manage to pantomime their most pressing question: how on earth do same-sex couples have babies? Fortunately, I am a very gifted mime. There are many ways, and I present a three-second skit for each. The turkey baster always gets a laugh. And then it's over. Next topic. No big deal.

And that is the classroom atmosphere against which I had my first classroom coming out last year. It went well, but could have gone even better.

And that is why I was so excited when OCASI started the Positive Spaces Initiative, providing me and settlement sector professionals all around Ontario with starter kits and workshops if we would like to start the process of assessing our agencies to determine areas of strength and areas with room for improvement. The goal is for LGBTQ+ newcomers to be able to access services while being afforded the same level of dignity and respect as anyone else--and without having to leave a part of themselves at the door.

A table at the back of the board room was covered in posters, stickers, bookmarks and postcards. At some point in our eight hours together, Erin admonished us to give careful thought to it before putting a rainbow up declaring a space saf(er) and not to do so unless we were ready to commit to creating a space where instances of homophobia and transphobia would not go unchallenged. It would be better to put nothing up than to put up a sign of safety that didn't accurately reflect the way the clients would be received, supported, respectfully treated.

"Maybe your agency isn't ready to embrace LGBTQ+ Positive Space policies and practices, but in your own cubicle you can put up a sticker."

I feel my agency is ready because we did the self-assessment and have begun addressing weak areas while building on and celebrating areas of strength. Three of us were sponsored to attend the workshop. And I'm very happy to say that when I returned to work and explained to colleagues what my workshop had been about, the vast majority asked for a poster in order to declare their classrooms Positive Spaces. I can't wait to see what happens next.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Getting Better (at Teaching Literacy)

I don't have the proper training to do this job, I thought.

Have you ever thought that about a job you were tasked with undertaking?

When I applied for the position of LINC Literacy Instructor, I wanted it more than I'd ever wanted a job before. I think I may have aced the interview based on my passion alone. Perhaps they believed me--as well they should have--when I said that the most important qualities they should be seeking in a candidate were patience and compassion.

You won't find anyone, I assured them, better suited to take good care of this--the most vulnerable group in our school. I will, I promised, create a safe space where every learner's potential is nurtured and coaxed along until it blossoms.

I got the job.

And then I said to myself, "What on earth do I do now?"

While I am grateful for the quality education I received at CCLCS in their intensive full-time program that allowed me to get TESL accredited and back into the workforce in just under five months, the module on teaching ESL Literacy was, if I remember correctly, one or two Saturdays. Many of my colleagues who did their work online through a university got a separate course dedicated to this very specialized corner of TESL.

What this means is that I've been teaching myself how to do this as I go along. I've attended webinars hosted by the ESL Literacy Network, sought out every literacy workshop available each fall in Toronto, and have scoured the web for pedagogical materials, devouring what little there is out there.

Recently I attended for the second time "Oral Language First and Flashcard Use," facilitated by Val Baggaley. What a great webinar. I am still not where I want to be, but have definitely started to shift more weight to the initial oral activities and have put more energy into creating big, beautiful, colour flash cards that I laminate.

Speaking of flash cards, once again the ESL Literacy Network came to my rescue with a showcase on making custom flashcards that I blogged about two weeks ago.

But the one tutorial that has had the biggest impact on my ESL Literacy teaching this term has been this YouTube video called "Creating Worksheets for ESL Literacy Learners."  Yes, I had viewed it before, but apparently I don't always GET everything I read or watch the first time around.

This viewing left me determined to change my worksheets. Why were learners in my class having trouble with visual tracking of items on a sheet? Because my rows are too close together. I've got too much happening on the same sheet. I don't have enough graphics to support text.

This week, having spent a week on learning the days of the week and another on months of the year, we were putting all our calendar skills together by learning a few Canadian holidays. The end activity would be for me to give everyone a Milk Calendar, on which we could cross out all the days on which school is closed. I was able to put my freshly gained knowledge into practice. Here is a new and improved worksheet.

Managing to control my usual urge to save paper, I added more white space between rows. Our next activity after a YES/NO quiz is always to correct the false statements. I usually cram that part at the bottom of the YES/NO quiz. This time I moved it to its own sheet of paper.  Yay.

The one area I most want to work on next is supplying learners with more visual supports on worksheets. More pictures. But gathering copyright-free images or creating them does take time, and I do have a life. It is spring, after all, and I can't spend every hour of every day preparing for classes. One must go birding! One must go foraging for morels!

I'll get there, though. This week we are going to learn ten prepositions. We will create our own visual aids by posing for photos standing next to each other, crawling under the table, sitting on the table (egad), and so forth. Once again I have the ESL Literacy Network to thank for this idea.

On another positive note, The Centre for Canadian Language Benchmarks has recently published Canadian Language Benchmarks: ESL for ADult Literacy Learners (ALL). I've been reading through the first several chapters with coloured stickies and highlighter in hand. So far I am impressed and so very grateful. I'm starting to feel a little less like I'm all on my own out here doing my best to muddle through the land of ESL Literacy teaching.

How about you?