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?