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!