Sunday, December 18, 2016

Remembering to Breathe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 11, 2016

PBLA and Back to the Well

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that brings us to...


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


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

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

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

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

What do you think?

Sunday, December 4, 2016

PBLA - More Thoughts

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

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

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


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

And yet...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Addressing PBLA Challenges

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whew! Okay. That's enough for today.

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

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

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Welcome, Conference Attendees!


If you're visiting my website and this blog for the first time because you received or picked up one of my cards at the TESL ON conference, welcome!

Just to catch you up, after a couple of years of blogging here with two or three loyal followers in across Canada and scant comments, I recently stumbled upon an area in dire need of reporting. That is the lack of a safe space for teachers implementing PBLA to give honest feedback, both laudatory and constructively critical, without fear of reprisal and without receiving a response that feels patronizing or dismissive.

During and right after the conference, I will be meeting with a couple of key individuals and sending some of your feedback up the chain to the funders. I hope this is just the start of a beautiful thing. I am a huge fan of democracy, transparency and accountability. After all, that's one of the biggest selling points of PBLA itself--increased transparency and accountability!

So watch this space. I am brainstorming day and night on the best way to proceed and see that the vacuum gets filled with a forum that is accessible, user-friendly, welcoming, affirming and effective in channeling up to the funders some questions and concerns that until now have been discouraged or silenced.

In solidarity,

Kelly - tweeting at @JoyOfESL

P.S. Excuse the occasional American spelling. I am an immigrant. ;)

Sunday, November 20, 2016

A Speaking Assessment Set-up My Students and I Love

Do you dread having to find a way to be able to take students out into the hall or into another room one by one in order to assess speaking? If so, you might enjoy what I call the speaking gauntlet. Of course I didn't invent it, but PBLA has helped me to put a new spin on it. I'll use the theme and modules my seniors are working on right now as an example to illustrate how it works and will then offer ideas for other ways it could be used.

This month my seniors are studying health, a theme they request over and over. After reviewing parts of the body and body systems, we are now exploring a journey through the healthcare system that involves seven steps (this number is not random, as you'll soon see).

1) Make an appointment. Ask to be squeezed in earlier than the date / time the receptionist initially offers.

2) Interact with the receptionist on arrival. Take a number, sit down and fill out a health history form.

3) Interact with the nurse, follow instructions such as "Step on the scale, put this under your tongue." Answer health history questions verbally.

4) Talk to the doctor. Describe symptoms (of diabetes). Given a requisition for blood work, acknowledge instructions regarding how to prepare for the fasting glucose test and where to go.

5) Interact with the lab receptionist and tech. Follow instructions such as "roll up your sleeve, make a fist, hold this cotton ball on there." Answer questions such as, "Are you allergic to iodine?"

6) Return for a follow-up visit with the doctor. Receive (or give, depending on role) advice regarding lifestyle changes, diet, exercise. Receive a prescription.

7) Interact with the pharmacist. Be able to read the label and follow instructions.

Whew! Needless to say, the modules comprising this thematic journey will take several weeks to complete. I have provided links to many of the resources we used on my classroom blog HERE.

One reason I don't do very well with module planning frameworks is that I never know in advance how long the seniors and I will take to cover a set of modules around a theme. They let me know when we need to slow down, revise, go Back to the Well, etc. But that's another blog post.

Okay, so here's the groovy activity that my students LOVE to engage in every few weeks. After we have familiarized ourselves with a number of dialogues and role plays around a given theme, they put them all together in one massive review to solidify their learning and prove to themselves that they really can do it all. We move the tables and set up a number of A-B stations equal to half our class count. So a class of fourteen gets seven stations. Very large classes could either split up and borrow an empty classroom or travel in teams.
red = teacher, brown = A, black = B

The stationary As take the role of the clerks, professionals, etc., and are given scripts or reference material. Higher levels can handle picture prompts with no text, depending on the complexity of the tasks and corresponding vocabulary. Just remember the rule of thumb: the harder the text, the easier should be the task. The easier the text, the harder the task can be.

To prevent As from helping the Bs cheat or peek instead of using their ears, I use masking tape to secure the reference sheets to the edge of the table in such a way that A can see them while B cannot.

The travelling Bs take the role of the consumer, patient, passenger, etc. If the class has an even number of students, the teacher can sit where it's easy to listen in on one of the pairs, a stack of rubrics in front of him/her. If there's an odd number, the instructor can become one of the As and still tick the rubrics as the Bs come along, assembly line style.

Depending on how many minutes you have in your session, you have to judge how often to ring the bell for Bs to move clockwise around the circuit. I can generally give them between four and seven minutes at each station. If you want to, you can also use this formation to allow students to practice the SAME question or questions again and again with a number of conversation partners. If this is the case, I recommend starting off giving them more time and then speeding it up as they warm up and become more fluent.

With my stack of rubrics, I can choose where to position myself. Before we start, I take a look at who is coming my way and put names at the tops of the rubrics so that I'm ready when the next student arrives. After all the Bs have travelled through the entire circuit, we switch roles. As become Bs and vice versa. With my class of 15, I can assess half of them in an hour and the other half after the break in the second hour. A very large class might have to take two days for this. (This might be a good time to mention that absent students do get a rubric, but I mark ABSENT across it. It still goes in the portfolio.)

I find there are benefits to this system for both instructor and learner. The students prefer this speaking assessment method over being pulled out of class one by one because it gives them time to warm up and feels like a casual conversation lesson on which the instructor just happens to be eavesdropping. I like it because I don't have to arrange for a T.A. to watch my class while I pull students out. Mostly, I like it because it's a fun activity I was already doing periodically before PBLA came along. The only difference is that we now put the rubrics in their big white binders instead of in file folders in my file cabinet.

In addition to using this long gauntlet during our health modules, we used it not long ago after studying air travel. Bs were provided with realistic e-tickets, boarding passes and passports. The stations were:
  1. travel agent or friend who knows how to buy tickets via the web (partner A had a diagram of the aircraft in order to offer seat selection)
  2. check-in desk / airline agent
  3. security ("empty your pockets, turn on your laptop," etc.)
  4. boarding area (announcements)
  5. pre-flight and in-flight announcements, interacting with fellow passengers
  6. customs ("Any animal products? Have you visited a farm...?)
  7. lost baggage claim office
Students really get a feeling of accomplishment when they can confidently navigate an entire journey like this. When we break things down into bite-sized pieces and spend enough time learning the dialogues that make up each step along the way, even a very long process like travelling by plane or being referred to a medical specialist becomes doable. Assessment day can be fun rather than nerve-wracking.

To download for free a good portion of the materials I used during all the modules that make up the air travel theme, including some rubrics, visit my website - FREE - Settlement Themes - Travel. I will also post materials used during the health modules after we are finished with them, so stay tuned.

Do you already do something like this? If not, might you try this with your learners?

Saturday, November 12, 2016

PBLA, Time Management, and Creating a Culture of Sharing

Hello again!

Thanks for coming back. Last week I promised to focus more on some positives of PBLA. I also said I would start sharing ideas to help you keep your sanity as you begin to implement Portfolio Based Language Assessment in your classrooms.

Create a Culture of Sharing

When I first starting working at my current place of employment, there wasn't a very strong culture of sharing. Since I am by nature a sharer, I just offered up my creations anyway. It didn't matter to me that almost nobody reciprocated. I just continued to share. Well, guess what? Five years later I am part of a team of sharers. In my experience, this makes for a happier place for us all to work. We lift each other up. I help them with things that fall in my area of expertise, and they help me fill in the gaps in my knowledge and file cabinet of resources. Our clients benefit, and we all spend less time trying to reinvent the wheel. It's a win-win-win. Of course it's your right not to share if you have lucrative plans for those wonderful creations of yours, but I'm telling you that sharing can become its own reward. I would much rather see my worksheets being used by others than languishing in my file cabinet for months on end.

With PBLA upon us, there has never been a better time for us to reach out to one another and lend a helping hand.

Okay, I'll go first. Below are just a few of my early ideas that might help you implement PBLA without spending hours and hours and hours of extra time at school or hunched over your home computer or stack of marking while your family looks on disapprovingly. It's a very short list; I'm hoping everyone reading this will add their ideas.

Become More Efficient

I believe that in order to go from merely surviving to thriving while learning to implement PBLA, we are going to have to find new efficiencies for better time management. For example, if you do not already, you may want to:

  1. Do all your marking on one day per week (I like Sunday for this).
  2. Get a brightly coloured file folder (different colour for each class) to collect work to be marked.
  3. Pass back marked work on the same day each week (especially if you teach literacy).
  4. Find opportunities to assess learners' skills when you are not simultaneously responsible for managing the class, such as during a visit by a guest speaker.  (Each student must ask a meaningful question using the new lexis; teacher sits at the back of the class with rubrics.)
  5. Ditto number four above with presentations. Since PBLA is putting you under more pressure, offload some of your teaching to the students, who can teach one another.
  6. Create space in your file cabinet for all the PBLA templates you need and bank enough copies of each so that you don't spend your week running back and forth to the copy machine. Clearly label them so that you can reach in and get what you need quickly.
  7. Follow Martine's Rule Number One.
  8. Didn't have time to create the rubric for a task? Following number six above, consider handing out blank rubrics while you project the same blank onto the screen. Together with students, brainstorm what the criteria for the assessment should be. Students copy this from the board onto their rubrics. I have had success with both of my very different groups.
  9. Utilize the heck out of peer and self-assessment. (See number seven.)
  10. Reduce the amount of time you spend hunting up the next text by adopting a Back to the Well approach to teaching. My students LOVE it.
  11. See next week's blog post for a detailed explanation of one of my most successful assessment techniques.

Continue the Conversation

Please continue this list of ideas in the comments section below. While my purpose in this post is to come up with ways we can survive and even thrive during PBLA ramp-up and implementation, I am not trying to be dismissive of those who would say that this very blog post could do more harm than good because it puts the onus on teachers to be ever more efficient rather than acknowledging that PBLA itself is being rolled out without sufficient supports for instructors. I hope we can continue to speak candidly and call a spade a spade. I welcome any and all criticism. By speaking freely and brainstorming together, perhaps we can make things better for all of us and for our clients.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

My PBLA Triumphs and Tribulations

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this post and all posts on this blog and on my website are my own and are not in any way meant to represent the policy or positions of my employer.


My school is two months away from full implementation of Portfolio Based Language Assessment. We've been ramping up for a very long time, it seems. I attended my first PBLA workshop in Toronto at least three years ago and have attended many more sessions both in person and online since. I began using the Language Companions with my students back in spring of 2016. It is also worth mentioning that I have been conducting needs assessments to guide my teaching from day one of my TESL career.

Early Rumblings

Although I heard rumours of instructors quitting or retiring early due to their misgivings and anxiety around the thought of implementing PBLA, I was pretty open-minded about it from the start. I assumed those teachers leaving the field in the face of change were just old fuddy-duddies and teachers who were close to burn-out anyway. You know what? I want to apologize right now for thinking that, and I'll say more about that later in this article.

Best Possible Leadership

My own site supervisor has been a pioneer and keenest of the keen among leaders and pilot teachers. She is one of the most organized educators I've ever met and has a strong academic background in both the English language and second-language acquisition. She came to me for sample rubrics as she was working her way through her PBLA courses. The amount of theoretical reading and assignments she was tackling struck me as almost befitting a graduate level degree. I was aghast, but she tackled it all with enthusiasm and got high praise from her profs for our rubrics and other templates, and her early reports from the pilot classroom put many of my worries to rest, although she warned, "You will have less time to cover content."

Not All Roses

Fast forward a few months and what do we have?  I still see the value in PBLA in terms of teacher and learner accountability. There is much more transparency for the students, and that can only be a good thing. I like giving students the reins, allowing them to take ownership of their own progress. I see that PBLA intends to make our programs as student-centred as they were always supposed to be.  (I say intends to because I also see the potential for poorly supported teachers to end up with less client-centred classrooms.) There's a lot I like and appreciate about PBLA, and I'm sure I will discover more that I value about it as I move into full implementation in the new year.

That being said, there is no denying that not everything PBLA is coming up roses.  Some of the teachers around me and some in other cities and provinces with whom I'm in contact are reporting being overwhelmed, stressed out, sleep deprived, and irritable with everyone around them. We've caught ourselves snapping at one another at the copy machine. Families are feeling the stress as children and spouses rightfully assert that the teachers in their lives are no longer practicing good work-life balance.

My Critiques

Of course any program redesign is going to cause extra work during the training and learning phase. I expect that bump in extra workload and time to level out as we get a handle on what we're doing. I am not as convinced, however, that there is enough time in the day nor enough trees on the planet to properly implement PBLA in a way that does not unfairly take something away from both learner and instructor. I'm hoping to be proven wrong about this in time, but for now, here are the problems I'm seeing:

1) Continuous enrolment and PBLA do not strike me as terribly compatible. At our centre we have a T.A., thank goodness, but all her time is now being gobbled up giving new students their Language Companion orientation, guiding them through "My Story," putting the dividers in place, putting their inventory sheets in place, etc. This is so time consuming that we have basically lost our reading tutor, which is no small thing to those students for whom one-on-one tutoring made all the difference between success and falling through the cracks. I can't imagine how schools without a Teaching Assistant are coping!

2) Remember at the top of this article when I said I thought it was the crusty old inflexible teachers jumping ship as PBLA came down the pike? What I'm seeing now is that it's actually the passionate teachers accustomed to going above and beyond the call of duty who are suffering the most. Already giving of their own free time and often digging into their own pocketbooks to give our beloved students as enriched an experience as possible (think pumpkin pie, art supplies, after school clubs, field trips), the most devoted teachers have to cut something to find the extra time needed for module plans, reporting, reflection, rubric design and marking. Given a choice between taking that time away from our families or eliminating the enrichment activities, we sadly start to cut out the labours of love. (This blog is just one of mine.) As one teacher put it, "It's killing my joy."

3) PBLA is easier to implement with some demographics than with others. While a class comprised mainly of Eastern Europeans and Asians at a CLB 3 or higher might take to PBLA like little fish take to water, trying to fully institute all the components of PBLA with other groups can be daunting for the teacher as well as demoralizing and/or stressful for the learner. Some groups for whom I question the appropriateness of PBLA include seniors, those experiencing PTSD, and literacy learners, especially foundations and learners with interrupted formal education (LIFE).

4) PBLA kills a lot more trees, eats up a lot more toner, and requires teachers to spend a heck of a lot of time at the copy machine (rubrics, inventory sheets, reflection sheets, etc., etc.)

5) The Language Companion for literacy learners does not follow best practices for materials design for this group of clients. In my own practice as an ESL literacy teacher, I go to great lengths to ensure that I never set any piece of text in front of my learners that does not follow best practices, e.g., no font smaller than 18 pt, not more than one activity or item per page, text supported by images whenever possible. (I am gradually going back through all the literacy materials I've ever designed in order to insert supporting graphics.) So I say to the designers of this resource: first do no harm.

6) The Language Companion is too bulky for it to be conveniently used as intended. My seniors absolutely refuse to be burdened by such a heavy item in their backpacks. How I wish the contents had been divided into a slender reference text and a slender three-ring binder for their work! I would encourage the designers of the Language Companion to read the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath, especially the chapter on shaping the path.

7) We teachers were already creating or patching together all the content for our courses. It took a heck of a lot of our home time, but was more or less doable on most days because we had complete academic freedom. Now we are expected to CONTINUE doing that AS WELL AS inventing all the support materials needed to implement this new framework. What should have been provided to us before asking us to adopt PBLA has been offloaded onto us to create / write.

As one friend articulated it, many genuinely good ideas last only as long as a few hyper-motivated proponents keep them going, but have no independent staying power because they are simply too demanding for general application.

What Can Be Done?

While I am open to the idea of PBLA, I remain skeptical about the practicality of its implementation for all demographics. But what am I going to do about my skepticism? 

For one, I'm going to continue to comply with program mandates while hoping that our needs for better support are addressed over time. 

Secondly, I'm going to sign up for PBLA workshops and I'm going to raise my concerns wherever I go. I already have a plan to attend several workshops in Toronto later this month in order to learn, to compare notes with others in the field, and to give feedback to someone who is in a position to carry my frontline experience and concerns to the CCLB Board.

Thirdly, I am going to attempt to be a leader who finds a way for us all to survive and perhaps even thrive as we navigate this challenging change. Because I love my profession and care about my learners and the quality of program delivery they receive, I am going to push back as an advocate for them and for my colleagues across Canada whenever I perceive that a problem is going unaddressed or is being sugar-coated or swept under the rug.

Stay Tuned

I entitled this article "My PBLA Triumphs and Tribulations," yet I've filled the page with far more about my tribulations than my triumphs. That doesn't mean I haven't experienced successes with PBLA and don't have good things to share. I do have. What I plan is to share ideas, templates, rubrics, sample module plans, and much more with my readers in order to help you keep afloat while we manage up those mandating this new framework. I hope to begin this series of PBLA lifesavers with next week's blog post.

In the meantime, please use the comment box below to share your feelings, hopes, and frustrations around PBLA. It is possible to comment anonymously.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

A Spark among Sparks

I am honoured to be receiving one of this year's two TESL Ontario Sparks of Excellence Awards.  It is gratifying to have my dedication recognized. I would bust my butt to excel in my job with or without the kudos, but official recognition is very nice.

Receiving an award is also humbling. I look around and see so many other teachers giving as much or more than I do in ways that don't come easily to me.  Because I am just one among so many, I look forward to receiving the award for myself but also on behalf of all those other teachers out there who pour their hearts and souls into this amazing profession day in and day out. I regret that they cannot all share the stage with me on November 23rd in Toronto.

I also wish to acknowledge that I could never be an outstanding service provider to our newcomer clients were it not for my one-in-a-million team at the YMCA of Windsor-- a group of people who work seamlessly together to give our clients the best possible settlement and ESL experience. I'm talking about a director of newcomer services who is always fair, accountable, transparent, open-minded and solid as a rock. I'm talking about a supportive site supervisor who does not micromanage and an administrative assistant without whom the entire program would fall apart at the seams. Even the building maintenance crew members care deeply about our clients and show it through being good custodians of the facilities. I know that because of the YMCA's practice of vetting all new hires to discover whether they are a good fit for the charitable organization, I get to be part of a group of people who are all committed to philanthropy. Our core values of caring, honesty, respect and responsibility are reflected in the way we do our jobs and go above and beyond our job descriptions daily.

Finally, I want to thank those more experienced TESL educators who--with no obligation to do so whatsoever--have reached out to help us less experienced ESL instructors to become the best we can be. Thank you to the other bloggers, to the moderators of #LINCchat, to those who volunteer on their local boards. I've attended many excellent workshops and webinars courtesy of professionals who did not receive more than a nominal honorarium for the hours and hours they put into preparing the presentations. I've been mentored by ESL literacy teachers all across Canada via email and webinars. We have collaborated and shared ideas and resources with one another via the ESL Literacy Network. And I have been very fortunate to receive the tutelage of John Sivell, recently of Brock University, and his wife Chirawibha Sivell, LINC instructor retired from Welland Heritage Council. My students continue to benefit from their Back to the Well approach to language instruction.

Who is the SPARK in your professional world?

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Halloween Story and Activity Pack for ESL Literacy

Welcome, ESL teachers!

I have just uploaded a new story and activity pack to under LITERACY - Dates and Holidays. It is a very short little story about Sam and his Superman costume that can serve as the basis for a module this week as we get our newcomer clients ready for this Canadian cultural phenomenon that is Halloween and trick-or-treating.

I hope you like it!
page 1 of 2 of story

As always, please leave a comment if you use the story and if you have any suggestions for making the activity pack better, especially if you find an error or typo in it! Because it's in MS Word, you are also free to edit it yourself before you use it.

By the way, I do actually have another class that is not literacy; I will eventually once again share resources for CLBs three and four. However, it seems that ESL literacy teachers are the ones facing the direst need for appropriate materials with Canadian content.



Sunday, October 16, 2016

How I Use the Literacy Activity Packs

I apologize.

I was rushing on October 2nd and didn't do a good job. Let me try again to describe how I build a week-long module. This time I will get much more into specifics regarding how I use the activity packs that I have been uploading to the LITERACY area of the website.

Staying within a Theme
Though I don't always spend an entire month on the same theme, I do think it is beneficial to the literacy learner to stay within a theme for more than one week. Why? I say this because with literacy learners, it takes a lot longer to activate the schema and prime the brain for the topic(s). Once you've warmed them up for one set of linguistic terms and cultural concepts, why would you want to burden their cognitive load unnecessarily by jumping from topic to topic? Why not settle in a while and allow them to become really comfortable as they layer more and more skills and a richer vocabulary within the same theme week by week? The lower the stress, the more room there is for fun, and I would argue that retention of the new language increases.

Starting with a Needs Assessment
Since settlement English programs are student-centred, you will have consulted with the learners via a needs assessment to determine how to prioritize the topics. I have found over time that some topics cannot be optional. One example is learning about our PBLA binders; another is learning personal information and calling 9-1-1.  I also weave lessons on phonics, decoding skills, and printing into the thematic modules without asking the learners if they want that.

Mapping Out the Modules
When planning a series of four interrelated modules within a month-long theme, I start with a couple of modules that are heavy on skill building and end with a module or two that take advantage of the learners' new abilities. Just as a lesson starts off with more scaffolding and more controlled activities, gradually reducing the need for 'training wheels,' so can a module or series of modules be constructed so that students are using language more independently by the end. They can also be reading about the topic at a higher literacy level or with more fluency by the end of a module or series of modules when you stay within a theme.

An Example of Layering Modules
Let's say the theme is housing and the house. My series of modules might look like this:
Week 1 - learn the names of the rooms and a few key furniture pieces for each room
Week 2 - learn to read a house-related story in Talk of the Block short vowel series, HOME volume
Week 3 - learn to read Perminder's Cleaning Day
Week 4 - learn to ask the landlord to address problems in the apartment
Key Resources
The resources I would use to execute the modules listed above could include: a picture dictionary; student-made reference materials from flyers and catalogs; HandsOn!; Talk of the Block, ESL Literacy Network's Readers and Read Aloud versions of the same readers; ESL activity kits from Community Legal Education Ontario (CLEO); my own activity packs.

My Activity Packs
The resources I've listed above almost never come complete with sufficient activities to give the learners the number of linguistic affordances (opportunities to encounter the new language in a variety of contexts and ways) that I believe are necessary for long-term retention of the language. I have therefore developed the habit of creating my own set of activities that I use week after week. I simply change the vocabulary while keeping the activities pretty much the same. To see a sample, check out my activity pack for Deng Starts School.

One huge benefit to this habit of staying with a limited number of activities is that it vastly reduces cognitive load that otherwise would be devoted to instructions for the task. Students become so familiar with our routines that their entire cognitive load belongs to the linguistic and cultural content of the lesson. This level of confidence on the part of the learners means that when a new student joins the class, a peer will always jump in and show the new student the ropes.

An activity pack will typically start with easier controlled activities such as:
  • Match the word to the picture
  • Word Shapes worksheet
  • Listen and fill in the (first, middle, last) letter
  • How many times can you find the word?
It will include guided and more difficult but still relatively controlled activities, such as:
  • Unscramble the sentence
  • Gap fill with no word bank (answers are in the reader)
  • Crossword with no word bank (some schematic knowledge, some verbatim from reader)
I try always to include a peer survey. This can be used as a free activity, giving students an opportunity to use new questions and answers related to the real-world task or it can be used to help activate the schema and prior knowledge at the beginning of the unit.

Finally, I include two activities to be used at the end of the week to solidify rapid recognition of our new lexis:
  • Flyswatter game (I often don't include this as a document in the pack because teachers can simply print the words across the board)
  • BINGO grid with word bank
Incorporating the Activities into Lesson Plans
At the beginning of the week I remind students of our needs assessment so that they recognize the module as being an answer to their expressed need. This helps give them confidence to communicate to me any desire to slow down, repeat, add new material.

As I place activities into lesson plans, starting with a hook, I try to be mindful of how the student will be feeling after one activity. To keep a fast PERCEIVED pace, which has nothing to do with actual pace, I strive to give them a change in activity about every 20 minutes. I endeavour to go back and forth between work that focuses on meaning (e.g. T/F quiz) and work that focuses on form (e.g. printing). I also try to break up periods of sitting and concentrating with bursts of movement and interaction.
Of course all the while we are building toward one or more real world tasks such as asking, "Excuse me, where's the sugar," understanding, "On aisle six, with baking," and responding, "Thank you."

A Snapshot
So a typical day might unfold like this:
12:30 - announcements
12:35 - review the alphabet and sounds
12:40 - review the prior day's learning (if it's Monday, ask each other about our weekends)
12:45 - hook - activate the schema, brainstorm, elicit prior knowledge
12:55 - introduce the new lexis, reader, etc.; students predict from pictures, pass around picture flashcards, etc.
1:05 - matching words to picture (project onto board)
1:15 - take up the worksheet by projecting it on the board, students come up and draw the lines
1:25 - work with word flashcards - one set per partnership; teacher says, "Show me X, show me Y..."
1:35 - categorizing activity - students group the picture or word flashcards in some way, such as by part of speech, by type of object, by sound, etc.
2:00 - Introduce a short dialogue, such as "Do you like _____?" "Yes, I do / No, I don't." Give students a chance to practice it verbally many, many times in various ways. These exact phrases will appear on the upcoming peer survey.
  • Repeat after T
  • Teacher plays role of A, students take turns taking role of B
  • Chain drill around the room
  • Write the dialogue on the board. Read and speak.
2:20 - Project the peer survey form on the board, demonstrate. Make sure students remember how to say "How do you spell your name," and can spell their names. New students are allowed to cut corners (copy instead of speaking). Veteran students are strongly encouraged not to 'cheat.' Hand out the peer survey. Teacher always participates.
2:40 - Do a plenary activity with the results of the peer survey, such as forming 3rd person singular statements about others. Ali likes tomatoes. Jenna doesn't like tomatoes. (Note that you have now covered all forms of this grammar point: question, positive and negative answer, positive and negative statement in first and third person.)
2:50 - Written sentences summarizing our peer survey findings or start a puzzle. (Teacher is now free to start cleaning up the classroom.)

Extending with Online Games
There are times when I need a little ten-minute filler activity and the students need a change of pace. In that moment, I'll be so glad I loaded the week's words and sentences from their text into Spelling City. Our school pays about $74 CAD per year for up to 25 students at any given time to use the premium activities. If you only want spelling test and a few games, you can get a free account. Since I believe the Sentence Unscramble game has enormous value to the learners, I have the premium account.  In a given week, I might use Hang Mouse once, Sentence Unscramble once, and then link to the word list on the classroom blog so that the learners themselves can opt to practice our week's lexis using these same games and quizzes. 

The Week
I tend to stick to a rather predictable pattern through the week:
Monday - presentation, controlled activities, take pictures for LEA books
Tuesday - skill building, practice reading, paragraph unscramble in pairs, phonics
Wednesday - iPads, reading circles, gap fill, posters, practice reading
Thursday - comprehension quiz, peer survey, flyswatter game, role plays, assessments
Friday - learning logs, BINGO, computer lab

So those are some routines I follow in order to reduce the cognitive load on me and on the learners! When the students are highly familiar with an activity, they do not rely on me to spend my time and energy explaining and re-explaining, wrangling and redirecting them. This frees me up to help struggling students, tick boxes on rubrics, or prepare for the next activity.

What do you think?

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Fleshing Out a Module

Last week I told you I would upload the materials I developed for one of the weekly modules. Well, I've spent the afternoon over at the website uploading all the materials AND rubrics I used in the first week of our October FOOD theme.

The literacy learners did cook a squash (we borrowed a microwave from another department). We created a Language Experience Approach book and had a lot of fun all week. You can download the book, the activity pack in MS Word, and a puzzle by going to LITERACY - FOOD on my website. You are free to modify this to suit your needs. You can use some or all of it. As always, you will need KG Primary Penmanship Lined font installed on all machines on which you plan to open my literacy activity packs. It's free from Kimberly Geswein, though I'm sure she'd appreciate a donation.

Because many teachers are finding PBLA implementation to be a bit stressful and overwhelming, I have begun including in my free resources area any rubrics that I develop to go along with the activities. The images on them are in the public domain and I have licensed them under a Creative Commons attribution non-commercial share-alike international license. That means please attribute the work to me, please also share it with others, and do not make money from it.

For teachers of higher levels, I have also uploaded a level 4 or 5+ reading assessment for TD Canada Trust savings and chequing account schedules and the accompanying rubric. Look under FREE - Settlement Themes - Banking.

If you appreciate what I do, please leave me a comment. It's my only payment.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

How Do You Build Modules?

students carve pumpkins
Since this weekend marks the end of one month and the beginning of another, I have spent much of my day completing my September reports and designing the modules for October. I thought you might like a peek in side my brain too see how I go about the planning. In a future post, I can share all the materials I created to make one of these modules come together in the classroom.

I begin by looking at our needs assessment, which looks something like this. This time around students want to learn about food first. Thanksgiving and Halloween fall in October, so this aligns nicely with food as a month-long theme.

My rough plan looks like this:

October 3-7: Share a simple recipe for acorn squash with tie-in to Canadian Thanksgiving; make a Language Experience Approach book when we cook and eat the squash.
October 11-15: Skill building, vocabulary building around food staples and making a shopping list
October 17-21: Our recipes (help students choose a recipe to present to the class using colour pictures and large poster paper, markers). Make a Language Experience Approach book about our recipes.
October 24-29: Food safety and Halloween. Make masks from paper plates and go to Maria's room to "trick or treat." Her students will come to us, as well.

For each week-long module, I will plan the lessons by working backward from the end objectives. I will mentally tease them apart, asking myself what skills we need to build before attempting the task. I also layer modules this way, so that the skills acquired one week help learners with the following week's objectives. For example, a module with the objective of making a doctor's appointment could be preceded by a module on calendar and clock skills, one on the body and one on symptoms. Each module has its own objectives, but they also build toward being able to perform a final real-world task.

Each week I will introduce no more than twelve new words and twelve terms recycled from a previous module. We will spend the entire week working with this language, creating as many linguistic affordances as possible for the learners. I will try, though it is not my strong area, to give each lesson and each module a kinaesthetic component. For example, we will really prep and cook a squash using the microwave off room 105. During week two, the classroom will look like a grocery store, with food packages all over the place! During week three we will use glue, pictures, and markers to make our posters. During week four we will check actual bags of candy for allergies, ingredients that are not Halal, and will throw out suspect items with broken packaging.

Of course the LEA books will make the language so much more meaningful. Students love to see themselves portrayed in the books. "We wash our hands (picture). Hanaa cuts the squash (picture). Mukai mixes the spices (picture). AnLe puts in the butter (picture).  And so on. This becomes our little reader for the week. With lots and lots of daily practice reading it in 20-minute sessions--chorally, individually and in pairs, most learners can read it with fluency by Friday.

When I sit down to fill out my module planning form for my supervisor and our funder, IRCC, it helps me find the gaps in my plan and flesh out a more detailed syllabus for the month that includes activities designed to give learners opportunities to gain specific competencies. This is also when I will think about when assessments will take place and how.

How about you? How do you plan lessons and modules?