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?