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.