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.
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."
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.
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.
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.