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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.

Background

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.

25 comments:

  1. I loved reading this post as a person who just attended my first PBLA training on Friday. I can see the benefits for learners but my concern is for teacher well-being (as you alluded to - giving up personal time). What troubles me is that I started in a LINC program in 1995 and made $35 per hour. I haven't seen the rate of pay reflect the current times (and PBLA).

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    1. Patrice, It's not only about the time & money - we all gladly give hours and hours of time to projects we believe in and know will benefit our students. But this " new assessment methodology" is an experiment (unproven) and there are serious flaws in the premise, original research and development, design, delivery, and measurement of ROI that need to be addressed. I'm not of the school that says "full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes." I also believe that as educators we have a responsibility to critically assess and give feedback (hopefully respectfully) that will affect the adoption - or NOT - of this venture.

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    2. Patrice, I think this is a very valid concern. When I worked in the private sector, I received annual cost of living adjustments to my pay (1% to 2.5% depending on the year) as well as merit raises. My merit raises were usually around 4% because...um...I rock. ;) I've been astounded by the fact that on my team we have received two very small raises in pay in the six years I've been there. Sounds like we are the lucky ones to have received any increase at all. So this basically constitutes a lowering of pay if our salaries are not keeping up with inflation, etc. I read that the cost of food went up quite a bit in Canada in 2015.

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    3. Claudie,
      I absolutely agree that we have a duty to critically assess PBLA and give honest feedback. If we don't, if we bite our tongues and just grumble to ourselves about the gaps and hitches in this roll-out, morale is going to tank. In my personal and professional life, I do not believe in just whinging and grouching about something that I think is less than ideal. In my view, I can either learn to accept it (and possibly even love it), work to change it, or leave it. Right now I'm trying to exercise the first two options.

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  2. Hi Kelly,

    Thank-you for starting the conversation by sharing your triumphs and tribulations with PBLA! You articulated many of my experiences. Like you, my favourite part of PBLA is the transparency and learner ownership. The students and I have come very far in the process of understanding reflection and metacognition.

    Many of my students also seem to value the feedback, but the stress and disappointment they feel every time they do an assessment has been worrisome for me. When we give feedback for an assessment, is it really "formative" assessment when each assessment is high-stakes? Is this a problem with the frequency of required assessments?

    Like you, I'm also concerned with the amount of copying that is necessary for the assessment tools, the assessment itself, the self-assessment, the inventory etc. I wonder if those teachers who are doing digital portfolios find this more manageable.

    I also share your same view regarding the impact on teacher work-life balance. How fitting that this was the topic on #LINCchat this week.

    Perhaps the sentence that I found myself agreeing with the most is from your colleague who said it was killing the joy of teaching. I'm afraid that sometimes it takes away the joy of learning for the students. I'm still new at this, so I need to be able to find the spaces for the joy of learning that are not already filled with organizing Language Companions, filling in inventories and reading criteria.

    I don't want to take up too much space with my comment, but I found myself nodding enthusiastically about everything you wrote.

    More importantly, your post has given much to celebrate because there are passionate teachers like you who continually strive for excellence, share their resources and engage others in conversation in the face of change.

    With appreciation,
    Jen

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    1. Jen,
      Take as much space as you want! There's no limit. ;) I have managed to solve the problem of test anxiety with my two groups because they are special niches within the spectrum of our clientele. With my literacy class, I started out back in May in CMA mode. I didn't have time to explain to them what the heck was going on, I simply stapled rubrics to the top of their work and together we started filing these artefacts in their portfolios. They did not know these were assessments; they just mechanically did as they were told. Later on I had time to explain rubrics and engage the learners in participating in self-assessment and also occasionally in helping me come up with the criteria that we write on the rubrics themselves. So these learners are desensitized to assessments. They don't freak out at all because they see them as "no big deal." Mind you, we have not yet had student-teacher conferences or report cards, so this could all become undone.

      With my seniors, who were losing sleep the night before an assessment, I just gave them a talking to. I said, "Hey, what's the worst that can happen if you don't do well tomorrow on the assessment?" Since mine is a multi-level class from which they never graduate, it dawned on them that nothing happens. The feedback is for them, and I'm not even sure they read it. I'm living in a completely different universe from my colleagues who teach levels three and four.
      Thank you for your appreciation! I'm looking forward to providing some ideas and resources to help us all get through this.

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  3. Kelly, thank-you for your post and for starting this important conversation.
    Jen, you make an excellent point that students see every assessment as a high-stakes assessment as they don't distinguish between formative and summative assessments. For sure, every assessment in PBLA is a formal assessment, with a task and a feedback form, both of which need to be recorded and filed by the learner.
    I agree that the transparency and student ownership of their learning are positives for PBLA but these must be balanced against instructor workload. The workload could have been lessened had more PBLA materials been developed before widespread adoption.
    I'm using digital portfolios with my CLB 6 class and it's more work for me as I am scanning all the paper-based tasks for upload to the students' eportfolios. Digital is the way to go and I'm surprised that eportfolios weren't introduced as an option to the cumbersome and heavy binders, which students don't like having to carry back and forth to class.

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    1. There are ways to do digital portfolios more efficiently; higher-level students can do their goal-setting and learning reflections directly in their portfolio. Listening, reading, and speaking tasks can be completed online using tech tools; however, transferring tasks to an online format also takes precious time. In my experience, writing tasks need to be completed by longhand because students have such disparate digital skills: some can only type 10 wpm in English, while others can type almost as fast as I can and know how to use the grammar and spell checker to boot. We need to do our best to ensure accessibility and equality of opportunity. For now, scanning seems to be the best choice for transferring paper-based tasks to an electronic format. By the end of term, most students can upload their own tasks and update their inventories for each skill. This can itself become a PBLA task for following directions.

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    2. Bonnie, what level are we talking about?

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    3. I've used digital portfolios with CLB 6 and CLB 7-8 students. Many of them have significant gaps in their digital citizenship skills (like typing and other digital literacy skills).

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    4. Bonnie,
      Yes, good point! Students see every assessment as high stakes. With literacy, I try to make it "no big deal." My colleague Maria is doing a pretty good job of conveying to her Literacy Foundations learners that a formative assessment is a test of HER TEACHING and not of their learning. Well, she's trying, anyway.
      I would love to explore digital portfolios! But I can't imagine scanning, naming and saving each document times X number of students without being at work till suppertime. Is there a way to do this efficiently? You say you're spending more time but digital is the way to go. I'm confused. I wonder if there is a way to follow Martine's rule #1: whenever possible, have the students do the work

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  4. Alright - just hit preview and lost my well-thought out and articulated comment. I was writing to say that you've hit a homerun on this blog; your experience is not unique. I know that we've hit a critical point and that the stress created by the expectations of PBLA implementation is not something to sweep under the rug. My experience is that the stress is not being acknowledged, and that many teachers are suffering in silence, questioning their ability as a competent language teacher, and thinking that they're sub-standard, regardless of how their students feel about them. Those that are on the precipice of retirement have outright expressed that PBLA tipped the scale in favour of "get out now".

    Also - Bonnie - ironically my e-portfolio experiment produces MORE paperwork, because progression decisions at my school board are made by a PBLA lead, and they need to have all of the paper copies of the assessments, rubrics, peer/self assessments, needs, etc. And while they *could* access the e-portfolio links, they don't. I wish they would.

    The question is, are the benefits of PBLA worth the upheaval and stress that it is currently causing for rank and file instructors? Admin would likely say yes. But then again, they're not in the classroom.

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    1. Jen,
      Wow, you really nailed it with "suffering in silence" and "questioning their competence...." Yes, that is something I am seeing from instructors I KNOW are some of the best in the field. I know others are suffering far more than I am because my two classes have enrolment limits much lower than the mainstream classes. My seniors class never has more than 15, literacy never more than 12. My colleagues teach around 22 students per class. Secondly, I'm fortunate because I don't have to get any children up and off to school every morning, pick them up after, cook them dinner nightly, bathe and get them in bed. No wonder these colleagues with children and spouses are about to snap. As for me, I miss birding, reading for pleasure and other hobbies. Every spare minute these days goes into my job, and that's just not right.

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  5. "Every spare minute these days goes into my job, and that's just not right." I agree.

    Yet, the bigger issue is the unnecessary workload. If PBLA was deemed necessary, actually necessary, and not the just the result of the "oh, we have some money, let's do something" that is so common in education, then wouldn't it have been better to create materials to use in the classrooms before implementation. And who is charged with this responsibility now? Thousands of Instructors across the country with differing views and opinions creating material that is neither consistent or effective in another province.

    I say, someone needs to throttle back and reassess the situation. And a little bit of reality needs to enter the mix.

    I miss having a life outside of work.

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    1. Toni Lynn,
      Thank you so much for taking the time to comment. Yes! I would LOVE to have a new and more comprehensive version of the LINC Classroom Activities. I used the heck out of those and students liked them. If each CLB level had a text book complete with student workbook (just as I had when I was in settlement Japanese class in Sapporo in the 80s) with a chapter covering each settlement topic and ready-made rubrics, I could implement PLBA and get a healthy 7 hours of sleep, see a movie with my partner, maybe even take a walk in the woods the way I used to.

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  6. Hello Jen,

    Thank you for starting this conversation!

    I am an LT with a continuous intake agency in Manitoba. So much of what you are saying is hitting home. I've found PBLA has many positive points, but there are some huge hurdles. It definitely takes more time, paper, management, etc. We have been asked to devise/create our own tools along the way. The LCs are very cumbersome and heavy for students with children and strollers in tow on a bus or for seniors to manage. We do not have a TA, so gathering initial samples in each skill is impossible.

    I think each agency needs to work with PBLA for awhile and then decide for themselves how to adapt it to their students' needs and their own situations.

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    1. Anonymous,
      I seriously hope that after full implementation we will eventually be trusted to determine whether continuing with all the components is appropriate for each demographic and if not, what an adaptation might look like. For example, could seniors be allowed to "cherry pick?" Could they be excused from 32 artefacts per term and instead perhaps collect 16 per term? And could those be functional rather than measuring their benchmark since that group does not progress through level classes nor care about their benchmarks? I have so many more questions about this one-size-fits-all dilemma.

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  7. Such a great blog, Kelly! There is no question that there are some positives to PLBA: Students become partners in the education process, more aware of and accountable for their learning, rather than mere recipients of teacher determined content. The concerns voiced over and over, however, deserve serious consideration. Teacher burnout, reduced time for teaching content (and for having fun !), incompatibility of PBLA with continuous intake, and the impracticality of the binders for many students are not just growing pains related to implementation of any new system. --Nancy Callan (ESL Jigsaws)

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    1. Nancy,
      Thank you SO much for taking the time to comment! I love your jigsaws. It feels very validating to have educators like you echoing some of my concerns. KM

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    2. I'm very impressed with your blog and your courage for opening up the conversation. One thing you mentioned that I don't recall anyone else discussing is "PBLA kills a lot more trees, eats up a lot more toner." That is a serious concern.

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  8. Yes, I'm thinking of going to quarter-sheet sized rubrics and using a marking system that utilizes the existing worksheet instead of adding another on top. My supervisor actually staples the self-assessment AND teacher's assessment to the same worksheet.

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  9. PBLA is nothing less than the triumph of theory over practice. It is primarily about government bureaucracy's insatiable need for data, which is conflated with control. The government does not operate in a free market, so to speak, so it feels it must find ways to measure outcomes for the sake of efficiency, other than those at work in the market. Their answer is to turn teachers into arms of the bureaucracy. The entire edifice is based on an entirely spurious distinction between tests and assessments. I challenge anyone to tell me the distinction. PBLA's mantra is test, test, test and test some more. Test all 4 language skill, test all four competencies, test 40 times a year, times 16 students, that's 500 times. and then try to find indication of improvement. How are we to determine the impact of the lessons, when the students are immersed in English, I ask. PBLA is taking the joy out of teaching. Its not the hours, its the minute control it exercises. Above all else, what I truly hate about this system is that it is imposed from above by the money controllers, it has no relation to reality, and yet it is enthusiastically promoted by those whose jobs depend upon it. There needs to be an honest discussion about this, and I thank you for getting it started

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    1. Donald,
      Your comment comes as a balm to my soul. Bless you for taking the time. Some may accuse me (us) of being negative, but I have faith that at some point down the road we will all look back and understand how damaging and unhealthy it is to try to silence one side of this conversation. K

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  10. "government bureaucracy's insatiable need for data, which is conflated with control." Ding, ding, ding, ding! And Donald hits the nail on the proverbial head!

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