Sunday, December 18, 2016

Remembering to Breathe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 11, 2016

PBLA and Back to the Well

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that brings us to...


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


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

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

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

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

What do you think?

Sunday, December 4, 2016

PBLA - More Thoughts

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

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

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


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

And yet...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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