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.


  1. I know what you mean about being a lightning rod. The thing is, Kelly, is that *I* have heard the whole "it's going to take three years" and "don't beat yourself up" platitudes. And that's the best way to describe them: platitudes. Because then "they" strongly recommend the 8-10 artefacts be the minimum requirement for progression decisions. As has been posted recently in social media, that turns into 2-3 artefacts per week (for a 300 hour course. 20 hours per week). I've also heard the math work out to be for every eight hours of instruction, an artefact needs to be produced.

    For every 8 hours, per skill, you need to develop the real world task by isolating the competencies, finding relevant CLB-aligned material, creating relevant practice material in order to five formative feedback, and then creating the real world assessment task (with a rubric/checklist). In the meantime, we are still trying to do everything else that RESPONSIBLE and committed classroom instructors ought to be doing with our learners: providing them with a safe environment to explore/discover what it means to be a member of a diverse Canadian community. For some of our learners, school is their main point of contact with people outside of their immediate family or language group because they are still trying to figure out how to navigate the maze of our society.

    That means you may have negotiated a unit on "health" with the group a few weeks before, and are in the middle of the module, but something currently relevant and pressing happens (parent-teacher meetings, a local apartment fire, etc) and the class NEEDS to be able to discuss it. Not because we are trying to teach modals of necessity or the imperative form, but because it is what needs to happen.

    But don't sweat it. If you can't get the 8-10, your learners are not allowed to progress. Or maybe they are, depending on where you work and how prescriptive your PBLA wardens are.

    I am frustrated by the inconsistent messages and the unrealistic expectations. I *could* hammer out an artefact every 8 hours, but then I'd have to be okay with shortchanging my learners. And that's the thing: I'm not okay with that.

    1. Jen,
      Thank you very much for joining in the conversation here on this blog and not leaving me dangling out there in the wind. I appreciate the solidarity. Although you articulate it better than I know how, I have that same underlying feeling: the students are going to be shortchanged. I say "going to" because I'm not at full implementation yet.
      Thank you again for speaking up. I feel less alone.

  2. I will chime in as someone who was trained in the first cohort and who is now working in a different context with lovely folk trained in a different cohort. This is a second career for me and I left my last one partially because I could not do the creative and helpful work I wanted to do in the hours allowed and still have a life. This is a priority for me as an ESL Instructor. There are days when I feel that PBLA can help with this and days when I do not feel that way. Your blog has been immensely helpful, though, and along with trying to "Do more with less" your focus on "Back to the Well" has definitely informed my practice. I also agree that there are many factors that can allow one teacher to feel that PBLA is no big deal and another to feel that it's a real burden. My husband is a teacher. He often sees the (pared down "Do more with less") work I'm doing and shakes his head. So, yeah, something has still got to give. But ... what?

    1. Elizabeth,
      Thank you SO MUCH for commenting. Yes, being able to do the creative and helpful work (and still have a life) is one reason I got into this field. Since you have days when PBLA helps you to do this, I would do just about anything for you if you would be so kind as to explain how. What does one of those days or weeks look like? Or could you share a tip or two that you consider to be the most powerful in terms of bang for your buck? And just how "pared down" are we talking? Glad to hear BTTW is helpful. John and Chirawibha will be pleased to know. --K

  3. On the other side of progress reports and interviews, and on a good day, I think that PBLA gives me some structure and keeps my creativity / perfectionistic tendencies in check. I could spend hours and hours crafting a lesson, but PBLA reminds me to keep my focus on the students' goals. I like to think I always do this but it is easy to get derailed. I also like that, if laid out for students, PBLA does encourage students to take ownership of their learning. I know that this more democratic approach is off-putting for some students. Thinking about our goals and laying out steps required to achieve those goals is incredibly important, though, and I do think PBLA can help us have those conversations with students and foster some reflective practices. Tips? In my last career I was very much into creating a paperless work-space. Spending less and less time on the computer and then at the copier and reusing manipulatives is saving me time and reducing stress. Doing more with less and going slow to go fast are my mantras. I teach a 1-2 class that was reorganized mid-term and I got around to some things (inventory sheets!) more slowly than I had hoped. If I have to make a choice about time-management and realistic outcomes for a particular class, I ask myself what will maximize learning, go with that, and try to not stress too much. I do have supervisors who encourage teachers to take the long view of the PBLA roll-out and this helps, too.

    1. Elizabeth,
      Thank you VERY MUCH for taking the time to return here to answer my questions. I appreciate that PBLA helps you to keep your perfectionist tendencies in check. I'm looking forward to implementing PBLA in the new year in a way that does that for me, too.

      I agree with you that our learners need to be shown how to take more ownership of their own learning. That is one aspect of PBLA I value a lot! I also am coming to see the value of formal reflection. For example, on a recent task, I had the seniors reflect at the bottom of the checklist whether they had found the task to be easy, so-so, or difficult. I was absolutely astounded at how many of them had found it to be somewhat difficult to difficult considering that it was a CLB 2 task and they have almost all been assessed much higher (by another agency) in their listening skills. So this simple little reflection exercise ended up being a better formative assessment tool for me than the rubric itself, wherein they all "passed" and were able to tick off the correct information.

      I am going to blog about my planned approach to my 2017 classroom practice, and I want to get back to doing more with less. I like a materials light approach anyway. I love dogme and hope to be able to weave a bit of dogme into what we do in class. And, as you know, I like Back to the Well. It is, though, too easy to drift away from it. So from time to time I have to re-anchor.
      Regarding the inventory sheets, I made my own simplified version for literacy and can share that on my website if anyone wants it. I also have made my own version of "My Story" with bigger font, more pictures, etc. I can post that, as well.
      Would you ever consider giving a webinar? If you did give a workshop for any affiliate within 2-3 hours driving time of me, I would attend!
      Thank you for being a part of this conversation. <3 K

  4. Phew! Coming up for breath in the middle of doing a full-time LTO along with my little night class :-). I have to limit what I take on these days (a promise I made myself with this recent career change) and have much to learn. I benefit from the wisdom of several teachers in the area and continue to recommend your blog to those struggling to implement PBLA and maintain some kind of balance.


Thank you for participating in this forum. Anonymous commenting is available, but is not intended to shield those taking pot shots at those of us challenging PBLA. If you are here to do that, please use your name.