Sunday, February 26, 2017

My Week (and Free Stuff for You)

Let's get to the good stuff first. I have added a new sub-section to the FREE - BLANK TEMPLATES page of my website for any PBLA templates I create for myself. You are free to download them, modify them (they are in MS Word), use them if they help you. Scroll down. They are at the bottom of that page. Feedback would be lovely. Is there a template out there you wish were tweaked in a certain way but you don't have the skills or time to do it yourself? Let me know!

Because I often find myself having forgotten in the heat of the moment to update my master inventory list as the students are recording assessments on theirs, I have moved mine to the inside cover of the folders I carry home for marking.
I hope my new system helps me stay on top of this chore.

The stress I feel, when I feel it, in beginning to fully implement PBLA with literacy and seniors, usually can be traced back to two causes:

  1. I'm often overwhelmed by the number of books, documents, training manuals, workshop handouts, etc., I have to keep up with. I would give a limb for a master index.
  2. In certain situations, I feel as if meeting contractual obligations and putting my students' best interest first are mutually exclusive. That's a crappy feeling.
In the first instance, it helps to have a supervisor who reminds me that many of us are overwhelmed by the same thing. She tells me to forget about certain trackers. My colleague next door commiserates. She also tells me when she finds the exact thing we've both been searching for.

This week I have examples of the second scenario. In seniors class, we just finished up a rich series of modules (or one long one?) on the Erie Saint Clair Community Care Access Centre, a topic the students begged me to cover in spite of the fact that we would have to create all our own materials to turn their website and patient guide into ESL lessons. Everything went well. The students came away with a very comprehensive grasp of that community agency's mandate, services, how they can access those services, how likely it is they will be eligible for the services given a variety of health crises, and so forth. They now have the language to talk to a PSW, request services, or rent a walker.

When it came time to represent their learning in the form of artefacts for the binders, some of it felt contrived to me. Since students, divided into teams, had spent a week parsing 2 pages each of the patient guide and reporting on their part to the class, we considered digesting the guide as a real world reading task. Their presentations are proof they understood the content. So the presentations can be used as both reading and speaking artefacts, in my mind. No issue there. But then the speaker came to visit us. Feeling pressured to squeeze in another artefact, I tried to get each student to ask one question OR ask the speaker for clarification on something. Epic fail. What should have been an enjoyable Q & A session became Kelly the ringmaster trying to make students jump through hoops just to get one more gosh-darned artefact into those bloody portfolios. One student flat out refused to ask a question. When I reminded him it was for the binder, he shrugged. He's no dummy. He knows those artefacts accumulating in the binders are meaningless for the seniors class. It's the language and knowledge they want, not the pieces of paper with checkmarks.

Lesson learned? Assess when it feels natural to assess, don't become an artefact collecting machine. The same lesson presented itself to me this week in literacy class. Because my group has been whizzing through material very quickly, I told them it was time to raise the bar a bit. Having just finished a week of Mursal on the Bus (all skill-building, no RWT), I chose Farid Takes the Bus as a reader that would recycle all the language they had just mastered and add several new terms. I also thought we could try basic concepts related to Transit Windsor maps and schedules, which I have successfully used with a CLB 1L class before.

It was a four-day week due to Family Day. While the students did well with the longer reader and were keen to learn the four directions and words like "weekdays, holiday, schedule," and "map," they were not ready for assessments by Friday. Before PBLA, this would not have been a source of stress for me. I would either have abandoned the objectives as too high (my bad), or decided to spend another week building toward successful assessment. I still have those choices, but there is always the black cloud hovering over me, the little voice reminding me that I only have so many weeks in which to collect eight to ten artefacts for each of four skills. Tick, tick, tick, tick.

My decision is to do what is right for the students. They should not pay for my having misjudged their level. They also should not pay for the fact that the powers that be sending us our PBLA obligations are out of touch. PBLA should not be viewed as a one-size-fits-all framework, equally applicable to CLB 4 and to students still trying to figure out which way the paper goes. So I breathe and say: I'll get them when I get them. If I make the quota, I make the quota.

Again I have to remind myself that I only have max 15 a.m. and max 12 p.m. My troubles are minor compared to others'.

Speaking of PBLA, I got a wonderfully candid anonymous comment on this blogpost last week. Thank you, whoever you are, for being so forthright, and for others who continue to be supportive of the questioning contingent.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Having Fun with Graphic Tablet

The first time I tried illustrating my own ESL worksheet, I used the free software that came with my computer (Paint or something similar) and my finger on the trackpad. With these two tools, I was able to create rudimentary line drawings for my activity pack for Mo Stays Warm.

But as I bounced from application to application, joining user forums while going through tutorials multiple times, I continued to struggle with concepts like layers, smoothing, etc. My fantasy was that someone would just GIVE me Photoshop and send a digital native to my house for my personal tutoring sessions each evening.

Then by some serendipitous miracle, I learned of the existence of an affordable ($99 CAD) graphic tablet. I watched a few online demos of a lovely woman creating impressive oils, pastels and watercolours using nothing but her little stylus and some free (with the purchase of the tablet) software. After that, there was no hope for me. I had to have it.

I'm pleased to report that this little tool is my new best friend when it comes to creating my own settlement English materials. The software (ArtRage Lite) is super intuitive. Within hours I had succeeded in replicating the pastel in the tutorial.

I experimented with tracing a photo using the felt tips and some watercolour.

Some features stumped me at first, but I relied on user forums for help, though trial and error is more fun.
And now, several weeks later, I am using the Intuos Draw and ArtRage Lite whenever I need graphics for my classroom materials.

And that's my happy joy joy post for this week. How about you? What floats your boat as an English language teacher?

Sunday, February 12, 2017

"Unbelievable Waste"

I guess it's time for a little update on my implementation of PBLA in both my morning and afternoon classes. I also want to share a bit of what I'm hearing around me.

My morning class consists of 15 people over the age of 55. Most are immigrants, four are refugees. They do not change teachers. Their stated goals involve social integration and being able to live independently, navigating our healthcare system, the banking system, shopping, and other activities of everyday life without having to depend on their grown children or grandchildren for help. They want to be able to talk to and understand healthcare professionals. Because I am a champion of the client-centred model, they have sculpted and tweaked our class until it is exactly what they want and need. We do very little writing, focusing mostly on their weakest areas: speaking intelligibly and listening comprehension. Though there are exceptions, most have a long way to go when it comes to strategic competence. So that's something we focus on, as well.

I'm not quite sure how to handle my PBLA mandate when it comes to this group. They do not care about their benchmarks. They never progress to a "next level." So for now I am in a sort of "cover my ass" mode, entreating them to humour me as I administer assessments of their skills. I resent having to lead them through a process that brings into the light the fact that their skills have plateaued. I do not want to demoralize them. I look for ways to emphasize what they CAN do, not what they still cannot do. Therefore I have moved to checklists instead of rubrics, have designed the assessment tools in such a way as to highlight what they have learned to do and not the fact that the benchmarks seldom change.

But I do attempt to stay abreast of what my peers are learning. I am trying out the Conestoga College rubrics; I recently volunteered to field test a multi-level module plan with assessment tools. In a bid for the students' buy-in, I told them that all my colleagues across Canada were learning how to use rubrics (some multi-level) and other assessment tools for the purpose of PBLA. I told them it wouldn't be good for me to fall behind and not gain these skills. What if I one day had to teach a mainstream class again with focus on the benchmarks? I wouldn't want to be lacking in this area of my professional development. So would they be so kind as to serve as my guinea pigs? Would they play along with all these assessments that have little value to them? Yes, they said.

What wouldn't they do for me if I asked? But boy, do I ever feel like a schmuck for taking advantage of that.

The literacy students seem to like being assessed, like putting artefacts in their big white binders that we keep in the cabinet. No, they don't go home. And that brings me to what others around me are saying. One thing I hear over and over is: what an unbelievable waste!

The Language Companion for the literacy level seems to be geared for a CLB 2 or 3L. Maybe not even L. The level two teacher covets it. Goodness knows the LC 1-4 is way too high for her students. I've heard of some schools that have removed the LC part of the binders, locking all that paper up in a storage closet somewhere. It's useless to the lower level learners. I am feeling envious of the teachers at the schools where permission has been granted to gut the damned things and make them light enough to lug home and back.

Another teacher cries to me about the wasted money. Imagine, he says, all that printing, all that ink, all that paper multiplied by all the schools across the nation. That's a lot of money that we could have used on something we really need.

Yet another instructor comes to my class just to show me what she just finished printing: inventory sheets times four skills plus About Me for her two classes. "That's JUST the inventory sheets. That. That much paper!!!"
Inventory sheets
I know there is little to no chance any of this is going to change, but do you know what? It sure would help my morale and that of a lot of teachers I know if someone at the top would just acknowledge that not everything PBLA is coming up roses. Not all teachers are pleased with the wasteful aspect, just to name one problem. A simple acknowledgement of that would go a long way in my book.

Okay, rant finished. I'm not even going to ask for comments anymore. I've pretty much given up hope that teachers across Ontario or Canada are ever going to coalesce into a vibrant, mutually supportive online community.  And many struggling with or critical of any aspect of PBLA seem afraid to speak out. So I'll just keep on doing my thing over here.

P.S. This week I added a page to my website: Literacy - Health. There you will find a whole whack of free printable worksheets to accompany four different CLB 1L resources. If you use them, I hope you'll let me know.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

An ESL Literacy Teaching Habit

This past two weeks I have had no choice but to turn my classes over to supply teachers. The first day I was able to leave a detailed lesson plan for the literacy class, but then fevers swept over me, robbing me of my mental clarity. The best I could do, rushing to get my email typed before the next fever hit, was send a link to one of the Bow Valley College readers along with my corresponding activity pack. The supply teacher would have to write her own lesson plans, but at least she would have more worksheets than my students could possibly need in one week.

I inserted little 8-point font notes on some pages. "Teacher, Ss should be ready for this by Thursday," and so on. I mentioned that we usually practice a given story multiple times throughout the week, sometimes even reading it together in 15-minute increments two or three times on the same day.

A strange thing happened. One of the supply teachers reported to me that the students, on Thursday, were completely mystified by the Yes / No quiz. They were not able to do it. They didn't understand all the words in the questions.

Now it could just be that the material I had chosen was too high for the group. Three new students joined the class while I was away and one moved up. So it could have been that. In any case, it got me to thinking about how I teach ESL literacy. Is there anything that I do that comes so naturally to me that I might not even think to mention it to a newer teacher whom I'm mentoring? Since Beth Beardall has just posed a question on the TESL Ontario Blog about literacy teaching tips, I have decided to try to put into words a teaching habit that I think benefits my learners and helps them get to fluency and mastery of one story by week's end.

Before I get to the tip, let's get some basics out of the way.  When introducing a new story, I not only activate prior knowledge of the schema but pre-teach the terms that are new to the learners.  I use pictures, realia, and also try to personalize a new term on the spot. So if a new vocabulary item is the word son, we will go around the room asking one another, "Do you have a son?" We'll talk about how many sons and daughters we each have. If a new word is bill, we will talk about the various bills we pay. I don't start the story until most students are getting at least 65-75% accuracy when I ask, "What's a bill?" "What's a dentist?"

So now we're looking at a week that we will spend learning to read, for example, Mark Goes to the Dentist. We'll spend the week going back and forth between the whole and the parts. We'll do activities involving the meaning of the language, such as: dialogues and role plays, sentence unscramble, paragraph unscramble, peer surveys, T/F quiz, and my verbally quizzing them on meaning. We'll do other activities that focus on the parts of language, such as: spelling dictation, word shapes worksheet, categorizing by sound, hidden word, etc.  I will usually also find space in the week to assess a real-world task, such as filling out a form, role playing with the receptionist, and so forth.

Okay, so here's the tip.  Never waste an opportunity to reinforce either ability to read aloud (and pronounce), the ability to spell a new term, or the ability to show comprehension. Below are some examples of what I mean.
  • If a student comes up to the board to write the answer on a worksheet where meaning was the focus, never let her sit down until she has read the sentence aloud.
  • If you are the scribe calling on students for the answers as you write them in the spaces, don't settle just for the word. Have the student spell it to you as you write it in.
  • If you are taking up a worksheet where the focus is not on meaning, just on the spelling or shape of the word, before you erase the board, go back over all words--this time asking the class to say the word and give the meaning.
  • Never erase anything without having students read aloud/pronounce the words one last time. If they can say it, you erase it.
  • If you've been using sentence strips or flashcards with partners, don't let them just put the items back into the envelopes or paperclips. Make a new activity out of that: "Everybody show me 'The drink is cold.' Put 'The drink is cold' back in the envelope."
In this way, day by day, students build up their abilities to read all the words aloud, read the sentences aloud, spell all the words, define all the words. And don't think that I put students on the spot for these performances. Mine is a low risk, safe classroom. All are free to pass and know they will be encouraged when they are ready. However, I don't let strong students take easy questions! Those are reserved for the less confident students. With a quick glance in their direction, I give them the chance to signal me when they feel ready.

When we play Sentence Unscramble, I do not tell them if I think the sentence is right or not before I hit SUBMIT for them. I ask the class, "Everybody, is that right?" Through peer coaching, they eventually get the syntax right. I keep a poker face. Make the students do the work.

I fashion the end-of-week Yes/No quiz in such a way that most are easy and just one is tricky. One question requires the student to not only understand the new language, but also to be able to use it in a novel context.

Mark has a drink. 
The drink is hot. 
Mark has a toothache.
Mark gets a filling.
The bill is $1,999.
Kelly is a dentist.*

The same notion of cycling through ability to read aloud / ability to spell / ability to understand meaning can come into play in a simple game of BINGO. My students make me play it till I'm sick of it, so I jazz it up by switching from calling the words to calling out the spelling to making them guess the word. "This is what Mark gets. He can't pay it all today." They say, "BILL!" I say, "Yes, how do you spell bill?" Or, at other times, "What does B-I-L-L spell?" Also having a student play the teacher in this game allows peers to correct poor pronunciation. 

So to summarize my ESL literacy teaching tip: there should be no moment when the teacher is writing something and students are just sitting there staring. When the teacher is writing, the students have a job. When the teacher is erasing, the students have a job. When a student is at the board, the other students have a job. Chances to reinforce the language are EVERYWHERE. And keep your formative assessment feelers up at all times. 

How about you? Have you left a comment for Beth on her blog post?