Sunday, April 23, 2017

Teaching Each Other

The seniors spring to life when asked to share their knowledge and expertise. It's sad that in this society we do not more often tap into this amazing resource that is our senior population. They know how to knit, crochet, mend and alter clothing as well as sew their own. They can teach you how to prune the suckers off a tomato plant and how to cast your bait into the school of White Bass when it runs through the Detroit River in springtime. They can teach you to hold a ping-pong paddle and how to tilt your pelvis upward for the first stance of 24-step Tai Chi.

This past two weeks we have been sharing our hobbies with each other. The first week was spent on vocabulary building, skill building, exploring ideas, making posters, and planning the presentations. The second week we had the presentations.

The class broke into three groups and chose to teach: 1) three basic knit stitches 2) the basics of fishing, and 3) how to play ping-pong. Each group created a poster; some made videos; others brought in photos. Their presentations were the best I've seen in three years. Nobody stared down at a script or mumbled unintelligibly. Everyone made eye contact with the audience, spoke slowly and clearly. It was evident that this time they had practiced several times beforehand.

I have to remember to do this more often. It seems that they enjoyed themselves, made progress in the area of fair distribution of work, and actually succeeded in interesting classmates in a new hobby.

The success of these past two weeks leaves me wondering how far we could take this idea. Could we write our memoirs and get them published at the library? Should we learn to create e-books? What about doing something in collaboration with the on-site childminding department? I'm sure the children would be thrilled to get a hand-made toy or book from the seniors.

Do you have ideas for our class? I would love it if you would leave those for me in the comments section below.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Those Blasted Gadgets!

"How do you get them to put down the dictionaries?"

It was at a recent city-wide professional development day for IRCC-funded frontline workers. A colleague who teaches at another centre the same niche demographic that I teach (seniors) approached me with some questions about how my class is going. This was the question foremost in her mind.

Any ESL teacher can tell you that for some of our students, the attachment to their little devices is like an addiction. We are baffled by our inability to convince students to put them away even for a few minutes, especially considering that these same students BEG us for help improving their speaking and listening skills.

So what have I tried that hasn't worked, or hasn't completely solved the problem? Hmmm, let me think back.

We spent several weeks on a 'listening boot camp' in which we learned to:

  • guess words from context
  • focus on content words; not stressing over all the reduced and thus hard to catch function words
  • practice prosody in order to train our brains to tune into it while listening
  • practice linking in order to train our brains to recognized linked words

I gave them the passage called "The Shillibog," full of non-words intended to: a) thwart their hunt for them in the dictionaries and b) teach them, in a real way, what is meant by guessing from context.

I have spoken to them ad nauseum about the need for a balance between the grammar-translation method they grew up with and more communicative ways of getting their brains to acquire new lexis in the second language. We talk a lot about strategic competence and include it as a criterion on speaking and listening assessments.

"Can you always pull out your dictionary on the streets of Windsor when using English with strangers?" They laugh sheepishly. They know I am trying to help them develop some new muscles and that--just like a new workout at the gym--it's not going to be comfortable at first.

"Do the uncomfortable until it becomes comfortable!" I say to cheer them on.

The list of things we have tried could fill a few blog posts. I'll stop here and just tell you the ending of the story. None of it has worked. They are still just as addicted to their gadgets as on day one, still resist setting them aside even for one minute.

One day I realized that I had to take a new approach. I finally admitted to myself that I'm not going to break this addiction of theirs anymore than I'm going to shame a student into stopping smoking. Instead, I started to work with the fact that when they don't have those gadgets at the ready, when they are not permitted to look at them and scribble translations onto their papers, their level of anxiety starts to mount. The longer they are without them, the more anxious they feel.

Having surrendered to that reality, here is what HAS worked in my multilevel classroom.

  1. As often as I can do so, I offer them the written text that we'll next be dealing with at the end of the previous class period. This allows them to use the dictionary at home overnight and come back to school with all the translations scribbled in the margins and between the lines.
  2. Announce ahead of time when a 'no dictionaries' activity is coming and ask them how much dictionary time they would like beforehand. Often they ask for more time than I'm willing to give, and so we do our best to reach a reasonable compromise. Example: I hand out a sheet on which there are five discussion questions (or I write the questions on the board). In order to get compliance on the 'no pencils, no dictionaries' rule during convo time, I allow ten minutes of quiet dictionary time before students are to get into discussion groups.
  3. I walk around during 'no dictionary' activities and remind those who have fallen off the wagon that they are wasting precious 'student talk time.'
That's about it. That's how I answered my colleague. My students and I laugh about their dependence on the technology. We joke. We bargain and barter. We compromise.

How about you? Do you try to limit students' use of the translators or not? Why or why not?

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Canada with CLB 1L

I don't usually teach "Canada and Citizenship" at the literacy level. However, this time around I, without giving it much thought, used an off-the-shelf pictorial needs assessment document instead of the usual one that I have customized for my learners. The one I got from a resource on includes Canada as an option; of course that was the students' top pick.

Somehow, as a result of a mix of desperation and serendipity, I found a way to make the lessons come to life.

For the first week's module, we made a little six-page reader with the basics. I projected the book with blank lines up on the board and elicited the language, helping with grammar. Then students copied our sentences under the pictures in their own booklets.

This was the last time this group used primary penmanship lines. Our next module we graduated to regular lined sheets without the middle dotted guideline. They were pleased.

For week two, we took a little break from the map of Canada in order to incorporate a real-world task, map skills. This was done for the sake of an artefact for their portfolios and turned out to be an engaging module heavy on kinaesthetic means of learning; we turned the classroom into the streets and avenues of downtown Windsor. Students became fluent in giving and receiving directions to a few key landmarks around the core.
Back to the bigger map of Canada, learners made posters to help them remember which industries and foods are produced in each region.
We also started practicing offering, accepting, and declining food--a useful language function as newcomers make their first friends in Canada.

After days and days of practice with the rather large set of new terms, we made a video of our "Touring Canada through Food" party. The final test was closer to CLB 2 than 1, and all the class veterans aced it! Thirteen questions with NO images to support. They rocked it.

To finish off the theme, we picked out tourist post cards for one another, wrote little messages on them, addressed them to one another (for real), and asked the kind teacher to mail them.

A typical message went something like this:
Dear Ali,
Today I visited Niagara Falls. It is beautiful.
Your friend, Marwan.
Perhaps not this weekend, but very soon I will try to get the materials and checklists/rubrics for PBLA assessment onto my website for you to download and use.

Meanwhile, I have just uploaded other free materials for teaching housing HERE. Scroll down to "A Crack in the Tub."

I hope you're enjoying your teaching week. I sure enjoyed mine!

Sunday, April 2, 2017

A Little Knowledge is...

If you read my last post, you know I was feeling good about filling some gaps in my knowledge around use of Conestoga College's new CLB-aligned rubric templates. Well, my optimistic feelings about this tool have now been dampened a bit as I sit here looking at a stack of finished marking and the results of a reading assessment I gave to my seniors' class this week. It's a multilevel class to whom I usually give CLB 3 material, not at all challenging to the higher level students. This week was one of those times when I cater to their needs and teach a bit higher.  The module went very well; the reading assessment did not. If anything, the level 2/3 students did as well or better than the 6/7s.

When students who I KNOW have CLB 5 or higher reading skills get 30% on my test, I know that the problem wasn't with them. The problem is that I have no business designing and scoring such tests when I have only had a few hours of instruction (workshops and TESL training combined) in this sub-specialty of ELT: test design.

I am not using materials / texts that have been graded. I'm using authentic texts such as the guide to eating safer fish from the Detroit River, which is immediately relevant to my learners' lives.  Once upon a time long, long ago I ran across a tool that allowed me to paste in text, click a button, and receive analysis of the level of text based on how many words came from each tier of the first x thousand words language learners understand. If I ever find it again, or if you do, let's remember to link to it on Tutela or here, shall we? In the meantime, I gave it my best guess. What about my test questions? I THOUGHT I had used phrasing that was easy to understand, AND we went over the questions quickly the day before the assessment. Only when I marked the tests and saw that many students misinterpreted the same questions did I start to see the flaws in my design. Test designers have the benefit of being able to pilot their tests before live roll-out. My poor students are continual guinea pigs.

I will explain all this to them, apologize sincerely, and do what next time? I don't know yet.

In the meantime, I am starting to become privy to evidence, anecdotal though it may be, that my agency is taking this whole PBLA thing a lot more seriously than many other schools are. Have you yet started to receive students from schools that are supposedly already doing PBLA? What do these students' binders look like, if they bring them at all? Are they filled with spelling and grammar tests instead of skill using and real-world tasks? Have they even had the plastic taken off the guts? Has the other school entered into our shared database the fact that the student was issued a Language Companion?

There was a time not so very long ago when the teachers at my agency had a word-of-mouth reputation so strong among newcomers that our waiting lists were the longest in the city. Now? I fear some are leaving us in favour of schools that are "softer" on PBLA.

If this is indeed the case, then I am ready to consider mandatory use of ePortfolios whereby all agencies mandated to implement PBLA also be required to use the SAME electronic portfolio system. When a student transfers, she brings the password to her ePortfolio with her. We can see which school issued her LC, the name of the instructor who last promoted her, the work on which that promotion was based.

Without some sort of uniform and consistent accountability for schools and instructors, this whole PBLA initiative is nothing but a contest to see which agencies can fudge the best. Sorry if I sound peeved, but I am. I feel as if good teachers and schools are being punished for true compliance while those not taking it seriously face no repercussions. If that is the case, what's the point? It also feels as if good, passionate teachers are getting snagged in a dragnet that was initially created to catch out the lazy and incompetent.

That's my rant for the month. By next week I hope to have lots of juicy free stuff uploaded to from my seniors' module on safe fish, my literacy module on Canada, and the seniors' module on using 211. Let's hope!