Monday, July 31, 2017

Reflections on Having a Professional Learning Network (PLN)

When I first started this blog, I had hoped it would result in my becoming more a part of an online community of like-minded ELT professionals in the same way that having a personal blog had led to my entering a community of kindred spirits, many of whom--over a period of seven years--I ended up meeting face to face. I was quite frustrated in the beginning that there didn't seem to be the same code of reciprocity among professional bloggers as I had experienced among personal bloggers. You comment on my post, I will come comment on yours. You list me in your blogroll, I'll list you in mine. Oh, well. I blog as much for myself and for the benefits of reflection as for community building, so it's all good.

Today I am feeling very glad that I stuck with this blog, posting weekly whether anyone was reading or not. One of my earliest readers ended up being a coworker and now will, I'm sure, be a lifelong friend. Another online ELT peer ended up inviting me to visit her in Toronto during spring break and is arriving on the VIA today to give me an opportunity to return her gracious hospitality. It may have taken a bit longer for me to begin to feel a sense of community in the TEAL corner of the blogosphere, but it is now starting to gel.

When I first used Twitter, I hated it. I mean that I really just did not get it. I found it boring and pointless. What could anyone possibly say in 140 characters or less?

It may have taken a few false starts for me to "get it," but now I am so glad I decided to open and maintain a Twitter account. Twitter is where I can participate in regular online chats with other TEAL professionals. There's a different chat for everything from educational technology to LINC! Twitter is where I stay abreast of the latest ELT research in a convenient digest format, thanks to @ResearchBites. It's where I get ideas for new classroom activities and book recommendations. It's also where I found out about Tony Vincent's Classy Graphics course, which has propelled me from the stone ages into the stratosphere when it comes to designing and creating my own materials, classroom posters, and marketing materials.

One common misconception about maintaining Twitter and other social media accounts is that it's time consuming or overwhelming. Well, it can be if you let it be. But I'm here to tell you that it's not an 'all or nothing' choice. Of course if you are trying to launch a career that will require a large following of people, you'll need to be consistent. But if you, like me, just want to stay abreast of the news and research, share a few ideas of your own, pass on a link to a good article now and then, benefit from others' ideas and free offers, you can easily do all of this by checking in for a few minutes here and there throughout the month.

How about you? Do you consider yourself to have a PLN? In what way do you feel included or not included, up to speed or not? How valuable do you perceive it to be and why?

Friday, July 28, 2017


It seems I forgot to write a blog post this past Sunday. I remembered on Monday and meant to come do it. Oops! I remembered again on Tuesday and intended to come write. Oops! Here it is FRIDAY.

I will try to make up for that with some added value this weekend.

In the meantime I have been deeply immersed in both professional and leisure activities, as well as healing from major surgery.

I have been:

  • Working on a Back to the Well 2.0 webinar with John Sivell.
  • Completing my week five assignment as part of Tony Vincent's Classy Graphics with Google Drawing course (see poster below).
  • Patronizing the Windsor-Walkerville Fringe Festival
  • Taking good care of my container garden on the deck and the veggie plot out front.
  • Harvesting purslane and kale for healthy smoothies.
  • Reading fiction, a delicious indulgence for which I never seem to find time September to June.
  • Getting ready for a houseguest next week and the return of my mom a couple weeks later.
Here is the poster I created for my week five assignment to create an infographic or a cheat sheet of some sort. I'm not sure this poster for my classroom wall really meets that definition, but it was something I needed in the real world, so I used that need to motivate myself.

To help you understand the backstory: I voluntarily run a hospitality station in one corner of my classroom that is open to all 200+ students in our school. I give everyone access to my room only before 9:00, during the two official breaks--one morning and one afternoon--and sometimes during the one-hour lunch break if I am around. But it can be challenging conveying to newcomers with limited English what my expectations are for the coffee and tea station. It is also hard to get the message across that my employer does not subsidize the cost of the coffee, tea, creamer, sweetener, sugar or the $250 I shelled out for the purchase of the huge water boiler. Another concept that can be hard to communicate is that disposable cups are not earth-friendly, so use the same thrift shop sourced mug daily, keep it clean, and don't grab a cup that has another person's name on the bottom.

Tony challenged us to imagine we were being charged $100 for every word used. He stressed that a picture is worth 1000 words. And I decided to include a photo of my face on the poster after having heard of this study. This is what I came up with. 
What are you doing this summer?

Sunday, July 16, 2017

More Classy Graphics

I can't blog about anything else because I can't think about anything else right now.

My mom is an artist. It was a single-parent household, and we didn't have a lot. But there were always art supplies. Mom was thrilled if either my brother or I showed any interest in her latest medium of choice. I learned how to make linoleum block prints, carving away from the body so as not to gouge myself. I learned to cut coloured glass and silk screen a tee shirt, and draw with hot wax on silk fabric that would later be dyed for a Batik design.  Mom showed me how to throw and fire a clay pot. She tried to teach me to paint, but that was an utter failure. I ran crying from the studio at the first mistake. Miss instant gratification, miss perfectionist. I didn't have the patience to try and try again.

Mom envied me my drawing ability. She would come to me and ask me to sketch the dove for that year's embossed holiday cards. She claims to this day that the cartoon strips I created were imaginative, original, the characters so expressive! She mailed me a batch of them recently; all I could do was wonder where that Kelly went--the one with an original bone in her body.

I've never--in my adult memory--been able to come up with original ideas or artwork. I trace. So while Mom is the artist in the family, winning prizes with her watercolours, I've always been drawn more to graphic design and illustration. But I've never taken a class, never answered that soft little voice that pipes up whenever I see a well designed bill board or handsome window display with a limited palette and crisp, clean lines. The voice says, "You want to do that."

And now, about to turn 54, I've finally signed up for a class. I'm only halfway through the six-week online course and already I feel as if there's nothing I cannot whip out in an afternoon or two. Graphic design has taken over my brain. I dream about it, can't drive down the street without deconstructing every billboard and restaurant awning.

I'm very glad that John Sivell has reached out to me to propose that we do a webinar this coming winter on Tutela because it has given me the drive and motivation to learn to use and apply each tool that Tony Vincent teaches us to use in Google Drawing.

Here are some things I've made while playing around today and yesterday:

pictogram for "good attendance"
reach your goal icon
could not find a Google Drawing icon - made my own

One of the best aspects of the class is getting to see what each of my classmates comes up with. We leave each other comments, constructive suggestions, kudos.

I can't wait to see what weeks four, five and six have in store.

Update: I forgot to say that one important driving motivator behind my signing up for this class was my wish to know how to present an online class using Google Classroom. I'm keen to know how we teachers can give workshops to each other without the need to be hosted by one of our universities or professional associations. So far it looks very promising!

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Making Worksheets Just Got a Whole Lot Easier

It was the early 1990s. I had just moved from a library clerking job (where only the guys were being sent to learn about computers and database building) to a job as library technical assistant in the academic library of a vocational college where I was guaranteed opportunities to learn computer skills. Mine was the noon to closing shift. Quiet evenings found me immersed in the many magazines that had been ordered to support students of courses ranging from robotics to nursing to secretarial.
My favourite magazine was about using WordPerfect; my favourite section was the macro of the month. These were the days when one still dealt with a DOS prompt to talk to others around the world using this crazy new thing called Internet Relay Chat (IRC). 

Macros fascinated me. You could copy lines of code from a page of the magazine into a special hidden 'backroom' area of the word processing software, then click a button and watch as seventeen keystrokes were executed in a 1.5 seconds. Without money for real database software, I controlled the entire magazine and DVD inventory using WordPerfect's mail merge feature. It was sort of like trying to build a house using Crackerjacks toys.

Such skills helped me get a better job. Soon I was office manager of a little independent bookstore where I wore many hats--from payroll clerk to A/P to A/R, shipping and receiving.
WordsWorth Books & Co. going away party for Kelly
In 1999 I moved from Little Rock, Arkansas to Waterloo, insurance capital of Ontario. Insurance companies were hiring, so my versatile liberal arts degree once again came to my rescue. Soon I was roving the aisles of the computing section of the many bookstores in that university town, plunking down large amounts of cash for four-inch-thick 'teach yourself' books and John Walkenbach's book on power programming Excel using Visual Basics for Applications (VBA), which became my dog-eared bible. I took a course in basic database building in Access. Within five years I had changed jobs again and was using VBA to customize MS Word, Excel, Outlook and creating business tools for my coworkers and supervisors with lovely graphic user interfaces, pretty buttons to push to run reports, to print out insurance certificates, to calculate the age a client will be on the birthday nearest a policy's maturity date. My apps even had little pop-up messages to remind the user to put the special paper into the printer when it was time.

All of those quasi-technical office skills have served me amazingly well in my new field of English language teaching. But if you have ever made your own classroom materials in MS Word with tables or columns, you know that the application can be a bit cantankerous at times. Even if you know the magic way to see the invisible code that tells the software where to start a new page, a new paragraph, a bulleted list, or a set of columns, it can still be a product that many times leaves you pulling your hair out--especially if you're trying to whip something up right before class or late the night before. It's not terribly intuitive. Mastering it requires the memorization of the placement of scores of commands that are hidden within dozens of menus.

Here are some worksheets and games I use that were created using MS Word:

BINGO game card

Board Game from Val Baggaley

Word Map
Okay, now for the drumroll part. Having heard about the course on Twitter, I've just enrolled in Tony Vincent's course called Classy Graphics with Google Drawings. Oh, heavens, this is going to be a game-changer. It is going to revolutionize how I make classroom materials. I can already see that it's going to save time and is also going to vastly widen the range of possibilities for what I can create for my students or teach them to create for themselves. 

I'm only on week two of six, but here is a sneak peek at some things I've created so far.

In place of the word map above, here is a word map created in Google Drawings:
Now if you're not familiar with Google Drawings, you might not be aware of the vast difference between the two because the biggest difference here isn't in appearance so much in ease of creation and editing. If I want to change the Word version, I have to go into a convoluted menu system to do so. If I want to change the Google Drawing word map, I need only to grab edges and corners of shapes and drag them into their new spots. GD will tell me when something is perfectly centred. I can easily duplicate a box to get another and another of exactly the same dimensions. I can nest one inside the other. I can ask GD to align shapes for me, distribute them evenly. And this course is only just getting started.

Here are some other fun ways Tony has gotten us to play around with Google Drawings. In week two we learned about designing in black and white. I created some custom sticky notes (there's a template with light grey lines inside which you stick six bright sticky notes before printing your designs--minus the original grey guidelines--onto the stickies).
I can't really put into words how it feels finally to have the right tool at my disposal or how much time this is going to save me as a teacher who loves to create her own stuff. It is a bit like the experience of getting my first real database software package after three years of making do with WordPerfect's mail merge tools used as a database. Yeah, it could be done, but my penny wise pound foolish employer was paying me for five hours of labour for every one hour inventory management would have taken me had they just purchased me FoxPro or Dbase.

How about you? Have you ever used Google Drawings? Do you like it? Are you using your summer to take any online classes or attend any webinars? I would love to hear.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

A Canadian History Resource for CLB 4 and Higher

Do you--or do your students--sometimes find history to be boring?

My class was anything but bored when we undertook the gargantuan task of studying the history of Canada beginning with the early migrations of the people we now refer to as First Nations and Inuit and ending at Confederation. We certainly could have kept going, but we were worn out!

The class was a multi-level seniors class, a group that loves to take things slowly and really delve deeply into the subject matter, not just memorize key dates for a test.

With their goals in mind, we decided to create a timeline. Each student took responsibility for one or two events, never racing ahead to historical events not yet covered in class. The timeline started out with a cluster of pictures at the far left end followed by a vast expanse of blank paper. Week by week, the learners sourced images, wrote captions, and decided where on the butcher paper to place their contributions.

Using tiny 3M Command® Hooks and equally tiny bulldog clips, we hung our very long timeline on the classroom wall near the ceiling. This allowed us to review what we'd learned in prior lessons while building on that knowledge as we inched our way through the decades. The photos you see here were snapped much later--after the project was concluded and the timeline was about to be rolled up and put away.

We took this series of units, which included reading a little book about Laura Secord, at our own pace. None of the seniors was in any hurry to pass an exam. They wanted the opportunity to acquire the related language and concepts--the knowledge.

For me the most fascinating chapter in our journey back in time was the unit we did on L'anse aux Meadows. I've shared about that on this blog before (December 2014), but I think it's worth sharing again now that I have a few more readers.

The centrepiece of our lesson was a rather long documentary about the national historic site L'anse aux Meadows. I found it fascinating. If you would like to watch the video and then take the Ted Ed lesson that I designed to accompany the video, you can do that HERE.

If you want to download the little quiz my students completed while watching the video, you can find it on my website under FREE - Settlement Themes - Canada.

If this blog post inspires you in any way, I hope you'll leave a comment.