Sunday, May 27, 2018

A Windsor Freebie and PBLA Update

Happy Sunday!

Before I get to the freebie, allow me to take a moment to give you an update on the results of my digging. Anytime you find information that could be helpful to others who are struggling in Orwellian work environments, feel free to email me with that info so I can add it to THIS PAGE.

Those who follow The Joy of ESL Facebook page have probably already seen this email I received:

Hello Kelly,
Thank you for raising your concerns with how the Portfolio-Based Language Assessment (PBLA) is being implemented. We will be sending new Operational Guidelines for PBLA to all language training providers in the coming weeks. These guidelines will clarify many of the issues raised in your email and we will encourage all language training providers to consult the guidelines regularly.The Centre for Canadian Language Benchmarks (CCLB) is responsible for coordinating the implementation of PBLA in Ontario. You are welcome to add to your website for instructors who have questions about PBLA or who require additional support. This is a more appropriate point of contact than MCI staff.
The CCLB is undertaking a Practice Review of PBLA to gather feedback from Administrators, Classroom Teachers, and Lead Teachers on how PBLA has been implemented and to ensure that PBLA is implemented in a consistent manner. If you would like more information you can visit…/pbla-practice-review-framewo…/…
Daniel Lisi
Team Lead
Program Design Unit
Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration

The reason I was referred to MCI and not IRCC is presumably because it was my local MPP's office answering me. Anyway, I was hoping for a NAME that goes with a FACE to put on on the PBLA support page, but I suppose will have to do. That email inbox is monitored by someone on the Centre for Canadian Language Benchmarks Board, I assume?

In any case, the advent of this document, "new Operational Guidelines" could be a good thing, no? When it comes out, we need to get our hands on a copy and read it cover to cover to see if it is of any help to us as we face drastic inconsistencies in expectations from school to school. Some employers are implementing PBLA in a way that does not create a hostile, toxic work environment with unreasonable after-hours workload expectations, while others... well, you know. (Don't even get me started on how PBLA is not resulting in consistent assessment around the country. That's another can of worms.)

At the same time, I've been in communication with someone who has advice for those of us in unions, but I am just waiting for that person to advise me whether he/she wants to be identified when I share that advice or not.

As for those of us who are NOT unionized, I did get a an interesting bit of information this past week when we had a speaker visit my morning class from Community Legal Aid. She spoke mostly about Community Legal Aid, but also a bit about Legal Assistance Windsor, whose offices are in the same building on Ouellette over the fitness centre next to the post office. She said that the law students at these two organizations can assist workers who are concerned that their employers may be violating labour standards. To be eligible for this help, you would need to a) not be a member of a union and b) qualify for their free services based on income. The threshold is somewhere around $25K per year for a family of two and around $21 K per year for a single person. She said that even if you don't meet the threshold,  it is worthwhile to stop in or call them because oftentimes where they cannot help directly, they can make a referral.

This week I had two opportunities to talk to teachers at other SPOs around my city and both times I learned interesting things.

  • Some employers do not give teachers any paid PBLA prep time. I think all teachers deserve to be aware of what is happening around the province and country when it comes to the PBLA roll-out.
  • One teacher was overheard saying, 'if they hold up London as the gold standard, I'll quit my job tomorrow.' Watch out, Thames Valley. You have a reputation for how NOT to implement PBLA. 🙁
  • Some SPOs do not require the collection of 32 artifacts between promotion periods. They recognize that as untenable, especially for those with very large classes.
  • Some employers understand that worker wellbeing is more important than PBLA. Implementation needs to be done with a heavy dose of common sense and compassion for instructors, as well as by providing paid time for teachers to accomplish training and to meet expectations for the creation of lesson plans, materials, module plans and assessment tools.
Oh, and I've contacted Yuliya Desyatova about my need to update the status of her project on my website. She will update us as soon as she can. She has to do things in a certain order since this is her PhD research project.
As for the freebie, here is a 3-page list of free and low cost things students in Windsor's downtown core can do this summer. Feel free to edit.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Let's Fix PBLA!

This is the video response to those who say we teachers who have problems with PBLA should step up and make it better.

What would you add that I forgot to say?

An Open Letter to IRCC

Just now an interesting comment came in on the post I wrote two weeks ago, Dave Has an Idea.
I hereby invite every reader and visitor to this blog to leave his or her response to this comment in the comments below THIS, today's post.

Here is my own personal response. I represent nobody but myself in saying what follows.

First of all, who am I speaking to? The IRCC people or person reading this blog knows my name and face, where I work and my every thought and feeling on this subject going back at least two years. Could I please know your name(s) and see your face(s)? We would very much like some transparency around this pan-Canadian mandate.

ONE: My first request is to have the entire misstep retracted. Please watch professor Norm Friesen's video, listen to Yuliya Desyatova's findings, compare this project with the Belgian roll-out of task-based learning, and do some investigating into how a broad imposition of AfL models have worked out (or not) in the UK.

TWO: If you are not willing to entertain recalling this edict, then I beg of you: at least put a moratorium on making it a requirement for SPOs' funding and teachers' employment until such a time that all supports, resources and materials are in place. By making PBLA optional, those few teachers I've encountered who actually like doing it can fill their boots. Those of us who were more effective as teachers before being hobbled by this paint-by-numbers formula can go back to what we were doing before.

THREE: Apologize for the damage already done. Seriously. An apology would go a very long way toward reuniting us as one big team so that we can go forward together once more. Apologize not only for the hours we have donated shoring up a half-baked initiative, but also for the way employers contracted by you and under directions from you have, in not just a few locations, weaponized PBLA and abused employees. You must not only apologize but also take steps to put an immediate stop to all the ways that misinterpretation of the guidelines is resulting in miserable work conditions, divisiveness among team members, and violation of labour standards.

FOUR: Replace the train-the-trainer model. If you want to know what works better, talk to Yuliya Desyatova. She has studied the Belgian model in great depth.

FIVE: Forget about those bulky, heavy two-inch binders. They are a complete waste of taxpayer money, especially the Language Companion. If you must issue binders for portfolios, give our students one-inch binders with the portfolio dividers only. If you must continue to publish the Language Companion, bind it separately. But really? Ditch it. That money could be so much better spent.

Okay, dear readers, I hand it over to you. If someone with any power at IRCC really is reading this, what do you want them to do? Can you encapsulate it in five points? Please give yourself a nickname so that we don't end up with twenty people all named anonymous. How about the way Google handles it? Anonymous Aardvark, Anonymous Marmot, ...

Have a good Sunday. NB: Teachers are writing to officials at MCI and IRCC, pointing them to this post. For that reason, I have changed the publication date to a future date, which is the workaround in Blogger to pin a post to the top. Scroll down if you want to read other weekly posts.

Monday, May 14, 2018


A few weeks ago I had occasion to drive from Windsor through Kitchener-Waterloo on my way to the U.S. Whenever I pass through the area, I always stop in the Canadian city I first called home after immigrating in 1999: Waterloo. I don't have friends in the area anymore, but I still like to have a vegetarian meal at the Jane Bond and take in an art house film at my old haunt, the Princess Cinema.

It was dark when I arrived in Waterloo, but I recognized my old workplace: the Equitable Life Insurance Company of Canada. For five years I was a systems specialist. In that role, I wore many hats--from being a one-woman software support hotline to quality control of data files. I taught myself to code in VBA and created custom solutions for my team. I really enjoyed creating GUIs (Graphic User Interfaces) that were dummy-proof. Using my little apps, it was impossible to make a mistake or wrong decision. The programs I wrote shoehorned the user into right decisions. I didn't have any formal I.T. education, yet they allowed me to do that.

Driving past the unassuming headquarters of the life insurance company with its darkened windows late that night, I could almost not believe that the memories flooding into my mind were MINE, memories of my own life just twelve years ago. This English teacher used to write code. I used to joke that I could make MS Excel do just about anything shy of going to the corner and bringing back coffee.

The next day I rose and drove the rest of the way into New York state, passing turn-off signs for Niagara-on-the-Lake. Once again, the memories astounded me. Could it be that I had once stayed overnight at the Pillar and Post because our clients there needed a custom solution to a data upload problem? Yes, my employer had sent me (a lowly liaison to the I.T. team, not even a member of I.T.) to figure out a way to get data out of their payroll system and modify it in all the ways necessary for upload to our system. It took me an afternoon, but I found a way. I made the impossible possible.
The Pillar and Post, Niagara-on-the-Lake
Another memory came after that, a memory of the day that Scott, an actuary and my boss' boss, came to my desk in frustration over the months and months that it was taking I.T. to develop our company website. He almost never emerged from his office, so I was surprised to see him standing over me. He said, "Kelly, if we paid for it, would you be willing to go learn ASP?" I said I didn't know what ASP was. He said it was a web programming language. I told him I wasn't sure, maybe I would be willing, and why did he ask. He said, "Because if you were working on the website, it would be done by now."

He was (still is, I'm sure) a man of few words, so his vote of confidence has stuck with me all these years. I call those words to mind when my self-esteem needs a boost. Yes, damnit, I'm smart and very capable. I'm a hard worker. I study on my own time to be the best I can possibly be at what I do.

Why am I reminiscing tonight? You can probably guess.

When I first arrived on the Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada (LINC) scene, I had a lot of the same feelings as I have at all the jobs before this one. I felt my superiors--from my boss and her director all the way up to the folks at IRCC who pay them to employ me--trusted me and believed in me. I felt seen, my gifts recognized and put to good use. Have you heard about Google's 'genius hour?' I have been blessed to almost always land in jobs where I'm given leeway to use at least some of my on-the-clock time to experiment. No employer has ever regretted giving me that play time. It has been during that time that I've solved long-standing problems for my employer. I believe that every language teacher also needs time and room for 'principled eclecticism' and action research.

The cheerleaders of PBLA who leave comments on this blog have more than once accused us of just whining or being negative. I have a whole video percolating in my mind to answer that accusation, but meanwhile I would like to suggest we do something here and/or over on my The Joy of ESL Facebook page. I'm not normally one to dwell on the past or live in the future, but just as an exercise, I'd like to ask if anyone wants to talk about joy on the job. Do you find your job to be a source of joy in your life now? If not, was it before? Or could it one day be--even hypothetically?

If you feel like it, tell me about a time you were happier in your job than you are now and what it is that made the job fulfilling at that time. OR tell me what you dream of as the ideal classroom space or SPO. If you could wave a magic wand and have MCI and IRCC direct the taxpayers' money the way YOU ask them to, what would that look like? I have some ideas of my own, but I'd like to hear from you first.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Welcome, Conference Attendees!

Whether you received one of my MOO cards at the annual TESL London conference or from my friend at BC TEAL's annual conference, welcome to this blog, which doubles as the de facto national PBLA forum and the only one where teachers can share their thoughts and feelings or organize advocacy with the option of remaining anonymous.

I thought that parts of my plenary presentation went well while other parts bombed. My theoretical overview seemed well received, but the free graphic organizers did not trigger very much discussion or many questions. I didn't quite know how to recover from that, so I simply went on with my example of how even the simplest of resources--a set of pharmacy labels--can be the well that you go back to again and again in order to explore vocabulary, syntax and discourse. I think I should have brought up each handout onto the screen to give teachers an explanation of what happens with them in the classroom and why they are so engaging.

I heard a lot of talk during the materials slam of "contextualized grammar" or "grammar in context." Yet when it came my turn to take the mic, I forgot to tie 'Back to the Well' to this very concept. Of course these graphic organizers--which facilitate activities that you can do with just pencils and notebook paper, for that matter--are about just that! Instead of (or in addition to) getting out the old Azar book to teach about clauses or verb-direct object chains or discourse markers, you can take students back into a familiar text to FIND and exploit the examples that are right there waiting for them.

It was very gratifying to be approached and thanked by teachers who appreciate being able to use this blog as a place to connect with others who are extremely upset by what PBLA is doing to our professional and personal lives. The board member who issued the invitation to me told me more than once how much she appreciates the literacy activity packs that I give away on my website. I really enjoyed the entire conference, including both sessions I attended and the materials slam, which left me wanting the game 'Apples to Apples.' Special thanks to Jen Artan for being on top of all things tech and for getting me and my slides up and running.

If you were holding onto a door prize ticket at the end of the day hoping to get one of the posters I brought and did not win one, you can still grab the PDF from my Google Drive and print it yourself if you have 11" x 17" (preferably glossy) paper and a good colour printer.

Here are the links. When you click one, you will be able to copy the poster over to your own Google Drive where you can either edit first then go to FILE - Download as PDF or just download.

Before You Say, "I'm finished"...

The Seven Cs of an Effective Teacher