Sunday, May 26, 2019

The New Disconnect

Another semester is drawing to a close where I teach. Word on the street is that IRCC will be sending an auditor around to check our students' binders in June. Although the new PBLA guidelines prohibit the PBLA lead from coming round and checking my students' binders, there is nothing stopping my employer from simply shifting this task to the manager, which they have done.

There are two things that happen every five to six months at the school where I teach: 1) the end of one school semester and beginning of the next, marked by progress reports and student-teacher conferences and 2) performance evaluations of teachers by their manager culminating in the completion of a performance review and manager-teacher conference.

To get ready for the first of these semiannual rituals, artifacts, however you wish to spell that word, are tallied. During the semester, I enter every assessment--skill using or real-world task--into an Excel spreadsheet along with a mark that allows me to see whether the student received a beginning, developing or achieved score, or was absent. Calling on skills I acquired over years in clerical and quasi-technical roles, I have written formulas to do the math for me. It often feels as if I am becoming as much a statistician as language teacher. Having this tracking tool makes short work of the end-of-semester progress reports that we all must prepare. Some students will have collected enough artifacts--most of them successful--to have a benchmark changed in HARTs; others will not. In any case, it is the responsibility of the teacher to have provided students with about two "assessment opportunities" per skill per month.

As for the second of these twice-yearly protocols, the one I underwent last week marked the half-way point of my employment year. It is a time to check in with my manager regarding some non-negotiable goals tied to the IRCC contract and other goals that I was allowed to choose for myself from a list of the organization's core values.

Did I file all my reports on time? Yes, every month for the past nine years, my reports have been filed within 3 days of being due, and usually early. Are they slapdash reports? No. They have been held up as exemplary to newer employees.

Am I executing PBLA as mandated? Yes, my afternoon class was administered 32 assessments, all but one of them having been concluded before the onset of Ramadan.

How am I doing on my chosen value of "innovation?" Knocking that one out of the park, I'd say. Self development? Developing others? All my ratings were either satisfactory or 'excels.'

And yet...

Having brought one binder from each of my two classes to this meeting, I discovered alongside my manager that my wonderful student A, who worked for the federal government of her home country in a scientific role, had items in her "About Me" section that were not perfectly in the same order as listed on the inventory sheet. (This is the class that has been officially excused from "doing" PBLA, by the way; I have voluntarily done some PLBA with them just to keep abreast of how to do so with a higher level class should I ever need to dust off my resume and apply for LINC work elsewhere).

And so that is the goal assigned to me for the second six-month period: check every student binder, even if it means dedicating teaching assistant time to that, in order to ensure that every single paper filed in the binder is in perfect order according to the inventory sheet.

I know that this new manager is just doing her job. I know that she has already gotten an earful of how I feel about this, and I know that I've already received her pep talk about keeping it positive, especially in team meetings, more times than I can count. With a weak smile, I thank my manager for her time, sign the form, return to my classroom.

Driving home, I am already dreaming of the hours I can spend on a new project that has no connection to my next performance review. Once upon a time my passion and energy were connected to what happens in my classroom. Now there is a disconnect.

Few people seemed to understand why I posted the clip of the movie Cool Hand Luke, the scene in which he is made to dig and fill and re-dig and re-fill the same hole in the ground. The most demoralizing thing in the world is being forced to do something in which you see no value, no meaning. It's especially demeaning if you think the task you are being forced to perform is COUNTERPRODUCTIVE to your students' wellbeing.

How about you? Is your school year coming to a close or do you work through the summer months? Are you able to find meaning in your work?

Sunday, May 19, 2019

New Activity Pack - Jiadeep's Big Fall

I have just published my latest activity pack to accompany an ESL literacy reader from Bow Valley College - School of Global Access.

Before using this reader with my phase one adequate and phase two beginning literacy students, I use the emergency services materials from Toronto Police newcomer outreach program and also the "Calling 911" materials from the free e-book HandsOn!, each one for a week.** For this reason, I did not include fire, or police car in the new lexicon of twelve terms. Those three words are being recycled but are not novel at this point.

My new activity pack has:
  • label new vocabulary
  • gap-fill
  • text flash cards
  • picture flash cards
  • word unscramble
  • dialogue to practice for calling 911
  • true/false quiz
  • make the false sentences true
  • sentence unscramble
  • bingo game
Also available for download under LITERACY - EMERGENCY SERVICES is a word search puzzle. Enjoy!

**Teachers of higher levels can use the Toronto Police materials, as they go through CLB 5 and culminate in the viewing of a clip from the movie Crash along with an actual form for filing a complaint with the police.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Fun with Graphics

There is not much I enjoy more on a chilly, overcast day than to cuddle up in my corner by the window with my graphic tablet. I can watch the Baltimore Orioles stick their bills down into blobs of grape jelly, sip nectar, and pick the pulp out of orange halves while I work.

As someone who loves to illustrate learning materials, I think two of the best purchases I ever made were: enrolment in Tony Vincent's online course, Classy Graphics, and my Wacom Intuos Draw graphic tablet, which came with the free version of ArtRage software. I ended up upgrading to the premium version, but only for one feature that most people will not need.

Tony taught me how to create things in Google Draw. I have forsaken word processing platforms and usually use Google Draw to make worksheets like this one.

I can also use it to make board games.

Tony also taught me how to build any icon or illustration I need just using the SHAPES feature of Google Draw. The car in the picture below consists of about nine different shapes. This is a great ability to have when you just cannot find that perfect royalty-free image to illustrate a concept.

Google Draw is also handy when I need props for role plays such as bank cards, the screens of the self-check machine at the library, and even an auto insurance card or speeding ticket.

But Google Draw has its limitations. For some jobs, I turn to the graphic tablet. For my mock Ontario driver's license, I first had to trace over a photo of a trillium. From that I made a tiny trillium watermark. Tony showed me how to replicate one very small image to create a background pattern on a page. Then I brought in my traced trillium and used the transparency tool to turn it into a big watermark. I enjoy all these fussy little steps!

The graphic tablet also comes in really handy for things like adding the face to this driver's license.  You CAN use Google Draw to make a face, but I find that for $99 CAD, the tablet was well worth it for all the fun I have with it. Oh, and Tony also taught me how to use a colour picker tool to find out the exact shade of green I had already chosen for the licence so I could repeat a shade of it behind the man's face.

Here is something I did entirely with the graphic tablet. I took a photo of my students sitting on chairs that we were using as an imaginary bus stop. In ArtRage I was able to trace the photo, colour it, then bring in a photo of a park bench, size it, and trace that so that it seemed to be under the men all along. 
If you've read this far, you deserve the reward. I've just uploaded the Andres' Speeding Ticket activity pack to my website under LITERACY - Emergency Services. It made sense to me to put it there instead of creating a section about the law for literacy learners. Stay tuned for more. I usually end up fixing a typo or two and adding a couple of puzzles when I use the pack in my own class.

How about you? Do you have the type of personality that is good for slow, methodical, fussy work like sewing? Or not so much?

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Spring Fever

The tulips in my yard are opening, the peonies are just starting to unfurl their shiny new leaves, and the grape hyacinth is in bloom along my driveway. My boyfriend loves seeking out the ephemeral wildflowers in the woods this time of year. I am a birder who enjoys catching the migrating warblers as they pass through as well as ticking off new species on my fern and wildflower checklists. Today he got Trout Lily, Red Trillium, White Trillium, and Spring Beauty while I craned my neck at the budding canopy where Yellow-rumped, Black-throated Green, Black-throated Blue, and other warblers foraged.
photo by Grant Segall

At school, there is something in the air. Teachers can be overheard counting the weeks until summer break. In the hallways, I have seen more than one huddle around a crying student. Is it the sudden crunch of assessments and knowledge that there's only so much time left to make the grade?

With each April, the world is made to feel new again. After nine years in the same job--four years longer than I've ever stayed with the same organization or position--I'm struggling to find ways to make it feel fresh. I'm very fortunate that half my teaching day is spent with seniors; they are always open to adventure. To keep things from feeling stale, I rely on a steady stream of topics that are intriguing not only to the students but also to me. Each comes with the possibility of a guest speaker or field trip.

Last week the seniors and I hopped on a city bus and visited our local hospice for a tour. And no, my school does not receive any funds for field trips. We were able to go because every single student owns a bus pass. I paid my $6 round-trip fare from my pocket.
At the bus terminal
Another thing I do to make old topics feel novel, aside from leading field trips and hosting guest speakers, is to expand on or enhance previously used materials. This week, for example, I jazzed up a module on Vitamin D and calcium with a trivia game for the traditionally lighter fifth day of the school week. If you are using a lesson pack on calcium and vitamin D from the OPH-OCDSB Collaborative Team via, you are welcome to download my trivia game cards from

Literacy class is even more prone to feeling repetitive. In the back corner of the room stands the same grey file cabinet I've had for nine years. The second drawer holds all my literacy materials: master copies of handouts, picture flashcards, and all those matching games that took hours of early morning time to cut out and paper clip together for up to five pairs of students. So, as with seniors class, to keep myself from going mad, I find ways to make each iteration of the same module a bit different.

This past week the afternoon students were learning about minimum wage with the Laws About Pay materials from Community Legal Education Ontario (CLEO). I'm happy to say that all but one of my students will be moving to the mainstream CLB 1 class in September, as they can now handle level one work such as this booklet from CLEO. This time around, I added a listening activity that brought in both numeracy and map skills by quickly grabbing a copyright-free colouring page from the internet.

First I led them through colouring the water so that it was easier to see where land ended and water began. We talked about the wiggly lines (coast) versus the straight lines (international border). Since Windsor is a border town, they easily got the idea that the straight line along the "bottom" of Canada is the U.S.A. After colouring the provinces and territories, which I hope will strengthen their growing ability to identify provinces and territories, I turned the map into a worksheet for a listening quiz. With a list of Canada's minimum wage amounts in front of me, I first had a strong student come to the board and write in the dollar amount as I dictated "Alberta's minimum wage is $15 an hour." He got it right. I then called on the second strongest student to write in an amount on another province. After three more demonstrations, I had everyone copy these five amounts onto their maps. I then dictated the last eight dollar amounts to the whole class as each student listened and pencilled in the remaining dollar amounts on their maps.

How about you? Do you have spring fever? Have you been teaching the same level for some time? How do you make the old feel new again?