Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Teaching Seniors but Were Afraid to Ask

Today I received an email from some nice educators at a very good service provider organization in Ontario saying they were toying with the idea of starting a seniors class but had no idea how one would handle PBLA in such a classroom. They wanted to know how I do it. In attempting to compose a response, I realized I have volumes and volumes to share with the world on the topic of teaching seniors. It also crossed my mind that I've been at a loss for what to blog about lately. Thus was born the world's longest blog post about the tiniest ESL niche in history: newcomers to Canada who are over the age of 50.

When I took over the seniors class in 2011, it was eight students, and in the beginning they were all men. Bernie dropped out due to his deafness and a couple joined. Finally we had one woman in the mix. Back in those days, we had a car mechanic, a truck driver, an electrician, a courier, and a ruby diver by trade. Two of the students were still young enough to want to look for work.

Even though he felt too uncomfortable continuing classes with his hearing impairment, Bernie spread the word in his building that I was a good teacher. Very soon, with the government cap of 10 seats for this special demographic, I had a waiting list.

At some point my admin requested two more seats. IRCC approved that, but again I had a waiting list. They asked for three more seats, and today I am allowed up to 15 in the class. That's all the room will hold, anyway. The makeup of the class with regard to average age and background has changed a lot over the years. This was the class in May of 2019. We were headed out on a field trip with our bus passes.

At one point the average age was 73 and my oldest student was 86. The youngest was 69. In more recent years, professions represented have included doctors, a nurse, a pharmacist, many engineers, a chemistry professor, a high school physics teacher, a banker, a vaccine biologist, and the head of a famous hospital specializing in contagious diseases. We often joked that we could open our own clinic.

Seniors are an absolute JOY to teach. They don't arrive late, they arrive early. They look forward to Monday as much as most of us look forward to Friday. They are sassy and funny and brimming with ideas and wisdom to share.

At one point the class makeup was mostly Chinese, and during that time I had a lot of trouble navigating our cultural differences. They were private, formal, and insisted on copying down every single word I wrote on the board. They had difficulty with the concept of a needs assessment or a show of hands to find out how many wanted to go to the computer lab on Fridays and how many didn't. They just did not "get" classroom democracy, as I call it. "You are the teacher," they said. "You decide." I told them that's not how it works in a student-centred model. Finally, after weeks of trying to get everyone to put a hand in the air to show a preference for one option or another during votes, they got it. And when they finally caught on and felt the power they held quite literally in their hands, there was no turning back. They became downright bossy.

Teacher, can you give us a lesson on XXX? The teacher at our last school couldn't explain it. Teacher, can we YYY? Can we go slower? Can we each have a copy of that? Can you make the font bigger? Can we watch a movie? Can you print out all the words to the movie? The list was endless, and I gave them every single thing they asked for and more. About that time my waiting list got even longer.

Here are some tips I've come up with for anyone considering teaching seniors:

  • Do a series of needs assessments to ensure you are always tailoring the class to their needs: do they even want reading and writing? Grammar? Do they like games or dislike them? Field trips? Guest speakers?
  • Provide frequent opportunities to get up and stretch; old bodies get stiff quickly.
  • Ensure your classroom has seating with cushioned seats; old bony bums get sore on plastic chairs.
  • Make sure all handouts are in 24 pt font or larger.
  • Keep a box of dollar store reading glasses in a box - various strengths.
  • Keep a lighted magnifier and other magnifying tools for students to borrow.
  • Keep the pace very, very, very slow and provide lots of opportunities for reviewing and recycling (John and Chirawibha Sivell's 'Back to the Well' is compatible with seniors' way of learning.
  • There's no need for PBLA since seniors do not change classes or care about benchmarks.
  • Teacher of seniors class will need a first aid and CPR certificate and will need to keep it current.
  • Have the class learn together about the AED in the building and how to use it.
  • Partner with local agencies who can send in guest speakers on topics such as advanced care planning, how to make a will, etc. (Yes, you may think this is morbid, but you could be surprised how older adults want and need to learn about these things. One of my most successful modules with filed trip was on hospice.)
  • Expect students to vote to study health A LOT; as they age, they find themselves having to communicate with health specialists more and more. While the family doctor may speak their first language, all the technicians and specialists do not.
  • Seniors are often on fixed incomes and can be frugal; they like to learn about all free services in the community.
  • Take lots of field trips to help seniors connect and feel part of the community as well as to learn how to navigate and be part of it.
  • Explore 'free things to do' in the community: parks, library, art centres; my group took a field trip to discover a free outdoor ping pong table.
  • Seniors are just as keen as young folks to learn to use an iPad, open a FB account, open an email account, send and save photos of grandchildren, etc. Digital literacy should not be overlooked.
  • Seniors have a wealth of knowledge to share with others; tap into this for special projects and presentations!

  • Okay, now for the big question: How did we get out of having to do PBLA? I approached the PBLA lead; at that time she was also site supervisor. I said I thought seniors should not be subjected to PBLA. I was told to submit a proposal in writing. I took my time and poured my heart and brain into it. Permission was granted.


    Because my other class was literacy, I was afraid of the professional consequences of completely skipping PBLA with this multilevel class, as that might leave me without the ability to tell a potential future employer that I knew how to "do" PBLA at a level higher than literacy. And so over the past two years we have cherry picked and modified PBLA in a way we --the students and I-- find to be suitable to their way of learning, as follows.

    >> We do a needs assessment; I have believed in the importance of doing needs assessments since getting my TESL training, which was long before the advent of PBLA. Even when I was 95% sure I already knew what the learners needed, I did it. Going through the process of consulting them causes them to become more invested, for one thing, and that is nothing to sneeze at.

    >> We do learning reflections at the end of each module so that I find out whether their needs were met and so that they can reflect on the language, skills, and knowledge they've gained. Mind you, a module often lasts four times longer with seniors than it might with younger learners. Don't worry about boredom. Remember the six strategies for effective learning. We employ interleaving. That is to say, we may interrupt a three-week module on our LIHN to do some urban foraging then come back again to the module on the LIHN. Three or four weeks on one subject can be broken up nicely through interleaving AND you're increasing the chance of long-term retention to boot!

    >> We do use the inventory sheets at the beginning of each skill section. Since the students do not progress to other teachers, we are now on our third or fourth inventory sheet per section, having filled our binders to overflowing several times over. We remove artifacts that are over a year old, but we keep the inventory sheets as a 'cover our asses' insurance policy just in case my management should turn over and new administrators not believe me when I tell them we've been exempt. There's the proof we've been (sort of) doing PBLA all along.

    >>Two years ago, when I needed to prove to myself that I could do this thing called PBLA, we filled each section with senior versions of assessments as much as possible considering it is a widely ranging multilevel class. If I tried to explain all the ways I've attempted to create and execute valid assessments over these two years, we'd all be here till Christmas. None of it, in my opinion, has been valid. All the ways in which my assessments are an exercise in futility is material for another day's blog post.

    Now that I feel that I'm as well versed in rubric creation as I'll ever be, the pace has slowed and the expectations have softened a lot. When I say senior versions, I mean that we decide together what the criteria will be and they always have the option to take the "test" home if they want to. It is always up to them how often they are assessed, what competency and skill they want assessed, and how they wish to be assessed. For example, many times they mark their own papers and give themselves the scores. Other times, for receptive skills in particular, they fill out a self-assessment (4.25" by 5.5" sheet) stapled to the artifact and circle whether the task was easy, so-so, or difficult. This translates to a mark of beginning, developing or achieved.

    More than anything, I've tried to get them to assess themselves based on a personal goal that is really none of my business. I encourage them to record their progress in the binder so that we all cover our assess should a government inspector come sniffing around. But in the end, the choice has been theirs to make. Needless to say I do not expect octogenarians to cart the heavy binder back and forth daily. Their binders live in our black cabinet nine months out of the year and get taken out on artifact pass-back days--about one or two Tuesdays per month. They are required to take the behemoths home for summer break and take them upon changing classes or schools.

    Did I mention that these guys all have more university education than I have? From day one I knew that I was not going to stand over them and impose upon them any Mickey Mouse secretarial exercises. They already know how to take notes, organize their notes, study, etc. PBLA workshops endowed me with a set of protocols I found to be embarrassingly patronizing to the learners, and I did not follow through as instructed. I came to class and was utterly transparent. I told them about my PBLA training and how it was a government mandated experiment being carried out all across Canada. I explained to them the parts I disagreed with and the parts that even I thought could be useful. I told them I had no expectations from them either way--to like it or join me in rolling my eyes at it. I simply informed them of each element and gave them choices. For some things I told them, "I need to learn how to do this, so bear with me while we do it a few times." 

    At the beginning one woman told me she had nightmares the night before assessments. That's when I realized we needed to have a talk. I said, "Think about this. What happens if you do poorly on every assessment? What happens if you do very well?" My beloved student Huarong spoke up from the back, "Nothing."

    "That's right. Nothing happens. You still come back next term to this same classroom and this same teacher no matter whether your benchmarks have all plateaued and never budge one inch. Even if you can't remember what we did yesterday, this is our class where you are all welcome to keep coming back to semester after semester. We know we're learning. These papers are just for the government and to keep my manager happy." Wink, wink.

    They relaxed again after that and we went back to the business of learning.

    So that's it. That's pretty much everything I know about teaching seniors and surviving (or faking) #PBLA with them.

    1 comment:

    1. Thank you for this. I have never taught a class with only seniors, but have often had seniors in my classes and for the most part they are keen learners with lots of interesting opinions and knowledge about their home country and the world. Unfortunately, I feel bad that they have to suffer under PBLA, which largely wastes their time and sometimes their patience!


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