Wednesday, December 11, 2019

My TESL Ontario Conference Experience

Ah, lovely Toronto. In the summer of 2009, I impulsively quit a job that had turned hellish under a psycho supervisor and ran off to CCLCS to get my OCELT, draining my savings account to do so. During those first seven weeks lodged in a dorm with six very young women on Bloor Street, a seven week break, and second seven-week term lodged in a so-called homestay for international students in the Italian / Portuguese neighbourhood that required me to ride a bus up and down Dufferin to the subway, I learned my way around what I will always think of as one of the world's most beautiful cities.

A colleague and I shared a taxi from Billy Bishop and soon I was tucking myself under clean white sheets and a puffy duvet with alarm set for 5:30. I've always liked to have a slow, leisurely breakfast and still be first in line for my attendee's package. I already had two floor plans printed out, one for each day, with workshop names and arrows to help me jump quickly to my second choice should the first one fill up before I got a seat. Oddly, that measure proved entirely unnecessary this year.

Of course I could not miss U of T's Jennifer Burton and Yuliya Desyatova's Learning English with PBLA: What LINC Students Say. I must admit I did not know how this would turn out because I wasn't sure a satisfaction type of survey could capture the circus that PBLA is in reality, wasn't sure students across Canada were picking up on the failings since they might not know why PBLA was dreamt up in the first place.

But because these two researchers had the forethought to provide students with an open comment box after each question and because Jennifer took the time to sift through them and find the commonalities, we can see that students ARE indeed picking up on the same things that make us want to hang our heads in shame for what this profession is becoming, or leave it altogether.

We already know what those common threads are. We live them daily. But here are some slide snippets anyway:

At the end, during the Q and A, Karen Alexander stood up and spoke her truth bravely. Peers encouraged her to attend the next morning's panel discussion and say what she had said once more, this time into a microphone. She did, and I'm proud of her for doing so. She said to me Thursday night when we were both seated at Trios what many of us concluded long ago: a field dominated by men would never have stood for this treatment, this nonsense, nor with being loaded down with a stressful load of extra work without pay.

At 9:50 I attended Recognizing and Accommodating Alternately Abled Students, Part 1 with Eliza Garland of ISANS. She is an occupational therapist and goldmine of information and insights to help us better understand Universal Design for Learning and how it can benefit not only our many students with undiagnosed learning disabilities, but the rest of the students as well--hence the name. This was one of the most valuable workshops I've attended ten years of conferences, and I look forward to seeing her slides posted on the website for all to peruse. From Eliza I learned about proprioception, sensory seekers and avoiders. I think what I gained from her session is even going to make me a better First Day School teacher, as some of the kids in my Quaker Meeting are very wiggly!

At 11:20 I joined Marijke Wertheim's Teaching without a Net because not since Ken Lackman's C.A.T., a framework for dogme has there been a dogme-focused session at this conference. Since I am a huge dogme believer, I could not miss this session. Marijke did an excellent job of bringing dogme to life, and I wish I could have stayed for the full two hours. Alas, I had to slip out for...

Yuliya was back at it in the same room at 12:40 with more research results in Leading and administrating PBLA: "Champagne on water wage." Here are a couple of slides I found to be most telling:

I liked that Yuliya put these quotes up without the "Learner," "Teacher," and "Admin" labels on them and had us first GUESS who we thought each quote had come from. I love the acknowledgment that a teacher can produce a beautiful binder without it being a reflection of learning.

This is a fantastic revelation. There is a negative correlation between length of time implementing PBLA and feeling the increased teacher workload is justified. Yes! I know many teachers AND a couple of leads who started out with an open mind and one who even started out as a cheerleader but who now say, "It looked good on paper" while shaking their heads.

One slide I thought was very telling was the one demonstrating that the closer one is to the frontline, the less optimism that person reported having toward PBLA. In other words, top admin feels the best about it, teachers themselves the worst, with lead teachers in between the two.

And Yuliya's recommendation? Make it optional. I love her list of advantages of making PBLA optional:

After a quick washroom break where I encountered a Joy of ESL fan who said she hoped to see me at the reception shortly, I ran off to Tapping the potential of conversation circles for integration by Tehreem Nathaniel, which was lovely and gave me lots of ideas. What a breath of fresh air it is to be in PBLA-free workshops! I was VERY satisfied to find at least one non-PBLA workshop in each time slot.

The reception catering was some of the best to date! I loved the artistic dessert. Sparks winner Susan Webb looked so cute in her dress and footwear, I thought. The next day she had on day-glo green Eiffel Tower earrings and an artsy dress that picked up on that colour. Suddenly, Susan, I feel I could almost forgive you for being on the PBLA bandwagon, as wobbly and small as that may be. One day, my sister, you may look back and see the error of your ways. Until then, keep rocking those unique outfits! (OMG, can you so totally tell that I have no more Fs to give?) And no, there is no alcohol and no THC in my system in this moment. This is all just Goddess Kali having her way with me.

Friday morning I discovered that the steel-cut oatmeal is better at Trios Bistro than at Hemispheres at the DoubleTree (did you know they changed their logo years ago because everyone thought the two entwined tree symbols looked like two entwined female symbols?), and they give you lots of fresh berries with it. But the absolute best steel-cut oatmeal in the conference hotel circuit is still Sheraton. They let you have nuts AND dried fruit AND fresh berries instead of making you choose just one.

In hopes of giving support to Karen Alexander, I sat down in the room where the panel discussion was to take place but was careful to sit close to the door since I would need to slip out for part two of Alternately Abled students. Yvonne Ferrer mentioned giving money to PBLA and caring about refugees in almost the same breath, and I wanted to follow her to the parking lot to ask her if she had read this article or understood that foisting born-of-a-colonial mindset 32-tests-a-term PBLA on newly arrived people from war-torn areas who don't yet know how to find their name in the stack of binders or hold a pencil is anathema to best practices in work with refugees and those with PTSD.


Knowing Karen would be great at the mic, I slipped out and made it to part II: Recognizing and Accommodating Alternatively Abled Students, which was as good as part I had been. Can't wait to synthesize my notes and share what I learned with my team.

I briefly sat down in Anne Hajer's PBLA Portfolio: ESL Literacy Considerations, but thought better of it. I sometimes have executive function / prefrontal cortex lapses when I'm tired, hungry, and/or emotionally aroused, so I thought it best to leave dear Anne in peace and spare her one of my angry outbursts. Instead I dashed out to Dundas station, bought three tickets (one for returning to Billy Bishop later), and headed out to Kensington to try the restaurant with the most rave reviews for vegan options on : Hibiscus! 

Anyway, you cannot visit Toronto without wandering up and down the feast for the eyes that Kensington Market area is with its murals and whimsical tin shapes welded onto the window bars of Queen Annes painted in a riot of bright colours. You just cannot.

Hibiscus was quiet and clean with built in bookcases housing interesting poetry collections and glazed ceramic pieces. I had and a cup of the sweet potato chickpea soup and a savoury crepe with pear slices and pecans in it. The fresh cilantro on top of the soup made me sigh with appreciation.

I didn't quite make it back in time for my next session, but I'm glad I went ahead and slipped in late anyway because An Innovative and Easy Approach to Corpus Analysis was fascinating, inspiring, and left me wanting to get her slides so I can fill in what I missed. It also made me want to teach EAP. Julia Williams of the U of Waterloo was a very good presenter! If I were an engineering grad student faced with writing my papers in a language I hadn't spoken as a child, I would want Julia there by my side. I wish I had snippets of her slides to show you. Here's hoping she posts them!

After a light dinner and even lighter flirting with someone seated at the bar, I got my bag out of safekeeping and used my last subway ticket to get to Union Station where I somehow managed to find the hotel with the flags and thus the free shuttle back to Billy Bishop.

So long for now, Toronto. For me you will always be the crazy frugal Italian house mother at my homestay who locked up peanut butter and toilet paper, murals and head shops in Kensington, Honest Eds, stopping on Queen St West to sniff Johnny Fluevogs, lunches at the Queen Mum, being sold a dime for $2.75 by a panhandler who tricked me into thinking it was a subway token, Martine my TESL prof with her elegant ballet dancer body, the sudoku puzzle in the free Metro newspaper that helped me pass the time en route to my suburban practicum, indie movies on nights when assignments were not due the next day, and learning how to walk a labyrinth.


  1. Thank you! Now I know what to check out!

  2. Hi Kelly, I passed you by once and almost immediately recognized you. (I am a past commenter who shared for some reason that I love the film "The Third Man" as well as "A Serious Man".) I too was at Anne Hajer's presentation and was underwhelmed. On the other hand, I enjoyed a lot of presentations. There was a woman from New Brunswick you shared a story that made me cry a bit. She also described some smart administrative choices they've made, such as controlling continuous intake for 3 month blocks. I loved the session on how textbooks get created and also enjoyed the PBLA session where the teacher/lead described how she actually (apparently) did all her PBLA planning IN-CLASS! I somehow think it reflects her overall, very direct (and funny) approach to all things. I might give it a try. Finally I do agree... the longer you struggle to make PBLA fly, the more disenchanted you become. It's broke. I suggest a redo or at least a really, really big overhaul.

    1. Oh, darn, wish you'd said "hi." Thanks a lot for letting me know which sessions you found to be of value. I'm going to look for these presenters' handouts and/or slides to appear soon. At my SPO, we are also finally about to make some administrative changes in order to make this nightmare a little more bearable, such as changing the number of artifacts to be gathered. I'll blog about that before long. --Kelly

  3. Great read, Kelly! Great to hear that there is more and more pushback on this pbla crap. I still see no real improvement the longer this charade continues. Tutela looks better, but it really doesn't have a lot more useful stuff than before. Some of the materials are overwhelming and almost seem made to 'impress' rather than to teach. I just need simple ready-to-teach materials, not massive documentation and module plans. I sure hope things will turn around someday. And I certainly agree with your comment about how men don't and aren't putting up with this slavery (I feel for women, as they are being severely mistreated-and unfortunately often by other women-all the administrators and leads are women at my school). That's why the numbers of men have dwindled in this field. As a man, I am only hanging on by a thread (teaching part-time as I could not stomach full-time) and less than 15% of the teachers at my school are men now. I know some wonderful, generous and hardworking women in this field, but those are the ones who are at the bottom being driven and insulted by the true believers above. So again, thanks for your excellent efforts!


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