Challenges of Continuous Intake

PBLA is definitely a challenge in terms of keeping things organized. This is especially true if you are like me and are not naturally an organized person. I’ve been forced to become organized over the years, but it can be a struggle at times.  When you start adding new learners into the class throughout the term, it can sometimes get overwhelming. However, I try to break it down in terms of what the learner really needs to do, and then slowly ease them into the PBLA process. Here is what has worked for me:

Language Companion and Portfolio: Ideally I would like to give them this on their first day, but I find it is better to wait a week or so just to ensure that they are committed to the class. Just last week I had a learner join the class on Monday, and I haven’t seen him since.

Autobiography: I try to get them to complete this during the first learning reflection time. I usually do learning reflections on Monday mornings, which is when new learners are added to the class. Since they have nothing to reflect on, this is the perfect time to get them to write a short autobiography.

Goal Setting: I try to get the learners to review their goals every 4-6 weeks. If I have new learners, then I simply use this time to get them to write out their goals. Because the other learners are reviewing their goals,  the new learners get a chance to see the types of goals that they can be setting. It also gives me a chance to review the goal setting process.

Needs Assessment: I usually try to get to indicate their needs in their autobiography, so I am able to get a sense of their needs. This gives me a start. I also do informal needs assessments every 3-4 weeks, so that ensures that they do get a voice in the class.

Getting Learners caught up: What I really like about the PBLA approach is the modules. Because I usually contain my modules to a week, and sometimes 2 weeks, the new learners usually ente rthe class when I am starting a new module. This is perfect because it means all the learners are starting on the same page. I am teaching new stratrgies, new content, and doing new language tasks. It also means that I will have a chance to collect baseline information on their language skills very quickly.  This is really helpful becaus eit immediately lets me know where they fit into the class and how I need to group them. The rare time that they come into the class in the middle of the module just means that I have to do more scaffolding for that week and then assure thm that they will be on the same page the next week.

Overall, the biggest key is not to try and rush the process. We don’t need to get everything done right away. Spread out the information that you need to collect over several weeks, and get into a rhythm  of when you can smoothly introduce key portfolio info.  There is a lot to keep track of, and a lot to do, but small steps ensure that we don’t step over a cliff 🙂

Hitting the Reset Button

Through my journey with PBLA, I wish I could say that I have perfected the teaching process. I wish I could say that all of my modules are fully developed and that my lessons go smoothly every day. After four years, it would be so nice to just have full module plans, assessments, resources and lesson plans that I can just print off and implement each day. I wish.

The reality of course is that I am still evolving as a teacher. I am still trying new things, and I am still still learning. With that comes the knowledge that some weeks are simply going not going to go as well as planned. Usually though, it is because the week was not really all that planned. It only takes one interruption, or one sickness, or anything else going on in life to get us off track in the classroom. At least, it does for me anyways.

This past week was one of those weeks.  I got lazy, and I didn’t plan as well as I would have liked. I also had stuff going on in life that took up more time than expected.  Nothing serious or anything, but just enough to take up energy and time that normally would have gone into the classroom. The result was that I ended up doing morning prep and scrambled to put together lesson plans each day. The week didn’t go as smoothly as I would have liked, and the end of module assessments and skill-using tasks kind of bombed. It wasn’t a terrible teaching week, and the assessments were still ok, but I know I could have done a lot better.

When this happens to me, I know I need to hit the reset button. For me, I find that it is a good time on Monday to have the class do a more focused reflection on the past few weeks. I have them read their previous reflections and reflect on the progress they have made in the past six weeks.  I also have them review their goals and set new goals. For the learners, it is a great time for them to hit the reset button too and refocus on their learning. It is also a reminder to me where the class has been recently, and where they need to go. Not only that, but it motivates me to get back on track.

I know it is going to happen again. I know that life will get busy and I won’t be as prepared as I like. However, each time it happens, I have more resources to fall back on to help me quickly get back on track before it gets too far away from me. Speaking of which…

Peer Assessments

Last week I mentioned using peer assessments in the classroom. Since then, I have had a lot of discussions about peer assessments and I have been giving it a lot of thought. Personally, I use peer assessment a lot in my CLB 6 class, and I have found it to be a really useful tool. However, it is something that has taken me awhile to get a handle on.

For me, there are many reasons to do peer assessments:

1) They encourage independent learning. Having learners start to rely on each other and less on me makes the whole class more of a team effort. It gives them more responsibility for their learning.

2) They help move learners forward by providing feedback when I cannot. The learners know that I simply don’t have time to check everything every time. By having them provide feedback, the learners are able to help each other on the language journey.  The feedback is genuine, non-judgmental, and is designed to help them have success in future tasks.  It also keeps the learners engaged in the task while I am giving feedback to others.

3) They help the assessor by working on editing skills and active listening. They also allow learners to see samples of good work that they can model. This focus on assessment as learning is something that I have always done, but I am seeing the benefit of it more and more each time.

In order for peer assessment to be successful in my class, I always have to set the culture.  In my class, I have the learners check each other’s work for everything we do. They check their answers after every grammar exercise, reading activity, listening activity, writing, etc. It takes a week or so, but they soon get into the rhythm of checking each other’s work as soon as they are finished instead of asking me to do it. Only after they have checked each other’s work can they ask me any questions. This builds collaboration and removes the anxiety of showing other’s their work.  It also reinforces the idea of independent learning, and holds the learners accountable for their work in the class.

(Now, of course, there are always those learners who resist this notion for one reason or another. However, they also tend to resist other aspects of the class. I try, but I can’t make everyone happy, all the time)

Once I have the culture established, then getting them to do more formalized peer assessments is the next challenge.

Before I commit to doing a peer assessment, I have to make sure that there is a clear benefit for the learners. I have to make sure that they will be able to learn something from each other and help move them forward.  I also need to let them know what those benefits are. Again, I work hard on establishing that culture. For me, I need to give the learners a rubric or a checklist that is concrete and easy to follow. Mainly, I ask them to look at holistic criteria (also for self-assessment).

For speaking, a checklist is easiest where they can do things like:

1) time their presentations

2) all the parts of the presentation such as introduction, 3 main ideas, and conclusion

3) They used particular strategies such as rephrasing, asking questions, pausing between ideas etc

4) Their speed was appropriate

Asking them to check things like pronunciation and grammar and other analytic criteria is really asking too much in my class. If there is something obvious, I will ask them to point it out for them, but generally it is too difficult. The holistic criteria just means that they completed the task appropriately with all the necessary parts.

For the writing, I need to be really specific when asking them to peer assess.  Again, checking grammar and spelling is hard unless the learner is capable of checking this. Mainly, I ask them to check the holistic criteria. Do they have an introduction? Are the paragraphs separated? Is the information clear? Is all writing complete? Did they fill in every box?

Overall, I tend to use peer assessment on many every productive tasks, and slowly I am working towards doing it on every task. Of course, I am still trying to improve on it. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. This week, it worked really well with the tourism presentations as they peer assessed their writing and their speaking. Hopefully I can build on this.

Step by step!

The challenge of collecting evidence for portfolios

Funny. The hardest part of this blog entry was coming up with a title. Assessment overload? Skill-using vs assessment tasks? “Teacher, not another test!” Blog entry #2? Either way, I do want to discuss incorporating skill using tasks into the classroom and avoiding having the class getting assessment fatigue.

From my experience as  a classroom teacher, Lead Teacher and Regional Coach, one of the biggest issues is trying to collect enough evidence to give a reliable CLB score. The PBLA Guide tells us that we need 8-10 artifacts in a skill to properly assess a CLB level.  That would mean 32-40 artifacts in total. That number is pretty intimidating, and can certainly create a lot of stress for teachers and learners. The key is though, that those 32 artifacts do not all need to be assessments. In fact, the PBLA Guide on page 39 PBLA_Guide_2014  says that we should have  a 60/40 split between assessments and skill-using tasks which can be peer assessed. Well, I’m a runner and a numbers guy, so lets look at some numbers.

We need minimum of 32 assessments to assign a CLB level across the 4 skills.

Research tells us that we need a minimum of 250 learner hours to achieve a benchmark.

That means that we should have 1 artifact for every 8 hours of teaching time. (if we stretch out the class hours, we are given even more time). Again, all those artifacts do not need to be assessments. Using the 60/40 split, we really only need an assessment for every 13 hours of class time, and a skill using every 19 hours of class time.  Using these numbers as a guideline certainly should give us lots of time to collect enough evidence.

Ok sure, but the problem of course is actually implementing skill-using tasks and assessments into the class. The assessments (once we get used to actually making them) are easy enough. It usually takes me around 20 hours of class time (this does not include field trips, guest speakers, etc) to do a module (including assessments), and I usually try to assess 2 skills at the end of each module. Sometimes I do three, sometimes I do one, and sometimes the modules run long. But if 250 hours is the minimum to get those 32 artifacts, then I definitely have some wiggle room.  I actually get around 350 hours in a 16 week term, so I actually get quite a bit of wiggle room.

Once I got a handle on consistently doing assessments and giving action-oriented feedback, it was just a matter of adding in some skill using tasks. These tasks are essentially practice tasks that prepare them for the actual assessment.  The trick is to capture these activities and use them as evidence. For me (and probably a lot of teachers), I do skill-using activities almost every class. Every time the learners write a paragraph, fill out a form, write a summary, or copy information they are using their skills. Every reading or listening comprehension can be a skill using activity. So can every speaking activity. Every time the learners are doing small-talk, or practicing a dialogue, or explaining something is a chance to capture some evidence (we don’t have to assess everyone on every task). These are activities that I do in class on a day to day basis. The key for me is to plan ahead, recognize when they would be doing this, and then find a way to capture it to put into a portfolio. Otherwise, they get lost in their notebooks or in their handouts and that evidence is lost.

Of course, planning ahead requires more than a glance at the materials the morning of the class. I actually need to prepare them when I am preparing the module plan. Basically, I look at the resources that I am using and see what I can turn into a skill-using activity. There are lots of activities in the LINC resources, so I just need to modify them. Last week I was working on my employment unit, so they had practice using websites, writing business letters, and doing job interviews. I could then give them immediate feedback which they could hopefully apply to their more formal assessments.

Collecting evidence is certainly a struggle, especially during busy weeks. However, I find that by sitting down and planning ahead, I can actually save time the rest of the week because everything is ready to go.  I have also found that the learners do not mind the number of assessments as long as they are relevant to their real life needs, and the feedback moves them forward.  If not, then the assessments have no purpose, and the learners will start to complain, and the whole thing starts to fall apart.

Luckily, I have developed lots of assessment tasks and skill-using tasks over the past 4 years. Every year the process has become easier and easier. I am still modifying most of my tasks as I am still growing, but the process is much more streamlined and it has made my class much easier to prepare for.

Happy teaching!

Let the ESL blog journey begin

Two weeks ago as my current ESL class was winding down, my PBLA Regional Coach duties were quiet, and I was in full marathon taper mode, I suddenly found myself with a few extra hours in a week. So my first thought of course was “Hey, I should start an ESL blog!”. Now back from vacation and swamped with starting up a new class after vacation, fully immersed in portfolio submissions, and a lawn that keeps growing, this blog idea seems a like a lot of extra work. But for those that know me, once I start, I am all in, so here we go.

Two weeks ago in my moments of clarity (or insanity, I can’t figure out which is which anymore), I felt that there was a need to share my experiences teaching ESL on a day to day basis especially implementing PBLA. I started my PBLA journey four years ago, and I am still on that journey. I have definitely learned a lot on my journey, and I want to start sharing that with the community.

One of the challenges that we have is that us teachers seem to be afraid to share our module plans, assessment tasks, etc because we feel that they need to be perfect. I have often felt that insecurity about my work. I remember having so much anxiety the first time I showed my stuff to one of the PBLA project Leads. Looking back, I could be completely embarrassed, but instead, I am proud of how far I have come. I still make mistakes. I am still not as organized as I should be. I still get lazy with my assessments, and there are still mornings when I show up scrambling to put something together for the day.  However, if I am going to ask others to share their resources, then I should too. On this blog, I will share all of the materials that I use including module plans, assessment tasks, lesson plans, etc. I’ll just put them out there as ideas. They will certainly not be exemplars, but hopefully others will be encouraged to share their own ideas.  I will also share my thoughts about ESL and the PBLA process as well as anything else that happens to come up.

So, here I go!