Sr. Enda (my seventh grade teacher) would be appalled that I used the title phrase outside the context of the  Catholic Church. But in my seventh grade language arts classroom, my Holy Trinity consists of Father Vocabulary, Son KBAR (reading/writing), and the Holy Spirit of grammar/mechanics. (My ninth grade English teacher referred to the last as the Great Grammarian in the Sky.)

Okay that’s a bit of a metaphor stretch, as I squeeze 5 things into 3, but I think you get the idea. A language arts curriculum can seem like it has a million things in it, and the task of trying to integrate them all so they somehow fit together seems daunting. And it’s not like we English teachers have a rigid sequence of skills/concepts that have to be taught in a certain order. I mean we do, sort of, but there’s a lot of overlap and repetition, and it’s not like  in math, where (the math teachers insist) you have to learn x before you can learn y and so on. In fact, most English teachers bridle under any outside attempt to sequence their curriculum. But this freedom can be a bit intimidating: What goes first? What stuff should I link together? Should I teach grammar when we write essays? If so, how? When? There are standards, but OMG where does everything fit in? You can’t just start at standard 1A and work your way down. Can you? (NO) And how much time do you spend on which ones? Plus, them thar standards ain’t exactly lesson plans.  OMG OMG OMG.

I know I have spent a lot of years wrastling with those questions. When I was a young go-getter, the catch-phrase was literature-based instruction. Everything in your curriculum revolved around whatever you were reading in class. Grammar exercises featuring Pony and the gang, vocabulary from the novel, essay topics connected to the novel and its themes, etc. And that’s sort of how I still do things. But this has now become the longest intro ever to the actual questions coming from the mailbag.

I get a lot of e-mails and questions from new teachers. (That’s great! Keep ’em coming.) And a lot of the questions have to do with the above issues. My most recent rookie had three main questions. All of them are common ones. So once again, I’ll use this here blog thang to try to help several people at once.

Here we go…

1) What is your experience with doing the KBAR notebook? I have found that during my student teaching, the students rarely turned in homework if I wasn’t checking it (worksheets or whatever) at the end of every week. Also, is it used just for KBAR work at home? I’m nervous about leaving them to do something at home on a notebook (that many of my students wouldn’t buy since it’s 75% free/reduced lunch). Any alternatives to that issue?

During the first week of doing KBAR, I check daily, just to make sure they get it. The responding is the hardest part, but they also need practice with the bookkeeping and paperwork. I make sure I have a longish warmup  every day that week, so that I have time to circulate and read them live. I call out good lines, and emphasize the avoidance of summarizing, and I keep reminding them of the rubric. After some practice, you can read and comment on most of them during a 10-15 minute warm up. And if you don’t quite finish, you can always double up the next day.  After that initial KBAR week, I have them respond 1 page per week, due on Friday. Since I always have a test on Friday, I can read the pages (and check their charts) while they take the test. The key to KBAR is the responding, so it’s worth the time to talk to the kids live as you read them, and read/show lots of examples.

I have them use the spiral notebook for all non-writing classwork and all KBAR. They have to have a title and a date on everything they do, and everything -warm ups, vocabulary definitions, KBAR charts and responding, spelling pretests – that isn’t writing goes into the spiral. For kids that say they can’t afford a notebook, watch the ads at Staples and suchlike. You can get a truckload for less than .25 apiece, and you can either resell them or give them away.

I don’t let them put anything but English in it, and I get all crabby when they do the above types of work, and it’s not in the notebook.

Whoa. Long post, and there are still two questions left in this e-mail. I’ll tackle the other two in the next post.

(BTW. I got my unofficial CTEL testing results today. I didn’t get actual numerical scores – they’re delivered via snail mail – but they gave me a pass/fail result for each of the three tests. They delivered each one in a separate e-mail, for heightened suspense. Test One: Pass.)