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traits and mentor texts

Welcome. My name is Corbett Harrison. I have been an educator since 1990, and a teacher-trainer and University adjunct professor since 1998. I specialize in teaching writing using differentiated instruction techniques. I also focus on critical thinking skills, especially during the pre-writing and revision stages of the writing process. I retired from the classroom in June of 2019, and I will continue to consult with schools, districts, and states who are more interested in developing quality writing plans, not buying from one-size-fits-all writing programs.

Beginning over the summer of 2019, I will be available once again to train teachers your school or district if you would like to hire a qualified and dynamic trainer. You can find general information about my workshops here.

If you would like to check my availability for a specific date or dates for the 2019-20 school year, please contact me at this e-mail address. My calendar is already fillling up with workshop engagements.


Write & WritingFix

       Because writing--when taught well--can be the most enjoyable part of your teaching day, we created this website to provide fun, adaptable ideas for teachers.

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Contact me through my e-mail address with questions/comments about this lesson: Corbett@CorbettHarrison.com

During my final two years of teaching, I developed some new research and writing techniques for our Interactive Non-Fiction Notebook routine. Doing so has inspired Dena and me to start our own Interactive Non-Fiction Notebook (INN), which documents things we learn that fascinate us while serving as an example we can share with our own students. We've now been adding to it since July of 2017, and we decided we would share six of our favorite new techniques between January and June as our "Lessons of the Month" in 2018. This is one of those write-ups that was posted.

An Adaptable Lesson from the Harrisons' Classroom to Your Classroom:
How this free-to-use lesson came to be online: My wife, Dena, and I taught English, reading, and writing for 56 combined years before both retiring at the conclusion of the 2018-19 school year. We've had a lot of years to develop passion about certain teaching topics, and focusing on unique ways to teach writing has become a combined passion for both of us. After I earned my Master's Degree in Educational Technology way (way!) back in 1999, Dena and I decided to establish a website and begin freely posting our favorite lessons and resources that we created and successfully used during our time in the classroom.

We began this online task by--first--creating WritingFix in 1999, and there we began posting writing methodologies and techniques from our own classrooms. Two few years after WritingFix had been established, we teamed with the Northern Nevada Writing Project for several years, and through their popular inservice classes, we began adding the ideas of many Nevada teachers who enrolled in those classes for recertification credit. When the federal budget floundered in 2008, the NNWP was no longer able to sponsor WritingFix in any way shape or form, but Dena and I keep the site online through user donations and our own cash.

In 2008, we began creating this newer website with writing lessons that specifically focused on our favorite topics and techniques for writing instruction: 1) the six writing traits; 2) writing across the curriculum, 3) writing lessons that differentiate, 4) writer's notebooks, and 5) vocabulary instruction. This "Always Write" website has been growing--month by month--since the summer of 2008. Below, you will find a lesson we posted to inspire a unique type of writing.

Thanks for checking out this month's lesson, and if you have any questions about it, don't hesitate to contact us using this email address: corbett@corbettharrison.com

an interactive, non-fiction notebook challenge for student researchers
Non-Linguistic Representations

translating learned information into pictorial representations that come with hidden explanations beneath sticky notes or page flaps

Essential Questions/Overview/Mentor Text Suggestions:

  • How does creating and then explaining a non-linguistic representation for an idea from the content standards push one's thinking to a deeper or different place?
  • How can I design an Interactive Nonfiction Notebook page that features non-linguistic representations that are meant to be interacted with by the classmates I show my work to?
  • How does a writer who creates an "interactive challenge" for others in his/her notebook ensure that he/she has reached the deepest level of Bloom's taxonomy?

What's an Interactive Non-Fiction Notebook (INN) Assignment? When we are studying a new piece of fact-driven content, I often assign my students to add one or two new pages in their Interactive Non-Fiction Notebooks. These composition books' pages are researched, planned, drafted, polished, and presented to two or three other students on a special day we set aside, and usually we can get through the process of making and sharing these in 2-3 days. I try to provide a menu of ideas for students to use when designing an interactive non-fiction notebook page (using a series of non-linguistics representation is certainly on my classroom menu of choices), but ultimately I want my students to create their own ideas for interesting ways to present information they've learned about a topic of study. We teach a lot of concept attainment in traditional schools, but I don't see enough teaching that pushes the students to a place where they are encouraged to create their own conceptual ideas, their own unique ways of presenting the information they've learned. That's what I aim for: I want my students to create their own concepts with which they can explain their learning to an audience or to me, their teacher.

When I assign an Interactive Non-fiction Notebook page, on the final copy that is actually presented in small groups and to me, I expect to find and assess the quality of the following:

  • facts that the student has decided are worth remembering have been recorded in a way that others can read them and understand them;
  • facts that are written completely in the student's own words (aka summarization);
  • personal reactions/responses/connections to content that can be pointed out and explained when the INN page is shared in a small group;
  • (required for my advanced learners) an interactive element--like a quiz, riddle, game, active listening task--the audience is made aware of so they can participate fully when the page is shared in small groups or with partners.

What I like about Non-Linguistic Representation-based pages is, if you conceal the explanations of the pictures, the page becomes a natural tool to

We don't always use our Interactive Non-Fiction Notebooks (INNs) when we learn new content, but when we do, my students know they're to do two things: 1) learn the content that truly interests them deeply; 2) reflect on that content personally to create a unique way to share what was learned on the page each student designs for the notebook.

Wordless Picture Books as Mentor Texts: The teacher textbook that inspired me to use Non-Linguistic Representations more with my own students was Robert Marzano's A Handbook for Classroom Instruction that Works. The books I use to teach my students to look for NL-Reps are wordless books, and they are listed below:

  • Window by Jeannie Baker tells its wordless tale as a baby grows to boyhood then manhood while looking out the same upstairs window. Many new items appear in each new view out the window, and most items stand for something beyond themselves or a bigger idea.
  • There are a lot of great wordless David Weisner books I own and use, but my new favorite is Mr. Wuffles. It's about a cat discovering a small alien spaceship in his home. There are plenty of items that stand for ideas beyond themselves in the pictures; the fact that the aliens have a flag they wish to post on this new planet makes the item worth discussing.
  • Clementina's Cactus is a beautiful book full of items--both big and small--that can be discussed as Non-Linguistic Representations. I point out that the wood-burning stove can be a symbol of warmth and family, and that usually starts a discussion where my students are analyzing both big and small items found in the pictures.

My three favorite wordless mentor texts

by Jeannie Baker

Mr. Wuffles

by David Weisner

Clementina's Cactus

by Ezra Jack Keats

Below, I happily demonstrate two ways I've used Non-Linguistic Representations to turn my students into "presenters of accurate information" as they interact in my student-centered classroom. They are...

  • Making Non-Linguistic Representations of the Writing Traits, or this could be done with ANY skills of writing.
  • Making a Non-Linguistic INN page to share one's ideas about new content in an interactive way


Idea #1...Making Non-Linguistic Representation Charts of the Writing Traits (or genres) Another possible EQ...How do you represent writing skills or writing's different formats with pictorial representation?

One of the learning tasks I share when I am out presenting to other teachers in other states (click here to see about hiring me to come to your state) is my take on using Non-Linguistic Representations as a catalyst to creating a more student-centered classroom. I use a very similar learning task in my own classroom with my teen-aged students as well.

Once we have learned enough about--at least--four of the six writing traits, we set about to design, create, and present a NL-Rep that shows how the traits we've learned about work together to create stronger writing. The teachers or students I am working with have seen the visual posters that go with the underlined link in the previous sentence, so the only restriction in this task is to come up with an original idea that's different than those found on the six traits poster set we offer for free at Teachers Pay Teachers!

Here are some samples from both students and teachers I have worked with. On some, only four traits are represented; on others, there may be more. How many of the six traits can you interpret from these images without speaking to the learners who created these:

Non-Linguistic Representations of the Writing Traits...How Many Can You Interpret?
(click images to see them in larger format)

Now, I don't have these Non-Linguistic Rep authors here anymore to verify whether your guesses are correct or not, and that's problematic for me. I believe, when you assign NL-Reps, the following ALL need to happen:

  • Students work in partners or small groups to translate newly learned content into Non-Linguistic Representations.
  • Students work together to create a chart of their NL-Reps. No words at all should be used on the chart, but symbols are okay. Remember, these are my rules, and you can modify them if you wish.
  • Students share their NL-Rep. They listen to other groups' answers and to others' explanations of how they arrived at those answers based on their pictorial representations.
  • Students confirm answers for their own charts, explaining the "why" behind each NL-Rep, if someone else has guessed wrong.

These four steps really work nicely when adding a student-centered element to your classroom. Once the students have the content from the teacher and the instructions for the chart, the responsibility for learning (and teaching) gets turned over to them. I have learned since saving these charts that it's best to keep a written record of each group's actual answers so that the fourth bullet above can take place, even if you're using an older sample created by your learners.

In the "Idea #2" section of this page, you will see how I ensured that I would be able to keep a record of the creator if the NL-Rep's original answer by having the answers become part of the INN Page.

If you don't teach writing traits, I've done the same activity with writing genres. If you click the picture just above and at right, you will see a student's NL-Rep for the genre of narrative. How would friendly letters or an argumentative essay look different?


Idea #2...Making Non-Linguistic Representations into Interactive Nonfiction Notebook (INN) Pages Another possible EQ...How do you create a NL-Rep that isn't too easy for someone else to interpret but also isn't too difficult to interpret.

I show my students samples from my own INN before they begin their work; they appreciate that I do this, but I always try to make my models on topics they wouldn't be using in my own class. I don't want them to be able to copy any of my content, but if my NL-Rep ideas give them their own ideas, then I'm fine with that.

My INN example below has a Non-Linguistic Representation on the left, and the explanations of each NL-Rep can be found beneath one of the flaps on the right-hand side of the two-page notebook spread. My self-chosen topic was: The Four Main Causes of World War I.

I set up the whole page to be an "interactive game" for my "audience" when I share the page and my new knowledge. For this NL-Rep example, I taped the following instructions onto the flaps that hide the answers to my NL-Reps:

  • My Layout: At left, represented non-linguistically by me--your teacher--are the four main causes of WWI. Beneath these flaps, you will find my written explanations of my NL-Reps. I'll happily explain any visual you can't make sense of.
  • First: Please look over my non-linguistic representations at left and "take a stab" at what you think each visual might represent, knowing my topic is the four main causes of WWI. Do this four all four of my NL-Reps.
  • Second: Choose your favorite color of paper flap from the right-hand side and lift just that flap first. Read the explanation below. Figure out which of the four NL-Reps best matches the words I have written for you beneath the flaps.
  • Third, Fourth, and Fifth: Repeat the same process from the previous step with the three remaining flaps. Start with your second favorite color. Go to your third. End with your fourth favorite color. If you have suggestions for ways I might improve my NL-Reps, I welcome your input.
Non-Linguistic Representation Model from my own INN Notebook
(click images to see them in larger format)

Here is the two-page spread from my Interactive Nonfiction Notebook.

Here is one of the four causes of WWI represented non-linguistically. Can you guess what my NL-Rep is representing?

And here is the explanation of my NL-Rep, which was hidden beneath the orange flap on my INN page. How close was your guess?

Some topics I've used when assigning NL-Reps for our Interactive Nonfiction Notebooks (INNS):

  • Create 3 or 4 Non-Linguistic Representations that stand for the principles that make up and the motivating forces behind three of the characters in our class novel.
  • Create 3 Non-Linguistic Representations that stand for the three different stages of life ("Riddle of the Sphinx," ya'll!) for the person or group you researched.
  • Create a Non-Linguistic Representation for the writing trait that you "shine with," and create a Non-Linguistic Representation for the writing trait you "struggle with." Represent without words what you shine with and what you struggle with.


If your students like the idea of using Non-Linguistic Representations to inspire writing on a notebook page, I would love to see you post a picture/scan of their writing at this posting link: Better still, if your students invent a new way to uniquely inspire writing in their writer's notebooks, we want to hear about it: corbett@corbettharrison.com

from Corbett & Dena Harrison to you...
Six Idea-Generating INN Ideas
An Interactive Non-Fiction Notebook (INN) requires students to use interesting researched facts they've learned as they create a unique or thematic way to present the information to their fellow students on "INN Presentation Day." Using INNs really improved the student-centeredness of my classroom as it turned my students tasks into tasks where they would later teach another student.
Writing across the Curriculum:
Anachronism takes the form of a Live Newscast

Strange Time/Place for a News Reporter
inspired by Margie Palatini's tub-boo-boo

An inspired STRUCTURE mentor text
Impersonating A Test's "Voice"
in a Math-Crazy World? Fun!

My Own Darn Math Curse
inspired by Jon Scieszka's
Math Curse

This resource page features one of the freely posted ideas we share with our fellow writing teachers. We hope this page's idea inspires the establishment of a writer's notebook routine in your classroom.

If you're a teacher who is just getting started with classroom writer's notebooks, welcome aboard. We fund this website--Always Write--by selling just a few of our products from our Teachers Pay Teachers store. Before buying, kindly take advantage of the free preview materials we share so you know if the resources will work with your grade level and teaching style before you purchase the entire product.

Our FIRST Product!
Beginner Prompts, Thoughtfully Presented:

-- Teachers Pay Teachers Link --
-- Free Preview of August & September --

-- short video about SWT & Bingo Cards --

365 Ideas for Writing/Discussing:

-- Teachers Pay Teachers Link --
Want a writing task you can always rely on?
I teach my students to turn new words into "people" through writing.

Personifying Vocabulary Words
inspired by David Melling's
The ScallyWags

For our twice-monthly classroom Vocabulary Writer's Workshop day, a Vocabulary Root Chart is one of the more logical, research-inspired writing tasks from which my students can choose to publish. Each of their four words must make use of a different writing task. Here is an example of a student's "published" four words, ready for presentation on Vocabulary Workshop Day. In the upper right, this student has done a root word writing task as his learning task for that word.

Visit our
Vocabulary Resource Page
for dozens of free ideas to try!

Don't get tired of elections. Parody them!
Run an Unlikely-to-Happen Election in Your Writer's Notebook

Unusual Notebook Election/Campaign
inspired by Doreen Cronin's
Duck for President

For Writers Needing a Guided Challenge:

-- Teachers Pay Teachers Link --
Show Students How Language is Fun!
A Plethora of Fantabulous
Words Await your Students in
Ruth Heller's Books...

Collective Noun Riddles for Writer's Notebooks
inspired by Ruth Heller's
A Cache of Jewels and Other Collective Nouns


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