Welcome. My name is Corbett Harrison, and I have been an educator and a teacher-trainer since 1991. I specialize in teaching writing using differentiated instruction. I also focus on critical thinking techniques, especially during the pre-writing and revision steps of the writing process.

I serve Northern Nevada for nine months of the year (August-May), and during summers and during our two-weeek breaks during the school year, I hire myself out to school districts and professional organizations around the country.

Summer of 2014 is all booked. If you would like to check my availability for the summer of 2015, please contact me at my e-mail address.

 

Always
Write

 
       Because writing--when taught right--can be the most enjoyable part of your teaching day, I created this website.

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One of my core classroom beliefs: Students will write every day...in my classroom, we call it "Sacred Writing Time"

It's ten simple minutes out of our daily schedule, but it's become one of the most important things we do in my classroom. We write...every single day...about anything we want. Ten minutes of freedom with our pencils and our imaginations or our dogmatic, pondering brains. There are no exceptions to this ten-minute time allotment. When my students walk in, those who keep their writer's notebooks in my classroom bin pull out those notebooks, locate their sacred writing partners, and sit side-by-side with them. Those students who take their notebooks home with them every day pull their notebooks out of their binders or backpacks, and they find their SWT partners. As soon as class begins, we have ten minutes of silence, and I monitor, making sure everyone's pencil is dancing.

These days. they still sub me out a lot to host or attend professional development at other schools in my district. My two regular substitutes know how to load my daily SWT slide (see below), and they know how to run what I call "sacred writing time." If we have a reading quiz or a state mandated test that day, we still do Sacred Writing Time. If it's a research day in the library, they bring their writer's notebooks with them, and they have to write for ten minutes before they are allowed to begin any other project. I never cancel SWT no matter what else is going on with the schedule.

People ask me how I grade their sacred writing. I don't...not really. Okay, it's a participation grade only. I maintain a special SWT page in my grade book that is a spreadsheet with all their names on it. On any day they don't use all ten minutes, I write the date next to their names. Every month students earn an SWT grade from me, and they receive full credit provided they have no dates written next to their names; it's an easy class work grade. If I catch them doing homework instead of writing in their notebooks, I write the date next to their name, and I have been known to rip up their homework; usually, you only have to be that dramatic one time. If they stare into space, I warn them, and I write the date next to their name on the second warning. When they are absent, I write the date next to their names, and they know they owe their writer's notebooks ten minutes and that they have to show me the entry (we write the date next to every entry) in order for me to cross off that date in my grade book. My kids' notebooks are visual, so a lot attempt to color during their ten minutes, and I say no to that; the ten minutes every day must be spent writing, and if they exhaust their topic, they must start a new one. These are the simple-to-follow rules that earn them full credit in my grade book.

Should we have a guest observer or an administrator in the room during Sacred Writing Time, as soon as we are finished writing silently, I ask, "Who can tell our guest(s) the three reasons why we write quietly every day in this classroom for ten uninterrupted minutes?" Half of the kids wave their hands frantically in the air, hoping to be the one who explains to our guest the three objectives I link to Sacred Writing Time:

Mr. Harrison's Three Objectives for Sacred Writing Time
Sacred Writing Time builds writing fluency skills. Producing a page of interesting thoughts in 10 minutes is a goal.
Sacred Writing Time challenges us to be creative. We learn to present our ideas in unique formats.
Sacred Writing Time is when we practice new writing skills and vocabulary words from Mr. Harrison's mini-lessons.

Ralph Fletcher--in his awesome how-to-be-a-writer books--talks about walking through the world with a "writer's eyes." Smart people walk through the world and make observations, but making an observation doesn't make you a writer; it makes you an observer and a thinker. Writers are thinkers who take the time to write their observations down, good writers write them down so they're engaging to reread or to share, and good writing teachers provide at least ten minutes so that their students can turn their thinking into interesting snippets writing. "We write to prove that we think" is the motto of my classroom, and it always will be. Just knowing that the next time they enter my classroom they will be doing Sacred Writing Time makes them actively walk through their world looking for interesting topics. SWT is a classroom routine whose simple presence makes my kids more observant, and they become observant for a different reason: to prove to me they think about things in interesting ways.

The thing about SWT is that you have to work hard to make your kids take it seriously and to--more importantly--value it. It doesn't just happen; you don't simply announce to your students in August that they will have ten minutes every day to write and hope they do what you want them to, which is record their thinking in interesting ways. I provide resources to those who need them. I model the process every single year, even when I roll-up with my students. I participate in SWT too, though certainly not every period, but I try to get my ten minutes in every day too. I've learned lots and lots of tricks over the years to keep them engaged and energetic during those ten minutes every day, and on this page I will be sharing those tricks of the trade.

I assess how well my students have learned to value their ten minutes of "free writing" every day in the following way: if you're doing it right, this is what will happen, not every day, but certainly every week:

  1. Students will audibly groan when the ten-minute timer goes off and ask if they can have extra time to finish up their thinking.
  2. When the timer goes off, students will beg, "Can we share today? PLEASE!"
  3. You will hear a student (in the hallway or during a class discussion) excitedly say, "Oh, I am writing about that the next time I have to do sacred writing."

A teacher told me recently that her administrator had suggested that Sacred Writing Time was a waste of ten minutes since the kids could write about anything they wanted, not necessarily about anything directed at the teacher's current unit or lesson. I've never seen this teacher teach, and I don't know her administrator at all, but I'm going to say the following boldly: either the teacher hasn't established the routine well enough to make it appear to be anything more than quiet busywork, or her administrator is not very smart. I liken the process of SWT to a student learning music and sports. The most important thing I do is teach my kids to write, and I teach them write well. If I was teaching them to play music well or to be a valuable member of their sports team, there would need to be practice ahead of time. You don't just expect students to perform at the spring concert or win the big game without practice, and there are two types of practice: directed practice and fun practice. Sacred Writing Time is our fun practice. It's ten simple minutes out of my daily schedule, and I assure you the remaining time I spend with my kids is directed practice and directed learning of Common Core Standards.

If an administrator ever suggested to me that SWT was not a valuable use of classroom time, especially in this time of Common Core, I would reply, "You can take my Sacred Writing Time away from me when you pry it from my cold, dead hands." Okay, I wouldn't be that dramatic, but I would send them to this page at my website.

I created this page to justify SWT, and to showcase the amazing things that happen when it's treated as a sacred routine in your classroom. I always welcome feedback: corbett@corbettharrison.com

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SWT Resources and Ideas...from my classroom to yours

Picture this. Class has just begun in room 615. Every student has found his/her "Sacred Writing Partner," and Mr. Harrison has pulled out his iPhone so he can set its timer for ten minutes. Writer's notebooks are being opened quickly and pencils are being madly looked for. They know as soon as Mr. H says, "Go!" they owe me ten minutes of pencil dancing, or they might lose participation points. It's early in the school year, so not everyone has walked in with an idea ready to write about today, but that will change by the time we get to Thanksgiving. I remind those who didn't walk through my classroom door with an idea of their own to serve as their topic for the day that they can still consult my Bingo Card for the month, my Choice Menu of the month if they're up for a real challenge, or they can respond to anything that's written up there on my Sacred Writing Time PowerPoint slide. "This is not sacred reading time. This is not sacred coloring time. This is not sacred staring into space time. This IS sacred writing time. You owe your notebooks and me ten minutes right now. Make it fun. Go."

And they're off. Within a minute every pencil is truly dancing. Some kids have drawn an empty 3" x 3" box at the top of the page because they plan to go back and add an illustration to the topic they've chosen to write about. Some kids are continuing the novels or short stories they've been working on all week or--perhaps--all month. Some kids are snickering at their own words as they fly from their mechanical pencils to those blank notebook pages that are quickly filling up with words. Five minutes in, I do a quick walk-around, scanning my students' topics as I hand each kid an index card (or something else) for today's first planned activity after SWT. If I like a student's topic or their unique approach (writing a poem instead of a paragraph, for example), I gently pat them on the back and give them the thumbs up. My lesson plan for the day is ready to go, and I know it'll take us all the way to the end of the period, so today I give them the sixty-second warning, saying, "You have one minute to bring it to a stopping place." They don't always get the one-minute warning from me; sometimes, when we're less pressed for time, we can tack on a minute or two--if they beg for it--or they can share with their SWT partners for a minute or two.

At ten minutes, my iPhone timer goes off. It quacks as its sound effect, and we began calling the timer "The Duck of Death," and his quacking means it's time to kill of the sentence you're writing with a period. Many kids groan at the sound of my quacking duck, for SWT has become one of their favorite parts of Language Arts class; it's their chance to be truly creative or truly opinionated, and although they know my upcoming lesson will most likely be engaging and fun, they'd prefer to continue writing their own ideas in their own way. I--of course--do have several students in each class who slam shut their notebooks as soon as the duck quacks, but this is a small number of students in each class compared to those who want more time. I will win those students over before the year is out. That is my goal. Below are the tools and techniques I will use to make those resistant writers value these ten simple minutes.

Need a Topic for Sacred Writing Time Today?
I collect writing prompts but I don't assign them; instead, I teach my students to actively seek out their own SWT topics as we navigate our way through curriculum and life, but not all of my students have the discipline to remember to always be seeking their next SWT topic. Below, there are 504 writing prompts I have collected over the year, and they are stored in the generator below. For your students who need topic ideas, allow them to push the button until they find a topic that suits them. Don't let them waste their allotted ten minutes just pressing the button below though; I've dealt with those students in the past.

Instructions: Click the button until you discover a writing prompt that sparks an idea in your brain. Write freely for ten or fifteen minutes, not worrying about writing conventions (spelling, punctuation, grammar, etc.) or if the sentences are perfectly formed. Just put some good ideas down in your notebook that you can build upon and improve later. If you have time, I always suggest you go back and add a visual (like Mr. Stick) to help you remember what you wrote down.



 

A Tip: If you accidentally click past a prompt you wished you hadn't, use your mouse's right-click button on the white screen above, select undo, and you can go backwards through the prompts you've already seen

Suggest a prompt? If you have a favorite prompt you use with students, feel free to send it to me at corbett@corbettharrison.com. If I end up adding your prompt to this prompt generator, I will send you a complimentary copy of my writing prompts in a thirty-page Word document.

Purchase these 504 prompts as a Word Document? Tired of clicking? I offer a 30-page version of these prompts for sale at Our Products page.

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My Short and Sweet Rationale for SWT
Coming in January 2015: Sacred Writing Time Video-casts
The two pieces of writing displayed here come from the same student. Which is better?

Common Core Standards pushes for more informative and argumentative writing assignments, and I have no problem with that. I have a personal collection of great expository assignments, and when I teach debate and argument, most of my kids have a fantastic time, and they don't even realize how much writing and research I'm making them do.

Not every student I teach, however, does their best writing with our more formal, CCSS-inspired assignments. It may (or may not, depending on your years of experience) surprise you to know my best writers don't necessarily score the best on our lovely Nevada State Writing Exam. I have required my students to maintain writing portfolios since my second year because I know a single task or test doesn't define a student's abilities; looking at all of their writing together does.

Put simply, I have a handful of students who showcase their best writing skills during Sacred Writing Time. It's not the majority of them, but it's enough of them for me to hang on to Sacred Writing as a daily practice, especially knowing that my three main objectives of SWT help all my students in some way grow as writers. The fact that I have some writers doing their best writing during those ten minutes is an additional perk.

One student I recently graduated into 9th grade--Gerry--is a great example of how good writers need freedom to show off their best skills. At the end of seventh grade, we write our first literary analysis essay. I know, how very Common Core of me, right? For three weeks, my students analyze Steinbeck novellas for theme, writing style, setting, and dynamic characters, then they plan a formal essay. We pre-write, draft, respond, revise, edit, publish, conference...the whole gosh darn writing process with a Common Core Standard (or two) as our objective. In a perfect world, this writing workshop experience would help all students produce one of their best pieces of writing, right? Hardly. Forced writing formats, purposes, and topics rarely push a kid to discover his best writing skills. This is the essay Gerry published after our three-week writing workshop and in-class analysis of John Steinbeck: Gerry's essay.

Now compare that dry, 7th grade essay to this heartfelt, well-written Sacred Writing Time submission Gerry wrote about five months later. Whether you agree with Gerry's admiration of the Patriots or not, you cannot miss his skill as a writer shining through: Gerry's Sacred Writing.

Gerry earned an 'A' from me just about every semester. Without SWT, I might not have known what a great writer he actually is. Do well in high school, Gerry.

I am going to finally do it. And I am really excited by the idea. How did I get inspired? I'll tell you.

I helped out a local grant here in June by serving as "Instructor of Record" for a pretty cool University-based experience we gave to 20 high school juniors at two of our high schools with the most kids living below the poverty level. The grant's goal is to help more low-income but driven students to take advantage of some of our district's out-of-classroom credit-earning opportunities, like internships and special courses offered at our local university.

I didn't plan the class; I was simply its "Instructor of Record." I took role, I ran warm-ups and class closures, and introduced all the guest speakers, and I was one of those speakers. I had a great time because the folks who came in and talked were so darned interesting. The main topic of the speakers kept coming back to "Putting Yourself Out There as a 'Brand' in this Internet-driven World of ours."

I realized I liked the term "brand" for describing yourself as a product you present to the world. In class, we talked about ordinary people as well as celebrities who have done good and bad work in creating and maintaining a respectful image, a generous image, a go-getting image, a positive image that people would gravitate towards. These 20 kids realized their futures would depend on how well they begin building their brands and how well they maintained them.

At this website, I am a brand, and I think I present myself a good brand. I have gathered many teacher-followers who appreciate my devotion to Sacred Writing Time, to Writer's Notebooks, to Writer's Workshops, even to Mr. Stick.

I am going to be advancing my brand this upcoming January. With some of the extra money we've made selling our Sacred Writing Slides, we are going to be redesigning our office in our house, and part of our custom design is to have the built-in ability to video-cast. To advance my brand, I will be providing two free video-casts per week that are appropriate to share with your students. The first (posted Mondays, I imagine) will be an invitation to do some sacred writing with me on an interesting topic I've been thinking about. The second (posted Thursdays, I imagine) will have me sharing the sacred writing I ultimately did on the topic so that students can compare what they did with the topic versus what I did.

The new office should be in place by the end of October. I will probably do some practice video-casts, letting my own kids critique them; then, I will start posting these free weekly videos to teacher-subscribers for the new year.

I learned I had a "brand" this summer. I learned I had to keep developing new techniques to keep my brand interesting in a world full of competitive brands. I have decided my brand will be evolving soon with some new video-casts that will--hopefully--help make SWT in your classroom as beneficial as it is to my classroom.

Keep checking back with me. This teacher's brand is about to grow into something even more high tech.

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Our Three For-Sale Items for SWT and for Launching Writer's Workshop Topics
95% of what Dena and I offer at our website is totally free, and I am really proud of that fact. Good teachers are naturally generous people, I have found, and over the years I have been freely given so many things that giving out a free monthly lesson is the very least I can do to repay my profession. A few years back, the glorious state of Nevada cut all state employees' salaries by 2%, and that motivated Dena and me to begin designing high-quality writing instruction materials that we could offer for sale. We create these for-sale materials over the summer months; then, we spend a year using them with our students so that we can work out any "kinks," finally offering them for sale to anyone who is interested.

Here's the deal: You can absolutely set-up a Sacred Writing Time routine without owning any of the three SWT resources we offer below. Dena and I created these three resources specifically for those kids who struggle with the concept of "free writing," those kids who don't believe their ideas are significant enough to write down in their notebooks. The funny thing about all three of these products is our number one goal is to teach our students not to need them. In a true ten minutes of Sacred Writing Time, every kid is working on a piece of writing about a topic that he or she has self-selected. By December, I want zero of my kids to need me to run off the Bingo Cards anymore; even so, even from my very best writers when it comes to topic self-selection, there are days when something found on one of these resources just resonates with a kid and--even though they had their own topic ready to go--they temporarily change gears for the day and write from one of these resources. All three of the following resources are available to my students every day, and all three guarantee that all my kiddos pencil dance when I say, "Go!"

our very first SWT product
Ten Writer's Notebook Bingo Cards
interesting facts, words, quotes and prompts
366 Sacred Writing Time Slides
differentiated tool for your advanced writers
Writer's Workshop Choice Menus

Click on the Bingo Card to read about ordering the set.

Click on the August 15 slide to read about ordering the set.

Click on the Italian Menu to read about ordering the set.
Twenty-four engaging prompts for August through May (240 total), and ten center-square lessons designed to teach your students a unique format for writing about anything. I tell students they aren't allowed to make more than one Bingo per month to help them choose carefully from each card's choices, but ultimately they should not need the prompts this tool provides. The bingo cards are editable if you have Microsoft Word.

Try the two months of free samples out with your kids to see if they respond to them. Enjoy this free preview of the bingo cards:

Boy, do I hear about it if the students walk in to class, and the SWT slide for the day is not being displayed on my SmartBoard. Even if they don't write about any of the topics, they enjoy reading them and talking to each other about them. The four pieces of information displayed (daily holiday, trivial fact, quotation, and vocabulary word) start great discussions when I mix up groups or have them change partners. The slides are all editable if you have PowerPoint.
  • August 15 - September 15 SWT Slides (Try them out with your students to see if they work, to see if they inspire ideas for writing from students who need an idea. Our kids love these slides, if not for writing prompts but for discussion purposes.)
When teachers differentiate, I find they spend most of their time building a lot of scaffolding for their struggling students, the ones who need that extra support. But what about extra materials and engaging ideas for your exceptionally bright kiddos? Dena, our friend Jenny Hoy, and I had our exceptional group of kids in mind when we created this third piece of support to put in place. There are eight "menus," all with a different nationality as its theme.
  • Italian "Menu" of Writing Choices (This is but one of the eight menus we designed, and it can be introduced any time in the school year, not just at the beginning.)

 

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Some "Tricks of the Trade" with Sacred Writing Time
If you want Sacred Writing Time to work, you have to work to make it work. It doesn't just magically happen. Here are some management tips that I have established over the years and have modified with each passing year. I share them with you below. Feedback is always appreciated: corbett@corbettharrison.com.

Establish Three (or More) "Sacred Writing Partners"
Have Students Create their own Topic Banks
I design a lot of partner- and small group-learning tasks. Early on in the school year, once my students have started to get to know each other and find like-minded learners whom they feel they can talk to and trust, we begin to establish Sacred Writing Partners. By the halfway point of our first quarter, my students have established three different SWT partners, and they write each other's names down on the inside covers of their writer's notebooks. We call these our"SWT 1," "SWT 2," and "SWT 3 Partners."

My desks are set up in rows of two desk s side-by-side because everybody needs to have a shoulder partner for my tasks. I don't have a seating chart as I want students to sit in different places every day. As they enter, they ask, "Which partners today, Mr. H?" and I respond with one of my three SWT groupings. They go find a seat with whichever partner that is. I try to keep track so they have to sit with each one of their SWT partners at least once a week.

The purpose of an SWT partner is that each student has someone they feel comfortable sharing his/her writing with after SWT, if there is time to do so. We don't always share because there isn't always time, though it really only takes two minutes if you give each partner one minute to read something aloud from his/her notebook. There are days when kids aren't real happy with what they wrote during that day's SWT, so by rotating partners, I can always say, "Share something new you wrote in your notebook from the last week," and I can guarantee they can find something to share that they've not shared with this partner before.

Occasionally, you'll have two partners laughing so hard during their share-time that it warrants a "Whole Class Share," but only if the student who wrote what was so enjoyable is willing to share out loud with the whole class.

As soon as SWT time is over and we move into the day's lesson, I have students move away from their SWT partners for that day. I like my students to work alongside different people so they can hear different perspectives. I have a variety of grouping strategies I use, but with SWT partners, I also have the ability to quickly move them to one of their other two already-established partnerships in a pinch.

Once they understand they have the freedom to write in any format during their Sacred Writing Time, some students write lists, some paragraphs, some poems. One perk of rotating partners is that they see other students taking different approaches during their designated ten minutes.

No matter how many resources you give them, you'll still have students entering class topic-less a few months into the school year, and you need to front-load for those kids. I used to suggest that students who knew they'd have trouble coming up with a topic every day make some lists early on. The purpose of these lists? To serve as topic banks, to serve as pages the students can consult when they need a ten-minute writing topic fast. "Make a list of ten things you would have no trouble writing about." "Make a list of five people who deserve a good telling-off." "Make a list of your friends you'd put in a fictional story and explain what would their story would be about?" These suggested lists worked; at least, they worked for the kids who took the suggestion to write them down.

A few years back, I started requiring an in-class notebook alphabet page every fall. The kids brainstormed an alpha-list, they revised their alpha-lists, and then they published them in their notebooks as neatly and as colorfully as possible. Each alpha-list was strategically designed to go along with an upcoming topic of study for my three different grade levels:

  1. My sixth graders would make an "Alpha-Genre" list, where they brainstormed 26 different forms of writing they might create if asked. My sixth graders learn about the different genres of writing, so this topic was perfect for them. This lesson is online; you can access it freely using this link. It's the center-square lesson on our September Bingo Card.
  2. My seventh graders write their first formal research report for me early on in the school year, so their alpha-list topic was focused on 26 topics they'd be interested in researching. When we arrive at the assignment, the first thing my students do is consult their list for a possible topic. 7th grader Emily's Alpha-topics list is pictured at right. Click image to zoom in on its details.
  3. My eighth graders begin the school year with a study of the trait of voice, writing a formal persuasive argument using voice skills. They brainstormed 26 different tones that a writer might adopt to convince someone else to change their mind or their behavior.

As colorful and visual as these turn out, my students have a hard time flipping past these pages when they open their notebooks, and the page gives them 26 potential topics to write about if they have come to class less-than-prepared.

Sacred Writing about Sacred Writing Time
Decorated Sacred Writing for Extra Grade book Points
I had a few students try to "blow my mind" this past school year. They boldly announced, "We're going to Sacred Write about Sacred Writing Time today, Mr. Harrison. It's going to be like Inception."

I've learned to just smile and nod when my kids think they sound brilliant. I did explain to them how a lot of great writers create characters who are writers, and they write about their writer characters going through the process. How many Stephen King books can you list where the main character is a writer? I gave them the go-ahead to "Inception me."

The originators of the idea started the process, took the time to decorate it, and I photographed and posted their work up on my whiteboard. It then took off like wildfire. As will happen in a classroom where creativity is being nourished, derivatives of the idea began popping up.

  • Avery wrote about someone having nothing to write about during SWT and how--in writing nothing--she wrote something. "Did I blow your mind, Mr. Harrison?" she asked me. I just smiled and nodded.
  • Jack wrote about the worst ten minutes of sacred writing any student could ever experience.
  • Scott's "Top Ten List of Ways to Fake Sacred Writing" (at right) gave away all his secrets. It's still one of my favorites.

My students ultimately like the routine of Sacred Writing Time. Things that are routine are easy to write about and, because they're routine, I think kids take a few risks with creatively writing about the routine.

I am not an extra credit kind of teacher. I hate being asked for extra credit options three weeks before a report card is issued, and I always say no to such requests. Those kids are not looking for extra credit; they're looking for something-easier-I-can-do-instead-of-what-you-assigned-me-to-do credit, and if they really wanted a good grade, they would have done what they were asked to do in the first place.

I have two regular routines in my classroom that earn my kids regular points for my grade book: 1) daily Sacred Writing Time; and 2) weekly Vocabulary Activities. If you want extra credit from Mr. Harrison, you do those two routines like you're asked, but then you go above-and-beyond with them. You make them stand out. You make Mr. Harrison want to photograph them and post them to his classroom Pinterest boards.

Every week, four or five students can earn a "Mr. Stick of the Week" extra credit award, which celebrates a piece of Sacred Writing my students did in ten minutes (sometimes twenty), and then they took their notebooks home to decorate them. Those kids earn extra points at the end of the month when I give points. They self-nominate their pages by placing them in a special basket on Fridays. Some weeks I have three self-nominated pages; some weeks I have thirty.

I do something similar with a "Vocabulary Collector of the Week" award for kids who go above and beyond with their weekly vocabulary assignments.

That's how you earn extra credit from me. That's the only way. Be aware that as soon as you establish this weekly contest, they'll all want to start coloring during SWT, and they can't. They have to do their decorating away from my classroom. Be firm about that.

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Be Ready to Share and Explain your own Sacred Writing Time Entries
Happenings from
your own home:
I maintain a pretty good writer's notebook, and the teacher modeling I do with that notebook genuinely helps my students succeed during our daily allotted Sacred Writing Time. I believe the personal upkeep of my own writer's notebook and--more importantly--my ability to explain my own thinking about my own entries is what sets me apart from teachers who teach writing versus teachers who assign writing. I teach writing, and I do that through modeling.

I am sure a writer's notebook program can be maintained without good teacher modeling. I have worked with plenty of teachers who have very successfully implemented an SWT-like routine without ever starting their own writer's notebooks and without ever writing alongside their kids. "Do as I say, not as I do" works for a lot of teachers in a lot of different teaching contexts, and I can't pretend I've never used that philosophy myself when designing certain types of instruction. But teaching writing is special. Writer's notebooks are special. Sacred Writing Time is...sacred. When they witness me participating in the same process and when I show them what I am doing and how my thinking is developing, something magical happens between me and my students that can't simply be explained; it can only be experienced. I wish I could explain it because it's what drives me to continue teaching writing in the way that I choose to. "I've never had a teacher like you, Mr. Harrison," they have written to me so many times now in their end-of-year cards and letters, and they're right. It's because I freely share my writer's notebook with them. Sadly, there are not enough of us doing this. I write when I ask them to write.

You should too. That's all the directly stated dogma you're going to hear from me about modeling on this page.

My number one suggestion for busy teachers trying to time to do their own Sacred Writing Time: Do a lot of it over the summer...I'll be honest here; I don't write every day in class alongside my students, and they know that's going to be the case up front. I'm a busy teacher with four different periods to prep on some days, and I have to set up materials for all those planned lessons, and while they are doing their SWT, I often am doing just that. Whenever it's possible, however, I do try to write in front of a different class while they're writing; I set my goal to do this every other day with one different period because it's important for them to see me actually doing it.

Each fall semester, I start off the process of sharing writing by having some new summertime entries ready to show my new batch of kiddos, so they can hear how my SWT entries have begun shaping my thinking about topics that I may actually write longer papers and short poems about. I actively seek out unique ideas over the summer to explore through several ten-minute quick-writes, and I make sure to plan my summertime entries so that some time can lapse between my writings, so that my own thinking can develop in between my visits to my writer's notebook. A writer's notebook is for developing ideas, not for publishing polished ideas. A good writer's notebook needs to be messy. Mine is.

Take photographs around your house and print them on full-sheet sticker paper: My students are genuinely interested in me, which is flattering, and I find walking around my house and home every June and snapping pictures every summer and writing about them in my current notebook is a good way to prepare for summertime Sacred Writing. I stick the pictures in on the blank pages coming up, and then I have a topic ready to go when I am ready to write on that page; the picture dictates what I'm going to write about, and it's a picture of something that reveals a little about me to my students.

Document trips and interesting happenings over your summer: In the summer of 2012, for example, I was working on my web page too much and neglecting the fruit-burdened peach tree in my backyard. The tree split down the middle one Saturday morning while we were out at breakfast. A teacher-friend from Facebook convinced me I could save the tree if I could hoist it back up into position and bolt it back together. Easier said than done, but I was determined. I'd neglected my tree, and I'd do what I could to save it. Without help from anyone, I took the next week to slowly hoist and prop the fallen trunk back in place. I ran half a dozen errands to Home Depot until I had found enough rope and the perfect galvanized bolts to do the job. It was the hardest I had ever worked in my own backyard, and I documented the whole experience in my notebook. I used three pages of entries as an example of how one can explore his/her own hypotheticals through short spurts of writing. "How's your peach tree?" the kids continued to ask all year, and their parents asked the same when I saw them at evening functions. My kids were talking about my writing process at home. They were interested in me, and thusly, they wanted to become interesting in their own notebooks.

The next summer, we had a wild rabbit infestation in our front yard. I became totally intrigued by the two ingredients listed on the rabbit and deer repellent I had purchased at Home Depot: 89% dried blood and 11% red pepper. I saved the product's bag and showed it to my students on day #2 of school, sharing with them the biggest question the product had prompted in my brain: where does one acquire that much dried blood? I wrote my own horror story based on that question in my writer's notebook, but then I seriously wanted to know, and I actually wrote the company and asked. Every kid was fascinated with the answer I received, so I taped in my notebook. All that school year, I had kids continue to write their own stories about the "dried blood" product I brought with me the first day of class. Here's one. Here's another. I inspired that with my teacher model.

Write letters to your students or responses to notes they have given you: I roll-up with my kids (whom I require to add ten SWT entries over their summer vacations). Some of my students I have as 6th, 7th, and 8th graders... those poor kids. I get to know them pretty well, and if I do something over the summer that makes me think of one of them because of an interest they have shared through their in-class writing, I write them a letter. I also take time to respond to some of my students' end-of-year letters and notes in my writer's notebooks, which--not surprisingly--encourages my students to write me more letters and notes, hoping I'll respond to them.

Pets & Student Correspondence:

An entry I use to introduce vocabulary collecting

An entry about a beloved dog passing away from cancer

The first page of my Peach Tree Saga...page 2 is here. Two years later, the tree is doing just fine and the trunk has remarkably almost completely grown over the nuts and bolts holding it together.

Make a great student feel special by writing to him or her during your SWT with a letter like this...a year later, I wrote Matt a second letter over the summer of 2014, and here it is.

My correspondence with a coorporation...The response I received from the corporation was excitedly read by many of my students.

I receive wonderful end-of-year notes from many of my students, which I respond to over the summer months.

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Have Students Design their own Sacred Writing Time Slides
Communicating about Topics in your Teacher's Notebook
This great idea came to me from Wisconsin teacher (Julie M.) who had purchased my Sacred Writing Time slides. She had used them all year, and her students had become very familiar with the format. In the Spring, she had each student sign up for a date and create a slide for the rest of the class. You can access the set of student-made slides she sent me at the blog post I originally made about her idea back in February of 2013. Here is that posting.

In spring of 2014, I decided to try the same thing with my own seventh graders. My eighth graders have always created new vocabulary activities for the sixth and seventh graders to use in the spring, but the seventh graders had never had an opportunity to contribute to the class before in this way. I had about 75 seventh graders that spring, and I divvied up the last six weeks of school days onto a sign-up sheet. Students who had birthdays during the last six weeks of school got to choose their own birthdays first; then, everyone else had their chance. I posted this PowerPoint template so they could match my slide's format. We had two or three slide sign-ups per day, and once they had been turned in, I had my aide put all the individual student's slides into one gigantic file.

Each day, the sixth and eighth graders critiqued the seventh graders' slides, choosing which slide they thought did the best job of encouraging ideas for writing and for trying to create a theme for their day. What struck me as funny was my eighth graders--who had recently stopped caring much about editing their final drafts (because it was spring, after all)--suddenly became the world's greatest editors, spotting every spelling and punctuation error on the seventh graders' slides.

If you click on the picture of the slide below, you can access two weeks' worth of my students' best slides from the spring of 2014.

As I said earlier on this page, I don't have the privilege of writing for ten minutes every day with all of my classes. I could if I would. I have come to really enjoy sacred writing time in my own notebook. Once a week, I try to write for ten minutes with each of my six different periods of students. Sometimes I achieve this goal; sometimes I don't.

Sticky Note Communication: My writer's notebook always sits up front in the class on my teacher's chair. Any kids can flip through it at any appropriate time for ideas or just to see what I am writing about. When a class only sees me write once a week, they often miss some of my topics. One semester, I got in the habit of labeling the topics of my SWT topics on orange Post-it® Notes and leaving my notebook open on my chair so that kids could see what I'd been writing about on the days they missed seeing me doing the actual writing.

I learned to write just enough words on the sticky notes to make students stop and take interest in reading what I had been writing about. One of my favorite orange sticky notes read "Midnight French Kissing," and it was about our puppy's short-lived habit of crawling onto our chests while we slept and licking our faces and lips to wake us up. Click the image above to see a two-page spread from that semester.

Extra Credit Topic Tickets: I keep an extra credit basket filled with Dollar Store loot, stickers, and other silly trinkets. For the basket, I have created several special tickets you can earn for classroom privileges, and one of them is that you can tell Mr. Harrison what he has to write about during his next round of Sacred Writing Time. This worked pretty well, but I have to refine the rules of the practice. Some kids gave me topics that would have been impossible to write about in ten minutes, like "Write a detailed account of the end of the world during the zombie apocalypse," and I had to reject those. Others insisted I spend ten minutes writing about how awesome they were as students, and I ran out nice things to say after three minutes, so I told them they could only make me write a fictional scene from a story that included them as characters.

Click image at right to see Peter's topic to me: Paper airplane across the world. Click here to view my unobstructed ten minutes of Sacred Writing to Peter's topic.

 

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