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, I hire myself out to school districts around the country.

If you would like to check my availability for the summer of 2014, 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.

home | email  


My Most Common Core State Standards-friendly Workshop: Building Critical Thinkers Using the Language of the 6 Writing Traits

I spend the first twelve weeks of my school year teaching students to apply the language of the six writing traits to everything we read and everything we write. I do this diligently, as though the success of the entire school year depends upon it. Why? This establishes a vocabulary for writing, and I am a true believer that you can't teach writing well if you don't have a vocabulary to discuss it with your students. Giving my students--early on--better ownership of trait-inspired language becomes the single best investment of time that I make while building my community of readers and writers.

Face it. There is a lot of academic vocabulary in school that students must learn, and it's hard to teach it all at a high cognitive level. At my workshops for teachers, I often challenge my audience with this question: "So at what level of Bloom's taxonomy do you think your kids actually understand [insert any piece of academic vocabulary here]?" We all want to say our students learn our vocabulary words at the apply level (at least), but the truth is that vocabulary words, for the most part, are learned at the remember and recall level of Bloom's.

The main goal of my Deep Student Thinking with the Writing Traits Workshop is to show what amazing things can happen when students take 6-trait and writing process vocabulary all the way to the analyze and evaluate level of Bloom's. The second biggest goal is to help teachers design some deep-thinking tools to introduce during those critical first weeks of a school year. Our Common Core State Standards absolutely expect our students to apply much deeper cognitive skills to their reading and writing, and a foundation for this type of thinking must begin early in the year, not late.

A quick note about the writing traits. As a process writing teacher, I love the traits. When I was searching for an academic language to use during writing instruction, there they were, already categorized into six neat pieces. In my travels, I've actually met a lot of teachers who don't want to use the traits for a variety of reasons. In my classroom, whenever we turn in a new draft of writing, each student absolutely must be ready to show me two things: 1) Which trait did you "shine with" in this writing, and where is your best evidence of shining? and 2) Which trait was your "struggle trait," and what techniques did you incorporate to make your struggle less painful? Without a deep understanding of writing trait vocabulary in place, we can't have that conversation. If you're a teacher who is anti-trait, please feel free to modify any of the language on the critical thinking tools I share below with whatever list of writing skills you refer to when planning instruction.

Below, find my shared thinking about the CCSS, as well as a sampling of the materials I present during my Critical Thinking with Writing Traits Workshop. I hope you find the information I have posted here useful, and I hope it inspires you to be an even better writing teacher. Would love your comments/feedback: corbett@corbettharrison.com.

Back to the top of the page

A Sampling of Strategies from my Critical Trait-Thinking Workshop:
provided to give you a glimpse of what we focus on during this professional development experience

This is an interactive two- or three-day workshop where participants analyze their current abilities to design effective trait- and process-inspired lessons. After exploring a variety of classroom-inspired trait and process strategies that differentiate for different learning styles and cognitive abilities, teachers set personal goals for the next school year. Below are some of my favorite strategies from this workshop.

Please be aware, these are copyrighted materials that I am sharing here. If you share them with others, kindly cite where you found the ideas. Thanks in advance.

Strategy 1: The Decalogue...Ten Things I Know about Myself as a Writer

In one of my favorite chapter books for young readers--Because of Winn Dixie by Kate Piccalilli is a wonderful use of a decalogue in the fourth chapter. Opal, the main character, asks her father, the Preacher, to tell her ten things about her mother, who has abandoned the family. Opal wants to have a list of ten things that she can memorize, so that she might recognize her mother if she ever sees her some day. I read this chapter aloud at this training; my wife says it's one of her favorite things to hear me read to others. It's because it's an absolutely touching scene, but it's also because it celebrates a list-making strategy I've used since my first year of teaching--the decalogue.

I've used decalogues for years with my students. It's a fancy, old-fashioned word for a list of ten personal beliefs. David Letterman made lists of ten things fun, but the Ten Commandments and the Bill of Rights have been around much longer than Mr. Letterman's sense of humor.

During the week day of class, I ask my students to begin brainstorming a decalogue about themselves and what they know about writing. The list is called "Ten Things I Know about Myself as a Writer." I show them my own teacher example so they have an idea of the types of things I want them to put down. I provide them with a great deal of opportunity to talk to each other about items that might appear on their lists. At the end of the first week, everyone turns in a draft of the list that we began thinking about on day one of class. These final drafts are tucked safely away in my students' writing folders.

At the end of the school year, a week before they head away for the summer, my students write a new decalogue with the exact same title: "Ten Things I Know about Myself as a Writer." They usually can write the second list much faster, since we've pretty much talked about writing every day since class started. As part of their "final exam," my students must sit with me and look over both lists. I ask them to compare the first decalogue to the second one. The conversation we have for those five minutes, in my mind, determines more of their final grade in writing than anything else we do. If I've taught them to think critically and intelligently about the skills of writing, the conversation we have--albeit brief--is remarkable. In order for that conversation to be remarkable, they have to have been taught critical thinking skills while they were in my classroom.

To begin my Deep Student Thinking with the Writing Traits Workshop, I have teachers create their own decalogues. Theirs can be called "Ten Things I Know about Myself as a Writer" or "Ten Things I Know about Myself as a Writing Teacher." My goal, when this is a two-day workshop, is to have them revise their decalogue at the end of the second day with new learning picked up during the workshop

Back to the top of the page

Strategy 2: Encouraging Deeper Thinking about Writing Skills with my 6-Trait Post-it Notes

When I first created my Post-it templates, I intended them to be used during response time as a motivator for revision, which I explain below. As time has passed, I have found so many new uses that I cover during my 2- and 3-day workshops. Truly, these simple little notes became worth their weight in gold to me, which is more significant than it sounds; I suspect I go through ten or twenty pounds of Post-it notes every school year!

How I used these Post-its during Response Time: I try to vary my use of my seventeen different Post-its, so students can't second-guess how I want them to think on any given day. Here are a few variations:

  • It's response group day in class, which means everyone has a rough draft. Students, working with their regular groups, must have--at least--two other students read their drafts and record their rankings on the Post-its. On some response days, all the students rank the others' drafts using the same Post-it, which makes for great conversation when two readers--both looking at organization, for example--have different rankings.
  • On other response days, all the students rank one another using different Post-its, which gave the writer specific areas to think about improving for more than one trait.
  • Some days , before entering response groups, I will have the writer self-rank his/her own skills in the draft so he/she could then compare his own perception of his writing to his responders' reactions.

In short, these Post-it Notes ultimately served as tiny little "scripts" that students carried with them in order to talk about their own writing or another student's. These mini-scripts gave them specific skills to seek out in writing, and the conversations that they had based on the rankings helped them begin to "own" the language of the trait skills at much more than the remember and recall level of Bloom's. Without a doubt, the best conversations about quality writing happened in my classroom on the days we used the Post-it Notes below.

Next to the two Post-its I've shared below, feel free to enjoy my brief history lesson of where the Post-its came from and how they have developed over the years.

My Personal Post-it History: I was bored at my desk one lunch hour and discovered a silly picture of myself that I'd saved on the computer. I wondered to myself, "Is there a way to print that picture on a Post-it Note so I could hang it somewhere funny?" It took me three or four tries, but eventually the picture was printed perfectly in the middle of a 3" x 3" Post-it. I hung it somewhere funny, but as was typical, I was the only person who really saw any humor in it.

A few days later, an educational application for printing on Post-it notes occurred to me. We were getting ready to have response and revision groups, and my response checklist that I had been using since the beginning of the year was starting to feel stale to my students. Many most likely had it memorized by this time, which is always dangerous, I think. As soon as they think they know what it says, they stop reading anything carefully. So, I created a mini-checklist for idea development that--like my silly picture a few days back--I could land in the center of a Post-it Note when I ran it through my printer's feeder tray.

I taught my student helper to print them, and the next day when my kids came in for response groups, they were each handed a Post-it note instead of the usual checklist. The first reaction was, of course, "How did you make these, Mr. Harrison?" (Click here to view/print my online printing instructions.) The second reaction was a feeling of overall excitement as they sat down to use this new classroom workshop tool.

Now, the green Post-it Note you see displayed at left was not in my original set; what you see here is about the fifteenth revision of the idea development post-it, and on the full-sheet version, you can print six of these Post-its per page for your student writers. In my training packet, there are full-sheets for all six traits.

The purple Post-it at left is one of my newer variations. With this checklist, students analyze a published piece of writing with a single trait in mind. In my for-purchase packet, I have versions of this Post-it for each of the traits, as well as versions that have students analyze mentor texts for multiple traits simultaneously.

My original Post-its asked the kids rate the five listed skills from 1-5 as they read each other's drafts. When rating, you're allowed to rate them all 3's or all 4's, if you want, and that is what many of the students started doing. Kids will find ways to be lazy and not think hard, if you let them...even if you do give them a cool Post-it!

And so the brilliance of this posted set lies the verb rank. When ranking, you can only award one score of 1, one score of 2, etc. That requires students to think in superlatives (best, least, etc.), and that means they are pushed to a deeper level of Bloom's taxonomy. Ranking pushed my writers to analyzing and evaluating skills against other skills. And the playing field was leveled, as my strongest writer in class had one score of 5, but so did my struggling writers.

Once students responded to one another's writing by filling out Post-it notes for each other, then the students were ready to make decisions about what they might revise for, if they were looking for ways to strengthen one of the traits in their writing. Students didn't automatically have to revise for the skill that received the "1" score; instead, I allowed them to choose from the "1," "2," or "3" ranked skills as they created a revision plan.

Purchase all seventeen of my trait-inspired Post-it notes as editable full-sheets for your classroom by clicking here. You'll also receive my 50-slide Powerpoint which explains how I use them to teach analysis skills. Preview my PowerPoint here.

 

Back to the top of the page

Strategy 3: The Conventions Trait: Perfect Practice and Creating a Community of Editors

Teachers often ask students to do convention-inspired tasks during revision; check your spelling, for example. True revision should actually have nothing to do with the conventions trait. In my workshops, I used to say that conventions should be saved exclusively for the editing step of the writing process, but I've changed my mind on waiting that long. During my workshop, we now talk about "conventional challenges" during two steps of the writing process: 1) Perfect Practice Post-its during rough-drafting; and 2) Building a "Community of Editors" during editing.

Perfect Practice Post-its. I used to say it to my students too: "It's a rough draft; don't worry about the conventions." I like the sentiment behind that instruction, but I've come to believe that it teaches some truly sloppy habits. A lot of our students don't need any more sloppy habits when it comes to writing. Since I began using "Perfect Practice Post-its," I've reduced quite a few of the bad habits that made their way to my writers' final drafts.

Here's how they work. Take a look at your students' writing and ask, "What convention mistakes are they making that drive me crazy because I teach them not to do that?" Select three of these, and put in place a Perfect Practice Policy. Tell your students they don't have to write perfect rough drafts--that you'll forgive them those errors that might slow them down as they draft--but that you've taught them enough about certain convention skills that you will no longer accept mistakes on them in journal writing or rough drafting. They must learn to practice three conventions skills perfectly.

You can write your three expectations on a poster, but I like to put them a little closer to the students' writing space; I like them on a Post-it note, which is probably no surprise to anyone reading this page. At right and at left, you'll see two of my Perfect Practice Post-its. When I use them, I circulate the room, and should I see a sloppy mistake that the Post-it preaches against, I say loudly, "Uh-oh, someone is going to owe me recess time. Perfect practice, people!"

For a week or two, I have students skim each other's rough draft writing for "Perfect Practice" mistakes, which is a great way to involve them in early editing. I smile when I hear them whisper, "Fix this or you're going to lose recess time." After a week of fairly strict perfect practice time, they students--for the most part--are not making nearly as many sloppy mistakes during any step of the writing process. After they have the hang of "perfect practice," it takes much less monitoring from you.

When I start seeing other sloppy errors occur, I create a new perfect practice Post-it with new expectations. Sometimes, in a year, we go through four different versions of the Post-it.

During my teacher workshop, we design our own versions of this type of tool, and we talk about how we might have several versions in order to differentiate instruction. The Post-it above on the left is for beginning writers, while the one on the right is more for advanced writers.

A Community of Editors. Insomnia can be a pain, but it can also be inspirational. It was during a bout of sleeplessness in the late 90's that I created my "Community of Editors" concept, which is described thoroughly in the NNWP's "Going Deep with 6 Trait Language" print guide. During my Critical Trait Thinking teacher workshop, participants each get a copy of this guide, and I also do a demonstration of how to set this type of community up.

In a nutshell, here's what it is and why it works. In my early days of setting up a writer's workshop, I was frustrated that my students all expected me to be their editor. Of everyone in the room, I definitely had the best grasp of the conventions of English, so I understood why my students came to me before entering the realm of final drafts. But this was proving to be too time-consuming for me, and it really wasn't teaching my students a life-skill for writing; in the real world, there isn't a teacher you can walk your paper to for a quick check of your commas, homonyms, and apostrophes. We were successfully becoming a "community of revisers," thanks to my Post-its, but they weren't a community of editors.

During conferences, I heard my students say, "I'm really bad with conventions." They said this a lot. If I'd point out how they were really good at spelling or they always knew the right verb tense, they say, "But I don't understand the comma" or "the semi-colon." They seemed to be vilifying the entire conventions trait because of a bad experience with the apostrophe-s versus the s-apostrophe rule.

My insomnia had me thinking about this issue, and it inspired me to break up my class into areas of conventional expertise. My kids who were spelling experts knew they were good at spelling. So we started identifying the other areas of the conventions trait where one might have a degree of expertise; I had kids, for example, who didn't realize they were experts at periods (and other end punctuation) until I asked, "Who has never had me mark comma splice or run-on on a final draft?" and watched who raised their hands. The same thing happened when I had a little pep talk about how you know if you have good skills of grammar.

We got to a place where my students could identify one area of strength they all had with the conventions trait. We set up a new day for our writer's workshop: editing day. On editing day, you had to find three or four students who had strengths with the conventions trait in an area that was not your strength; if spelling was your best conventions skill, for example, you didn't find another skilled speller to edit your paper. During editing day, you read someone else's revised draft quickly, and you looked only for possible mistakes in your area of conventional strength. At the end of reading, you had a quick discussion with the writer whose paper you'd just read (circling the errors), and you told them how you would fix those errors; you didn't do the fixing for them. That was an important element to stress because I found my "period experts" could explain how to get rid of a run-on better than my mini-lessons on the subject apparently did.

We planned our editing days a week in advance, and when they happened, they really only took us about 30 minutes to get through once we'd found our pace. It was an amazing difference; the final drafts were coming to me close to flawless, and I wasn't editing for them anymore. It took time to set up, and it took time to find our pace, but it was incredibly well-invested time. A responsibility of our writer's workshop was solidly lifted from my shoulders and placed on theirs; this is what writer's workshop was supposed to become, and I had found a way to make it work for editing.

I am always asked, "What do you do with that student who--honestly--has no conventional skills going for him/her? Where does that student fit in to the editing community?" I have a superb answer to that question, but you need to come to my teacher workshop to hear it.

Back to the top of the page

Strategy 4: Analysis and Evaluation Skills from Discussing Student/Teacher Models

One of my favorite developments at the WritingFix website has become the abundance of student samples featured at the website. It didn't used to be that way; in the beginning, we simply featured lesson outlines from teachers. But then other teachers from all over, excited by the success they'd had with an idea we'd posted, started sending their student samples to us. It was exciting to see that we were motivating teachers, but the samples were also a gift back to the WritingFix project. They became valuable additional resources to the lessons; they were an extra piece of writing other students could analyze, and they could do this analysis during pre-writing, during revision, or during any step of the writing process.

The trick with using student models well in the classroom is that you have to provide support for students to have a strong, meaningful conversation about the student model they are reading. You want them to leave the conversation with the ability to compare each sample's strengths with their own writing's strengths or deficiencies. A mentor text is a powerful teaching tool, but the fact that it is a published piece of writing can be a little intimidating, especially to one's struggling writers. A real kid's sample is a different story. It sends the message that if another student about my own age can write something that shows skill, maybe I can too.

At right, you'll see three student samples from my Start with What Isn't There Lesson (posted at WritingFix), and at the bottom of the handout is one of the simplest ideas I use to help students have a critical thinking conversation: The Olympic Committee Task. During my workshop for teachers, we become an "Olympic Committee" and and apply this idea to students' samples from many different grade levels. To create an Olympic Committee Task, here is the process:

  • Find three student samples that showed strength on an assignment. Find two traits in the samples (other than conventions) that seem to stand out as stronger than the others.
  • Instruct students to create an "Olympic Committee," which means they are in charge of awarding a gold, silver, and bronze medal to all three writers. They are to do this with two different writing "events."
  • Event number one is one of the stand-out traits you have selected; event number two is the second stand-out trait. You should provide students with a list of skills that a writer might use if they were working on the two traits (see the light blue boxes on the handout above); this will provide a vocabulary for the group to use during their analysis and evaluation conversation.
  • Monitor students as they discuss the samples with the Olympic Committee task at-hand. Have the groups share their rankings out loud (either whole class or with other groups), discussing similarities and differences in their rankings.
  • Ask each student to share a skill they noticed one of the student writers use that they think they can add to their own writing draft. Remind them of the skill they shared during your next writer's block. Hold them to working on that skill as they write.

Back to the top of the page

Strategy 5: Critical Thinking Skills during the Revision Step of the Writing Process

When asked to revise, my students used to meet the request with vacant eyes, as though they'd never even heard the word revise in their lives. My earliest attempts at reminding them about revision were purposely game-like; admittedly, they engaged my writers, but they weren't yet tools to build critical thinking skills about writing. Those would come later.

One of these early "game revision activities" was the set of four revision dice I created. Here's how the dice game worked. On revision day, students would come up to the front and roll all four of my dice, which had been designed around four of the writing traits: an idea development die, one for organization, one for voice, and one that combined word choice and sentence fluency; at right, you can see my paper-dice template for idea development. The set of dice at my desk were clunky, wooden cubes (from the craft store) that ultimately had to be retired for my own sanity. When more than ten kids rolled them across my desk during one class period, I would start to get a headache from the noise.

From a roll of the dice, students were given up to four strategies to use when revising. The students didn't choose the strategies; the random throw of the dice did. These dice worked well to help students begin building a vocabulary of strategies one might use during revision, which helped cure them of the vacant eyes spoken of earlier, but I wanted them to graduate my class with the ability to self-choose revision strategies, not be dependent on a set of teacher-made, clunky dice. I needed to teach my students what making critical choices looked like during revision, which meant I had to eventually wean them off the game strategies I started with.

Having my students use the Post-it notes was a good ultimate goal, but I needed some transitional steps between the dice and the Post-its. I came up with two of these: 1) My "Reviser's Toolbox" Poster and 2) The Revision Sprint worksheet.

Barry Lane's book, The Reviser's Toolbox, is what inspired my reviser's toolbox poster. Barry's book takes revision strategies and gives them really great names: slow-motion moments; digging for potatoes; thought shots and snapshots. Kids really connect with these labels, so I begin with them, teaching each one in separate mini-lessons. At the conclusion of each mini-lesson, I would write the revision strategy's name on a sentence strip, and it would go up on our "Reviser's Toolbox" Poster. Then, I would teach some of my own revision strategy lessons, which I try to give fun names to too: subtle alliteration modifiers (word choice); series-of-three detail sentences (idea development); double-verb sentences (voice). During my two-day version of this workshop, I demonstrate all three of these lessons. In my classroom, once we have five or more sentence strip strategies posted on our classroom "Revisers Toolbox" Poster, students can be asked to select one of the strategies to apply to their rough drafts on revision day; instead of letting the dice serendipitously tell them what strategies to apply, the reviser's toolbox poster provides options to choose from. Making strategic choices begins the critical thinking process for students. Some writers will immediately embrace the idea of making their own strategic choices; others will want you to make those choices for them, and these are the students who'll need more individualized help from you. You will need to continue teaching them how to make good choices. The "Reviser's Toolbox" Poster really helped me to begin differentiating instruction for that set of students.

At my two-day version of this workshop, I also demonstrate one of my favorite critical thinking tools: the revision sprint worksheet (at left). This tool has my students analyze their own writing (or a partner's) by imagining the traits are racing through their drafts. After determining which trait or skill was their "fastest runner," they then determine where the other "racers" were when the best trait "crossed the finish line." When they revise their drafts, their task is this: have any one of the slower "runners" tie the "fastest runner," which requires them to commit to some specific trait strategies.

What I particularly like about this tool is that it can be used to help students understand how a 5-point rubric works. The 10-yard through 50-yard markings on the top of the worksheet provide a great transition as we prepare to explain how rubrics are applied to their final drafts.


Back to the top of the page

If you cannot attend my "Critical Thinking about Writing" workshop, you can now purchase my
Building Critical Thinkers Using the Language of the 6 Writing Traits Presentation Materials
Price: $12.50

Here are my newest training materials: I am so very proud to be offering these new materials, created and revised over the summers of 2010 and 2011, which come from two of my workshops: Critical Trait Thinking, which is one of the seminars I offer outside of Nevada during the summer; and Pre-Writing and Revision, which I currently only offer as long-term, site-embedded professional development in Nevada during my contract time with the State of Nevada.

Bonus materials: Included in these materials are seventeen pages of templates for all the 6-Trait Post-it Notes I have created for the WritingFix website. Unlike the Post-it files found at WritingFix, the templates you can purchase here are editable, which means you can modify them to better fit the language of your own writing classroom!

Our Common Core State Standards require teachers to push their students to the analysis and evaluation level of Bloom's taxonomy during both reading and writing instruction. As a regular observer in K-12 classrooms as part of my full-time job for the State Department of Education, I can tell you this fact: Over 90% of the reading instruction I see doesn't push student thinking beyond the comprehension level of Bloom's. In writing, I rarely see instruction that pushes students beyond the application level. I am not being critical of teachers by saying this; the analysis level and the evaluation level of Bloom's require very high expectations of all students, and our Common Core Standards require us to raise the bar higher than ever. I am working to help make teachers aware of this shift.

Over the summer of 2010 and 2011, faced with the realities of Common Core Standards "rolling out" in my home-state, I began revisiting and synthesizing resources from many of my past trainings to create a new workshop that helps teachers understand and begin practicing the analytical and evaluative thinking practices for reading and writing lesson planning. I now proudly feature these materials, which have been tried and tested with over a dozen Nevada schools where I worked during this past school year.

Click here for information on purchasing this 2-day workshop's materials and self-paced resources.

Back to the top of the page