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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.


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One of my most-requested half-day workshops when I visit other states is our writer's notebook/journal presentation. When I display my students' voice-filled samples (check out my Pinterest boards to see what I mean!) with other teachers, the idea of a writer's notebook routine seems both feasible and important. On this page, I share a new type of writer's notebook resource we're developing for the Always Write website. If you use it by adapting it, let us know, and we will consider continuing to post ideas like this one.

Happy September 2016, which is when this lesson was originally written up and posted for teachers to use and adapt! If you had been a member of our Lesson of the Month e-mailing group, you would have been alerted of this lesson's existence on the first day of the month back in 2016. Never miss a lesson e-mail again and sign up. All past "Lessons of the Month" can be found here at our Always Write Lesson Archive.

A lesson inspired by all three types of mentor text I use with students:
The Worst School
Picture Day Ever...

teaching organization and memorable detail skills in a fun writing assignment for the beginning of a new year

Essential Questions/Overview/Mentor Text Suggestions:

  • How can I borrow and adapt an idea from a mentor text to inspire my own original idea?
  • How can I identify a structure or a pattern in a mentor text that I might borrow and adapt for my original story idea?
  • How can I read a mentor text to find some stylistic techniques that I might consider incorporating into my revision plan for my story?

Almost all of my writing lessons are inspired by a mentor text, and many of them make use of two mentor texts--each used for a different purpose. This lesson is my attempt to show what it looks like when I use all three types of mentor texts in the same writing lesson as I take my scholars through the whole writing process. If you choose to adapt this lesson, you certainly don't need to incorporate all three mentor texts to achieve successful writing samples from your students, but I am setting a goal for myself to try and incorporate all three types of mentor texts whenever possible.

My Idea Mentor Text: First, students are required to brainstorm and write about the five worst things that might happen to a student on school picture day, inspired by the mentor text Bedhead. They do this brainstorm in their writer's notebooks.

My Structure Mentor Text: Second, students borrow the repeated catch-phrase structural element from Judith Viorst's Alexander and Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day as they compose a rough draft of their notebooks' ideas into a longer piece of narrative writing.

My Craft Mentor Text: Third, while doing a small amount of revising, students attempt to naturally use two or three and high-quality similes in their improved drafts, inspired by the similes used by Julius Lester in Sam and the Tigers.

Mentor Text #1...a book's IDEA inspires a writer's notebook page & story draft:

"What are the five worst things that could happen to you before you see the photographer on school picture day?" That's the question I post to students before we create a special page in our writers notebooks to set-up this writing assignment. I took this idea for a story from one of my favorite children's book authors--Margie Palatini, author of Bedhead.

There are great stories out there that follow the "bad-situation-gets-worse-then-worse-before-it-gets-better" story structure. We brainstorm stories/songs/movies where a bad situation just keeps getting worse for the main character. Once I introduce the idea, the kids start thinking of quite a few examples. Here are some examples from my classroom bookshelf and my iPad:

My IDEA Mentor Text:

by Margie Palatini

My STRUCTURE Mentor Text:

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst

My CRAFT/STYLE Mentor Text:

Sam and the Tigers
by Julius Lester

  • Tub-boo-boo also by Margie Palatini--a young boy gets his toe caught in the bathtub spigot, and before he is free, the situation keeps compounding on itself, getting worse and worse (and more embarrassing) as more people are brought into the bathroom to free the poor kid. I have this different lesson based on this charming picture book here at my website.
  • The Mitten by Jan Brett--more and more winter animals keep crawling into the mitten to stay warm until the mitten is destroyed.
  • There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly--the old lady keeps swallowing larger and larger animals until she dies!
  • Adventures in Babysitting is probably an "I'm-dating-myself-and-showing-I'm-old" example of a movie where the poor character just keeps receiving harder and harder challenges to overcome on her babysitting job. The Hangover (which I certainly hope my kids haven't seen and won't include a link to) is a more adult-themed movie with this story structure. The movie version of Alexander and the Terrible... is another good film example some of your pupils might have seen.
Our most popular FREE resources at Teachers Pay Teachers:
Classifying the Three Different Types of Mentor Texts


Before we write in our writers notebooks about the question I pose about a bad school picture day, we write our best brainstorms down on a piece of scratch paper; this is a critical element of this lesson because of the organization skill it teaches when I have them sort their best five ideas later in this write-up. I share with them the cover of Palatini's Bedhead, and say "A bad hair day" is a great idea for this prompt, and Margie Palatini has a great book on just that one topic that I am going to leave in my chalk-tray if anyone cares to read it. I love this book, but my kids don't need to hear the whole thing; they are inspired by the simple idea that I can summarize after showing them the cover picture. You may certainly read the whole book to your students, but sometimes I just summarize an IDEA mentor text for my students during a lesson.

My students then need to brainstorm as many good ideas (other than bad hair day) that they can think of for the prompt about a bad school picture day. I like to play "Give One, Get One" with this particular brainstorming session, and here is my worksheet the students do their brainstorming on. Before they move around the classroom, all students must write three UNIQUE ideas down in the three boxes at the top of the worksheet in the form of complete sentences. I encourage the word "unique" by saying, "I dare you to try and come up with three ideas that no one else thinks to write in their three boxes, but I doubt anyone can do that." There are always students who want to prove me wrong when I make bold statements like this.

Once students have their three UNIQUE ideas recorded on the top of the worksheet, they move around the classroom, asking to peek at other students' ideas. If they find one they think is pretty funny and original on another student's worksheet, they can write it down in any of the eight spaces in the "Get one" section of their own worksheet. The rules of this game are:

  • To write a "Get One" down on their own worksheet, they must have a unique idea to "Give" to the person they're getting that one from--so that the person they are taking an idea from can write one of theirs in their own "Get One" section. That's why it's called "Give One, Get One." You can only take if you have something to give.
  • You cannot take more than one idea from a single person. That's why it's called "Give One, Get One."
  • Once the "Get One" section starts filling up with topics that have been borrowed from other classmates, new partners can take their "Get One" ideas from not only the student's original three ideas at the top of the worksheet but also from the "Get One" topics the student they are borrowing from has taken from other students. In other words, the first partner you have in this game will have only three ideas to select from, but on the next round, there will be four ideas to select from because the one they took from the previous partner can now also be taken.
  • They must record the name of the student they took any idea from.

Not all students walk away from this with eleven different ideas recorded on their sheet at the end of this "game," and that's okay. The purpose is to hear as many other students' original ideas for this prompt because those ideas can be adapted by a student , or they might just spark a new idea the student hadn't thought of. Ultimately, each student needs five ideas they really like for their writer's notebooks, and those ideas can come from their own heads or from adapting a fellow classmates' ideas.

I teach this lesson about the time I am teaching Mr. Stick Vocabulary Comics to my students, which is one of the ten vocabulary/writing tasks they can choose from for our Vocabulary Workshop that happens every other Friday. Basically, a Mr. Stick Vocabulary Comic requires students to create a humorous context based on a vocabulary word and have a caption and/or dialogue bubble that correctly makes use of the word in the comic. To learn more about Mr. Stick, use these links:

Using our newly acquired Mr. Stick skills, we then begin the process of setting up two or three pages in our writer's notebooks dedicated to a storyboard and a rough draft about the world's worst school picture day for the student who's writing or for a character the student invents for their story. I tell my students they must have (at least) five different things happen to them or their story's character as he/she prepares to have his/her picture taken. They look over their "Give one/Get One" brainstorming sheets, and have two tasks:

  1. Choose five situations they think they could write about using good verbs and good descriptions (that's one skill from the word choice trait and one from the idea development trait);
  2. Put their five events/situations into the most logical order. Ask, "Which would logically come first, then second, etc, and--if possible--could they build up to a climactic final one that would represent 'the last straw'?" (These are two different skills from the organization trait; all my students have to include the first skill, and the second skill is an optional challenge I give to my stronger writers).

When they've selected their five events/situations, on a piece of scratch paper I have them do rough Mr. Stick sketches that represent the five events; as you can see from my notebook model at right, each situation doesn't have to have a Mr. Stick in it (I just traced my key for one of the events in my story), but they need to include several Mr. Sticks because we are learning how to incorporate him into our notebooks as our 'margin mascot.' With their rough sketches drawn, shared, and discussed with their neighbors (and with that discussion will come lots of laughter, which is one of my favorite things about using Mr. Stick!), they prepare to revise their drawings and make a final copy of them in their notebooks. These five drawings will serve as their storyboard for the narrative we are preparing. I managed to fit my revised storyboard (which is a story about the worst first day of class from the teacher's perspective) on a half page in my notebook, but you may have students who want to use a whole page.

As soon as the revised storyboards are completed (and shared again because my students love to share their Mr. Stick art), we prepare to write a very rough draft on the pages that follow the storyboard in our notebooks. You'll have students who finish their storyboards much faster than others, and those students are allowed to use my colored pencils to decorate theirs further during classtime, and your slower artists can add color to theirs at home. I introduce the "Mr. Stick of the Week Notebook Page Award" early on every school year, and tell them the page we're working on might make a great page to self-nominate...if they put some effort into it. When I mention that, I do have quite a few students who will take this page's Mr. Stick art much more seriously. And when they take the art more seriously, I find they take the writing that goes with the art more seriously too.

The draft of their narrative that goes into their notebooks must contain the following:

  1. A introductory sentence or two that sets up the basis of the narrative.
  2. Three-five sentences about each of their five story events. I encourage them to try using strong verbs and interesting descriptions.
  3. A short conclusion that somehow poses a question.
  4. I ask my students to draw a line in between the seven parts of their stories (one intro + five events + one conclusion = seven) so that when we come back to this draft, there is no questions about how they will include paragraphs in their typed drafts of these stories.
  5. Please be sure to study my complete teacher model below, and share it with your students if you can't find the time to make your own model. My teacher models are purposely never the exact same topic my students will be writing to--because I don't want them copying me--but my writing topic is often close like this one is. My model is based on actual nightmares I have about the first day of school every August, even during this--my 27th year of teaching. You might have a great time transforming one of your teaching nightmares (I know you have them!) into a page you can show your students while they work on their drafts.

We put these stories away for a few days after they are drafted in their notebooks. I think it's important to let writing "gestate" in between drafts. Below, you can see my finalized two-page spread from my writer's notebook that I show my students as an exemplar of what they're trying to do with their samples. This is NOT the final draft of this writing, but it's the final form it will take in their writer's notebooks before we go to the computer lab to develop the next draft by adding a few new expectations to the basic story they've created here, first visually, then in limited-but-interesting words.

I am a HUGE believer in teachers keeping their own writer's notebooks. Visit my Pinterest Board that celebrates favorite pages from my notebook!

Mentor Text #2...a book's organizational technique is used to add a bit more STRUCTURE to the next draft of this writing:

While I simply summarize Bedhead to my students before the first part of this lesson, then leave the picture book in my chalk-tray if they're interested in reading it before or after class one day, I actually read all of Judith Viorst's Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day out loud as we prepare to create a typed draft. Most of my students know the book from their elementary days, and many have seen the 2014 movie, but the film's so different than the original story, which I find reading aloud evokes lots of nostalgia from them. My students are always fascinated to hear that Alexander is a real person, and the story was based on the author's son, who is named Alexander too. Here's a picture of the real Alexander Viorst with the actor who played him in the movie...in case your students appreciate trivia like that.

Before reading the picture book, I ask my students to listen for two distinct things related to mentor text's organization: 1) how the author builds upon each successive event, making the day feel like it's just getting worse and worse; 2) how the author uses a repeated phrase/concept to separate the chunks of events. "Organization," I explain, "doesn't just magically happen in a story. You have to think about your story's structure before you do the writing. You have to have a structure in mind before you start building if the writing is going to be--indeed--organized."

As we prepare to type our rough drafts from our notebooks into our computers, I tell them their stories must attempt to now do the following to show me they can think about organization before writing:

  • Their introductions must get us right into the story.
  • Each event in the story must feel like it's just a little bit worse than the previous event. Using more specific details and incorporating more precise verbs is a technique to accomplish this.
  • The students must incorporate a catch phrase/ a repeated concept to help us see that we're moving from event to event--like Alexander's repeated statements about Australia.

My big goal here is simple: I want the students to see that the writing process is not just about writing the story once, then typing what was originally written on paper directly onto the computer, then going back and adding a few more details or better words and calling it a revised piece of writing. What my students have story-boarded and written in their notebooks a few days ago serves as a nice "skeleton" for the story, but it needs to go through some changes in order to incorporate the three bulleted expectations I have shared just above this paragraph. A lot of students are frustrated that they can't just type their original rough drafts into the computer and call it a day; they aren't used to having to re-envision a story's sequence of events as they hear they must now include more organizational elements. Their original rough draft in their notebooks will serve them well as a structural map or guide here, but they probably can't copy but more than a few of their original sentences to accommodate the new expectations listed above.

In addition to the idea that increasing the quality of details and the quality of the verbs with each successive story event will help make the story seem to get worse and worse for the main character, I stress the following two ideas, which I was able to discover because I took the time to write my own draft and second draft before assigning this paper to my students: 1) the lines we drew in our writers notebooks in between our story's events mean you should ask, "Should I be starting a new paragraph here?"; 2) the question I asked in my original draft's conclusion might serve well as the repeated catch phrase/repeated concept that the new version of this story is asking for; 3) that repeated catch phrase--like Alexander's Australia examples--should evolve, which means it doesn't have to simply be the exact same thing repeated every time it appears. Below you can click on/open my rough draft model for this assignment. I hope you're inspired to write your own rough draft to share with your students, but if you're not, you can say, "Here's my friend--Mr Harrison's--rough draft from when he wrote alongside his students."

Mentor Text #3...an author's writing style helps students revisit a draft once more to CRAFT a description that really stands out:

Revision is tough to do well, and you certainly can't limit yourself to one or two "tricks." What do I mean by tricks? I once overheard a colleague giving this instruction to his students right before they were supposed to 'revise': He said, "Everyone needs to find five places they can add an -ly adverb to their writing." I honestly think that was one of the worst ideas for revision I'd ever heard because it reinforced the false idea our students often have that if you make it longer, you're making it better. I'm a huge fan of Stephen King, who hates -ly adverbs as much as I do, and he said in his On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft:

"The adverb is not your friend.

"Adverbs … are words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. They’re the ones that usually end in -ly. Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind. … With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.

"Consider the sentence He closed the door firmly. It’s by no means a terrible sentence (at least it’s got an active verb going for it), but ask yourself if firmly really has to be there. You can argue that it expresses a degree of difference between He closed the door and He slammed the door, and you’ll get no argument from me … but what about context? What about all the enlightening (not to say emotionally moving) prose which came before He closed the door firmly? Shouldn’t this tell us how he closed the door? And if the foregoing prose does tell us, isn’t firmly an extra word? Isn’t it redundant?

"...I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops."

Some words and parts of speech are powerful, but not -ly adverbs. If you want to inspire powerful words in revision, sometimes it's about finding places to add just a few words in order to sharpen up a description and making it more memorable. For this particular lesson, since I know my students made significant changes as they moved from hand-written rough drafts in their writers notebooks to typed drafts, I keep the revision expectation pretty simple. I tell my students their goal is to ensure there is one truly memorable detail in all five of their story's events. "A memorable detail is that one little tidbit of information you've included that--after the person has put your paper down--they can quote the word or phrase back to you with a fair degree of accuracy."

Before revising, I bring out my third mentor text for this lesson: Sam and the Tigers by Julius Lester, which is a fun version of the Little Black Sambo story that's been retold again and again over the ages. Lester has a great writing style, and in this particular story, it's the details about the different pieces of Sam's brightly-colored outfit that you remember after putting the story away. Here are just a few of the book's most memorable similes:

  • "Sam found a pair of shoes shining like promises that are always kept."
  • "He pointed to an umbrella as green as a satisfied mind."
  • "Sam went downstairs to breakfast, his new clothes shining brighter than Mr. Sun when he comes back from his winter vacation."

Now you must caution your students. They need to know that a secret to revision is NOT going back and adding a bunch of color similes about clothing; that's as pointless as randomly adding five -ly adverbs. Julius Lester gets away with the color and outfit similes here because Sam's outfit in the story is a plot device; the brightness and color of each piece of clothing is important as Sam tries to trick the tiger who wants to consume him.

The point is that each piece of clothing has a memorable detail written about it, and Julius Lester uses unique similes each time. The revision challenge I want students to take on is re-examining their story's five events, and ensuring that each of the five 'chapters' has a memorable detail within it. I tell my students if they want to use a color simile or two, that's fine, but more than that--in this story's context--would probably annoy the reader rather than improve the writing.

I tell my students that--upon revising and printing our stories out again--other will be looking over the five events in the story, trying to guess which detail the author decided was the most memorable in that part of their stories. If there isn't already a very memorable detail in each of the five events, there needs to be at the end of revision. Below, you will find a link to my final draft; since I asked for a lot to be added between the writer's notebook page and the rough draft, I only added a few things and did some word-smithing between my two drafts. The draft is a bit longer, but it was my attention to the words and the memorable details that makes this draft better than the original.


This lesson page features one of our freely posted ideas we share with fellow writing teachers. We hope this page's lesson ideas and samples inspire original writing from your students.

If you're an educator who is just become interested with sacred writing time as a tool to enrich your own writing lessons, then welcome aboard. We fund this website--Always Write--by selling just a few of our products from our Teachers Pay Teachers store. Before buying anything from us, 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.

365 Ideas for Writing/Discussing:

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For Writers Needing a Guided Challenge:

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RheTURKical Triangle -- Lesson Link

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Mentor texts to inspire Vocabulary Collectors:

The Boy Who Loved Words
by Roni Schotter

Boris Ate a Thesaurus
by Neil Steven Klayman

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Primary Source Picture Books -- Lesson Link

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Books that Guide our Teaching of Literacy:

Notebook Connections
by Aimee Buckner

Differentiating Reading Instruction
by Laura Robb

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