WRITINGFIX Visit our "sister site" here:
WritingFix lessons--
traits and mentor texts

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

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

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


Write & WritingFix

       Because writing--when taught right--can be the most enjoyable part of your teaching day, we created this website to provide fresh ideas and lessons for teachers.

our "always write" homepage | our "Writing Lesson of the Month" | email me | writingfix | pinterest | facebook | teachers pay teachers | twitter | youtube | linked in  

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

This page dogmatically shares my techniques for teaching my students to create their own graphic organizers halfway through the school year: I absolutely despise formulaic writing techniques and for-purchase programs that come with generic graphic organizers because I find they squelch my students' voices, and I believe giving a student an opportunity to develop a written voice is the most important thing we can do as literacy teachers in this day and age. Hamburger paragraphs create a phony-sounding voice (and I'm so fortunate the social studies teacher on my team uses them often as her technique for Exit Tickets so that I don't have to teach that technique). 5-paragraph--or "Hamburger Essays"--are painful to read, especially if you have a pile of sixty of them to grade over a week or weekend. And don't get me started with that horrible Jane Schafer writing program that brags on its website that prepares Texas teachers to help them pass the STARR English exams. I regularly present in Texas, and the vast majority of those teachers are so against the STARR assessment because it turns their students into "robotic writers" and who leave school hating the act of writing. Sadly, Schafer's writing program continues to make money because administrators want to buy a program that "quick fixes" their teachers who have difficulty teaching organizational skills for the state test, and a year or two after implementing J.S., most districts' teachers I've worked with acknowledge that they've turned writing into the least enjoyable thing students have to do on a daily basis by following the program. They don't tell you that when they try to sell you the J.S. Writing Program!

In my classroom, my students learn to own their own writing process. We do not blindly follow formulas that quick-fix organizational deficiencies. We learn about organization by exploring it in a student-centered environment that allows my students to make choices, experiment with those choices, and self-evaluate if their choices might have worked better if given a second chance during revision.

I gladly present the following lesson ideas and resources that I begin using mid-way through the year when I believe it's time to expect my students to create their own graphic organizers before they begin writing narratives, expositories, and arguments.

A Student-Created Option for "Publishing" a Word for Vocabulary Workshop:
because interesting organization is critical to an engaging essay...
An Essay is a Journey of a Thought or Idea

teaching students to create their own graphic organizers is a life skill you need to give them!


Essential Question: How can I create my own graphic organizer to ensure that I am organizing and pacing a piece of writing properly?

Write-up Overview: In life outside of school, no one hands you a graphic organizer before asking you to plan a project or a piece of writing;' as always, I attempt to give me students the realistic skills they'll need to perform well in life after school. I teach them to create their own graphic organizers for this very reason.

The process of teaching my students to create their own graphic organizers involves four steps. The initial steps happen during the first half of the school year. The final two steps I introduce very near the halfway point of the semester. Once those final two are in place, my students are required to design their own graphic organizers long before we begin drafting a new piece of writing for our portfolios, and they must run their graphic organizer ideas past a peer before deciding to use it. Here are the three steps:

  • Between the first day of school and Halloween, I provide a graphic organizer that I have created to help my students pre-plan an organizational structure before they write for my paper assignments or for my mini-lessons that require multiple paragraphs or stanzas from my students. I tell my students using the graphic organizer is optional IF they already know how to plan for paragraphing and paper structure.
  • In November and December, I continue to provide a graphic organizer I have created, but I add a step to the writing process. In this step, we talk about the purpose or the writing assignment they are about to do, we talk about the way that writers would need to think before they set out to achieve that purpose, and we critique the graphic organizer I have provided for them. Students are invited to modify or create their own graphic organizer for the assignment if they have a different organizational plan for achieving the writing assignment's purpose.
  • In January, we start doing mini-lessons using the AWESOME graphic organizer prompts in the appendix of Gretchen Bernabei's The Story of my Thinking, including preparing a "This I Believe" essay for my older students.
  • In February or March, we do a practice research project that requires my students to find and organize facts as they create a narrative piece of writing that relies on research. Students work in partnerships and small groups to inspire one another with graphic organizer ideas. At the end of the semester, we use the skills we have picked up to draft, revise, and publish a formal research paper for each student's portfolio.

Below, you will find more details about each of these teaching steps. You will also find more personal dogma on why I believe that it's critical that we teach our students to study the skill of organization from the different perspective: that of a graphic organizer designer. In life, no one hands you a graphic organizer that's been freshly run-off on the copy machine, and it's so important to give our students the skills necessary to create planning tools (like graphic organizers) before they dive head-long into a project or a piece of writing.

This Lesson's Mentor Texts:

The Story of my Thinking
by Gretchen Bernabei

This I Believe Resource Page
from NWP

Daisy Comes Home
by Jan Brett

Why I Teach Organizational Skills the Way I Choose to:

I was not a proficiently organized writer until I hit the 11th grade. I was a pretty good writer with my ideas and my voice, but organizational skills and I didn't understand each other. I turned in many, many papers that were one gigantic paragraph, and they were returned to me all decorated in teachers' red-pen with that mysterious paragraph symbol: ¶ Did you know that symbol has a name? It's called a pilcrow. At right you will see my Word Art "vocabulary write" I did for this word that I wanted to add to my vocabulary. If you click the image or here, you can also see the other three words I was trying to add to my vocabulary the week I heard the word pilcrow for the first time. This is all part of my vocabulary workshop routine.

No one ever taught me how to shift from one paragraph to another in elementary or middle school. My papers were simply marked with many pilcrows, and I can't remember ever having a teacher conference with me about why it was time to create a new paragraph. It wasn't until I had a speech and debate teacher (Diane Howard--she was the best!) in eleventh grade start marking me down dramatically on my written speeches for every pilcrow she had to mark for me on my draft. Because I wanted an A from her, I made myself learn when it was the appropriate time to have a paragraph break. She took the time to teach me, and she never once gave me a graphic organizer. She helped me understand the purpose of paragraphing instead of teaching me a phony formula for writing a paragraph.

For Beginning-of-the-Year Mini-Lessons, Have a Graphic Organizer...but Make it Optional:

I begin the school year with lots of writing mini lessons to help me evaluate and document my students' skills with the six writing traits. My goal is to find out each student's top two "power traits" and their top two "struggle traits." I've found you can get a pretty accurate feel for students' writing skills with 5-10 mini-lessons in the first two months of school, and if you make a writing trait (or two) the focus of each of those lessons--and you REALLY talk the talk of what skills that whole trait encompasses--even your students can make a strong self-assessment of their personal best traits and their personal struggle traits. The two traits that most commonly fall into my students' self-perceived "struggle traits" list are organization and conventions. Organization, as it turns out, appears almost twice as often on students' struggle lists than conventions, so I begin each year confident that we need to focus on organization.

A good mini-lesson take a period or two--at most--to teach. You purposely assign a short piece of writing so that students are more willing to revise it; I find when the papers are longer, the students are less likely to want to go back to them, so I purposely incorporate my best revision strategies with these shorter lessons. I also have an optional graphic organizer for all my beginning-of-the-year mini-lessons, and part of all my instruction explicitly explains the purpose of the organizer but demonstrates how there may be other ways to organize the writing that the G.O. isn't suggesting. I always invite my students--if they can or dare--to create a different graphic organizer. When a student creates one that seems useable, I often share it with my other students and reward the student who created his/her own organizer a prize from the extra credit sticker and pencil basket.

The message I insist they hear with every beginning-of-the-year mini-lesson is this: just because the lessons comes with a graphic organizer doesn't mean there is only one way to organize a piece of writing that is assigned to you.

The only wrong way to organize a piece of writing is not to begin planning for its organization before you start brainstorming or drafting.

Our lesson of the month archive contains a good selection of mini-lesson write-ups that come with graphic organizers, and the lessons posted at WritingFix also come with graphic organizers. Here are some of the graphic-organizer-ready lessons I use as mini-lessons at the beginning of the school year.

  • The Worst School Picture Day Ever A picture perfect mini-lesson right before they have school pictures. Click underlined lesson title to see the whole lesson, or click here to see the advance organizer I introduce during this mini-lesson. Students have the option to create their own advance organizer once we discuss the purpose of the writing task.
  • Transitioning through the Machine. My students practice sentence fluency and transition skills as they write a passage about an original machine at work. Click underlined lesson title to see the whole lesson, or click here to see the advance organizer I introduce during this mini-lesson. Students have the option to create their own advance organizer once we discuss the purpose of the writing task.
  • Start with What Isn't There. My students practice voice and idea development as they write imitating the mentor text author about their rooms at home or their lockers or backpacks. Click underlined lesson title to see the whole lesson, or click here to see the advance organizer I introduce during this mini-lesson. Students have the option to create their own advance organizer once we discuss the purpose of the writing task.
  • Four-Metaphor Poems. Our first real poetry lesson, which requires students to plan out their poems before they start composing them. Click underlined lesson title to see the whole lesson, or click here to see the advance organizer I introduce during this mini-lesson. Students have the option to create their own advance organizer once we discuss the purpose of the writing task.
  • Road of Life Poems. Our second poetry lesson, which requires students to plan out their poems before they start composing them. Click underlined lesson title to see the whole lesson, or click here to see the advance organizer I introduce during this mini-lesson. Students have the option to create their own advance organizer once we discuss the purpose of the writing task.

Start Introducing Gretchen Bernabei's Advance Organizers:

I think a lot of teachers--especially those who are using for-purchase writing lessons and units from the big publishing houses--assume that if you hand students a graphic organizer, they will learn organization by filling out said graphic organizer. They don't. You have to discuss structural possibilities and the purpose of structuring a piece of writing as part of the early steps of the writing process. You have to teach them to eventually design and create their own graphic organizers. I use the inspiration of Gretchen Bernabei to scaffold my students to a place where they can design their own graphic organizers.

Gretchen Bernabei's The Story of My Thinking--at the time of writing this lesson--sells for a hefty $30.00, but I have to say I've used the advance organizers from her book's appendix so often now that I've easily gotten my money's worth. Bernabei's collection of " " are instrumental in my attempts to teach my students to organizer and design their own graphic organizers before they begin writing.

The first time I used The Story of My Thinking to design a lesson was when I was re-doing my "This I Believe" essay for my eighth graders. I simply recreated Gretchen's three-part "This I Believe" organizer on my whiteboard and told students they had to create their own graphic organizers using it as their structural inspiration. This is what my students started with:

My favorite writing teacher in college once said something I really liked and have paraphrased many times over the years: "An essay can be defined as the journey of an idea or a thought. Any journey can be broken into parts: the packing of the car, the drive to the destination, the highlight of being at the destination, and the trip home--just to name four possibilities. But there are other parts of a journey that could make their way into the essay. The most important thing you do when writing an essay is to loosely organize it ahead of time...before you start writing."

When we begin planning our "This I Believe" essays, I remind them of the "journey" concept and I show them the three-step possibility for a graphic organizer above. I tell them, "For this lesson you'll be designing your own graphic organizer to help you structure your idea or your thought's journey. A This I Believe Essay informs your reader how you came to believe something that you consider to be important to you, and it takes them on a structured journey through your arrival at a belief. First-graders could use the structure above to create a three-part explanation of beliefs they have. Now that you're older, I want you to create your own, more sophisticated graphic organizer to help you launch your own This I Believe Essay.

NPR's This I Believe website is an amazing resource for writing teachers who are looking for a new essay assignment. They have hundreds of This I Believe essays written by famous people and everyday people. Most of the essays are printable, and most of the essays are actually read by the authors so students can listen along as they read one of the essays, and they can discuss how the author used his/her personal voice. I have the book with the CDs pictured at right, but all the essays I use when teaching my students to write their own This I Believe essays can all be found freely online. With the simple, three-part graphic organizer (pictured above) in front of them, we read/listen to several of my favorite essays from the series and ask, "Is this the graphic organizer the author used, and if not, how would you graphically represent the author's organization based on this example?" Here are essays we listen to:

Over several days, we listen to two essays a day, and we work in student groups to simply try and "crack" each essay's organizational "code." My students compare and contrast the "essay maps" from these essay discussions to other groups' essay maps, and by the time I ask them to plan their own organizational maps for their essays, they have so many possible approaches that it's hard for them to commit to just one. At a bare minimum, everyone has the original "map" by Bernabei, which will require them to have three parts/paragraphs in their essay at least; most of the students, however, learn to go beyond the Bernabei map from above.

After this lesson, if I ask my students to design their own graphic organizer after discussing the purpose of an upcoming piece of writing, the majority of them know exactly what they're supposed to do.

I'll say again, "In real life no one hands you a graphic organizer." I want my students to not only create their own G.O.'s when they head off to high school and college, but I also want them to have the bravery to say to a future teacher, "Can I make my own graphic organizer? Yours feels a little too linear."

The Journey in a Picture Book...A great first lesson for teaching them to make their own graphic organizers:

My 8th graders are old enough for the "This I Believe" essay to become a meaningful assignment that ends up in their writing portfolio, With my younger students, I teach them to create their own graphic organizers with an assignment inspired by a favorite picture book: Daisy Comes Home by Jan Brett. This picture book was first shared with me by 1st grade teacher--Karen Suga--at a Northern Nevada Writing Project inservice class. Karen designed a writing lesson for her 6-year-olds based on the book that I have since adapted many times with my own 4-7th grade writers. It's a very adaptable idea.

In Daisy Comes Home, a bullied chicken--Daisy--is forced to sleep outside the coop one night, and the Chinese river near her farm floods that night and whisks the poor chicken away. Like a well-written essay topic, Daisy ends up going on a structured journey where she learns bravery by dealing with a world with which she is unfamiliar. After being found, she returns to her own farm and no longer tolerates the other chickens that have bullied her. All this comes as a result of her journey.

The book is great. During the first half of her journey, Daisy encounters three different animals alongside the river: a dog, a water buffalo, and a group of monkeys. The author has dedicates a very similar amount of physical space in the book and text about the incidents, and I point this out to my students as I share with them. This is called pacing a story, and its the organizational tool that teaches you to spend more time describing the rides as Disneyland you enjoyed rather than spending a ridiculous amount of time packing the car for your essay about attending the Magic Kingdom. Young writers must learn to pace themselves in essays, but it doesn't have to be done with such a strict graphic organizer/format as the five-paragraph essay. Daisy's author--the great Jan Brett--shares a visual and written example of a paced part of a story about a journey, and I want students to understand the skill of pacing without being given a hamburger essay template. This little mentor text has served me very well when I teach pacing to my students over the years. Plus the book is about a journey and that fits my whole an-essay-is-a-journey thing!

The river Daisy floats down is the Li River, and if you were to research the Li River in China you would find evidence that the three animals Daisy encounters are indeed indigenous. That element of the book is what we grab onto for this assignment: 1) students are to research an important river somewhere in the world, and they are to learn more about three animals that one might see if they were floating down their river on a raft; 2) students will create a graphic organizer to help them write--using pacing--a story about floating past these three animals; and 3) students will create a draft and revise it using their own graphic organizer.

After pointing out the pacing in the book and explaining the purpose of the writing, my students create rough drafts of graphic organizers they think would help them gather information for their short pieces of writing. They have their graphic organizers completed before their allowed to do indigenous animal research on world rivers. They have been instructed to figure out a way to assist a writer in pacing the writing after the research has been done. Many of them become five big boxes the students write in, like as follows:

The graphic organizer above hints at several tricks of pacing that authors use: 1) making paragraphs that are interconnected roughly the same size; 2) using similar amounts of detail when describing things of equal importance in one's essay; 3) connecting introduction to conclusion to create a sense of "wholeness" to the essay--rather than saying "That's the end" at the finale. My students learn to insert such advice on their self-created graphic organizers because I teach them those tricks.

In Conclusion

My job as writing teacher is to give them toolbox of strategies to use, and I don't consider a teacher-created graphic organizer to be a tool that belongs in their toolboxes; teaching them to create their own graphic organizers before they write something--that's the tool I want them to proudly place in their writing toolboxes.

Be sure to see Karen Suga's original lesson at WritingFix:
Floating Down a River
The online lesson contains student models and revision tools, if you ever use the lesson to showcase the skill of pacing while using a great picture book model.

I hope you might find the time go back and study the structure of this lesson write-up now that you've arrived at the end. I've mimicked the organization of a five-paragraph essay here, even though you don't really find 5-paragraph essays anywhere in real life, only in school. In the real world, writers and thinkers remember basic structures, and they feel comfortable making their own styles of organization based on that basic essay structure. My introduction requires multiple paragraphs, and each of my three sub-topics are explored through numerous paragraphs, and my conclusion is just a little bitty thing because I figured you'd be exhausted with my words at this point of your reading. You have to search for it, but studying this lesson's structure, you will find similarities to a five-paragraph essay's structure. Mrs. Howard taught me to understand organization in writing, and then to organize myself with self-created pre-writing tools.

If you hear me say anything with this lesson write-up, let it be this: teach them the five-paragraph essay, by all means. But then spend more time teaching them to modify that strict structure. Teach them to eventually craft their own graphic organizers that a) keep them organized and b) let them be uniquely organized if they dare. Because you have writers who will dare to do this. And after the state test is over and it's been evaluated by a computer most likely, your students who dared will walk away with an organizational skill they will continue to use in life.

Back to the top of the page