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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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Here are four lesson ideas based on a mentor text that I believe every teacher should own and use: I got a little burned out a few years back, doing both full time teaching all day and teaching two--sometimes three--evening classes every semester for my fellow teachers who were seeking recertification credit. I enjoy presenting good ideas to my fellow teachers, and my classes were always well-received, but I was just not seeing my lovely wife enough with that crazy schedule; and thus, I began dropping the evening inservice classes from my over-booked calendar. These days, I still find time to present 1- or 2-hour workshops and keynotes at most of our local conferences here in Northern Nevada, and I am now presenting two- or three-day workshops in half a dozen other states during the summer, but I'll admit that I miss those teacher inservice classes I designed about writing--especially the 15-hour class I designed called Designing Writing Lessons for the Three Types of Mentor Texts. If you click that link, you'll have free access to many of that inservice's resources. It remains one of my favorites teacher classes that I ever created.

During the class, we talk about classifying mentor texts based on the different ways you can use them to inspire student writing. "The Important Book" is the mentor text that makes the most sense to me when introducing what I call "structure mentor texts." That name is a category I personally invented when I was designing my mentor text inservice.

I appreciate the dogmatic introduction, Corbett, but just take me straight to the free lesson, please.

My students understand how I categorize my mentor texts, and they understand that I use them for three specific reasons:
In my middle school classroom, I occasionally encourage my students to categorize things that are important to them during Sacred Writing Time, or to create category names for things that they notice in the world: favorite book categories, writing skill categories, qualities of best friend or crazy middle school teacher categories, etc. I teach them to brainstorm as many ideas as they can, then "sort" ideas from their brainstorms in any way that makes sense to them; afterwards, I make them invent their own category names depending on how they've sorted their brainstorms. It's the "creating your own category name" part of the activity that becomes a totally a type of higher-level thinking, and it's such an easy strategy to use in Language Arts class when you're teaching brainstorming skills. Early on every school year, I explain to my students how and why I use "mentor texts" during my writing lessons; I don't think I have any lessons that don't use a mentor text some time during the writing process. I explain to my students that I once created three category names for my favorite mentor texts, and when I teach, they will completely understand what category the mentor text falls in.

Later in the year, should I say, "Okay kids, I'm going to share this mentor text aloud with you now, and we will be using this book as a 'structure mentor text' today," they immediately understand that there is an organizational structure in the text they are to look or listen for. They know I am going to expect them to imitate that structure at some point during my writing lesson. With my kids, I try to be as transparent with my lessons as possible by teaching them 6-trait vocabulary (which I did not invent) and mentor text vocabulary (which I did invent).

My three categories for mentor texts are:

  • idea mentor texts (which you use to borrow unique ideas from, and you let those unique ideas inspire your own unique ideas for a piece of writing.)
  • structure mentor texts (which you use to borrow interesting organizational techniques from, and then you imitate the structure or let it inspire a unique-but-similar structure in writing.)
  • craft mentor texts (which you use to borrow an author's stylistic techniques, and then you imitate that style in an original piece of writing.)

My favorite handout I've made for mentor texts is this one. If you like my category names, please use them with your own kids and freely share this handout with your fellow teachers. Kindly keep my copyright statement in tact. I appreciate your respect of my intellectual property.

How I invented my mentor text categories, and why "The Important Book" is the absolute best book for teaching students what a "structure mentor text" is. Whether you call them "mentor texts" or "touchstone texts," you should use published writing to improve your writing lessons. When I first heard the term "mentor text" at a Ruth Culham conference, I got excited. I realized I was using a lot of mentor texts, that I was using them at different points in the writing process, and I was using them to inspire different skills, so I knew I needed to categorize like I require my own students to categorize; I also needed to invent my own category name.

I started by making a list of all the published texts--picture books, chapter book and novel excerpts, favorite poems and songs, published articles, etc--that I used as thinking "guides" when I was teaching a skill-based writing lesson, and I discovered I was using my mentor texts in three distinct ways: to inspire original ideas, to borrow something structural from something published, or to imitate a really interesting writing skill used by the mentor text's author. I put on my higher-level thinking cap, and I created three category names: idea mentor texts, structural mentor texts, and craft mentor texts. Now, I have actually never copied and shared my mentor text classification handout with my students, but I assure you when we start a writing lesson, and I pull a picture book off the bookshelf, and I say, "Boys and girls, we're going to learn a little more about writing today. This book that I'm going to share with you right now is intended as a(n) [idea, structure, or craft] mentor text, which means what?" most of my kids know how to answer.

I've said it many times on many different pages here at my website, but I'll say it again. I am AMAZED at how many teachers I know who don't make use of this classic picture book, which is written by the same author of Goodnight, Moon; mind you, it was written for first or second graders, and it's certainly not the most well-written text I share with my writers, but it provides the simplest structure for writing that can be cleverly adapted in so many ways in so many writing lessons. On our teaching team, for our interactive notebooks, we all imitate the structure of the book in history, science, and English class. During writing instruction, we also incorporate the book's simple little structure and its simple little message into our writer's notebooks and into several other skill-based lessons. Each year, I seem to find a new way to breathe a little new life into this charming-but-simple mentor text, and this page shares some of my favorite new techniques I've created so that I can use the book with my sixth, seventh, and eighth graders

A Variety of Ways to Use "The Important Book" by Margaret Wise Brown
A lot of teachers who support our website by purchasing our for-sale resources like our Sacred Writing Slides and our Bingo Cards write to me, expressing worry that students at their schools are being exposed to the same tools for multiple years. I always explain that I have 6th, 7th, and 8th graders, and they all see my SWT Slides every year, and they are invited to use the Bingo Cards in both sixth and seventh grade, and I never have had a problem. I am skilled, I suppose, at inventing the necessary variations so that each year the kids don't feel like they're repeating anything.

After a quarter century working as an educator, I have finally decided that I don't think a grade level or a subject area should ever get to "claim" a text or tool as their own as long as you have multiple ways to use the tools or texts in question. "The Important Book" by the late Margaret Wise Brown holds the honor of being the only picture book I bring out in 6th, 7th, and 8th grades, and the kids always cry, "We did this book last year," and I always say, "Well, we're doing something different with it this year!" Make variations of things you love, and I do love "The Important Book."

Before I share three new favorite variations and text-based activities (so that each grade level does something very different with the book) based on "The Important Book," let me revisit the basics of the book, in case you're one of those teachers who still doesn't even know why I'm even talking about "The Important Book." Below this initial explanation of how I use the book as an "Exit Ticket" guide you will find three new techniques I've recently tried with the book and my three grade levels. There are so many different things you can do with this simple "structure mentor text." I'm just touching the tip of the iceberg of what you can do with this book.

Mostly, I hope my examples here prove that no grade level or subject area should ever claim ownership of a text or as thinking tool for their grade level or subject ar ea...because there are so many different ways to make use of things that work. Allow me to prove that with this new write-up for "The Important Book."

Introducing The Important Book's Formula...And Using the Formula as an "Exit Ticket"
Hear me say this first and foremost please: for the authentic writing assignments that end up in my students' portfolios, we never use formulas to write them. No five-paragraph essays, no hamburger paragraphs, no Jane Shaffer-inspired fill-in-the-blank papers. To teach the big, authentic writing assignments, you have to depend on the ideas found in books by great teachers like Gretchen Bernabei, who wrote Reviving The Essay and The Story of My Thinking, which are both about teaching organization without being dependent on strict formulas. I don't think we do kids any favors by having them produce long pieces of writing inspired by strict formula. Those two books by Gretchen, by the way, are so worth your time if you want to battle the robot-like voice that formulaic graphic organizers produce. I used both books when I wanted to improve my ability to teach expository writing when Common Core rolled out here in Nevada, and my kids have never written better essays since incorporating those books' ideas.

Now for shorter writing assignments, I have no problem with teaching them little formulas to follow; formulas, in fact, are good safety nets when you want them to write something rather quickly, like a summary of their learning. We often end class with a student-composed "Exit Ticket," and I have taught my students the hamburger paragraph formula as one method for composing an Exit Ticket. If you're unfamiliar with what I mean by Exit Tickets, they're quick 3-5 minute writings student complete at the very end of a lesson to convince you that they've learned something that day about your big topic or your essential question; we call them "exit tickets," because they hand them to me as they exit the classroom, or they don't exit. In my 4-hour workshop on Exit Tickets (you can purchase my PowerPoint and handouts for that workshop using that link), I share four very different formulas that any student can easily learn for the purpose of writing a quick summary of learning at class's end.

One of the four formulas I share is an imitation of Margaret Wise Brown's "The Important Book," because it achieves the exact same thing that a hamburger paragraph does, but when it's in the form of an "Important Passage," it feels more like a poem than a formulaic paragraph does.

The poster at right (which I took a picture of in my colleague--Campbell Valle's--classroom) is the simple formula you teach the kids. Each page of "The Important Book" uses this simple formula to provide multiple details about many objects and--ultimately--a subjective opinion about what the most important thing about the thing the writer is talking about. Margaret Wise Brown--for her primary grade audience--sweetly examines familiar items--spoons, grass, snow, apples, etc--using simplistic language that would appeal to a developing reader. I don't want to break any copyright by posting my own photograph of a page from her book so that you can see exactly how the book shares its message, but I'll provide this link (and this link) to someone else's webpage that has a photo, and you can alert me if this becomes a dead link: corbett@corbettharrison.com. I actually own 15 copies of the paperback version of the book (they're less than $4.00 a copy at Amazon at the time of me writing up this lesson), and it was a great investment the year I convinced my team to spend this $60 out of our left-over book budget money. Now I can "speed teach" or "speed review" the format of this book by having multiple copies to pass out to small groups.

Anyway, once they understand the formula from the book and we practice by using it with several exit ticket questions: "What's the important thing about invigorating your verbs?" or "What's the important thing about establishing mood in writing?" or "What's the most important thing about Ebenezer Scrooge's background at this point of the story?" The first few times, it will take some of your kids 6-10 minutes to write one as an exit ticket because they labor over choosing the "most important" element (or because they didn't enough pay attention to your daily lesson on verbs or mood, I suppose). After two or three practices, they should be able to hammer out an "Important Book Exit Ticket" in five minutes or less.

As teacher, you can do a speedy formative assessment check by reading through them quickly and taking note of who understood the lesson and who did not. If you're going to review the information at the start of your next teaching session with the same kids, leave a few good ones on top of the pile. When the students are assembled again and ready for the next part of the lesson, how nice it is that you can say, "So yesterday Patrick wrote 'The most important thing about Ebenezer Scrooge so far is that his nephew Fred reminds him of his sister Fan.' Stephanie, why do you think Patrick decided that was the most important thing? Patrick, do you agree with Stephanie's interpretation of what you wrote." See what I'm doing there? I'm honoring the writing that was done by the student by integrating it into the discussion after the writing has been turned in an checked off. I don't think we do enough of that; instead, writing becomes this thing that students do and they think only the teacher sees and reacts to it. Exit tickets can come back on a different day than the one they were written on, and students can justify or revise what they've written to each other, and by doing so, you make their writing feel more important.

At my school, I try to encourage my teaching team to use the "Important Book" structure for exit tickets in their classrooms too; that way, I can teach my kids other formulas to use for future exit tickets. I mean, if you think about it, teaching them a simple haiku is teaching them a writing formula; eventually, I have students take the last five minutes of class to write a 17-syllable haiku about the most interesting thing they learned that day, and when they get really good at haikus, they get the last five minutes to write three of them as my "tri-ku exit ticket." At left, you'll see a page of "Important Passages" I--while teaching the "Important Passage" structure --had my students complete and decorate for their writer's notebook. Click the image to see a bigger version. For this notebook page, I asked my students what they considered the most important thing they learned in the other core subject areas taught by my teaching teammates, and they wrote me three passages. I photographed the best ones, sent them to my colleagues in an email, and told them the students had been trained to make similar exit tickets or interactive notebook pages in any class. With the examples available, my colleagues were more than willing to try this writing format in their own content areas.

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The Important Book as a Response Tool for Literature We're Reading
I tried something new last year with writer's notebooks and--ultimately--I was happy with it and will continue to develop it. When we read a really great piece of literature together--a poem, short story, or novel--I decided I would create a required writer's notebook page assignment for my student writers, and I'd give them a week to complete it, and then we would share them. I did this for two distinct purposes. 1) There are great examples of literature we read together in 6th, 7th, and 8th grade, I want the kids to have a memory of those particular texts, and most of my kids save their writer's notebooks; 2) I knew I could teach them a specific reading- or writing-related skill that they could practice in the process.

I created a page at my Pinterest account called "Literature-Inspired Notebook Pages," and I expect to grow the collection over the next few years, but feel free to browse what I have so far.

With my sixth and seventh graders, we had been studying dynamic and static characters, and how their changing (or non-changing) behaviors help you to independently discover a book or story's theme. I asked them to create a two-page notebook spread that focused on four characters from the novels they were reading. I specifically asked them to choose characters with behaviors that contributed to a possible theme they were independently pulling from the text.

They were to write an "Important Book" passage inspired by all four characters, and their passages (especially their "most important" line) needed to give us a glimpse of the theme they were ready to discuss from the book. My sixth graders wrote their "Important Passages" inspired by Animal Farm, and my seventh graders wrote their passages from the two Steinbeck novellas they were reading and comparing and contrasting for me: The Pearl and The Red Pony.

For notebook page assignments like this (ones that I expect them to decorate and take their time with), we make rough drafts of the writing before the writing is allowed to go into the writer's notebook. We also take the time to have them meet in small groups, share their rough drafts, and discuss them. This was an easy one to discuss in small groups of four: "So are you thinking a theme related to this character is [insert idea here after you've heard the writing read aloud to you]?" became their discussion starter, and then they gave each other suggestions focused on skills from the word choice writing trait (better nouns, adjectives, verbs, etc.). We also did some peer editing activities during the same session.

Students then "published" their four "Important Passages" inspired by the literature in their notebooks for a grade. Below, I'm sharing the seventh grade examples from our Steinbeck novels because this also ended up serving as great pre-writing and thinking for them when they received their final analysis essay assignment on the books: "Can you find two similar themes in the two texts, or do you believe the novels' themes are purposely different?"

Great Student-Made "Important Passages" that Hint at Themes from Steinbeck's Books
If you know Steinbeck's The Pearl and The Red Pony, can you guess what theme my students were trying to apply to each character based on their passages?

Seventh Grader Lisette's four "Important Passages"

Seventh Grader Mackenzie's four "Important Passages"

Seventh Grader Yajaira's four "Important Passages"

Seventh Grader Austin's four "Important Passages"

Seventh Grader Gino's four "Important Passages"

Seventh Grader Cheyenne's four "Important Passages"

Seventh Grader Olivia's four "Important Passages"

Two of Seventh Grader Natalie's four "Important Passages"

Seventh Grader Rylee's four "Important Passages"
More samples from this assignment can be found at my Literature-Inspired Writer's Notebook board at Pinterest.

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A Fun Way to Re-Introduce The Important Book if your Students Already Know the Format
As I've said, my students move up through the grades with me, and every year we bring out "The Important Book" by Margaret Wise Brown .

"We did this book already!" they decry.

"I know that well." = My annual reply.

Then I attempt to have a fun, new activity that reintroduces the book and its format to my students. I teach middle school grades, and you know what my kids think is fun? Critiquing anyone else's writing but their own. It's a sad truth, and I verbalize its presence to them often: "You can criticize anyone else's writing but your own. Why is that?"

Anyway, here's a new way I've been reintroducing "The Important Book" to my 7th graders since we use the book in sixth grade too. Before I describe this activity, I wish to make the following statement to the late author Margaret Wise Brown and all of her friends and descendents: "I have tremendous respect for the work of this author. All of it! And I have happily shared 'The Important Book' with first, second and third graders who were enchanted by its words and its final message. My seventh graders are beginning to develop a cynical attitude about school and life, which will hopefully be put into check by the time they leave high school. As they did the following activity, I allowed them to giggle with cynical voices and tell the author how her poems about apples, clouds, and rain could be improved to match a middle schooler's much wiser perspective, not a primary grade student's perspective. Margaret Wise Brown, I believe your books are perfect. I let my students pretend they know otherwise for this brief writing activity, and I mean no disrespect at all to your poetic sensibility."

Now, as I also said earlier, I have a set of 12 paperback versions of this book, so I put my kids in groups of three, and each group is given one book to share. They pass the book among themselves, each reading out loud one of the poems to the group. When they make it through the entire book, the are given the following tasks:

  • Each group member must choose a different one of Margaret Wise Brown's "Important Passage" topics (rain, snow, wind, etc.). They must negotiate as a group so that each student has a different topic from the book for their letter.
  • Each group member must write a letter of complaint to the author, explaining why her choice for the "most important" element is not a good one. These letters--should my students want to guarantee themselves an 'A' grade for this--may also critique the other details she includes in the poem/passage.
  • Each group member must them re-write the "Important Passage" they have critiqued, using completely different details in their new poem and making it "better."

Here are four seventh grade examples from my students who were either a) being reintroduced to the "Important Book" or b) were new to me because they hadn't been in my sixth grade group the year before. As soon as we took 30 minutes to do this task, my students were ready to use the format/structure of the book's passages as guides for their own exit tickets or writer's notebook assignments.

Seventh Grader Scott Critiques the Author
Seventh Grader Meghan Critiques the Author
Dear Margaret Wise Brown,

Your poem about shoes isn't completely correct; in fact, it's all wrong. Saying that the most important thing about a shoe is that you put your foot in it is a complete opinion. There really is no one thing that's most important about a shoe, but if there was, it would be that it protects your foot because that's what it was made for. And how do you know I take my shoes off at night? What if I sleep in my shoes or take them off in the morning? If you want to live up to your "Wise" name, you better get your facts straight.


Scott's "Improved" Version of the Poem about Shoes
The important thing about a shoe is that it protects your foot from the harmful ground.
When they're on your feet, they follow you everywhere you go .
They come in many colors.
You can kick things with them when they're on your feet,
But the important thing about a shoe is that it protects your foot from the harmful ground.

Dear Margaret Wise Brown,

I have just finished your poem about daisies, and I must say that I believe it to be complete rubbish. First of all, daisies don’t always have long white petals. They can be short, and we need to accept that fact. Daisies are also a fresh-smelling flower and don’t have a “ticklish” smell. Oh, and where have you been that there are always daisies? I live right next to the desert, and I sure as heck know that there are no yards near me that contain any daisies.

Your critic,

Meghan's "Improved" Version of the Poem about Daisies
The important thing about daisies is that they are beautiful.
They look different in height and with different petal sizes.
They can even be a pretty but subtle decoration.
They can cheer almost anyone up,
But the important thing about daisies is that they are beautiful.
Seventh Grader Cole Critiques the Author
Seventh Grader Henry Critiques the Author
Dear Margaret Wise Brown,

Your poem about snow is complete poppycock. For your information, snow very commonly falls quite hard, like in a blizzard or a storm. Secondly, it isn’t likely for snow to fall in an actual shape; usually, it is just a blot (not to mention how terrifying it would be if crystals fell from the sky). Lastly but not least, snow is not always white. Never forget about yellow snow.


Cole's "Improved" Version of the Poem about Snow
The important thing about snow is that it is frigid.
It’s a shapeless reflector of light.
It creates soft piles on the ground.
It is fun for children to frolic in,
But the important thing about snow is that it is frigid.

Dear Margaret Wise Brown,

Your poem about rain was dull and rather dumb. It had horrid details, such as the sound of rain sounds like rain. Couldn't you have been a little more creative and describe it like "little hooves pattering on the pavement"? Maybe next time you could use a metaphor once in a forever, or use some hyperbole. Also, rain does have a smell, or were you born without a nose?


Henry's "Improved" Version of the Poem about Rain
The most important thing about rain is that it is good for crops.
It smells of fresh water and cement
And makes a perfect tear drop that shows the clouds are weeping.
It sounds like the pattering on stone from small ponies, fast and always moving,
But the most important thing about rain is that it is good for crops.

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Using "The Important Book" as a Self-Reflection Tool for Writing

My "Critical Traits Workshop" shares all the tools I use with my students to help them pinpoint and analyze their own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to writing. There are programs you can purchase--oh, like "Step Up To Writing," to name one--where the assumption is that every students' weaknesses fall primarily in the organizational skills of writing with some supplemental support in helping students develop ideas and details. So many for-purchase writing programs devote most of their instructional time and resources to focusing primarily on these two skill categories, and the fact is that not every kid needs to spend his/her time focusing on just those two skills because there are four other "skill categories" that kids can use to analyze their own writing skills and deficiencies. There are six writing traits, and my kids know about all of them.

What I've always loved about the six traits of writing is that by teaching students all six trait categories, I develop a much richer vocabulary with which to talk about reading and writing. Much richer, anyway, than a program that spends 80% of its focus on organizational skills, which is just one of the six traits. Early on, I teach my kids to start using the skill-based language embedded in ALL six traits, and we discover what different writers we all are. If you don't know your six traits, here they are:

Idea Development
Word Choice
Sentence Fluency

I ask my students to always--with every bigger paper we write--self analyze with the following two questions:

  1. What writing trait are you really doing a good job with in this writing? Be prepared to show me three places where you're being a "trait rock star."
  2. What writing trait is really giving you trouble with this piece of writing? Be prepared to talk about places in your paper where the trait is giving you trouble.

As we review the writing traits and the academic vocabulary throughout the year and between our paper assignments, I ask kids to always predict and reflect upon their "strength trait" when they write and their "struggle trait" when they write. As they move from expository to narrative to argumentative writing, they quite often notice that their trait-inspired strengths and struggles shift. If we're writing poetry, they'll notice they shift. If they're writing an exit ticket, they'll notice they shift. My kids learn to say smart trait-based things like, "I understand organization when we're writing expository, but when it comes to narrative, I don't get it," and "I like how my word choice in poetry can be less precise than my word choice in an argumentative essay."

My devotion to using the six writing traits as my academic language for my writing instruction enables my students to eventually self-analyze their own writing preferences and style, and they can discuss these intelligently with me, with each other, and with their parents. Kids who are using for-sale programs--like "Step Up to Writing"--don't make deep connections like my students do, and their writing, unfortunately, sounds as formulaic and predictable as a book of nothing but "Important Book" passages.

When I occasionally assign formulaic writing (which admittedly does help them practice several organizational skills as well as forces them to use specific details), I assign short pieces of writing, like "Important Passages." But I give them important topics to unpack and share details about...like the six writing traits. For the following examples (from my 8th graders), I asked them to write about their "strength trait" and their "struggle trait" using two different "Important Book Passages." We were writing a narrative when they wrote these passages about their best trait and their struggle trait.

My 8th Graders Share Which Traits they Shine With and Which Traits they Struggle with using these "Important Passages".

Dani's has an interesting choice for her two clashing traits.

Kage chose two traits that are often at odds with each other.

I have to love Kevin's analytical writing style here.

Jacie chose two natural foes: word choice and organization.

Rachel had two different traits clash here.

Sydney also sees voice and organization clashing.

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