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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.


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.

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This page contains one of my original writer's notebook lesson ideas I created for my students. We write every day in my middle school classroom, and my wife can say the same thing about her second- through eight-grade students. To assist every one of students as they each maintain a writer's notebooks, my amazing wife and fellow writing teacher--Dena Harrison--and I created three tools that ensure our students always have something to write about during our first ten minutes of class each day. They are:

  1. Sacred Writing Time Slides: with a posted daily holiday, bizarre trivia fact, inspirational quote, and vocabulary word, these slides continue to inspire interesting ten-minute sessions of writing from even my most reluctant writers. (Click here for a free sample of this product)
  2. Writer's Notebook Bingo Cards: for those students who prefer a prompt, here's a variation of that strategy that still gives students a choice. Each Bingo Card has twenty-four interesting writing prompts, and challenging students who like prompts to make one Bingo a month works well. (Click here for a free sample of this product)
  3. Writer's Notebook/Workshop Choice Menus: these menus contain more depth and complexity in how they present their prompts to students who prefer a choice of prompts to "spark" their writing. These menus' "entree sections" also set up students to create pre-writing that could very easily become a piece for writer's workshop, if you use that model. (Click here for a free sample of this product)

As soon as we are settled, we write in silence for ten minutes. Most of my learners bring their own ideas with them to class, but others still need a creative or logical jumping-off place. Musicians improve when they practice every day. Athletes improve when they practice each day. So too do developing writers. My students learn to take their ten minutes of sacred writing very seriously because that is the expectation I set forth from day one. We write. Every day. For ten silent minutes. And develop fluency. And many other skills. Often we share with our neighbor after SWT time. It's a routine in our classroom.

Here's my best trick to making your students really love their notebooks: Once a month, I also require a special creative page from all my writers for their notebooks; these pages need to be the kind of page that--if you flipped back through your own notebook a year later--you'd always stop and say, "Wow, I put a little time into this page!" when you encountered it again. I use these lessons to teach a trait-specific writing skill, and we use those skills to make rough drafts of the notebook idea outside of the notebook, then we create a final draft of the writing in our notebooks. The final draft in the notebook is supposed to be revised, edited, and--somehow--visually appealing.

For these assigned monthly notebook pages, I am always seeking out a new idea or an easy-to-imitate writing structure that my writers can have fun with, and then I teach a writing lesson that gives them a writing skill to try out. The lesson below is a new idea I found while reading a magazine article in a doctor's office this past winter.

A Teacher-Guided Lesson Specifically for Writer's Notebooks:
teaching voice and word choice while exploring idiosyncrasies:
"Normal or Nuts?"
a silly-but-smart writer's notebook task your kids will really like!

Overview of this Notebook Task:

Whenever possible, thanks to Common Core, we are reading more non-fiction, which in my classroom often takes the form of a magazine article. Reader's Digest puts out an annual article called "Are You Normal or Nuts?" where people write in, explaining their idiosyncrasies, and different people with PhD's respond. Basically, everyone turns out to be "normal" in some way or another according to the magazine's experts, so it promotes a nice message to my middle school students. I always wonder about the articles that were too nuts to make it to the magazine, don't you?

Before, during, and after reading this article , we reviewed voice in writing with this, and this year's article had some nice vocabulary words in it, so we also reviewed word choice too, and we talked about how smart people use smart vocabulary in their writing.

For several days, I encouraged students to write about their own idiosyncrasies during Sacred Writing Time. Many tried out writing in the style of a PhD trying to explain to someone intelligently and calmly that they weren't "nuts," even though their idiosyncrasy might be particularly weird.

Finally, I explained that all students, using skills of voice and smart word choice, they would draft, revise, edit, then publish an "Are You Normal or Nuts?"-inspired page for their writer's notebook. I set a rough draft deadline, a revision deadline, and wee set aside ten minutes in class to help each other edit after revision day. Two weeks after I assigned the rough draft, my students had to be ready to share their "Normal or Nuts" page in a whole-class sharing day.

My mentor text for this lesson:

"Are You Normal or Nuts?" article from Readers Digest, November 2013. Click here for an online version of the article.

Read the Mentor Text for Ideas, Structures, and Writing Style

First of all, look for mentor texts everywhere. I unexpectedly happened upon this Reader's Digest at a doctor's waiting room, and halfway through the article, I already had this whole new lesson planned in my head. For the record, I borrowed the magazine from the waiting room, made a copy of it back at work, then returned the magazine a week later when we were back at the doctor's. I borrow from the world constantly--I tell this to my kids a lot--but I always make sure I give back to the world.

I believe that using a mentor text well while teaching is one of the elements that either makes or breaks a writing lesson. A mentor text--this is my definition--is a published piece of writing shared sometime during the writing process that gives students an idea for writing, a structure for imitating, or a writing style to imitate. One of my favorite handouts from my teacher-training days remains my handout that explains how I classify my mentor texts. Click on the image of my handout (at right) and freely share it with your colleagues. It's a good one, and I challenge teachers to find a use of mentor texts they've never tried...and then try them. Mentor Texts are undoubtedly the most popular of elements of lesson design we explore during my Seven Elements of a Differentiated Writing Lesson Workshop for Teachers.

My students know I am using my mentor texts to inspire them as writers, so when I say, "Here is the mentor text we're reading today," they know they have a piece of writing they'll be creating as a result of reading. At this point in the school year (spring), they also know I expect them to find an idea, a structure, or a writing style in the text to borrow from. Sometimes, a mentor text's idea, structure, and style are all worthy of consideration, which is the case with this article. It has:

  • a great idea: people writing about unusual quirks and asking if they're normal or nuts.
  • an imitate-able structure: a slightly formal letter of inquiry and letter of response.
  • an imitate-able voice in the response letters: the expert response sounds civil and smart, and uses good vocabulary.

Remember, adapt this lesson so that it works for you, your teaching style, and your daily time constraints. I began this lesson the day we had to take our district-mandated, on-computer reading comprehension test, which I lose three days of instructional time each school year giving near the beginning, middle, and end of the school year. I knew some kids would finish early, and I knew they had to have something read that wasn't on the computer, so I had these articles ready. The students who finished early and had the article started tittering to themselves as they read it, which caused a great deal of interest in it, and when I passed one out to everyone at the end of the computer test they were enduring, all took it home and were happy to read it to see what was so funny.

Back in class the next day, my first task was:

  • Go back and find three words in the article you don't know and work with a partner to see if you can decipher the word using contextual clues. Once you have a guess, check the dictionary to see how accurate you were. Be prepared to try and use your three words in today's writing task.

Second task:

  • Create a fake PhD persona who has the opportunity to respond to one of the letters from the actual article. This fake PhD would write a letter that sounds just as professional in tone, but explains to the letter-writer that they might actually be nuts, not normal. They are to attempt write these using two of the three words they looked up in task #1. I let them do this part by themselves or with a partner.

Third task:

  • Students brainstorm both an original (and imaginary) letter and an original (and imaginary) PhD response, and they prepare to create a rough draft, which I will check off in a few days' time. I always give a few days notice because I'll have kids who write better at home in solitude, and I have students who would do better writing this during our classroom's next ten-minutes of Sacred Writing Time. Anyway, I set a rough draft homework date that was two days later.

Fourth task:

  • Students are put into groups of four on the day their rough drafts are due. They don't read their own letters aloud; instead, they read a fellow group member's letter(s) aloud, trying to perform/act like they believe the person writing the letter would act. They enjoy the opportunity to read like a possibly-crazy person, and they enjoy the opportunity to read like a know-it-all PhD-sounding responder. After sharing and honoring these completed rough drafts, students suggest revision ideas that would help improve voice, and they suggest ways to incorporate better PhD-sounding words in the response letter. As they read, they are also asked to edit for spelling and punctuation.

Some "Normal or Nuts?" Pages from my Students:

A week later, while my students were discussing our class novel in small groups/literature circles, I assessed the final drafts of their "Normal or Nuts?" pages, which I told them to revise, edit, and decorate in their notebooks. Here are a few the students shared with me.

8th grader Jacie took this approach with a story about dogs for this assignment while...

...8th grader Kyra took this approach.

8th grader Emily--normally so sweet--made a horror story about spoons...(PG-rating from Mr. H.)

Alex's was short & sweet...but scenario is now in his word choice collection

An Invitation to Share Students' Personified Vocabulary Notebook Pages:

You will have those students who create awesome notebook pages inspired by this voice and word choice exercise--you'll see new pages every year that should serve as models for future students who go through this same writing task. Photograph them! Save them! Perhaps even post them and share at venues (like our Writing Lesson of the Month Ning) with tens of thousands of teacher followers. Tell your students you're going to choose one, two or three best notebook pages and post them at our Ning; in my class, this so motivates my writers, and when I tell my writers they could very easily have their notebook pages seen by the tens-of-thousands of teachers and their students who visit our free-to-access educational site annually, many of them happily go the extra step with their assignment, which I never can complain about.

The link below will take you to our posting page specifically set up for this writer's notebook lesson. If you do this lesson and have a cool one to share, post it! Let's use this Internet thing to celebrate really good student work.

Click here to visit our ning's posting page,
where you can post photographs of student notebook pages.

Sweet Shelby (an 8th grader) wanted me to assure you this is totally fiction and was totally having fun with this.