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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's a Writing Lesson I Created Because I Like the Word 'Epistolary': Year after year, my students keep telling me I should write a book. I now respond with, "I am writing a book...one monthly lesson at a time." I truly enjoy providing these lesson write-ups once a month as there are many personal benefits for me as both a teacher and a writer, the best of them being that my kids see me write every day (as I expect from them), and once I month I share with them this very lesson write-up I have sent out to the teachers who follow my Lesson of the Month Ning. My students will be looking at this published lesson some time during this month, and many will be excited to see their work featured as a student exemplar. And that gets just about everybody excited about writing again. So...see? Publishing these new (or newly revised) lessons of mine has many benefits for my classroom.

That said, know/remember this fact about me: I strongly object to any book (or whole-school writing program) that tells me exactly how I should teach a concept. I expect some professional leeway when I am considering borrowing a teaching idea from a printed text, and you'll always find me adapting others' ideas like crazy so that they fit my own crazy classroom's other expectations. If you are not only enjoying but considering using the lesson I share here, PLEASE adapt it like crazy. I share these big ideas and writing tasks here, and I like hearing back about adaptations you made.

The mentor texts I use with this lesson can certainly be substituted with other mentor texts. I firmly believe the best writing lessons have a mentor text skillfully embedded in the instruction somehow, so I will share the mentor texts I have embedded, which mostly come from my reading curriculum. Please don't shy away from the lesson based on my mentor texts, and please know that the writer's notebook epistolary book summary that I share below can work with any book.

A Lesson from my Classroom to Yours:

Epistolary Writing Projects & Writer's Notebook Summaries
narrating a story with documents designed to make one's audience to decipher and interpret

Overview: If you follow my Vocabulary Collecting Resources I share at this website, you know that we celebrate new words in my classroom by writing about them. When I tell my seventh graders who Flowers for Algernon is an epistolary novel, they become interested in that new word. An epistolary story--unlike a traditional narrative--is told with documents, like journals or letters or texts or even Facebook posts, I suppose. For this lesson, I challenge my students to create an original story idea that could be told using an epistolary style; then, we explore ways to tell that story through documents the students create, like birth certificates, wanted posters, valentines, or even Facebook posts, I suppose.

On this page, I share both a writing project and a notebook prompt I hope you enjoy enough to try, but please adapt it so it becomes your own, not done exactly as I teach it. To help you find an adaptive idea, I will explain how my seventh graders created an original narrative built by six epistolary documents; some seventh graders used a great poem I taught them as their story inspiration for this, but others preferred to use their own original story ideas, which I encouraged. We did it as a culminating writing lesson after Flowers for Algernon, which is considered an epistolary novel.

My current eighth graders, who had previously completed a variation of this assignment the year before with me, returned to the epistolary idea this year for a special task I required of them in their writer's notebooks: I wanted them to create an "epistolary memory" of three important moments in the two Civil War-based narratives we had just completed, and I wanted these epistolary memories to fit in their writer's notebooks. In six months, I will ask the students look back at those pages, and they'll be surprised how they are able to recall those novels based on some creative documents they have designed and glued or taped in their writer's notebooks.

Lesson Background/Research Rationale: I had a nice teacher write me this week to ask a good question about the vocabulary lessons she recently purchased from my website, which contain the same Powerpoints I teach vocabulary with in my own classroom. She mentioned that she had one parent who told her that assigned "vocabulary collecting" seemed like busywork more than learning. I include the following rationale for her--or any of you--to help talk to the research "Vocabulary collecting" relates to, or to be able to explain how having kids write using new vocabulary is more meaningful than typical bottom-of-Bloom's memorization activities.

My students and I are "word collectors." My vocabulary homework expectations keep them discovering new words weekly, bringing eight of them to class every other Friday on a special handout I have for them, and then we use these words during instruction in unique ways. I demonstrate how I--too--am ALWAYS collecting new words, and I explain to them how I've read the research that tells me how I must have a meaningful experience with my new wordseight times--at least--before I can be expected to really know how and when to use my new word(s) correctly. We can do about 3 or 4 of those eight necessary meaningful experiences in class, but I leave it to them to find opportunities to use their new words four more times so they can add the words to their "pocket word" collection. I tell them, "I got you halfway to 'owning' a word. Now you do the other half." Those who take me up on this have remarkable vocabulary skills in my class, and it definitely shows in their writing.

This particular lesson became a demonstration to the kids, showing them how I could teach a brand new vocabulary word to all by incorporating its meaningful use into two lessons I was creating, one for my seventh graders, the other for my eighth graders. All students had read/were reading Flowers for Algernon, and while at a department meeting this year, a colleague called the Algernon book an epistolary story. I asked for the word's meaning, and he said: "It's a story told in documents, not in your normal narrative way." Charlie Gordon's 'Progress Reports' count as documents.

The next day, both my 7th and 8th grade classes heard about this new word--epistolary--, and I explained I was going to give them multiple experiences with the word over the next few weeks to help them "own" it as one of their "pocket words"; I wanted them to help me test the research on which I based their weekly vocabulary tasks (8 meaningful experiences = learned vocabulary word), and I was going to do that while creating/teaching a brand new lesson for me to post at the website they know I keep. The entire lesson is on this page. The entire group of seventh an eighth graders know the word epistolary now too.

Yes, we did end up proving the research right when I taught this lesson. We all "own" the word epistolary because the lesson on this page forced us to keep using it and thinking about the concept in new ways. Many of my kids' parents now "own" this word too, and it all happened because the kids talked about this writing lesson at home as well as at school. That's always a nice bonus.

Don't let them tell you teaching students to "own" their own vocabulary words is "busywork." Those logical and creative writing tasks that my "vocabulary collectors" complete start my students on an experience that will help them develop better vocabulary skills.

My Focus Trait/Objective for this lesson: My 6-trait focus here is mostly idea development, especially the more specific skills of "discovering unique topics to explore" and "putting story details out there in unique ways (which is great for reinforcing the skill of paraphrasing)." This lesson is also a great opportunity for me to show them where to find all the pre-programmed document templates that come with Microsoft Word, or Microsoft Publisher, if you've got it in your school lab. After introducing this lesson, not only do I see the students using those templates to create professional-looking documents, but for the rest of the year I always am pleased to see the students continuing to use the documents for projects they are doing in both my class as well as our social studies class, where my awesome history-teaching teammate also requires them to do a huge amount of writing.

Embedding My Mentor Texts:

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes--the first epistolary mentor text I draw my students' attention to--is my opportunity to introduce my seventh graders to that fun-sounding word--epistolary. As sixth graders, we explore allegory as our new word for a technique that creates unique story-telling, so my returning seventh graders already understand what I mean when I say, "We're going to explore yet another unique way to present a narrative story to an audience." In Daniel Keyes' novel, we epistolarily (If that's not a word...it should be) follow Charlie Gordon's odyssey of going from being highly unintelligent to being uber-intelligent thanks to an experimental operation. We follow the journey through the main character's "progress reports" that the book's scientists require him to keep. It's an interesting way to learn a character's story. When you choose to do that, you create an epistolary story. Dear Mr. Blueberry by Simon James and those charming Amelia Notebooks by Marissa Moss (which are already on my classroom display shelf because they have already been shown off as a mentor text for our writer's notebook program too) are picture book examples of this type of narrative.

Now, if you follow my vocabulary resource page, you know that new words are a big deal in my classroom. We become "Word Collectors" on my watch: each student brings four words a week, each word must be included in unique writing activity (I now have ten different ones for students to choose from), three have to come from the book we are reading (or a poem or short story or article we have read in class), and that fourth word for the week is a "free word"; they can find it in a magazine, take it away with them from a conversation, or snatch it from a classroom discussion on an exciting new word like allegory or epistolary. I have a lot of kids who have both of these words in the weekly vocabulary collections I require of them, and I am so fine with that; these are two good words to know, especially if you're teaching as many creative kids as I seem to have these days. While they are collecting words from Flowers for Algernon, they also have permission from me to include literary terms in their weekly collections--like epistolary.

The second mentor text I use when teaching the concept of epistolary story-telling is an oldie but a real goodie. It is a four-page series of cancelled checks that--epistolarily (yeah, I said it again!)--tells the tragic story of a really rich kid with a dad who could have done a better job raising him, I bet. I say all that because that's my interpretation of "Ordeal By Cheque" by Wuther Crue, which originally appeared in Vanity Fair Magazine back in 1932, I believe. I put my seventh graders in pairs, give them a copy of the four-page story to share, and together they interpret the tale of the too-rich father and the most-likely-spoiled son by reading the checks. Here are two tips if sharing "Ordeal by Cheque" as an epistolary example:

  • The checks' handwriting can be hard to read at points. Preview the check-based story by looking for words--like shoppe--that might throw the kids. Be prepared to explain the four or five checks they always ask about. By the way, my seventh graders totally believe me when I tell them lingerie is just a collection of "fancy pajamas," but my eighth graders don't buy that for a second!
  • I run copies of the story back-to-back and staple. I only let them study the story one page at a time; they are prohibited from moving ahead until we've all had a chance to discuss possible interpretations of information the checks provide to the reader. If you are doing this with partners, it's fun to require them to have different roles as they move from page to page. Just requiring one student to physically hold the story is a simple role you can assign; my current favorite set of roles for partners reading something together how is this: One of the partners can only ask Yes/No questions; the second partner can only say one of four things..."That's right." "That's wrong." "That's good." and "That's bad." Try it. Practice the discussion technique with a picture book, if you have time.

After "Ordeal by Cheque," I give the student partners four phone message sheets that I abduct from the office staff at my school (see photo at right). I challenge them to create an original story that could be told by reading four of the characters' phone messages in a certain order. I have them think about the different genres we have studied together in my class--historical fiction, memoir, dystopian--and the other genres they can name, like romance, science-fiction, crime drama. I ask, "Which genre would be the best to tell a story using just four phone messages?" Then I say, "Talk your ideas out for three minutes without writing anything down. Then, together write the story using only four phone messages. Be creative."

The phone message sheets I "borrow" from our office are the type that gives you the carbon copy version right underneath the original, which is handy if the student partners really like the story they start because both can leave the session with a copy of the writing so far. A few months after teaching this part of the lesson, I still have kids come up to me during sacred writing time and ask if I have any more of those "phone message sheets" because they've thought up a new phone message story they want to write.

The third mentor text I use with this lesson is a great little poem by American poet E. A. Robinson, best known for "Richard Cory," I imagine. The poem I use is "Reuben Bright," which on the surface is a sad little tale of a good, honest man--a butcher--whose wife dies too early and, after packing away and putting into storage some of her lovely things, he tears down his own slaughter house. Life. Death. Dealing with grief. All topics that can be discussed the first time you look at this poem.

The second time you look at the poem, you have fun with it. This poem indicates that there is this unnamed "They" who tells Reuben his wife "must die." What does that mean? Was she sick? Was his wife a criminal? A witch? A witness to something bad? There is a back story in Reuben Bright that is never offered to us, and you'll be surprised at how many interpretations your kids will brainstorm if you set up the challenge for them. My kids come up with dozens and dozens, some outlandish but perfectly possible without contradicting the original text of the poem.

We brainstorm dozens of "They/Them" possibilities for the "Reuben Bright" poem, and students all choose their personal favorites. Over a series of three days, I have the students write a diary entry in the voice of Reuben Bright. The first entry must be written as though Reuben has just learned his wife must die. The second diary entry is immediately after she is taken from him. The third diary entry takes on Reuben's voice and explains why he tore down the slaughter house after that event has happened.

I have the students record these three epistolary diary entries in their writer's notebooks. Many of my students choose to use Reuben Bright as the basis for their story for their final Epistolary Project, as you will see lower down in the examples for this lesson. Just as many go the "original story" route, but many of my students really like the epistolary writing practice we do with this poem in our notebooks.

The fourth and fifth mentor texts I use in my classroom are The River Between Us by Richard Peck and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs. Our eighth graders do a big Civil War project, and I strategically teach and finish both these novels just weeks before they start that Civil War unit a few doors down from my classroom in social studies class. My eighth graders--as a review of the epistolary story-telling concept from the previous year with the "Reuben Bright" poem in seventh grade--create three-document summaries of both these books we read and study together as a class. These summaries must go in their writer's notebooks.

Mentor Texts I Use:
(these can certainly be substituted with other texts)

Explaining Epistolary through Texts:
Here are two epistolary texts we discussed
during this lesson:

Flowers for Algernon
by Daniel Keyes

(a downloadable PDF document)

"Ordeal by Cheque"
by Wuther Crue


Asking, "What Tales Might
We Re-tell Epistolarily?"

Here are the three mentor texts my students summarized using documents they created:

The River Between Us
by Richard Peck
(my 8th graders read this novel as a class)

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
by Harriet Jacobs
(my 8th graders read this narrative as a class)


(a free-to-access, fun-to-interpret poem)

"Reuben Bright"
by E. A. Robinson

Student-Created Epistolary Narratives:

Teacher's note: When I am teaching a more-formatted writing assignment (like a "Comparison/Contrast Essay," which was what I was working on during the time of this writing lesson with all my students), I like to balance that formal assignment with a light-hearted one that still requires good writing; this maintains my kids' happiness with the writing process, because even though they have an essay they are working on, they also have a creative writing task hovering in the background that they are looking forwardd to. I consider this epistolary narrative assignment to be a light-hearted task to balance any formal writing you might be teaching simultaneously.

I'll explain both my grade levels' writing tasks below, and you can choose to do either one or both, assuming you see the value in this writing task based on my students' samples below.

But first...this is a "Desk Publishing" Opportunity: This lesson's final product can be utilized for what I call a day of "Desk Publishing." Make it part of your lesson to set aside time at the end for students to present their "published" products, and let the students interpret one another's ideas. I don't do whole-class presentations anymore; instead, I give up one of my 71-minute periods (minus sacred writing time) to celebrate and share finished products that we've taken through the entire writing process. My students' "Epistolary Projects" were designed to sit on one a desk while all students rotate from seat to seat, reading and leaving comments on one another's final narratives. We vote for "Most Original Story" and "Best Reuben Bright Interpretation" as extra credit awards in my class.

My seventh graders' writing task: I introduce that poem "Reuben Bright" very early on with my seventh graders to show them how poems are often wide open to various interpretations; they love brainstorming different storylines that the poem inspires. For this lesson, I brought the poem back and I gave students a choice: 1) they could create a six-document epistolary story that further explains their interpretation of Reuben Bright and his wife's story or 2) they could create an original story (like "Ordeal by Cheque") based on creating six documents that their reader would have to interpret. Students were told their epistolary stories must fit on a poster board display, or they could create a file folder of documents for another student to look through, which really appealed to some of them who are into C.S.I.-like stories. Next year, I am going to encourage a "scrapbook" concept too.

Click here to see some of my seventh graders' examples for these two options.

My eighth graders' task: I asked my eighth graders to create three epistolary documents that would 1) fit in their writer's notebooks and 2) summarize three important plot moments of both Civil War-based narratives we had been reading and studying: The River Between Us and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. In small groups, my eighth graders brainstormed as many original ideas for documents that might make an appearance in the two narratives we had read, then we created a class list of ideas--one chart for each book. From those ideas or from their own original thinking, my 8th graders worked for one week on each book, creating one- or two-page notebook spreads that display their documents.

Click here to see my eighth graders' examples for these two narratives.

Some of the Ideas for Epistolary Documents We Brainstormed for this Assignment
This receipt came with an author's explanation.
A diary entry and two cancelled checks.
A hand-drawn front page story.
A tea-stained journal and court summons.
We practiced telling stories using phone message sheets from our office.
Epistolary text messages seem to promote bad spelling, but they also helped tell stories.


Some of my Seventh Grade Projects:

Three Reuben Bright-Inspired Epistolary Storyboards:

Tyler used diary entries, checks, and a will to show his interpretation of the poem:

(Click poster to see it in a larger form)
Mason created an FBI-file of criminal evidence to re-tell the story:

(Click poster to see it in a larger form)
I forgave Mackenzie her misspelling of the character's name:

(Click poster to see it in a larger form)


Three Original Epistolary Story Projects:

Anna told an original tale of love with her epistolary story:

(Click poster to see it in a larger form)
Caitlyn told the story of an art heist with her epistolary narrative:

(Click poster to see it in a larger form)
Kirsten used phone messages and Post-its for this original story:

(Click poster to see it in a larger form)


Some of my Eighth Grade Notebook Epistolary Summaries:

Epistolary The River Between Us Notebook Summaries:

Hannah used documents of the era for this epistolary summary

(Click page to see it in a larger form)
Kyra did it with modern documents, which I allowed. Here: Tweets!:

(Click image to see it in a larger form)


Epistolary Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Notebook Summaries:

Audrey used documents of the era for this epistolary summary:

(Click page to see it in a larger form)
Jacie did it with modern documents, which I allowed. Here: Instagrams!:

(Click poster to see it in a larger form)


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