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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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Background information for this lesson: I appreciate all the attempts that educators have made in the past ten years to deepen the thinking that students do when they are tyring to add newly-learned vocabulary words to their memory banks. The problem is we come up with a new tool or technique--Can anyone say 'Frayer Model' with me?--and then we over-use that tool or technique to death. I remember vividly the day one of my late-afternoon eighth graders said, "Mr. Harrison, this is the third Frayer [worksheet] I've had to do in school today!" That was the comment that actually inspired me to begin designing my 10 Common Core Vocabulary & Writing Lessons. I asked myself, "What if the kids had something Frayer-like to choose from, but then they also had multiple other options too?" One of the foundations of differentiation is providing students with meaningful choices to show their learning? Always giving them a Frayer? We kind of killed that tool!

One of the options I give my students when they "publish" four weekly words for me is to create a "Like-Grammar Synonym & Antonym List," which means if the students record a vocabulary word that's a noun, then all their synonyms and antonyms must be in noun form as well. They lose an entire point for every word that doesn't match this expectation, so while this is admittedly seems to be one of my easiest vocabulary activity choices, it's also the easiest to lose all your points on if you don't double check your work carefully. I have had lots of students completely blow this activity and receive zero points for having most of their synonyms and antonyms not match the part of speech of their original word. I'm always reinforcing grammar, even with my vocabulary and writing activities.

This online lessons contains two complementary writing lessons/classroom ideas:
a writer's notebook challenge called
Synonym List Stories
a narrative that can be taken through the entire writing processs called
Mini Autobiographies told with a Dictiionary and Thesaurus' Style
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And here's a bonus idea...Use Your Synonym/Antonym Lists for Common Core-friendly Small Group Discussions: This is my favorite follow-up activity after I've had students create synonym and antonym vocabulary lists. The nice thing about my "Like-Grammar Synonym & Antonym" vocabulary option is that by the time we hit week five or six of vocabulary collecting, my students ALL have--at least--one example of this activity in their weekly collections of four words, which we store in an in-class binder so that we can use them during grammar and language games as the year progresses. If I say, "Everybody grab your binder and find one example of a synonym or an antonym list from past vocabulary," then every student has one. Without looking in dictionaries, I challenge the students to recreate the lists, but in doing so, they have to change the part of the speech of the original vocabulary word, then change all their antonyms and synonyms' forms too. Allow me to elaborate. Here is an example set of student lists: Nate and Jackie's Synonyms/Antonyms. Can you--without using the dictionary--change Nate's lethargic to its noun form, then change all the synonyms and antonyms too? How about changing Jackie's irk into an adjective? To me, this is a powerful conversation that forces use of academic grammar language among my students, and they create the lists, not me, which (in my crazy way of thinking) makes them feel a lot less like they're involved in the completion of your typical grammar worksheet.

Even with the above meaningful follow-up activity at the ready, I'm still always on the look out for other writing techniques that will make my students do something that requires deep thinking with synonyms and antonyms. And so...I give you this month's lesson, which involves a writer's notebook task followed by a writing lesson, each inspired by two great mentor texts. First...the writer's notebook writing task:

Synonym List Stories--with a Potential Cinnamon Twist
for a point of extra credit, I challenge students to base their notebook story--somehow--on actual cinnamon

A Writer's Notebook Challenge: Three-Synonym String Stories

Boris Ate a Thesaurus
by Neil Steven Klayman

a three-synonym string from
Boris Ate a Thesaurus
(Click to enlarge.)

Thesaurus Rex
by Layla Steinberg

a three-synonym string
from Thesaurus Rex (Click to enlarge.)
The two above-cited mentor texts do something similar while sharing two very different stories: they use three-synonym strings as part of their story-telling rhythm. Don't understand? Click on the image excerpt I've provided from each book and you should be able to deduce what a three-synonym string is pretty quickly.

For this writer's notebook challenge, I have my students create a rough draft for their three-synonym string stories before they actually put them in their writer's notebooks. I don't always require rough drafts because a writer's notebook should be filled with rough ideas, not polished ideas, but because this story requires them to plan how it will actually fit on the page, I want them to have a draft they can manipulate before they determine how to place it on a page (or two) in their notebooks.

I also like to throw out an extra-credit challenge on this task based on my own childhood difficulty in saying the word synonym; it always came out as cinnamon. I also called my shoulders my soldiers for a short period, but I eventually outgrew it. I always thought Cinnamon Soldiers would be the name of my first novel, but I have no idea what it would be about! I'll bet my friend and teaching colleague--David Michael Slater--could come up with a decent story with that title; his picture book "Flour Girl" is one of my favorites that he's published. Anyway, my students enjoy my brief synonym/cinnamon speech impediment story, so when I give them this writer's notebook task, I always say, "If you happen to make cinnamon an important part of the story you write, I'll give you a point of extra credit on this task." I'm amazed what my kids will do for one point of extra credit. A few years back, I received an awful of "Cinnamon Challenge" stories for this, but these days I encourage them to look up interesting facts about cinnamon to inspire their short story.

So here's the writer's notebook task: students are to create a very brief story or explanation (perhaps inspired by cinnamon--like I did with mine), and in doing so, they are to figure out how to use five 3-synonym strings (or lists) in their stories' telling. To fit on a notebook page, basically each student will need a five- sentence rough draft where one word gets "three synonym-ed," just as is demonstrated in both mentor texts I have listed above.

For my teacher model, I ended up looking up research on a website about the healthful benefits of cinnamon. My wife isn't a fan of cinnamon, and I am, so I suppose I had an ulterior motive in mind: convince Dena that we should make ourselves eat more cinnamon. I wrote my rough draft on a piece of notebook paper, underlining verbs, nouns, and adjectives that I thought I could find appropriate synonyms for. I had to change a few of my initial sentences to have a more sophisticated word in it so that I had some word worthy of thesaurus-ing it. Once I had a story I was happy with and that had five three-synonym strings to it, I planned how to fit it on a page and make it interesting to read through. Click on the image at left to enlarge it and share my story.

The learning objective you have to "hit home" with this task: I'm sure you find this too. Your students blindly choose synonyms from the thesaurus that do NOT fit the context of what they mean to say. For example, when I looked up the very "lower" on my online thesaurus, two of the options were "depreciate" and "pare." I asked my students to look up those two synonyms and explain why they were inappropriate verbs for applying to lowering my blood pressure. I stress this to my kids as their learning objective: "Choose synonyms that you are ABSOLUTELY certain fit the context of the word you are replacing. Check the dictionary to be certain! "

My students share their rough drafts with each other, and they help each other check the validity/context of the synonyms they have chosen by double-checking words' meaning in the dictionary. I then give them a week to "publish" their synonym stories in their writer's notebook. Showing them my teacher model always inspires many of them to put their best foot forward on this one, and that's what I always hope for from these writer's notebook tasks: I want the students to create a page with a quality to it that inspires them to keep sharing the page with their sacred writing partners, and I want them to be inspired to create their own notebook pages that exemplify similar quality and care. If your students aren't proud of their writer's notebooks, they won't keep them, and to me, that defeats the entire purpose of keeping a writer's notebook. There's a special shelf in my home office where I have all six of my writer's notebooks stored.

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Mini Autobiographies -- told with a dictionary- and thesaurus-style
learn about Noah Webster and Peter Mark Roget to inspire a mini autobiography

A Writer's Workshop Challenge: Three-Synonym String Stories
If you know my vocabulary-collecting resources, you know I love making my students use dictionaries and thesauruses. My beautiful wife surprised me with with the following two picture books in my stocking this past Christmas. Dena knows when there's a mentor text that I'll find a way to turn into a writing task for my students, and these two naturally worked together to do so; in addition, they give a simplified but fascinating look into the lives of Webster and Roget, and I'll admit, I didn't know very much about either man before I read these books.

Noah Webster & His Words
by Jeri Chase Ferris

The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus
by Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet

Research & Prewriting...Before introducing this autobiography lesson, I divide my students into two research groups: one group needs to research the life Noah Webster; the other needs to research Peter Roget. In my classroom, we do a lot of discussion about gathering interesting, unique facts...not the dull and boring ones you'd expect in a first grader's report on a past president. I tell my kids, "I don't really care that Abraham Lincoln was born in February of 1809; that's a first grader's fact. I'd rather hear you expand on that initial factoid by saying, 'Abraham Lincoln was born in 1809, and the midwife who delivered him was only twenty years old, never having delivered a baby on her own before.' Or, 'Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809, one day after U.S. inventor Robert Fulton patented the steamboat.'" It's important to teach your students to actively seek the most interesting facts when researching, or they risk the chance of having dull expository writing.

I ask my students, before they begin researching, to find five to seven highly interesting facts about whichever historical word-lover's life. I expect that my students to never copy facts they find; I want them to put them in their own words. Having them do this in pairs is one method I use a lot; another one I use is a game I call "Pass the fact," which involves students committing one of their facts to memory (in a really short time so they don't truly memorize), then walk to someone across the room to share the fact, and that person repeats the fact back to them, then they repeat the process again, then they write the fact down on a fresh piece of paper, and going through this process almost ALWAYS ends up with them having the fact written in their own words.

In groups of four, I have my students create "Top 7" fact lists on chart paper, and we decorate the room with them.

As students complete the next worksheet (at right) in their group of four, I rotate my copies of the two picture books above to them, giving the picture book about the historical figure they did their research to the group so they can compare their Top 7 facts to the facts presented in the book. I try to limit each group to having just 6-7 minutes with the book, and I like to have them pass the book to the next group member at the end of every page, and the next student reads it aloud, then passes it until the entire book has been read.

When the groups don't have the books on Noah Webster or Peter Roget, they are talking in their groups to the prompt on the worksheet: "What's something you believe or like to do that isn't totally unique but that probably not a lot of people believe/do the same thing?" If one of my kids says, "I watch 'Dr. Who,'" the rest of the group immediately decides if that is truly common or more unique. They are only allowed to write topics down that are fairly uncommon.

Here are the specific instructions found on the front side of the prewriting worksheet at right: Think about uncommon things you believe (“I believe a family should eat dinner together every night”) and unique things you like to do (“I collect bicentennial quarters”). Your goal here is to have a list that is pretty unique from everyone else’s, so you need to ask your group “Does this sound uncommon enough?” and respect your group’s decision when they say yes or no. In his time, for example, Noah Webster was uncommon in his belief that there needed to be American school books. That uncommon belief shaped who he became. Peter Roget liked to make interesting lists. That uncommon hobby shaped who he became. Your goal is to come up with six fairly uncommon beliefs or six things you like to do that make you fairly unique from most people. Record your list below, but do not write anything down until your group helps you decide if your belief or your “like” could be considered uncommon.

At any point in the process, if it helps students, you may show them this teacher model of the brainstorm...or you may create one of your own to share.

Allow groups to go through the process of helping each other fill out the front side of this brainstorming sheet. If a group member lags behind because he doesn't feel anything he/she does is that uncommon or interesting, and his/her group isn't helping him with their own ideas, ask, "What do you collect? Where's an unusual place you've been? What's a weird thing you like to do?" When the whole group has--at least--five ideas recorded on their individual brainstorms, they may move to the backside of the document.

Here are the specific instructions found on the backside of the pre-writing worksheet from above, which come in three parts: First, with your group’s help, come up with an interesting (25-cent) adjective and/or a descriptive phrase that you would use to accurately describe yourself based on the uncommon belief or your uncommon thing you like to do. Second, tell your group how you came to believe the most interesting and uncommon belief you have listed, and tell them how you came to like the most interesting uncommon activity that you like to do. Third, ask your group, "Which explanation/story about my uncommon features do think would make the most interesting piece of writing that could count as my ‘Mini Autobiography’?”

The entire purpose of the brainstorm worksheet is to spark an idea for a mini-autobiography that each student will write that is based on an unusual fact or belief. I'll leave it up to you to decide how long each auto-biography needs to be, but I provide this teacher model to my students and let them know, "It needs to be pretty close to this long." At this point, I do two things to encourage my students to continue brainstorming before they actually commit to writing a rough draft:

  • Because we do daily sacred writing time in my class, for several days, I encourage them to write their earliest memories based on one of their uncommon beliefs or facts about themselves. I like to call it an "origin story," like the ones they know about their favorite superheroes.
  • I have always believed that oral story-telling makes a great pre-writing activity. Their mini autobiographies--for me, at least--will require them to review their knowledge of using 1) good verbs in writing, and 2) adding specific details and descriptions that will be memorable to the reader of their autobiographies. I like to do what I call a "Story Walk, Share, and Suggest" activity. This involves my students finding a partner across the room to tell--out loud--their story about how they came to believe or do something uncommon. Usually, on the first tell, they stumble through the story and take only about 45 seconds, if even that. Their first partner's job is to suggest a place to add a good detail or improve a verb in one of their out-loud sentences; for suggesting details, they often have ask the person telling the story a question about the story instead of being able to actually suggest a detail to add to a story that is someone else's auto-biography. If they ask, "What did his face look like when he yelled at you?" then the story-teller can answer and explain the detail in his/her own story. Partners move four or more times to different partners each time after both tell their stories and make a suggestion for a better verb or detail. When they re-tell the story to their next partner, they must try to improve the oral telling of it by improving their use of verbs and details. Suggestions are made again. Partners move again. Stories are re-told again. Like I said, I like this process to repeat multiple times so that they develop a knack for telling their personal stories, getting a tiny bit better each time. At the end of the experience, I find students will have the ability to actually write a better rough draft than they would have if they just sat down and started writing without having told their stories to each other multiple times.

From rough drafts to response groups to planning revision with teacher conferencing (a.k.a. the writing process): My students create a rough draft now of their mini-autobiography. I expect their autobiographies to have an intro, a body, and a conclusion (organization), and I expect them to try using some interesting details (idea development) and verbs (word choice) to tell their true stories about themselves. Once they've written a rough draft and they are ready to share with each other and me, here are the group/partner discussion tools I provide for them so that they have meaningful conversations full of academic language as they talk to each other and me about improving their initial ideas into revised drafts that can be edited and published:

Writing Process Reproducibles for this Lesson...use some, use all...it's your choice:
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My Writer's Notebook page that inspired my topic
My teacher model of the brainstorming sheet
My typed rough draft of my autobiography



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To inspire discussion: Organization Sticky Note
To inspire discussion: Idea Development Sticky Note
To inspire discussion: Word Choice Sticky Note

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A challenge for the final draft, and a tool for editing before students publish: I love coming back to my lessons' mentor texts right after students have revised and are preparing to edit and publish; at this point, I want to give them one final challenge to make their final drafts come across as unique, uncommon, or just plain interesting.

I kind of synthesized the two interesting story-telling techniques from the Noah Webster biography and the Peter Roget biography in order to come up with this final challenge, which actually forces some of my students to revise a little bit more while they edit. Here is the two-part challenge, and if you click on the thumbnail image of my final draft just below, you can print/see what the challenge looks like in final draft form:

  • inspired by the writing style found in the Noah Webster picture book biography, I want students to insert dictionary definitions within their sentences for their three (or more) best 25-cent words. As you know, many words have multiple meanings, and students must choose the most accurate meaning of the three words they choose to do this with. I also expect them to put the definition into their own words if the dictionary's definition contains difficult words that they would also have to define; I had to put the definition of syndicated into my own words in my final draft. By serendipitous chance, my three defined words in my final draft are all the same part of speech. To differentiate for your students who appreciate a challenge, I think it might be a good challenge to require them to have three completely different parts of speech represented.
  • inspired by the writing style found in the Peter Roget picture book biography, I want students to insert, using text boxes that will need to be formatted using the 'text wrap' feature, a list of appropriate synonyms for three of their stories' already-good words that might be better if there was a 25-cent synonym. The students are graded on the fact that the three synonyms they choose for their three words a) match the part of speech of the original and b) have the same contextual definition as the original word they are providing a synonym for. By "same contextual definition," I mean that if you had the word "short" in your autobiography and were using it to describe someone's stature, you wouldn't list the synonym "abridged" because that word is used to described books and other pieces of text, not people; thus, it is an out-of-context synonym, and I require my students to check their synonym and antonyms' definitions when we crate vocabulary synonym and antonym lists so they don't choose an inappropriate substitute word.

I really like these two challenges for numerous reasons; here are several that immediately struck me: 1) the two mentor texts use these techniques to give their stories a unique style, and eventually I want my students to develop their own styles, and practicing with someone else's style is not a bad way to begin to develop your own; 2) response groups don't always provide a sufficient amount of revision suggestions, and this activity very well could push students to find one more thing (using the skills of word choice) to revise before moving into the editing step of the process--if you don't have a word that's worthy of being defined using the dictionary-style of the Noah Webster biography, you might need to revise for that; 3) grammar and knowledge of parts of speech, and I have always believed this, need to be taught by asking students to incorporate grammatical concepts into their own pieces of writing, not just on a teacher's grammar worksheet or a daily oral language drill, and here's a simple formatting requirement to add to the final draft that makes them more aware of their knowledge of grammar and parts of speech.

As for editing, I use a "Community of Editors" model, which requires a version of the pink Post-it note I have shared below this paragraph. After students have revised formatted their papers with the dictionary- and thesaurus-style requirements mentioned above, they print them. We, then, spend 30-45 minutes going through a community editing process (before they edit and print one last time), which I explain in this article I wrote for an apparently now-out-of-print traits guide that the NNWP once sold from its website--The "Going Deep with 6 Traits Language" Guide, which was a fabulous print resource full of thoughtful ideas specific to all six writing traits. I actually have a few copies of that guide in my garage that I saved from a training I did six or seven years ago. A great offer from me to you: If you use this lesson and end up with a thoughtful student sample or two that is typed and edited and can be sent to me (corbett@corbettharrison.com), I will very seriously consider mailing you a copy of one of the guides in my garage.

Alternative/Final Response: Narrative Sticky Note
My FInal Draft inspired by the mentor texts!
For Editing: Conventions Sticky Note

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