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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 well--can be the most enjoyable part of your teaching day, we created this website to provide fun, adaptable ideas for teachers.

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

This page shares techniques and resources I use when I am establishing and maintaining my 'Community of Writers.' In the fall of 1996, after spending a life-changing summer earning the first five credits towards my 1999 Master's Degree, I returned to my own classroom determined to make a writer's workshop actually work for the very first time in my classroom. The five-credit class I had taken that summer was taught by my local chapter of the National Writing Project, and it truly inspired me to become a very different teacher of writing. Before that class, I was assigning writing; after that class, I began teaching it for the very first time. I owe every iota of energy I give to teaching writing well to that inspirational class back I took back in 1996.

We had three assigned text books for that 1996 "Summer Institute," but we were also allowed to independently choose two other texts about teaching writing to explore on our own. Someone from my school had recommended Nancie Atwell's In the Middle, so I took the opportunity to finally read it. I remember being initially (and quite unfairly) cynical about that book, and I sneered at the fact that she had her students sitting in beanbags during classroom writing time. At that point in my career, I wasn't a touchy-feely person, and I'm still not really. My opinion about having a Community of Writers has drastically changed since I first was introduced to that term by the amazing Nancie Atwell in that book; the Community of Writers concept has shifted from being a joke about "needing a bean bag budget" to being this truthful statement that I use during every workshop and keynote I deliver to teachers: "It's incredibly hard work to make a successful 'Community of Writers' function, but if you do it well, it will be the best thing you've ever done to lighten your load for grading. I selfishly set up my C of W now to keep me from having to take so much writing home with me to grade." My students successfully take many of traditional duties away from me, and they do it well.

Twenty years after taking that summer Institute in 1996, I still am discovering ways to build an even stronger Community of Writers with each class of students that enters my doorway. I still have NO beanbags in my classroom, but I DO have students who function as a smart community so that I am not the only person in the room giving feedback and assessing students' writing.

Tools to Strengthen and Build a COMMUNITY OF WRITERS:
a sampling of techniques for building a writer's workshop:
Community of Writers = Neighbors Who Talk
in a C of W, students are allowed to be talkative, provided they know what to ask each other for

Establishing your Community (with a bonus writing lesson about theme):

There are mentor texts--and I suspect you have them on your bookshelves too--that I personally love so much that, when I read them aloud, the love of the book makes my reading of the text so much stronger. Inga Moore's Six Dinner Sid, for me, is one of those books. Not to brag (because you know I never do that, right?) but I don't think anybody can out-charm an audience more than me reading the story of Sid the cat who lives on Aristotle Street. What mentor text to you read the heck out of because you love it?

When I am teaching/reviewing theme, Six Dinner Sid launches a mini-lesson that my students love. It's called "Same theme, different story." Now remember, I currently am teaching middle school and high school, so when I say "teaching theme," we're usually talking about themes in great novels or literature. My students often have trouble peeling away a large text's layers and finding a solid theme in Steinbeck or Twain or Orwell or Sinclair. So we practice finding theme in shorter texts--like poems or short stories AND in solidly-written picture books like Six Dinner Sid.

A mentor text for community:

Six Dinner Sid
by Inga Moore

So here's Sid's story in a nutshell. He's a cat. He lives on Aristotle Street where six completely different families think he's their cat and their cat alone. For whatever reason, the neighbors on Aristotle Street don't talk to each other, and Sid takes advantage of that situation to receive six different dinners every day. Eventually he's found out, and the neighbors vow to communicate and make sure he only gets one meal every day...and so Sid moves away. End of story.

There are multiple themes that can be taken from the story of Sid (like 'Cats make incredibly selfish pets!') but the one that comes across as the strongest is built from the idea that neighbors should communicate with each other. Let's take a moment to remember the difference between a theme and a topic; the topic here is "neighbors" because a topic is just a word (though sometimes it's two or three words) that focuses us in on a theme, but a theme needs to be a whole sentence at least. Students want to often give me single words when I ask them to identify a story's theme, but they need to craft a whole sentence (preferably a complex sentence) that states what the author is trying to say about the selected topic. What specifically is Moore telling us about neighbors here? What's her tone and attitude about the topic, and what specifically can you cite from the text to use as evidence to prove you have created a theme that Inga Moore would nod at and say, "Yes, that is the thematic message about neighbors I wanted to convey with this piece of writing."

Students usually don't believe a published author had a theme in mind before he/she sat down and started typing a rough draft. Lifelong learners need to be taught to self-identify themes and prove the accuracy of their themes by citing textual evidence. When I see theme taught as a low-level thinking task, what I see is students who are haphazardly guessing at thematic ideas, often citing their own experiences with a text's topics rather than citing evidence from the text. When I see theme taught really well (which is what I try to do with all my Reading Workshop materials), my students are crafting arguments based on textual evidence, and they discuss comparative themes from other texts because I encourage them to. If you read and analyze Six Dinner Sid, find time to read something like Robert Frost's "Mending Wall", and ask, "Do Inga Moore and Robert Frost have the same or different opinions about neighbors? Can you prove that by re-examining both texts with that question solely in your mind?"

And always remember this when teaching theme: there's no right answer. It drives some of my kids a little batty when--after discussion--they ask, "So what IS the theme, Mr. Harrison?" and I don't have an answer. Theme isn't a math problem; instead, themes are open for interpretation. We can't ask Inga Moore or Robert Frost what they were trying to say about a topic--like neighbors--, so we have to teach our students to analyze and intelligently speculate. Sometimes thoughtful guesses are what you want to walk out of a discussion with, not an absolute right answer. Students need to know this about themes. They also need to know that there's not a formula or a magical answer when posed with the question, "How do I create a great piece of writing?" Teaching writing well means you understand there is NO answer key.

A Writing Task for Theme: To prove to my students that authors indeed do have a theme in mind before they start writing, we go through an exercise to make sure they understand what that kind of thematic planning does to one's own writing process. I've done the following writing activity so that individuals plan and write, so that partners plan and write, or so that a small group plans and writes; it's worked well in all three variations. Basically what happens here, students take a solid theme from a picture book (I give them the choice of Six Dinner Sid or Fox by Margaret Wild) and they have to plan and write a short story that would teach the exact same theme. The activity is called "Same Theme/Different Story." Do you get the basic premise of the writing task?

The important thing they do here is PLAN the thematic story with the time you allot them with your lesson. My students do a lot of writing, so we don't always get time to really sit down and make a rough draft for the whole story we think about, but that's the beauty of having writer's notebooks and Sacred Writing Time: if a student has a plan for a story that he or she really likes, he/she can work on the story on his/her own.

For this lesson, my students think, outline, and prepare themselves to talk about the same-themed story they might write inspired by Six Dinner Sid or Fox. I believe that directing students to talk about what they might write is a powerful form of prewriting; plus, I believe that creating a Community of Writers relies heavily on having students hear one another's writing process. Every student prepares for and approaches writing tasks differently, and everyone ultimately goes somewhere unique with a writing task like this one. Directing your students to prepare to talk is a very valid way to establish the routine of meaningful talk. I have students--on a blank piece of paper--replicate the story-planner you see here. Here is a PPT version of this planner; here is a PDF version of it. I've stopped running off graphic organizers for my students, by the way; if real life, people don't hand you a graphic organizer. I teach students to create their own, or to modify my suggested ones, and having them copy them onto their pieces of notebook paper begins to give them the ability to do it. Make your own graphic organizer = life skill.

I give my students an appropriate amount of time to fill out this story planner. Students who finish it early (you'll always have those) are required to flip their planner over and continue working on the story opening they began in box #4. When all are finished, I put them in small groups where everyone shares ideas, asks questions, gives praise, and suggests details or other ideas for others' planned stories. Usually, I scramble the groups twice so that each student is presenting twice to different small groups and--just as important--hearing the ideas of quite a few classmates.

"Can I borrow that idea/technique?" is a question you have to teach your students to make use of when you are training them to become a Community of Writers. We learn to give each other credit for ideas from classmates we like and incorporate into our own story drafts.

Do they have to write a full rough draft for this assignment? No, sometimes planning a story that's never actually written out can still successfully teach a concept; of course, I will have students who like their story plans enough to want to write the whole story out, or at least begin it to see if it's worth pursuing as a potential complete rough draft. At the end of the discussions we have about the planning sheets, I ask for a show of hands from those who "like their stories enough to consider writing them if time allows later on." I hand those students 3" x 3" sticky notes and have them write their themes on them; then, we affix those sticky notes in their writer's notebooks as a reminder that the next time we have ten minutes of Sacred Writing Time, they have a story idea they might choose to work on.

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Community of Writers: Using Academic Vocabulary for Lessons and Discussions

I am no longer the traditional, straight-row, seating chart kind of teacher that I was when began teaching back in 1991. Today we group and cluster more often than not during classtime because I want my students to do more talking than I do while learning is going on. I am so passionate about this philosophy these days that I established a Grouping Strategies resource page this past summer (2015) here at Always Write, and I am in the process of converting many more of my best tools that direct my students to talk about writing throughout the writing process. A Community of Writers requires students to be able to discuss writing using a common academic vocabulary; without that academic vocabulary, writer's workshop discussions rarely are productive. Students, unfortunately, don't learn this vocabulary through osmosis. Academic vocabulary must be established and then taught.

In my classroom, our common academic (tier 3) vocabulary has always been the language of the 6 writing traits. I've been in education long enough to have seen multiple versions of state and national standards come and go multiple times, and while those documents keep changing, I find comfort in the fact that the original language I learned in my very first 6 Traits inservice class (language, by the way, that can be found in all sets of standards I've ever seen) stays the same. I'm a traits guy, and I will always be no matter what new standards documents are thrust upon us. 6 Traits language has always covered all my bases.

In truth, it doesn't really matter from what specific source you pull your list of academic language for writing that you're going to be using during your year of teaching. It absolutely DOES matter that you DO have a set of student-friendly language though, and that language must include specific writing skills that are observable, not to mention skills that are able to be analyzed and discussed. When I train groups of teachers, I can tell you that most don't have very thorough lists of skill-based writing vocabulary, and the print resource I have always used to provide them to "fix" that issue, I am thrilled to say, is once again available for purchase through Amazon. After five years of being "missing in action," the print guide we made (pictured at left) is back again, baby!

When I was Director of the Northern Nevada Writing Project (between 2003 and 2008), we produced and created print guides to use during our trainings. One of our most popular 16-hour inservice classes focused on using the 6 Traits as one's classroom academic vocabulary. My wife was one of the NNWP's most popular trainers of that class and--indeed--that's how I actually met her. In 2004, the NNWP brought together our best 10-15 trait trainers and trait-using teachers, and we decided to work together to create a print resource focused completely on teachable writing skills found in the language of the 6 traits. In early 2006, our print guide was finalized, and through our own trainings and through online sales, the NNWP published and distributed over between 10,000 and 20,000 of these 200-page guides. Five other guides followed our "Going Deep with 6 Trait Language" guide, but the 6 Trait guide we created together in 2004 was definitely the resource that teachers appreciated the most. Click the picture of the cover of the guide to investigate buying it on Amazon.

How very excited I was to see that the guide has become available at Amazon during this past summer (2015). Below, I am going to share two thoughtful resources from that guide, and my hope is that you will be inspired to consider buying the whole guide online to help the Northern Nevada Writing Project out. If you are one of those many teachers who doesn't have a very long list of writing skill academic vocabulary words, this guide was built to help you change that, and to do it in an engaging way.

Two Resources from the NNWP's "Going Deep with 6 Trait Language" Guide that I Contributed
these are intended to strengthen a "Community of Writers" in one's classroom
Each of the six sections of the NNWP's 6 Trait Guide begins with a list of specific sub-skills for that trait that I compiled and have continued to revise over the years. Here is a condensed, 2-page version of those six pages from the print guide. At my trainings, I ask, "How many of these skills do you have a writing lesson or mini-lesson for?" Twenty years after becoming a "trait teacher," I am pleased to say I have all of them covered, and many of those lessons came from the WritingFix website. When I ask teacher participants at my workshops which of the six traits they have the most teaching material/lessons already in hand, the most popular answer is always "Conventions." As teachers, we do come to the classroom with a lot of grammar worksheets and daily oral language drills, don't we? If you're setting up a Community of Writers, you give your students "Community Responsibilities," and this write-up I did for the NNWP Trait Guide discusses how I do just that with the Conventions trait.
Consider supporting the Northern Nevada Writing Project by purchasing a copy of their
"Going Deep with 6 Trait Language" Guide

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Community of Writers: Our New
Take What You Need

Although my classroom Community of Writers features no beanbags for sitting, it does have a sense of student ownership that I work hard to make sure is present and maintained. My students feel they belong and have value during every Writer's Workshop work day. Because I've taught each of them to identify (using academic language, of course) both their strengths and their areas-needing-improvement as writers, my kiddos have the ability to know what to ask for and to know what to offer when I put them into a small group during group writing time.

We have a brand new product we're developing on our weekends, and we're strategically trying them out with a variety of different students in a variety of contexts. We are calling this new set of materials the "Take What You Need" poster set, and you can have the first three posters for free if you visit our newly-established Teachers Pay Teachers store and follow us there!

As I said earlier on this page, I have never been much of a touchy-feely kind of teacher, though I am better than I used to be; my kids know I genuinely care about them and their success. Our first "Take What You Need" poster (at right) is probably as touchy-feely as you'll ever see me get. I started hanging these around my classroom (one on each wall) four or five weeks into the semester, and I had had my aides clip the dotted lines along the individual hanging tabs at the bottom of the poster and--sure enough--the tabs started disappearing.

Students would present the missing tabs to me--sometimes completely as a joke on their part, but other times with complete sincerity. "Can I have a pat on the back please?" seventh-grader Caroline asked me two months into the semester. She nodded when I asked if she was having a bad day. I patted her back and told her I was glad she was with us in class that day, and she honestly had a better 70-minutes in English class than I think she would have if we hadn't had that interaction inspired by a silly piece of paper. Simple things work!

Every week, I seem to have to replace at least one of these posters because it's been mostly depleted of its dangling request tabs. My students have been taping the tabs into their writer's notebooks and writing about why they took those tabs during Sacred Writing Time, so those of you who know me know I don't dislike the fact that SWT is being improved.

I've also been told by one of my cleverest student that he's creating his own version of my "Take what you Need" posters, and I've only seen a hand-drawn rough draft at this point. I quickly scanned the tabs at the bottom to make sure it wasn't mean-spirited, and I remember one of them reading "a million dollars" and another read "a sense of humor." I don't know that I'll ever see a typed final draft of this student's poster parody, but I have found when they imitate me or my forms or activities, good things usually happen.

Again, I am not very touchy-feely, but the poster here genuinely is trying to create what a classroom should foster: a sense of community and belonging.

Now to the point of all this...Dena and I were chatting about my one clever student's parody attempt of this poster idea, and we realized we could make our own imitations that could be used to support a Community of Writers. And from that conversation we created these two poster prototypes:

"Take What You Need" Posters that foster a Community of Writers:
Click the links below to see a snapshot of these new posters we're developing
"Take What You Need" because it's...
Revision/Response Group Day
"Take What You Need" because it's...
Editing Day
Download the first three "Take What You Need" Posters for free! To introduce our new Always Write--Teachers Pay Teachers store, we are giving away these first three posters at no cost to anyone! Here is how you obtain them:
  1. Visit our listing for the "Take What You Need" Posters: https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Take-What-You-Need-posters-2207578
  2. Ignore the fact that it says $5.00; if you click the olive-green button that says "preview," it will open a downloadable file for you that has all three posters in it.
  3. In the preview screen that will pop up, look in the upper right-hand corner above the poster image for a button with an arrow pointing down on it; that's the download button. Hover over it to make sure. Click it and it will download the posters to your computer.
  4. The full-size, three-poster set will download into your computer's download folder, which is in your documents folder. You can save the file from there onto a flashdrive or email it to yourself at school.
  5. If you like the posters enough to want to purchase the subscription to the rest that we will be making, well, that's what the $5.00 button is for. When you buy the subscription, you also receive the files as Word documents, so you can edit them or use the template to create your own ideas for "Take What You Need" posters.

Dena is "running with" this project, and I'm letting her. She's excited and is already planning a "Take What You Need" poster for her monthly Poetry Workshop day, and she is going to work with her very creative librarian to create a "Take What You Need" that is dedicated to research day in the library. Our hope is to have a full set of 8-10 of these posters completed by the end of the 2015-16 school year, and then keep them coming whenever an idea for a new one occurs to one of us.

Our Sacred Writing Time Slides, our Writer's Notebook Bingo Cards, and our Restaurant-themed Writer's Choice Menus all started out as "subscription products" at our site, which meant we started selling them when we had just a few examples ready to go, and then kept sending updates at no cost to those who'd bought the subscription early on. It's a good deal to "subscribe" early on, as the price will increase every time a new entry or two is created with one of our products. If you bought the original subscription to the Sacred Writing Time Slides, for example, it was only $11.50 when it was a partial product, and now that the product is completed, the set sells for $18.00.

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