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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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This page contains two writer's notebook challenges based on creating interesting character names. My students certainly use very different writing techniques than I do, and what excites them to produce writing is often quite different from what excites me to write. There is nothing wrong with this, and just as I occasionally force them to try a technique that works for me in their writer's notebook, I also begrudgingly try out techniques in my own notebook that they claim work for them. It's the "give and take" that must be present in a true writer's workshop environment, and it's why scripted writing programs (I'm talking to you "Step Up to Writing" and Jane Shaffer) often squelch our students instead of inspiring them to write.

What's a a technique for writing that does not work for me but does for my students? Here's one: coming up with an interesting character name first, then creating his/her story. My kids love this technique. They create giggle-worthy lists of humorous- or sophisticated-sounding names before they come up stories for those characters. They trade names from their lists like one might exchange trading cards. I've had small groups challenge themselves to take one interesting name and all write about the character during Sacred Writing Time; then, they compare their stories during sharing time, and they inspire other small groups to try the same thing.

Of course, this writing technique doesn't work for me personally, and that's okay. My own personal preferences for the writing process shouldn't hinder me from developing solid ideas that seem to work for my students. I have taken it upon myself to develop a whole character-name-first-then-write-the-story into an interesting exploration of ideas about the importance character names, and on this page, I am sharing some ideas for taking this technique that my students like and making it more standards-friendly. I hope you enjoy the following two ideas I've developed to help my students build content knowledge and vocabulary as they play with this writing technique they like.

The Two Writer's Notebook Prompts Located on this Page:

If you have questions or comments about these two suggestions for writer's notebooks, feel free to contact me: corbett@corbettharrison.com.

A Writer's Notebook Challenge from my Classroom to Yours:
Because random chances often lead to happy discoveries:
Serendipitous Character Names

creating a page to inspire future writing in one's notebook

Overview of this Writing Challenge:

Using their brains or the serendipitous name generator below, students create four random character names. After discussing the names with fellow students, they invent and record a back story or a plot-driven idea for each character for a four-panel page in their writer's notebooks. After this page is created, students can be encouraged to go back to it and use it for inspiration for future sacred writing time or writer's workshop ideas.

Solidify this Idea with a Connection to a Mentor Text or Two:

Every one of my lessons these days is connected to a mentor text that we can discuss before, during, or at the conclusion of a writing task. I believe it's imperative to link our writing instruction with our reading instruction, and mentor texts--in my opinion--are a way to keep reminding my students how reading and writing interconnect. I tell my students constantly, "We read something first for comprehension, and when we read it again, we are analyzing the words for what the writer did to achieve something interesting or unique."

Even my writer's notebook challenges are all becoming connected to mentor texts, and this one is no exception. Here are the two mentor texts I bring out when I introduce this notebook challenge, which I do a month after we've established our writer's notebook routine:

  • The Mad Scientists' Club by Bertrand Brinley was my favorite book in middle school. Other than The Great Brain series, which I read in elementary, Brinley's series of four books were the first books I read and re-read and re-read. I bought paperback copies of them with my own money from a school-wide Scholastic order, I read them way too many times, and I still have those paperbacks in my home office upstairs.

    I wasn't the strongest reader in middle school; my mind had trouble keeping interest in long novels, and the what Bertrand Brinley did was publish all the short stories he'd originally written for "Boy's Life" Magazine about the seven characters who comprised the Mad Scientists' Club into several paperback novels. I could read an adventure from one of the books in twenty or thirty minutes, and then I could pick up the book again any time and start a completely new story. I also could read the stories out of order, which I liked.

    However, the thing I liked best were the characters' names, which Brinley had fun creating. Here are the seven members' names: Jeff Crocker, Henry Mulligan, Dinky Poore, Freddy Muldoon, Mortimer Dalrymple, Homer Snodgrass, and Charlie Finkledink. I just typed all seven of those names from memory, which shows how much I liked the unique names. Each character kind of fit their own ridiculous name, and I always admired how Brinley had done that.

Two mentor texts that inspired this challenge:

The Mad Scientists' Club
by Bertrand R. Brinley

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
by Roald Dahl

  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl is another superb example of an author having fun naming his/her characters. Whether you read the book or just know the movie, how many of those four crazy characters who won golden tickets alongside Charlie Bucket can you name? Remember there was the gluttonous kid, the obnoxious gun-chewer, the stuck-up snob, and the boy who watched too much telly. My middle school students like it when I present this challenge for their memories.

My middle schoolers truly enjoy hearing about my favorite book series when I was their age, and I happen to have copies of all the Mad Scientist adventures in my classroom library. I write the seven main characters' names (still from memory!) on my whiteboard, and ask them to "invent a personality and a story idea" for one or more of the characters whose names I've listed. My students prefer to do this type of brainstorming in small groups or in partnerships, so I allow them to. I prefer to use SWT partners so when they ask to share their brainstorm and story idea, I can simply partner them each up with another SWT pair, and within five short minutes everyone's brainstorm has been honored by being heard.

I usually follow up that brainstorm and those five minutes of sharing with the "Can you remember all the kids' names from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?" question. We discuss how some authors create really interesting names for their characters, and how Dahl and Brinley kind of created silly-sounding names to fit the style of their stories.

The Inspiration of both a Teacher and a Student Model:

So now I ask my students, "What interesting character names might you invent that could inspire interesting writing about those characters?" And with that question, my students begin a brainstorm that can easily lead to a writer's notebook page. A good writer's notebook contains interesting ideas that can be re-visited during writer's workshops when students are looking for their next narrative, expository, or argumentative idea for a piece of writing. This notebook idea serves as a "holder" for future potential narrative story ideas.

As I said at the top of this lesson, some of the techniques that work for my student writers don't work for met all, and creating a character name before I come up with a story idea is one of those techniques; however, it works for many of my students. They like the idea, and I--as their teacher who keeps a notebook--can at least show them a way to capture this idea in a meaningful way for the notebook so they don't lose their unique and creative thoughts from brainstorms.

At left, you can click on and see the four-quadrant brainstorm I created for my own writer's notebook using the idea of "funny character names as writing prompts/inspiration." Feel free to claim the page as your own if you're still reluctant to create your own notebook models to share with your students.

At right, you can see one of the pages from one of my students' notebooks. This particular sample from Matt won a Mr. Stick of the Week Award because he took it home to decorate it, so it got seen by many of my students when I posted it at our Pinterest Board. I find when my students see an example from me and an example from a student, they don't need much more to be "off and writing," and that is good. With very little prompting, my students are off and running with this notebook prompt.

However...if students still need more scaffolding to come up with an idea for this notebook page challenge, I offer you:

The Power of Student Choice & Serendipity:

When we built the WritingFix website, we embedded a serendipitous, interactive prompt into over 80% of the lessons. I am a true believer in serendipity, and when I ask my students to apply this concept as they explore for writing ideas, so many of them create truly unique ideas that they actually want to write about.

Below is the serendipitous character name generator that--with the help of two students--we created during the summer of 2004. It is designed to be played with by having students click the buttons to see if a character name they like is serendipitously formed. The prompt is designed to be a starting place; the intention is to spark interest in the students to create their own random first and last names for characters who could populate a page (or story) in their own writer's notebooks.

Can you write or plan a story starring this character?



Teach a Skill with this Writer's Notebook Prompt:

I believe--when there is time--that it's important to embed a new or review skill in your writing challenges, even ones for the writer's notebook. As you likely know, my list of skills that I teach my students can all be categorized within the names of the six traits: idea development, organization, word choice, voice, sentence fluency, and conventions. With this particular writing challenge, I have had good luck reviewing the skill of "starting with a very strong sentence or two," which is one skill I teach them from the organization trait.

If you'll look closely at my teacher model, you might notice there is a box near the bottom of my notebook page. Within that box, you will find two introductions I wrote for two of the four character names I had created and crafted ideas about. My students and I, when I choose to take the extra time to review the skill of creating an intriguing introduction with this notebook challenge, discuss how you craft a sentence or two about a person with an interesting name that makes the reader "want more." I share my two introductions from my page, and I ask them to craft a sentence or two that would make their characters' stories come to life. They like to critique mine, giving me better sentence-level suggestions as well as bigger story ideas, which gives me permission to critique and make suggestions for theirs. Here are the two samples based on my notebook page:

  • Dan Danforth (the fourth) masterfully shouted down anyone who made a wrong number on his phone. Then one day, he yelled at the wrong person.
  • When little Sally O'Malley stuck her foot in that skate, time stopped. And then it rolled backwards.

Here's why I like to review or teach one specific skill from one of the six traits when we are doing pre-writing: it allows me to deepen the discussion about that single writing trait as we continue with the writing process for that same piece of writing. How do I do that? With my Writing Trait Sticky Notes, of course. I have almost twenty versions of these Sticky Notes, and at right you can see the one I use if my students take their character-driven story with its two-sentence introduction to a full rough draft.

On writing response day, my students staple a trait-inspired Sticky Note to their drafts, and they seek feedback on that entire trait from others. The Sticky Note instructs students to "rank" five skills from a single trait against each other. They must decide which skill stood out the strongest, and give that skill a five; the second strongest trait receives a four, and the third a three. They are NOT allowed to give the same number ranking to two different skills on the Sticky Note. When they are done ranking, they discuss said rankings with each paper's author, and together they discuss possible ideas to revise the draft; usually those suggestions for revision are based on the three skills that received rankings of 1, 2, or 3 on the Sticky Notes. The Sticky Notes provide a mini "script" or skills students can use in their response discussions.

I've used this Sticky Note system for almost twenty years, and I think it's one of the best ways to remind students of trait-based skills and to give them some element of choice when they are planning for a revised rough draft. My students know when I assess their writing after assigning one of these sticky notes, the majority of their final grade will be based on the single trait we focused on as a class; when you mostly assess for just one of the six writing traits, you'd be amazed how much quicker it is to grade a pile of papers or essays.

So to review, here's the process: 1) brainstorm funny character names and create a notebook page that introduces us to four of them; 2) have students write interesting introductory sentences for two of their four characters' stories; 3) review five skills of the organization trait by using the Organization Sticky Note during response and revision time; 4) assess the students' writing mostly on their use of organizational skills.

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A Second Writer's Notebook Challenge from my Classroom to Yours:
Because I Love New Words I Read and Hear:

when your name appropriately matches your profession or accomplishments

Overview of this Writing Challenge:

While participating with my students in our latest vocabulary workshop, this spring, I discovered a fun new word: aptronym. My students collect four words a week from their reading, but I do allow them to bring a "free word" every week if they hear a really good one on TV, in another class, or at the dinner table. I heard aptronym on NPR on my drive in to work. Click here to see my four words the week I found the word aptronym. Here's what it means:

aptronym (n) -- a person's name that is regarded as amusingly appropriate to his or her occupation or the way he or she spends time. At right you can see two real examples complete with YouTube videos that these people really do exist, and there are plenty more at this Wikipedia page (please preview before showing any list of these to your students!)

Inspired by this word and its notion, students brainstorm humorous, fictional aptronyms. They create a four-quadrant notebook celebration of their four original aptronyms. During future Sacred Writing Time, students can be easily encouraged to write more about these characters

An Optional Notebook Page to Set-up the Idea behind Aptronyms:

I love word history, a.k.a. etymology. I also love creating riddles in my writer's notebooks. I combined these two loves into the following challenge I will be sharing with my students in the Fall.

In days of yore, people's last names were oft associated with their professions. It's an easy enough research project, and I did mine through several Google searches. For my interactive riddle page, I presented four last names that were also old-time professions; then, I created eight Mr. Stick-inspired drawings--four were the right answer and four were meant to sound right but be wrong.

When I create an interactive riddle-page in my notebook, I find my students are often inspired to do the same. They like the idea that they're supposed to interact with what I've written and created, and make a guess. They like even more the idea of creating similar pages in their notebooks that they can use to quiz their friends.

I have created my teacher model so that you can share it and claim it's your own if you need a "riddle page" example to show your students and aren't keeping your own notebook yet. I'm generous like that.

Anyway, I like how my interactive riddle page about old-fashioned jobs and last names sets up a great discussion about aptronyms. This is certainly an optional task for students to do before they create an aptronym-inspired writer's notebook page, but if you use it, students will start thinking about a variety of last names, including their own.

Two real people that inspired this challenge:

Jack Armstrong
pitcher for the MLB
YouTube video

Sarah Blizzard
meteorologist for the BBC
YouTube Video

The Writer's Notebook Challenge with Aptronyms...my Step-by-Step Plan:

  1. Do a word/root analysis of the word aptronym with my students. Click here to see a close-up he visual I will share with my writers. Click here to see this vocabulary word along with the other three vocabulary words I collected during this week of Vocabulary Workshop.
  2. Talk about how some last names relate to professions, especially old time professions. Click here to see the notebook page I will share with my writers.
  3. Have students--with their Sacred Writing Time partners--simultaneously brainstorm both professions and last names that might connect to those professions. I give the example of "What if there was a plastic surgeon with the last name Young." I try to sway them to think of actual last names rather than "A dentist with the last name of Cavity" since I don't think Cavity is a legitimate last name; besides, it would be funnier if the DDS's last name was Hertz, right? However, I am a differentiated instruction practitioner, and if there are students who cannot make the connection between a real last name and a real profession, then I let those kids ultimately name their dentists Dr. Cavity.
  4. Give a warning: There are last names--like Johnson and Hooker--that might become inappropriate to use in this assignment, depending on whose hands those last names end up in. My rule is always, "If my mother or grandmother read your entry and then blush, you will lose all credit for your work; if you want to think and write that way, keep a private writer's notebook at home and I'll never know about it. In my class, however, you have to think about my mother and my grandmother."
  5. Show students a teacher model. The task here is to create a four-quadrant notebook page that introduces us to four people whose names are aptronymic. These four character will be able to be written about during future sacred writing time blocks of time.
  6. Give one more differentiated challenge: Can you create an aptronym where the character's first and last names work together to create the aptronym?. I think Mike Guest from my teacher example is the one that links both names to an actual occupation. I find if you suggest the harder challenge and let your students brainstorm in pairs, they take you up on such challenges.

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