Welcome. My name is Corbett Harrison, and I have been an educator and a teacher-trainer since 1991. I specialize in teaching writing using differentiated instruction. I also focus on critical thinking techniques, especially during the pre-writing and revision steps of the writing process.

I serve Northern Nevada for nine months of the year (August-May), and during summers and during our two-weeek breaks during the school year, I hire myself out to school districts and professional organizations around the country.

Summer of 2014 is all booked. If you would like to check my availability for the summer of 2015, please contact me at my e-mail address.

 

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

Here's one of my original writer's notebook lessons. To assist our students as they maintain writer's notebooks for the classroom, my wife (Dena Harrison) and I created monthly "Writer's Notebook Bingo Cards"; the first card is for September, the last for May. Each Bingo card comes with twenty-four ideas and suggestions for creating a unique notebook page that--once added to the notebook--might very well inspire future writing. Students receive a new Bingo card on the first day of every month; if they create a "Bingo" by completing five ideas "in a row," they earn a special sticker for their notebook, and the same award is applied if they make a "four corners." I have students who choose not to use the Bingo card's suggestions at all (because they have their own ideas ready-to-go), I have others who do a few suggestions from the card but not enough to win a sticker, and I have students who are completely dependent on the card for notebook ideas.

Once a month, we do a whole-class lesson for the notebook; this lesson is featured in the center space of each month's bingo card, where it serves as everyone's "free space." On this page, you will find my April's Guided Notebook Lesson from our set of "Writer's Notebook Bingo Cards".

My April Teacher-Guided Lesson for Writer's Notebooks:

a processing task that's great for writing across the curriculum:
Superlative Paragraphs
Prioritizing Facts with Important Book Passages


Overview of this Notebook Prompt:

This notebook prompt teaches students a format for summarizing or processing learning that can be used when producing writing in all curriculum areas: an Important Book passage, which I call a superlative paragraph in my classroom .

Inspired by Margaret Wise Brown's classic picture book, The Important Book, students practice a format for writing an organized paragraph that "puts in their own words" new facts they've recently learned; more importantly, they learn to prioritize their thinking and express that prioritization while thinking about this grammatical term: superlatives.

There are a lot of lessons out there that rely on this mentor text, and I have to say, most of them I don't find very creative; mainly, other lessons focus too much on teaching the structured nature of Important Book passages, and when you do that, I believe you lose something. So I tried to build this lesson so that it would spark my students creativity by giving them the safety of the frame for writing but permission to think outside the frame too.

Also, I'm a true believer that grammar and grammmatical terms should be taught "in context," which means--rather than through lecture and a practice worksheet--students apply grammatical terms to a piece of original writing they are creating for my class. Research stresses this is a more effective approach in helping students apply and remember lessons about grammar...and punctuation too. This lesson focuses on learning about superlatives in context.

My mentor text for this lesson:

The Important Book
by Margaret Wise Brown

Interacting with the Mentor Text:

Can you believe there are still teachers out there who don't know about The Important Book? That fact still amazes me. If you are one of those teachers, you really should get a classroom copy. My annual introduction of this well-known mentor text begins when I am ready to teach my students to move beyond "hamburger paragaphs." My goal as a writing teacher is to teach my students how to move from structured paragraphs to paragraphs that do not rely on a format at all. A true paragraph, I've always said, should achieve a purpose, not a formula; however, I'm a good enough writing teacher to say that before students can write formula-less paragraphs, they have to learn what a paragraph is, how to organize it, and most of my kids require a structure to do this. Important Book passages are structured but not as structured as a hamburger paragraph, so it's one step away from relying on a paragraph frame.

I actually start teaching Important Book passages in the fall; in April, when I teach the lesson on this page, we have actually moved past these passages and are writing paragraphs that are mostly un-structured, but I bring this format for writing back for students to use in their writer's notebooks. Between the fall and the spring, I also add the element of thinking about perspective to their Important Book passages, which I explain below.

In The Important Book, Margaret Wise Brown--a poet--describes items (rain, wind, apples, etc.) to the reader from her poetic point-of-view. Each page focuses on a different item, but each page uses the same formula to describe the item. Her first sentence (see poster at left from my teacher-friend Amy Harbarger's wall) starts with the words "The important thing about [item] is..." She then describes other relevant details about the item using her poetic perspective. She concludes each page with a reminder: "But the important thing about [item] is [a repeat of the first sentence]." This is a nice little formula that, as said, can be easily used by students.

What I focus students on when sharing and imitating these passages is that the author, I believe, has truly selected what she believes is the most important poetic element to begin and end her passages with. The discussion of each passage, in my classroom, always includes these two questions: "Why do you think she has chosen this as the most important element of the item? If you, as a person who perhaps isn't as poetic as the author, had to express what you believe the most important element is, would you select something different and why?"

When you start putting the word most in front of the word important, it opens up a whole discussion about perspective and superlatives. Completing a straight-forward Important Book passage is fairly easy, but being able to justify your choice of the most important thing opens the possibilities for having deep, cognitive discussions. Students will (hopefully) disagree with one another if writing passages about the same topic. Students will (hopefully) disagree with Margaret Wise Brown's perspective as a poet as they consider her chosen most important element. I want that kind of rich discussion among my students.

Just to illustrate how rich the discussions can become of this mentor text's passages, consider the page where she talks about rain. Margaret Wise Brown decided the most important element of rain is that it is wet. That's her poetic opinion, which I can certainly see. To throw a perspective-inspired challenge at my students, I ask:

  • What would a meteorologist say is the most important thing about rain?
  • What would a Dust Bowl farmer say is the most important thing about rain?
  • What would someone living in a flood plain say is the most important thing about rain?

And suddenly, perspective adds a whole new element to our Important Book passages, which I find many teachers find a refreshing new twist on using this mentor text. I challenge you to come up with perspective questions (like my bullets above) for the other pages in Margaret Wise Brown's original text. It's actually fun.

And then, I challenge you to start requiring your students to write these passages from another's perspective as well as their own.

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A Quick Note about Superlatives:

I love throwing grammatical terms at my students when we are in the midst of a writing task. Superlatives and Important Book passages go hand-in-hand. If you've not taught superlatives before, here's my explanation:

A superlative is a type of adjective that is made in one of three ways:

  • If you take many adjectives--great, for example--you can add -er and -est to them. The -est version is actually the superlative.
  • If you add the word most or least in front of the adjective, you are speaking in superlatives too. There is no word "importantest" so you have to say "most important." It's important to note that "least important" is also a superlative.
  • Some words' superlative forms are irregular: for example, good, better, and best (as opposed to gooder and goodest).

As you teach/assign Important Book passages, use the word superlative a lot. Make the students use the word; make them point out their superlative ideas in their own passages. When you require students to use the academic language with you and with each other, you are verbally scaffolding them to better remember the meaning and application of your academic vocabulary.

The picture at right is from the "Conventional Superhero Family" page I created in my Writer's Notebook. You can access the entire lesson (which was created for WritingFix by my fellow NNWP Consultant--Courtney Hurlburt--and I added a Writer's Notebook page to it) by clicking here or on the picture.

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A Writer's Notebook Page to Review the Traits of Writing:

I have become such a strong proponent of using writer's notebooks during pre-writing--the kind of tools discussed by Ralph Fletcher (at right) in his A Writer's Notebook: Unlocking the Writer Within You. There's really no better way to pre-write than to have students create a fun page in their writer's notebooks that invests them in an upcoming writing assignment or thinking task. I like to use my students' writer's notebooks as a place to not only explore future topics for writing but also as opportunities to review (and re-explore) previously-learned, important topics.

With this writer's notebook lesson, we review all six writing traits, which we have had lots of time to think about during the months leading up to this lesson. Each student selects two traits to write Important Book passages about--the trait that is the easiest for them and the trait they still struggle with the most. This is good, individualized information for me to have about each student in the springtime, so we can set one more writing goal for them to accomplish by year's end. I base the goal on the "struggle trait" they have identified.

Students, taking a look at one of their more recent pieces of portfolio writing, self-select the trait they feel they "have the best handle on as a developing writer" as well as the one that they know still gives them the most trouble. On scratch paper, they begin composing Important Book passages about these two traits, knowing their final drafts will go into their writer's notebooks; they write about their strongest trait first.

Now there have been years that I chose not to allow conventions to be one of their trait-choices for this writing taught--because too many students called it their "struggle trait"; I want there to be a variety of traits being written about, so I sometimes make that call. Whether you do or not is up to you. The reason I want there to be a variety is that I like students to help each other write and revise these passages before they go in the notebook, and one of my favorite techniques for this is that--when writing their second passage about their own struggle traits--they have to talk to someone who wrote about the same trait when composing the first passage.

The important thing students must do before composing is to select something that is--according to their own perspectives--the most important thing about the traits they are writing about. The more talk you can have students do about their two traits before they write anything down at all, the better.

Here is my teacher model. I make sure students notice how many details come in between my first and last sentences. I also make sure they notice that I have included an illustration for each passage, which I expect them to do too.


(Click here for a really large version of this notebook page.)

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Superlative Paragraphs as a Writing Across the Curriculum Task:

I share my students with the same math, science, and social studies teachers, which is a wonderful teaching situation; I work very hard to make sure many of my lessons that teach unique writing tasks (like this one) have a "part 2" to them; during "part 2," our students specifically carry the writing technique I've taught them to their other content classes with the assignment they are to bring back--in this case--Important Book passages inspired by content and vocabulary they are studying in those other classrooms. In my Language Arts room, once they have brought ideas back from the other content areas, we work on shaping those ideas so they are the best, small pieces of writing they can be.

When the students have completed both part 1 and part 2 of this month-long notebook task, I can tell my colleagues that their students are ready to use Important Book passages as a new tool in their own learning logs and interactive notebooks.

I inform my students they will become "collectors of original superlative paragraphs" in their other classes over the next three weeks. As they take notes, do activities, and learn in their other core areas of study, they are to always be thinking, "Could I translate this idea into a Important Book passage for Mr. Harrison's class?" Every day in my language class, I remind them to do this, and I allow them to talk to each other for about five minutes in small groups to throw ideas back and forth based on that day or the previous day's math, science, and social studies lessons. One day a week (I like Thursdays), I stop class ten or fifteen minutes early and have students partner-up, share the passagees they have thought of, ask for revision help from the group to make their couplets sound more natural and fluent, check each other's spelling and punctuation, then copy them neatly onto a page we've designated in their notebooks.

As far as my lesson's timeline, I explain, "If you were to be really doing this task diligently," I would expect you that have a new superlative paragraph for all three--math, science, and social studies--ready to go every week." It doesn't perfectly work out this way mathematically for every student, but it's a goal for them to aim for, and many do get there because of my daily reminders.

Here is my writer's notebook model I show them after week #1. If you're making your own model, I suggest you photograph the page as it develops this way; showing all three Important Book passages at once can be a bit daunting to my students. My passages all are focused something I actually determined as the most interesting and important fact; I am ready to justify why I think the first and last fact in each paragraph is the most interesting/important:


(Click here for a stand-alone version of this page that can be printed on legal-sized paper.)

Here is my writer's notebook model I show them after week #2. You can see I was suddenly liking the fact that I had ended up with two different polygons serving as my illustrations on the right-hand page, and that I was determined to choose a science subject that could be illustrated with a circle:


(Click here for a stand-alone version of this page that can be printed on legal-sized paper.)

Here is my writer's notebook model I show them after week #3"


(Click here for a stand-alone version of this page that can be printed on legal-sized paper.)

Remember, the rough drafts for these Important Book passages go on scratch paper. Only after students have checked their spellings and shared out loud in a group, asking for revision suggestions, are they allowed to carefully transfer the passages into the writer's notebook on the right-hand side of the two-page spread.

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Samples from my Students' Notebooks:
(click images to zoom in on the details and words)
A note about these samples: I changed up the requirements of this two-page spread during my 2011-2012 school year in two ways. Frist, instead of having my students write a paragraph about their best trait and another about the trait that makes them struggle, I decided to make it all about their strengths; each student had to write about the two traits they felt they did the best work with in general. This allowed me to do some differentiarted grouping activities on feedback day, which I'll be posting at my Writer's Workshop page over the summer. Second, because our kids happened to be working on an interdisciplinary unit (inspired by the Lewis and Clark expedition) about what math, science, and social study skills would be the most important to bring on an expedition to a habitable planet in another solar system, I had them focus their writing across the curriculum superlative paragraphs within that context.

Eighth-grader Sydney shares her five Superlative Paragraphs

Eighth-grader Rachel shares her five Superlative Paragraphs

Seventh-grader Dani shares her five Superlative Paragraphs

Seventh-grader Kage shares his five Superlative Paragraphs

Seventh-grader Kevin shares his five Superlative Paragraphs

Seventh-grader Toni shares her five Superlative Paragraphs

Sixth-grader Jacie shares her five Superlative Paragraphs

Seventh-grader Wonje shares her five Superlative Paragraphs

 

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Use Superlative Paragraphs as a Processing Tool in Future Lessons:

Our students keep interactive notebooks, not only in language arts but also in math, science, and social studies. An interactive notebook is a place where students can a) record learned information in their own words and also b) reflect on the learning in a manner that feels right to their own learning style. We attempt to give students many options at the end of lesson to creatively or logically reflect on what has been learned. These superlative paragraphs are a great option for reflection that definitely appeals to some students' learning style.

In addition to using these Important Book passages as a processing tool in my own classroom, I remind my three content colleagues to encourage them in their classrooms' interactive notebooks too.

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An Invitation to Share Students' Superlative Paragraphs Notebook Spreads:

You will have students who create awesome notebook pages inspired by this activity--ones that should serve as models for future students who go through this writing task. I hope you'll consider photographing and sharing any students' notebook page that really are inspirational. Tell your students you're going to choose the three best notebook pages and post them at WritingFix's Ning; this is a fabulous way to motivate your writers, and tell your students they could very easily have their notebook pages seen by the tens-of-thousands of teachers and writers who visit our free-to-access educational site annually.

The link below will take you to our posting page specifically set up for this lesson. And hey, I'd love to see teachers sharing their own models of this assignment too!

Click here to visit our ning's posting page,
where you can post photographs of student notebook pages.
(If I end up posting your students' notebook pages here at this page, I will send you a complimentary copy of any of my workshop packets/products!)