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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.

our "always write" homepage | our "Writing Lesson of the Month" | email me | writingfix | pinterest | facebook | teachers pay teachers | twitter | youtube | linked in  

Resources from my most popular Lesson-Design Workshop: The 7 Elements of a Differentiated Writing Lesson

Since 2001, I have been facilitating differentiated instruction workshops for teachers and administrators. I believe that differentiated instruction is one of the most important topics that educators should study in collaborative teams. And the second most important topic, according to my experience: how to become a better writing teacher. I believe differentiated instruction and writing instruction work together beautifully and logically.

My "7 Elements" of a Differentiated Writing Lesson workshop synthesizes the best D.I. and writing discoveries I have made as an educator, and it presents them in an interactive two- or three-day workshops that helps educators set realistic goals about changing the way writing is used in their classrooms. I am more proud of this workshop than anything else I have created as a teacher-trainer. I believe in the "7 Elements" framework I have created, and I use it myself when setting my own professional goals each year.

Teachers attending my workshops or observing my classroom have often told me, "You make it look so easy, Corbett," when they watch me teach students a writing lesson. I believe good writing instruction can be easy if two things are in place: 1) the teacher has designed a lesson he/she believes is effective; and 2) the teacher genuinely likes and trusts the lesson that is being presented. It still surprises me when I ask a group of teachers, "What's your favorite writing lesson to teach?" and so many of them can't provide me an answer. The reason I became a skilled writing teacher is simple: I crafted my own writing lessons, and I truly believe in those lessons, and I really, really like teaching them to my students; I do not solely rely on the lessons provided by the textbook companies, or worse yet, those creativity-squelching writing programs that schools often purchase when they're looking for a quick-fix for their dwindling writing test scores.

Even though I personally liked to write, I wasn't always competent with teaching writing, and I didn't used to make it look easy; in fact, I am sure I made it look terribly tedious at the start of my career. During my first five years of teaching, I rarely created my own writing lessons. I blindly borrowed activities from colleagues' filing cabinets, or I used the lessons provided by the textbook. My teaching during those years was barely mediocre on my best day, and my students certainly felt no passion for their writing. I knew my writing instruction could be much better, but I had no idea where to even begin changing my practices. Then, during an amazing summer institute sponsored by our local chapter of the National Writing Project, I finally found the motivation I needed to create my own writing lessons and to truly teach writing...to really teach writing. That summer institute helped me identify all the elements of skillful writing instruction that I was missing, and they gave me some simple ways to begin changing my practices. I was all set to become the perfect writing teacher when my sixth year of teaching began in September of 1996.

But here's a truth I cannot lie about. Once I had the motivation and some solid starting points, it still took me three years of very hard work to really make my classroom function as a writing classroom. I am asked by administrators--on occasion--to "fix our writing curriculum" in one short year, or worse yet, in one short workshop. I am living, breathing proof that "fixing writing instruction" is a long-term goal for a teacher or a school. Creating quick-fix professional development is something I do not aspire to do.

My 7 Elements of a Crafted/Differentiated Writing Lesson workshop provides the following: a) motivation for change and b) realistic and differentiated starting points. It challenges teachers, schools, and districts to keep the motivation going, and to believe that small changes will eventually lead to large and significant changes that can make all the difference. Over my two- or three-day workshop, I ask teacher to examine their current use of the seven research-based strategies that I present. We then explore thoughtful, differentiated adaptations based on the seven strategies that I have collected over the years, from both my own classroom and the classrooms of some of my most highly-respected colleagues.

Throughout my workshop, teachers are asked to set (and repeatedly adjust) realistic goals for changing their practices a writing teachers in the next year. At workshop's end, we pledge to support each other as we prepare for the next steps in creating writing instruction that motivates our differentiated learners. I use the 7 Elements too; every year now, I examine the list and ask, "Which two or three am I going to focus on this year?" Here is my running record of the elements I've worked on with diligence, and each year I continue to improve with both writing instruction and differentiation skills:

I choose to revisit and work on two or three of the 7 Elements in my classroom every year too.
The focus helps me continue growing as an educator!
The 2012-2013 school year:
Revision, Skill Focus,
& Mentor Texts
The 2013-2014 school year:
Student Models, Student Talk, & Student Choice
The 2014-2015 school year:
Teacher Models, Mentor Texts & Student Talk
The 2015-16 school year:
Revision, Student Talk & Graphic Organizers
Which two (or three) of the seven elements inspires you to set a realistic professional goal for yourself for the upcoming year?

From experience, I can tell you this: for the Seven Elements to work for you, you must be able to foster a love of writing in your students. When your students are eager to write in class, you will be more inspired to craft lessons that both scaffold and provide challenges for all of them. If my students groaned and hated writing, I would not put extra effort into improving my techniques for teaching it. This is common sense to me, and that is why this website of mine freely shares dozens of lessons and resources that make writing something you and your students look forward to. You'll be ready for the Seven Elements when you've created a healthy environment for writing. Here are links to three different ways I make writing enjoyable for my students and for me.

Here are our three routine activities in my classroom that I share during this training that create a healthy writing atmosphere:
Our Place to Celebrate Thinking:
Writer's Notebooks
Our 10-Minute Daily Routine:
Sacred Writing Time
Our Weekly Celebration of Vocabulary & Writing Skills:
Vocabulary Writing Tasks

These "7 Elements" are NOT Intended to Serve as a Program. Our quick-fix mentality of educational professional development has led to the creation of some pretty mediocre writing programs that schools can purchase for a hefty sum of money. These programs, for the most part, do help teachers acquire some basic skills for writing instruction, but I have a really hard time supporting a program that--let's be honest here--focuses more on helping all students write averagely, or helping all students meet a standard. Real teaching--this is true for writing and all other subjects--provides support and ideas that push students both to and beyond the standards. I have yet to see a writing program for-purchase that does this as its main objective.

I'll say it again; my "7 Elements" workshop is not a program; it is a framework for long-term professional development goals in both writing and differentiated instruction. Administrators and school implementation specialists should absolutely attend this workshop alongside their teachers. Why? Because I'll give your teachers the motivation to change their instructional practices with writing and a framework to do it with, but I can't necessarily stick around for the two or three years it will take for all "7 Elements" to really take hold and become a natural part of your teachers' classroom strategies.

On this page, find a sampling of the materials and ideas presented during my "7 Elements" workshop. You may freely share any resources on this page with fellow educators provided you keep all citations at the bottom of each page intact.

You Can Now Purchase My Training Materials at Teachers Pay Teachers

Looking for a Fresh Voice for Professional Development?

I am available to be hired by your school or district when I am away from my nine-month teaching contract. Learn about my rates and my trainings by clicking here.

I design my training materials so that if you can't get me to your district or school, you can self-navigate through the workshop handouts and PowerPoints and independently learn and set goals for yourselves. Below, you can investigate purchasing my training materials for my three most popular workshops.

7 Elements of a Differentiated Writing Lesson

The two hardest educational topics I ever took on as professional development goals? Writing and Differentiating Instruction. The materials from this two-day training allow teachers to set professional, long-term goals around these two important topics. The link above will allow you to purchase the materials as well as freely preview them.

Critical Trait Thinking for Pre-Writing & Revision

A lot of writing teachers jump from the application level of Bloom's taxonomy straight to the create level, skipping two important steps: analysis and evaluation. This workshop's tools for pre-writing, peer response, and revision (including our famous sticky note templates with traits language) helps develop students who can intelligently analyze and evaluate writing skills. Preview this workshop's materials here.

Exit Tickets Across the Curriculum

Common Core and state standards are pushing for more Writing Across the Curriculum in schools, and I developed this half-day workshop both to introduce a manageable WAC technique that honors multiple learning styles and to showcase several other entry points that will help even the most resistant teachers find value in using writing as a formative assessment measure. Preview this workshop's materials here.

You can save $7.50 if you purchase all three of the above-mentioned workshop materials together. Use this link to get the special price.

Follow me on Pinterest to see hundreds of student samples as well as samples from my own writer's notebook. My students love it when their work is selected to be shown at my Pinterest Boards. Are you using Pinterest as an option for "Author's Chair" yet?

A Sampling of Strategies from my 7 Elements of a Differentiated Writing Lesson Workshop:
provided to give you a glimpse of what we focus on during this professional development experience
My "Seven Elements" workshop for teachers is an interactive two- or three-day professional learning experience where participants analyze their current skill sets when designing effective skill- and process-inspired writing lessons. After exploring a variety of classroom-inspired trait and process strategies that differentiate for different learning styles and cognitive abilities, teachers set personal goals for the next school quarter or school year. Below are some of my favorite strategies from this workshop.

Please be aware, these are copyrighted materials that I am sharing here. If you share them with others, kindly cite where you found the ideas. Thanks in advance.

Starting the Workshop: Setting a Personal, Manageable Goal for Improving One's Writing Instruction
I don't believe that fast-paced "sit and get" or "spray and pray" professional development sessions change teachers' practices; research shows that less than 10% of what one learns during that type of lecture-based workshop ever makes its way back to the classroom. I strive to make my workshops more about "make and take," and one of the most important things we make during our time together is a list of personalized goals. Robert Marzano's research convinced me years ago of the importance of having your scholars set personal goals as they learn to take responsibility for their own learning. My students set goals daily in my writing classroom, and my teacher-participants set goals right at the beginning of my workshop--and then revisit them throughout the session!

Long before my Seven Elements workshop begins, I ask my participants to fill out this pre-assessment, which provides me with some data on how well participants are already incorporating the seven research-inspired strategies we'll be focusing on, and to what degree. This information helps me tailor my workshop for my specific audience, which supports the differentiated philosophy I share throughout this workshop. I can't tell you how many renowned experts I've seen present the exact same workshop on more than one occasion. When the audience changes, shouldn't the materials? I believe professional development providers should tailor their workshops for their differing audiences.

One of the first activities we do when we're all seated together in the same room is to discuss initial impressions and biases we may have of the Seven Elements the workshop will be focusing on. We discuss both what we know and what we think we know in small, safe groups, eventually circling numbers from the cover of my workshop packet based on personal past experiences and contextual knowledge. This sets the stage for us to be able to create individualized goals for the workshop and beyond.

I need to stress something about my workshop before you consider hiring me over someone who can provide a shorter workshop than the two days I require for mine: Improving one's ability to teach writing to all students is a long-term professional development goal; sticking with it requires diligence, and it requires having a more specific goal than "I want to improve writing." The very first thing we do in our workshop is overview my "seven elements of a differentiated writing lesson," and then work to set a manageable goal for each participant. Throughout the workshop as we learn more, participants are invited to shift or revise the goals they have set, but having that individualized goal is a very important piece of the training. The goals are prompted with the following statement and question: "Trying to get better at all seven elements at once doesn't work; focusing on two or three for a year of study does work. Which two or three of the seven elements makes the most sense to you right now as you prepare to be a better writing teacher next year or next quarter?"

Click here to access the PowerPoint I use during the goal-setting portion of my workshop. The graphs near the end of the PowerPoint show how much progress a school can make with all seven elements in one or two years when they diligently work on them. I particularly like how the graphs show growth, but there is clearly room for additional growth. If a school worked diligently on the seven elements as a long-term goal --like three years, as I push for--teachers could be integrating all the strategies at the 4.5 or 5-level, which is what I learned to do when I was becoming the best writing teacher I could be.

On a personal note, I have been using my workshop's goal-setting frame to guide my own professional growth for over ten years now. I find when I commit to really studying and developing new techniques around two or three elements each year, it's easy to stay focused on them, and I am always amazed how much smarter I became when that year is through. The trick is you have to be self-motivated to keep coming back to study them (which I am), or you have to have a study team in place to encourage you (which this workshop sets up for the teacher participants).

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Element 1: Skill-Focused Writing Lessons (Instead of Product-focused Writing Lessons)
This first element, I believe, is at the true heart of improving writing instruction. It focuses on making a lesson's objective skill-based, not product-based. In ninety-five percent of classrooms, I hear writing assigned as a product: essays, reports, acrostic poems, constructed responses, hamburger paragraphs, friendly letters, diamante poems, etc. The problem with focusing students first and foremost on a product--as opposed to the skills needed in the writing process--is that the majority of the instructional time is spent teaching students to adhere to a formula or structure that will build the assigned product. Adhering to someone else's formula teaches the application level of Blooms at best; the goal of writing instruction absolutely should be the helping students practice the three Bloom's levels above apply: analyze, evaluate, and create. When we focus our writing instruction on the writing process and the skills one develops through the act of pre-writing to publishing, we have created a better opportunity to develop critical thinkers and writers, not simply students who can produce a formulaic application of writing when given a prompt.

Now don't misquote me here ! I absolutely believe students do need to learn to write some formulaic products as part of the schooling process. The problem is too many teachers rarely go beyond assigning formula-driven products; from my observations, that's often where their instructional guidance ends. I understand why this is because college did not prepare me for anything more than assigning formulaic products either. I was lucky to have the opportunity to work alongside several teachers who were running skill-based writer's workshops in their classrooms, and the work their students did went so far beyond teaching formulas and patterns. They focused their lessons more on the writing process and the skills (traits) writers can develop during the process.

The most important thing one needs to work on if they're focused on Element 1 in my workshop: We all need to develop a deeper understanding of the skills writers actually use. I depend on the language of the six writing traits for my classroom vocabulary when working on this element. If you're not a trait teacher, that's fine, but you need to find a list of writing skills that you can work with. These can be found in your state standards, or in the Common Core, but most standards I have analyzed always come back to the list of skills first introduced to me when I began studying the 6-trait model that came out of Oregon in the 1980's.

Here's my first challenge for teachers working on this element: Can you explain the difference between all six traits? If you can, then you should be able to--and this is my second challenge--list six or seven different skills a writer might work on if he/she was focused on each trait. That's right...six or seven. If you say, "We're going to work on the organization trait this month?" I say, "Perfect! Which specific six or seven organization skills will they be working on?" Many of my participants--even when working in small groups--can only name two or three different skills they associate with each trait. That has to change, if you're really going to improve your ability to create differentiated, skill-based lessons; you have to know the skills, and you have to be able to spot them in published writing you're reading with your students.

Here are seven skills I can easily list for the organization trait. Organization is: 1) using a strong lead or hook, 2) using a variety of transition words correctly, 3) paragraphing correctly, 4) pacing the writing, 5) sequencing events/ideas logically, 6) concluding the writing in a satisfying way, 7) titling the writing interestingly and so that the title stands for a bigger idea. Over the years, I have developed or found and adapted mini-lessons that have students practice these skills during my "Organization Month." This set of lessons didn't get created overnight after a single session of a professional development workshop; oh no, I created these lessons slowly and meticulously--borrowing and adapting ideas from fellow teachers, when needed--over many years.

Because I have my list of organizational skills memorized, I am more apt to spot and point out these skills in the assigned reading my kids and I are working on. With a skill in mind and the ability to find that skill in what we're reading, I am on my way to be able design specific process writing lessons that have students practice those skills of organization. Ultimately, my students do create a product that I can assess, but the heart of my instruction is focused on teaching them to recognize and use these skills. The product they create is NOT the focus on my essential questions or the SLOs I present in class; rather, the skills I want them to master are, and once we've practiced those skills in a variety of group, partner, and individual writing tasks, only then do they hear about the product I will have them ultimately create to show me what they can do with--in this case--the trait of organization.

The best writing lessons out there, in my opinion, focus right up front on the skill(s) of the lesson. During my "Seven Elements of a Differentiated Writing Lesson," the lesson we explore--as a great example of a skill-focused lesson-- is the Floating Down the River lesson at WritingFix, which is inspired by the mentor text Daisy Comes Home by Jan Brett.

Now, let's talk differentiation: When you design a writing lesson that's differentiated, you choose one skill that you expect all students to be working on and improving their ability to critically think about as they take a piece of writing through the process. Some of your students may require more one-on-one time as they practice the skill, or they may need tools or grouping structures that help scaffold their learning more. At the same time and in the same class, you will have students who can handle multiple skills at the same time, and it's the wise teacher who has chosen and prepared for additional skills for challenging the average and above-average writers in the class. Look again at the first page of the online Floating Down a River lesson; the main skills are identified up front as the "focus skills" and the "support skills" are right there too, which is very smart and strategic lesson planning.

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Element 2: Mentor Texts that Provide Inspirational Ideas, Structures, or Craft Skills
A great teacher never admits to knowing everything about a topic they teach. I am so amazed how much I continue to learn about mentor texts twenty years into my career. One nice thing about having my own Seven Elements Framework for Professional Development memorized, is that I can use it myself, setting professional and personal goals every August for my own learning. And I do. Ask me anytime you see me, "What elements are you working on this school year, Corbett Harrison?" and I'll list two or three for you without hesitating. Don't be surprised if one of those elements is mentor texts! I'd like to pretend I know everything there is to know about them already, but I don't; I've proved that time and time again by spending another year focused on them.

In 2010, I launched a Mentor Text Resource Page here at my website, because this topic has become such a big piece of learning to me. It deserved its own webpage. Feel free to visit it by clicking here so you may learn more about this element, which--because it so clearly links reading and writing instruction--a lot of teachers commit to working on during the first year after my workshop of the 7 Elements Workshop. I've discovered you have to work on mentor texts with another of the seven elements though; mentor texts alone are fairly easy to use as an inspiration to student writers, but mentor text's connection to the analysis of writing can be short-changed without another of the seven elements to latch onto.

I'll cite my favorite mentor text-inspired lesson here, which I show off during the 7 Elements Workshop. It's my newly-revised Start with What Isn't There lesson, and it's inspired by the two-page introduction to Stephen Kramer's non-fiction picture book, Caves; I talk more about the student writing this lesson promotes a bit lower on this page with Element 5: student & teacher models. Years after creating and posting this lesson, I still believe it to be the best skill-based lesson I've ever created. Why? Because I spotted a great voice-inspired writing skill in a mentor text, and I designed a skill-based lesson that had students practice that skill in choice-driven (not product-assigned) ways. Learning the writing process this way from me, my students rarely find anything but pleasure in this assignment. In my workshop, I challenge teachers to create lessons that they love to teach as much as I love to teach this one!

Fun Fact about my Caves-inspired lesson: In November of 2015, I received a wonderful email (and care package of books) from Caves' author, Steven Kramer. Here is a paragraph from that letter that made me proud to be keeping this website of mine:

"I had seen your kind words about the opening lines of Caves in the past, and I think I was aware that you were sharing your lesson ideas from  Caves through your work with the Northern Nevada Writing Project.  In  fact, I think it was another teacher from my school who first shared  that with me.  But, I'm not aware of anyone else who has linked my writing in children's books with my deep concern about the effects of formulaic writing lessons and standardized testing in elementary schools. So, thank you for that." --author/teacher, Stephen Kramer

Here are three other mentor text lessons I make reference to in my 7 Elements of a Differentiated Writing Lesson workshop. Each free-to-access online lesson makes a very different use of the mentor text it cites.

An IDEA mentor text lesson:
A STRUCTURE mentor text lesson:
A CRAFT mentor text lesson:
inspiration from a whole picture book,
Diary of a Worm
by Doreen Cronin

My lesson based on this book's idea:
Unlikely Diary Keepers

Why it's an idea mentor text: I love this little book. It presents the idea "What if animals could keep daily journals or diaries?" The worm who writes down his daily thoughts not only presents real facts about worms and their importance to the environment but it also mixes in a great use of humor. Asking students to create daily journals from the perspective of other animals or even inanimate objects is a great way to borrow this book's idea. Great for fun and great for research!

inspiration from a single paragraph,
A Tale of Two Cities
by Charles Dickens

My lesson based on this book's idea:
Antonyms and Comma Splices

Why it's a structure mentor text: Now don't dismiss this lesson because you don't teach this book, or because you didn't enjoy it in high school or college! I wasn't fond of this book either, but this is truly one of my favorite lessons. It focuses only on the famous introduction: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, etc," which is an interesting structure that students can borrow from to write about other topics, be they fiction or non-fiction. My lesson goes further; it teaches students to fix the comma splices that Dickens used recklessly!

inspiration from a single chapter,
Marshfield Dreams
by Ralph Fletcher

My lesson based on this book's structure:
Bizarre Foods & Mr. Fletcher

Why it's a craft mentor text: During a narrative writing unit, I honestly don't believe you can find a better mentor text, especially because it comes with a companion book--Fletcher's How to Write Your Life Story--that explains the author's craft techniques and writing process in his own words. This particular lesson is based on Marshfield's chapter called Eating the World, and it challenges students to analyze the author's word choice & voice skills: specifically his use of verbs, subtle alliteration, and dialogue.


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Element 3: Graphic Organizers that Focus on Writing Skills More than Writing Products
Here's a generalization that's proven to be almost 100% true in my experience : Every time I've offered my 7 Elements workshop and sent out the pre-assessment, most teacher participants rank themselves pretty high in their self-perceived ability to use graphic organizers well during writing instruction. Early on during the workshop, I purposely show the participants some really thoughtful, skill-based graphic organizers created by teachers I've worked with at lesson-design workshops since 2003. I then say, "Now according to your pre-assessments, graphic organizers was the topic you wanted me to spend the least amount of time on during this workshop." Every time...Every time, mind you, someone says, "Can we change our mind about that before you go on?" The generalization: our perception of how we're using graphic organizers dramatically changes when you start comparing catch-all graphic organizers (like those in for-sale writing programs) to smartly-designed, skill-inspired graphic organizers.

I always bring plenty of graphic organizer information to my workshops, even when the pre-assessments ask me to do otherwise. When you start studying what skill-based writing instruction (Element #1) looks like, your whole concept of graphic organizers changes. No longer is a cluster (a circle in the middle with six circles coming off of it) even close to enough to helping our students succeed with writing skills. If you've studied Robert Marzano's synthesized research on advance organizers, this should make complete sense to you.

If you want to hear my take on graphic organizers in detail, you're going to have to hire me to come to present to you. If you can't do that, then I'll throw you a challenge that was thrown once at me in a PLC-setting, and completing the challenge helped us all become a smarter designer of graphic and advance organizers. The challenge came in two parts: 1) learn how to use tables and text boxes in Microsoft Word; then, 2) for practice, design a graphic organizer that would help students be successfully with any of the following trait-based writing skills:

  1. Using subtle alliteration to strengthen descriptions (word choice + idea development)
  2. Putting researched ideas into one's own words (idea development + voice)
  3. Using a variety of sentence lengths in drafting and revision (sentence fluency)
  4. Teaching students to equally pace the smaller parts of a story/essay (organization)

At right, by clicking on the two thumbnails, you can access a two-page graphic organizer that teaches students--with very explicit instructions--how to organize ideas so that they will be able to "pace" their stories (# 4 from the list of four challenges above). Note the use of Microsoft Word tables. Note the explicit, skill-based language found in the boxes that would guide the students to think first and foremost about the skill of pacing as they do some pre-writing for their planned stories.

When I design a new lesson these days, the first thing I ask myself is, "What writing skill(s) do I want them to learn to use in the writing they ultimately do?" The second thing I ask myself is, "What would a graphic or advance organizer look like that helped my writers plan or practice that skill before they drafted their stories/essays?"

WritingFix Lessons with Skill-based Pre-Writing Activities and Graphic/Advance Organizers:
inspired by several songs' lyrics

Lesson at WritingFix:
With Your Own Two Hands

This innovative poetry lesson was created by a high school colleague and longtime friend, Rob Stone.

inspired by a popular picture book

Lesson at WritingFix:
Three-Meal Weather

This wonderful & organized writing lesson was created by a superb upper elementary teacher, Kaycee Goman.

inspired by a favorite chapter book

Lesson at WritingFix:
What Your Room Shows

This wonderful lesson was created by a primary teacher and a personal mentor to me, Karen McGee.


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Element 4: Student Choice for Increasing Student Buy-in
I am not going to say too much about student choice here except that it's one of the cornerstones of differentiating instruction that works especially well with writing instruction. Now there's free choice in the real world, which we adults practice pretty regularly, but in the classroom we have to call it choice within parameters or--more cynically put-- the illusion of choice. Whether it's truly free choice or a choice within set parameters, when students feel they have some control over certain elements of your assignments, they are so much more likely to be invested in the learning and the task. This is especially true with topics and formats for practice-writing and pre-writing.

When teaching writing, I have taught myself to always work some element of choice into the process for my students because I absolutely see the value with them being more invested in the writing I am asking them to do. If they hate what they're writing or the topic that was even assigned in the first place, I'm not going to see their best work. In a world with too much standardized testing, it's hard for my administrator to share my enthusiasm for my helping my students like what they're writing, but I see the difference. I came from classrooms where many of my teachers gave me little choice, and because of that, I had very few reasons to like what I wrote for their classes; their book reports, hamburger paragraphs, and five-paragraph essay assignments did not give me confidence when it came time for the state writing test. It was Mr. Borilla's regular creative writing block (fourth grade), Mrs. Pearson's list of social studies writing options (8th grade), and Mrs. Manning's build-your-own-portfolio program (9th grade) that gave me confidence as a writer as I prepared for my tenth grade writing assessment.

What I see in my own students' eyes--because we learn in an environment where their choices are honored and matter--is both confidence and the desire to do more writing when I suggest that's what we work on. Student choice improves the learning environment I am building--simple as that. To have--at least--one element of student choice in my lessons assists my lessons in being so much better.

Below is an example of how choice can make you want to learn and to write. Let's say we're studying the elements of plot, and I want them to brainstorm story-ideas in their notebooks or journals inspired by plot elements but fueled by their own choices. In their notebooks, they will need to write four different five- or six sentence summaries for stories with plot elements; then, on writer's workshop day, they will be invited to take their best summary and develop it into a full-fledged story. To inspire even more choice in this process, I share the interactive plot element generator (which can be replicated physically with three coffee cans or index cards or Sticky notes) to help my students feel in control of their options.

When there's NO CHOICE in this writing lesson: all student must understand that a story with a plot has three basic elements that must be considered before they put pen to paper. When there IS CHOICE: Students have total freedom to create their own, original elements, and the button-pressing machine just below forces their brains to start working in that direction. Press the three buttons below until you have an idea that personally appeals to you as a story topic/

Interactive Plot Element Generator:
Create Random Plot Ideas by Pressing the Buttons until
You Have Three Elements That You Can Make Work Together:



Summarize four plot ideas in your writer's notebook (four sentences minimum for each plot).
You can develop your best summary into a longer story during the next workshop block.

Pressing the buttons is fun...admit it! Now...there is no choice in that fact that a) all students are learning about the three plot elements, b) summarizing in writer's notebooks, and c) developing a longer story. But the fact that they can choose their own elements to summarize fuels their willingness to learn and write. I believe in student choice. I know it impacts my students' desire to write. In my 7 Elements Workshop, we explore many more ways to bring more choice to our writing lessons.

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Elements 5 & 6:
Using Teacher/Student Models of Writing to Create Smarter Discussions about the Writing Process & Writing Skills
Teacher modeling of expected writing is sadly missing in most of the classrooms I observe. I'm determined to personally change that.

I learned the amazing power of sharing your own writing process with students many years ago, and I haven't looked back since. There are things I write that I won't share, but I design my writing lessons to include something I can share. And I do. And the fact that I am doing the writing too, well, just like student choice, in invests my students more in the writing.

Way back in the fall of 1996, I returned to my classroom a completely changed teacher. I had just purchased a brand new car with both lots of horsepower and an electric sunroof--a personal dream fulfilled! I had been given two really cool new elective English classes by my department head: mythology and poetry. And most importantly, I had a new outlook on teaching writing. I had spent five weeks that summer enrolled in an institute sponsored by my local chapter of the National Writing Project, and it had changed everything I knew about teaching my students to write. For the first time ever, I wanted to teach writing; up until then, I had simply been assigning writing and writing formulas. The institute had given me the motivation and many new "tricks" shared with me by seasoned teachers.

The most important trick learned was this: be a writer too. During my first five years of teaching, I had expected a lot of writing from my scholars but never once had I written something I intended to show those students.

I have to tell you it was amazingly hard, but I did it. I wrote my first something to show them, and it almost gave me an ulcer as I prepared to actually show it to them and ask their opinion. But the task became easier with each successive attempt. And it's so easy today that I hardly even think about it anymore. Plus, my students love to critique me, and they accept me as a member of the community of writers we strive to create.

As teachers, we're funny; we model reading strategies, and that's not hard for us. We model mathematical problem solving, and that's not hard for (most of) us either. But ask us to show a piece of writing we're working on, and suddenly we close ourselves off from our students. It can't be that way, and that was the lesson I had to learn.

At right, you will find the first piece of writing that I shared with my new poetry elective class that Fall. To this day, I don't think it's that great of a poem, but it did two things well: 1) it captured a moment in time about me and my connection to the world, which poems should do; and 2) it made my kids want to talk about the personal purpose of poetry. I launched a real community of writers the day I shared it, which I had always intended to do when I taught, but this felt different. So very different.

That summer institute I took back in 1996 actually started my path to my Master's Degree. The evening university classes I was taking required me to write papers, and so I started sharing my college assignments with my students. I quickly learned the value of showing all steps of my process to my writers, not just my final drafts. My own college papers--or excerpts from them--became the basis of valuable mini-lessons about the writing process. I welcomed my students' constructive criticism, and the critiques they later gave each other were better and more helpful because they'd practiced on me.

For my new mythology elective, I had my best experience with sharing writing from my own Master's Program. I wanted to show my students how ancient mythological concepts can still be intelligently and universally be applied to modern times, and I wanted them to write about that idea too. I asked them to connect with a myth we'd studied that they could apply to something real in their own lives in these present times. When I saw many of them struggling with this sophisticated idea, I decided to go through the task myself with an upcoming writing assignment I had been given for a graduate class where we were talking about how educational reform happens slowly. So I applied the myth of Hercules and his 13 "impossible labors" to an educational concept I was researching for an essay. I began and ended that college paper with a reference to that myth, and my students actually helped me shape those two pieces of my essay. I actually held an extra-credit contest for the student who designed for me an illustrated cover page for my essay. When my mythology students read my final draft a few days before I turned it in, I heard many of them say, "I helped with that part!" It became the most authentic experience I've ever had as a writing teacher, and those kids were so excited when "we" earned an 'A' on that paper from my professor; to this day, I am convinced many of those kids (who might not have) decided to actually give college a try because I showed them they could help me to think (and write) in ways that are respected at the university level. We were building a community with confidence.

There's such simple power in sharing your own writing with your students. For me, it began the process of truly teaching my students to go through the writing process and to value it as an experience.

Student models should be used too, but they must be designed to discuss at deep cognitive levels.

During the 2007-2008 school year, I assigned myself an action research project. We had been busily adding student samples to the lessons at the WritingFix website, and I kept asking myself, "If I was teaching this lesson, when would I show this sample? Before they did the pre-writing ? While they wrote a draft? Before they revised?" I was convinced that discussing student samples would improve the quality of the lesson being taught, but I wanted to know where it would have the most impact: during pre-writing, during drafting, or during revision. I discovered that adding discussions about student samples in all three places improved the writing tremendously, and it engaged my students more deeply with their own writing process.

As part of all my teacher workshops on the writing process, we investigate multiple uses of student samples. One of my favorite classroom techniques involves having students compare and contrast finished pieces of writing. During both pre-writing, drafting and revision, this push for deeper student thinking both educates and inspires your students. I have my teacher workshop participants experience this too.

The handout seen here (at right), which contains two published student samples, is based on one of my favorite personal lessons that I've posted at WritingFix but recently revised: Start With What Isn't There, which is inspired by the opening two pages of Stephen Kramer's Caves. The lesson teaches students how to add mood to a piece of writing, which is a specific skill from the voice trait.

The handout has student writers analyze two fifth graders' published writing with a compare and contrast Venn diagram. The students aren't allowed to compare and contrast just anything they discover; they have to specifically look for voice skills and techniques used by one writer or by both. There is a "mini script" that helps students stay on topic on the handout, right next to the Venn, reminding students of specific skills that build voice in writing; this keeps the students' conversations focused on the lesson's focus trait.

After comparing and contrasting with a partner, I have student writers switch partners to compare and contrast answers again; the conversations that occur around this handout are rich and delightful to listen to. I've used this technique during the pre-writing portion of the lesson, and I've also used it during the revision portion of the lesson. Once, I even used it during both portions because the conversation truly was rich and inspiring, and it reminded students of the skills they were going to be assessed on.

I have come to believe that having students compare and contrast more while explicitly teaching pre-writing and revision is an amazing technique for getting them to think about writing at a deeper level of Bloom's taxonomy. When good conversations about good writing happen, students launch better pre-writes, create better drafts, and decide upon better revision techniques to their own writing before publishing it as a final draft for assessment.

One of the goals I ask teachers to set after my training is to find new ways to push students to analyze and evaluate as they learn to write. You can certainly learn more about this topic at the resource page for my other popular teaching workshop: Critical Trait Thinking.

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Element 7: Teaching Authentic Revision Skills
Let's just admit: Revision is the hardest step of the process to teach and--therefore--the easiest to skip completely or greatly abbreviate when you find your writing lesson taking longer than you had thought it would. When time runs short, revision is easy to rush through or completely ignore. To me, a teacher misses one of his best opportunities to truly teach writing skills with Blooms-inspired depth when this happens.

A lot of my "Seven Elements" participants want to jump to immediately improving their ability to teach revision, which I find totally commendable. Revision is hard, and most teachers I work with recognize it as an area of personal deficiency; the truth is, a lot of really great writing teachers I know and respect still freely admit that revision is where they struggle the most.

My time with whole staffs for one- or two-year focused work on improving writing instruction has recently taught me something pretty important about revision: mainly, revision shouldn't be the first of the seven elements to work on, especially if you still struggle with most of the steps of the writing process; if that's the case, it should be saved for later. In order to teach revision well, you have to be in a place where most of your students are writing rough drafts that they're really enthused about. You can't effectively teach revision when the majority of your students have bad rough drafts or they have rough drafts they don't care about. When students like what they've written in rough draft form, they're ready to move to revision. The other six elements listed on this page aim at helping students increase their pre-writing and drafting time so they both like and see more potential in their rough drafts. Instead of jumping straight for revision, I often encourage my participants to use the other six elements to increase their pre-writing strategies for this reason. I also encourage them to explore simple-but-very-effective techniques to revise smaller pieces of writing--like those found in my author-friend Barry Lane's classic book of resources--The Reviser's Toolbox. When I successfully inspire my students to write something short that they seem to all like and see further potential in making the writing stronger, I always have them try one of Barry's authentic and interesting techniques. I once overheard a colleague tell his students, "Let's revise today by adding five -ly adverbs to our rough drafts," and I cringed. I call instructions like this "formula revisions," and they make students lengthen their writing (by five whole words sometimes!), but making it longer is just one small (and optional) technique for revising. Barry Lane's techniques are not formulas, and they're choice driven. I still cherish my autographed copy of Barry's The Reviser's Toolbox, which I had him sign the first time I met him.

That all said, if you still feel revision is where you want to focus your time, then you need to make sure you have strategies that push students deep into Bloom's taxonomy verbs. Revision must absolutely be taught at the analyze and evaluate levels. It takes diligence, time, and lots of modeling to maintain that level of thinking about revision with a whole class. Learning to teach revision well took me the longest time as I worked to improve my abilities to teach writing, but it was such a great place to get my students to when we indeed arrived. Once they understand revision at a deep level, writer's workshop begins to run itself.

I used to throw my kids into writing response groups way too fast. They weren't ready to provide critical thought for one another. I shouldn't have been surprised at all when they said to each other, "I like your paper, so don't change a thing." To really teaching revision skills to my writers, I needed to develop tools that helped them self-evaluate their own writing. Until they can show me they have the ability to think critically about their own drafts, they aren't ready to be in response groups. If I wanted my students to be in functioning response groups some time between Halloween and Thanksgiving, well that meant we did a lot of self-evaluation of short pieces of writing every fall.

During my teacher workshop on the writing process, we practice with tools like the Revision Sprint (at right), which I designed to push students to use analysis and evaluation skills as they looked at their own drafts. I also designed this tool to be similar to a 5-point rubric, which was the type of rubric used on our state's writing exam back in the day. I believe the more tools that you can introduce to your students that will eventually help them to be able to read and understand a rubric, the better. But you can't just throw a rubric at your kids too early on; you have to ease them into being able to make sense of teacher tools like that.

By far, the best success I've ever had while teaching revision was the one I experienced with the revision Sticky Note templates I created for my students. Using the trait language that's been embedded on these Sticky Notes, like in the three examples below, students learn to self-evaluate their own writing skills by ranking those skills against each other. Rank is an important verb to understand when you use my Sticky Notes. When ranking the skills (unlike simply rating them), students can only use each number once. They had to determine which was their "5 skill," which was their "4 skill," etc. Once they'd created the ranking, it was fairly easy to have them make a skill-specific revision plan. I never forced students to revise for their "1 skill" simply because it was the lowest; I had my students make the choice to revise for any of the lower numbers on these sticky notes. Giving students choice, remember, is a fabulous way to help them enjoy the writing process more.

I also use variations of these Sticky Notes during my Critical Thinking Using the Writing Traits Workshop.

Just of Few of the Trait-Specific Post-it® Note-Sized Templates I've Designed for Students' Self-Evaluation of their Writing


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We've Overviewed the 7 Elements...Now What?
Collaborative work at my workshop: Here is an absolute truth: I didn't learn to become a better writing teacher by working alone. I was inspired by my fellow teachers, and the best work I did--once I had motivation in my pocket--was the work that I created alongside my fellow teachers.

I believe in the power of collaboration and study teams (or PLC's or whatever your district calls this model), especially when working on hard topics like improving writing instruction and using differentiated instruction strategies. Professional development research clearly cites the study team model as the most effective way to have teacher learners not only understand new ideas but also implement them so they become regular tools in a teacher's classroom.

During the second half of this two- or three-day workshop, teachers work with study teams and--together--plan the beginnings of a lesson that they can show the rest of the participants. To do this, I ask the study teams to draft, then publish three posters that connect together three of the elements a teacher should be thinking about early on when planning a new writing lesson: 1) the mentor text; 2) the lesson's skill focus; and 3) the graphic organizer. Below, find three examples created by study teams during past workshops. I use them as models/exemplars when I set the study teams off to work.

After each group presents, we discuss how much more work the lessons would need before they could be taught to students, and we talk about ways we will continue to motivate each other so the lesson both gets planned and is eventually taught. I ask the study teams to pledge a working commitment to each other, now that they have been motivated to create some lessons that are differentiated.

Finalizing Personal Goals. At this point of the workshop, most of the participants have revised the personal goals (about the seven elements) they originally set a number of times. If they want to focus on more than two of the seven elements as a goal, I strongly encourage them to choose two elements that really complement each other, so they're not working on three completely different things. It's pretty easy to combine two elements into one goal; if you decide to classify your mentor texts based on the trait skills shown by the authors, you've combined two elements into one goal. Or if you design learning style-friendly graphic organizers that allow students to make choices about pre-writing, you've combined two elements as well.

Some collaborative study teams choose to set all goals around the same elements; some teams purposely select different elements to work on even though they're in the same study group. Both of these options have different strengths through possibilities. The important thing that must happen is that each individual participant must feel part of a team that will be there to motivate them to continue bettering oneself at using these elements and strategies to differentiate.

I remind the participants of my personal experience: five years of mediocre teaching, followed by one truly motivational summer workshop, then three years of hard work; that's how I finally arrived at a place where I skillfully could teach writing to all my students. The years that followed my learning experience have been--bar none--the best years of my teaching career, and each year gets a little better because I still continue to become a smarter practitioner with the seven elements. My students learn to appreciate the act of writing, and they see the writing process as a valuable life-skill. Through diligence, I learned to love teaching writing, and I can design instruction that impacts every student: from my most gifted writer to my student who struggles the most. My administrators value the work I do because my students are not only passing their tests, but they are also doing so much more than that; they are thinking critically about everything we talk about in class because they are constantly in search of the next topic they are going to write about.

I hope this write-up outlining my "7 Elements" of a Differentiated Writing Lesson Workshop that I've provided inspires you to set long-term goals for becoming an even better writing teacher, and I hope you stick to those goals. The hard work you'll invest in yourself as a writing teacher will really pay off in the end.

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Follow-up Materials I Leave Behind to Keep the Professional Development Going...
In a perfect world, following my workshop, study teams would find time to adapt and collaboratively teach lessons they co-create (or borrow from WritingFix) three or four times a school year. As they adapt and prepare for the actual teaching, they would focus on the personal goals they set in the workshop, helping one another grow as they implement the elements into actual teaching. After adapting any of the already-created lessons from WritingFix, they should then be coaxed into taking the really big step: create a completely original lesson that makes use of all seven elements.

This is what I encourage participants to do. To help them continue to have "7 Element"-inspired conversations, I created these follow-up tools.

Right before teaching
a WritingFix Lesson:

(the study team collaboratively fills out this form)
Time to fill out: 10-15 minutes
Right after teaching
a WritingFix Lesson:

(individual teachers fill out this form)
Time to fill out: 15-25 minutes
A week after teaching
an original lesson:

(individual teachers fill out this form, or the whole group does if it was collaboratively planned)
Time to fill out: 30-60 minutes
Purpose of this form: To collectively reflect on how the seven elements have been integrated into the lesson adaptation before the lesson is taught so that last-minute tweaks can still happen.
  • This form asks the group to collaboratively reflect on how well all seven elements have been embedded into the planned instruction. The form is designed to encourage the group to make any last-minute adjustments to the lesson before it is taught.
Purpose of this form: Independently reflect on how the seven elements played out during the actual teaching of the lesson. Did everything work as planned? If not, what elements still need work.
  • This form requires each teacher to reflect on the way the lesson actually went, especially in its attention to all seven elements. Study teams discuss the answers and ratings after everyone has individually reflected, setting goals for the next lesson.
Purpose of this form: Explain your finalized lesson so that another teacher might teach it too.
  • This form will have you and your colleagues do a final reflection on your completed lesson. This form will have you report on how and when you instructed your students to think about all seven elements while they wrote to your assignment.
  • This form is an on-line form that will automatically be e-mailed to me upon completion; the group will have a copy e-mailed to them as well.

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If you cannot attend my Seven Elements workshop, you can now purchase my
Seven Elements of a Differentiated Writing Lesson Presentation Materials
Price: $17.50

Becoming a great writing teacher is a challenging task; personally, it took me three years of slow and steady diligence to become a writing teacher who knew I was doing something right for all of my students. And I'm not done yet; each year, I continue to build new ideas, thanks to the "Seven Elements" framework I first started toying with back in 2006 and have now presented in 18 states (as of 2016) and in British Columbia.

What's is this "Seven Elements" Framework and Training? It's designed to be a manageable, goal-setting workshop and training for teachers who admit they have the desire to be even better writing teachers but aren't sure exactly where to begin.

I had been presenting smaller workshops on these seven topics for writing teachers during the 00's, but I began envisioning this original content as a solid two-day workshop way back in 2008. Over the summer of 2009, I revised all the materials, and in 2010, I was first hired by three outside-of-Nevada school districts, and they saw the training in its new two-day format. I will humbly report that this is the best workshop I've ever created. It's both thorough and thoughtful, it's solidly research-based, and it's totally differentiated, which makes it teacher-friendly no matter what teaching strategies participants attending the workshop already have in place.

As I prepared for the new two-day version of this training over the summer of 2009, I was determined to create a for-purchase companion resource that would honor and explain my original materials in such a way that anyone--even those not attending my face-to-face workshop--would learn from them and be motivated to set professional goals using them.

I now offer for sale a package of nine electronic documents: Eight PowerPoints (one introductory slideshow, and one slideshow for each of the seven elements) and a PDF version of the 92-page packet my participants receive at the two-day workshop. All for one low price!

Teachers and teacher-trainers are my intended audience for these materials. If you purchase them, you may use the individual resources with your own students, and if you use them with adults, you must cite me as the creator of the materials. The resources from this workshop may not be posted to any website.

Click here for information on purchasing this 2-day workshop's materials and self-paced resources.

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