A Writer's Notebook Brainstorm inspired by a Great Poem
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Meet the Lesson's Author:

Corbett Harrison has been a Northern Nevada Writing Project Teacher Consultant since 1996. He teaches a variety of inservice classes for the NNWP.

Corbett maintains a personal website where he stores most of his favorite lessons.



Teacher's Guide:

Tillbury Town Tales:

A Butcher's Story

responding to class discussions in writer's notebooks

This lesson was created by NNWP Consultant Corbett Harrison. Corbett uses this poem as an example mentor text during his 7 Elements of a Differentiated Writing Lesson Workshop.

This writing prompt is based on a sonnet by American poet, Edwin Arlington Robinson. The poem cited in this lesson is a lesser-known work but has been used with great success to inspire original thinking, interpreting and writing.

To our loyal WritingFix users: Please use this link if purchasing E. A. Robinson's poetry from Amazon.com, and help keep WritingFix free and on-line. We thank you!

A note for teachers: These lessons are posted so that you may borrow ideas from them, but our intention in providing this resource is not to give teachers a word-for-word script to follow. Please, use this lesson's big ideas but adapt everything else. And adapt it recklessly; that's how one becomes an authentic writing teacher.

Teacher Instructions & Lesson Resources:

Pre-step (dedicating a page in the writer's notebook): Early on in the school year, I tell my students I will help them build interesting pages for their writer's notebooks. Explaining that a writer's notebook--like a painter's sketchpad--is a place for them to gather ideas they'd be interested in writing about, we'd set up pages of thoughts based on some early class discussions. I make sure my students understood that I am not always going to give them notebook topics, that I was "training" them to respond to materials I would show them--poems, stories, articles, novels, etc.--in a way that challenges them to apply their own ideas to the ideas discussed in class. Their job is to eventually (with independence) record interesting thoughts in their notebooks in a way that will make them want to revisit the idea and perhaps write about it further at a later date.

In my classroom, all of our pieces of writing for writer's workshop had to begin in my students' notebooks. I chose not to assign topics to my students. I helped my students find their own ideas for their papers' big ideas.

I tell my students we would soon be reading a poem with many possible interpretations; they are going to set-up a page in their writers' notebooks to remember several of your own interpretations of the poem. The page they set-up should be partioned in the following way:

Writer's Notebook Page Title:
Interpreting "Reuben Bright" by E.A. Robinson

Summary Box:

3-5 They/Them Possibilities:

(two-sentence summary of poem)

Three Possible "Movie Titles" or movie tag lines.
Draw a scene from the movie.


Show them your own model and/or my teacher model, which I have included (at left) with this lesson as my attempt to inspire you to make your own, but I will be understanding if you want to use mine as yours. If you are teaching your students to use Mr. Stick in notebooks to serve as a journal and notebook mascot, it can become fun to make a teacher model. Your kids can gain real inspiration from having proof that you had fun as you created your own notebook page; I believe kids can have fun while learning as long as the teacher is modeling what smart and fun looks like at all times. Click here for a really large version of my notebook page, which allows you to really zoom in on details or print on a poster, if you have that ability.

As we continue to discuss the poem throughout the assignment write-up below, students come back and fill in the partitions on this page we've set up in the notebook. At a later date, I can challenge them to return to their best interpretation and turn it into a longer piece of writing.

Step one (sharing the published model):  Now it's time to actually share the poem. I tell my students--before we read it twice out loud--that this is a poem about a man surrounded by death to the point he is almost immune to it, but when someone close to him passes away, he takes a drastic step. Their job as reader is to rationalize his actions.

Reuben Bright
by E. A. Robinson

Because he was a butcher and thereby
Did earn an honest living (and did right),
I would not have you think that Reuben Bright
Was any more a brute than you or I;
For when they told him that his wife must die,         5
He stared at them, and shook with grief and fright,
And cried like a great baby half that night,
And made the women cry to see him cry.

And after she was dead, and he had paid
The singers and the sexton and the rest,              10
He packed a lot of things that she had made
Most mournfully away in an old chest
Of hers, and put some chopped-up cedar boughs
In with them, and tore down the slaughter-house.

E. A. Robinson wrote many poems about the unusual characters in the fictional place he created with his pen: Tillbury Town.  Richard Cory is probably Robinson's most famous Tillbury Town resident, but Reuben Bright--the butcher--is equally interesting.

Share this one-page handout with your students, or place it on the overhead projector.  Before reading, let students know this poem is an Italian Sonnet, because of its eight lines followed by six lines, and because of its
A-B-B-A rhyme scheme.

Read the poem aloud, and talk about its possible meanings.  Students can easily focus on their interpretations of a butcher tearing down the slaughter house, an act that takes away Reuben's profession.  Start there...but then show the students how the poem can be even more interesting than that.

Focus students on lines #5 and #6.  Robinson condemns Mrs. Bright to death using the pronouns they and them, which is what makes this poem really interesting.  We might immediately assume the they and them are doctors with bad medical news, but wouldn't the poem make just as much sense if they stood for government officials, or church elders, or the mob, or even voices in his head?

Have students brainstorm as many possibilities as they can as to who the they and them are, and their reasons for saying that Mrs. Bright must die.

Visit the page in the notebook and have students (on the bottom half of the page) record their five favorite interpretations--the ones that would be the most interesting for them to explore later, if prompted. With five interpretations listed, they need to think about their "most favorite" one, then write a two-sentence summary and create a representative illustration for the top-half of their notebook page.

Step two (introducing student models of writing):  Tell students they will be deciding on one interpretation of who the they and them are.  Using the poem as a springboard, each student will compose three diary entries from the point-of-view of Reuben Bright.

Show one or all of the student samples below to help them get their thinking started.

WritingFix Safely Publishes Students from Around the World! In 2008, we first began accepting students samples from teachers anywhere who use this lesson. Hundreds of new published students now go up at our site annually!

We're currently looking for student samples for other grade levels for this lesson!  Help us obtain some from your students, and we'll send you a free resource for your classroom!  Visit this lesson's student samples page for details.

Step three (pre-writing and drafting): Students need to decide on a favorite interpretation of the poem because they will be writing about it. If students have trouble making a choice about who the they/them in the poem are, the interactive buttons on the student instructions page might inspire them.

Once they have committed to an interpretation, they will plan to write three diary entries in Reuben's voice: one entry immediately after Reuben Bright is told his wife must die; one entry after she has died; and one entry after he has torn down the slaughter house. To help them capture an original voice for Reuben, have them use the graphic organizer:

To help your students add emotional voice to each diary entry, here's an idea from Corbett: "Before drafting each entry, have students look at this emotional faces handout. Have students decide on an emotion for each of their three entries; the decision should be based on how they think Reuben feels as he sits down to write. To help them remember each chosen emotion, have them sketch and label their face in their paper's margins before writing."

Share Original Graphic Organizers (for Pre-Writing)
from Your Teaching Toolbox.

We share graphic organizers with our peers, we find them in books, and we think we should also be able to find tried-and-true ones online at WritingFix. This year, if you create an original graphic organizer (or adapt one of ours) when you teach this page's lesson, and post it, we might just end up publishing it directly here at WritingFix, and we will post it here, giving you full credit.

  • Original graphic organizers for specific lessons, like this one, can be submitted as an attachment at this link. Look for the "Reply to this Box" beneath the post. To be able to post, you will need to be a member of our free Writing Lesson of the Month Network.

Step four (revising with specific trait language):   To promote response and revision to rough draft writing, attach WritingFix's Revision and Response Post-it® Note-sized templates to your students' drafts.  Make sure the students rank their use of the trait-specific skills on the Post-it® Note-sized templates, which means they'll only have one "1" and one "5."   Have them commit to ideas for revision based on their Post-It rankings.  For more ideas on WritingFix's Revision & Response Post-it® Note-sized templates, click here.

Share Original Revision Techniques or
Adaptations from Your Toolbox.

Inspired by Barry Lane's Reviser's Toolbox, the WritingFix website encourages its teacher users to adapt our lessons, especially the tools of revision we have posted here. If you create an original revision tool (or adapt one of ours) when you teach this page's lesson, and post it, we might just end up publishing it directly here at WritingFix, and we will post it here, giving you full credit.

  • Original revision ideas from teacher users of WritingFix can be submitted through copy/paste or as an attachment at this link. Look for the "Reply to this Box" beneath the post. To be able to post, you will need to be a member of our free Writing Lesson of the Month Network.

Step five (editing for conventions):  After students apply their revision ideas to their drafts and re-write neatly, require them to find an editor.   If you've established a "Community of Editors" among your students, have each student exchange his/her paper with multiple peers.  With yellow high-lighters in hand, each peer reads for and highlights suspected errors for just one item from the Editing Post-it.  The "Community of Editors" idea is just one of dozens and dozens of inspiring ideas that is talked about in detail in the Northern Nevada Writing Project's Going Deep with 6 Trait Language Workbook for Teachers.

Step six (publishing for the portfolio):  The goal of most lessons posted at WritingFix is that students end up with a piece of writing they like, and that their writing was taken through all steps of the writing process. After revising, invite your students to come back to this piece once more during an upcoming writer's workshop block.  The writing started with this lesson might become even more polished for final placement in the portfolio, or the big ideas being written about here might transform into a completely different piece of writing. Most likely, your students will enjoy creating an illustration for this writing as they ready to place final drafts in their portfolios.

Interested in publishing student work on-line? You might earn a free classroom resource from the NNWP! We invite teachers to teach this lesson completely, then share up to three of their students' best revised and edited samples at our ning's Publish Student Writers group.

To submit student samples for this page's lesson, click here. You won't be able to post unless you are a verified member of this site's Writing Lesson of the Month ning.


Learn more about poet E. A. Robinson by clicking here.

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