The Joy of Teaching – An Evan-Moor Blog

Sharing creative ideas and lessons to help children learn

Using Mystery for “Tell a Story Day”


Book cover of the mysteries of Harris BurdickMost students cannot resist a good mystery—it brings out their natural curiosity and inspires creativity. Mysteries can serve as great story starters for celebrating “Tell a Story Day” or a creative writing assignment.

Story starters using The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg

Students are usually familiar with author Chris Van Allsburg from his two most popular works: The Polar Express and Jumanji.

The Mysteries of Harris Burdick provides 14 fascinating pictures with captions that are perfect story starters for students. To tap students’ curiosity, begin by reading Van Allsburg’s introduction to The Mysteries of Harris Burdick.

Next, ask students to select a picture from the book and write a story about it. You can create your own supplemental questions to help students think more about the picture before they start writing. For example:

Picture: Archie Smith, Boy Wonder

Caption: A tiny voice asked, “Is he the one?”

Sample supplemental questions:

  • Why is Archie Smith called, “Boy Wonder”?
  • What are the lights?
  • Where is the tiny voice coming from?
  • Do you think Archie left the window open?

Other writing ideas

Visit the Who is Harris Burdick? website, which includes a video introduction by Van Allsburg and a wealth of resources, including  Tips for Writers, Tips for Teachers, Educator Guides, and stories by other students. Your students can actually submit their stories here.

Chris Van Allsburg

Chris Van Allsburg

Have a class or grade-level writing contest. Assign 3 to 5 students to each of the Harris Burdick pictures, for which they will write a short story. Then by secret ballot, have students select which story is the best explanation for each picture.

Plan a whole-class writing activity. Choose one of the 14 pictures. The class brainstorms various ideas—write these on the white board or on butcher paper so they are visible when the writing begins. One student starts the story with 3 to5 sentences and then passes the paper to the next student, who does the same thing, and so on around the room. You will need an activity for students to work on while they wait for the paper to make its way to them.

Write a story with a “partner classroom.” Your class works together to create the first paragraph. A runner delivers it to the partnering classroom. The partnering classroom adds the next paragraph and sends it back. This continues for a set time, predetermined by you and your partnering teacher. The next day, the two classes can have a Harris Burdick Mystery Party where the whole story is revealed to both classes.

Check out the book The Chronicles of Harris Burdick. Famous children’s authors write a story for each of the Burdick pictures, including a story by Van Allsburg himself for the photo “Oscar and Alphonse.” The introduction to this book is written by childhood favorite, Lemony Snicket.

Visit the International Reading Association’s “ReadWriteThink” website for a lesson plan developed for Grades 5–9. An online “Mystery Cube” helps students develop outlines for their own Harris Burdick-inspired stories.

Other story starters:

Cotton Mill

Picture from the National Archives. Ask questions such as, “What is the boy thinking as he sweeps?” or “What are the other two boys doing?”

  • Visit the National Archives or The Library of Congress and choose some intriguing pictures from general collections or that are matched to the curriculum areas you are studying (such as immigrants, the Depression, or the Civil War). Provide a few thought-provoking questions and have students create a caption or write a story.
  • A fun and simple source for “tell a story” pictures is magazines. Ask students to bring in magazine pictures and collect the pictures in a box. When the box is full, students randomly select a picture and let their imagination take it from there!

Here are just a few of the Common Core State Standards associated with this lesson plan for Grade 5:

  • 5.RL.7—Analyze how visual and multimedia elements contribute to the meaning, tone, or beauty of a text.
  • 5.RL.10—By the end of the year, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poetry.
  • 5.W.3—Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, descriptive details, and clear event sequences.
  • 5.W.3.a.—Orient the reader by establishing a situation and introducing a narrator and/or characters; organize an event sequence that unfolds naturally.
  • 5.W.3.e.—Provide a conclusion that follows from the narrated experiences or events.

Contributing Writer

Image of Blog Contributor Patty ClarkPatty Clark has been a classroom teacher for grades K-6, and District Librarian for grades K-8 for the past 25 years.  She is passionate about helping others find and use information.  Her philosophy is, “It’s not about the amount or the subject matter learned, it’s about the learner discovering the joy in the process that led them to it.”

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  1. Very nice, Patty! I like the idea of using pictures as story starters. I will use this with my own class of adult ESL students.

  2. Pingback: Lesson Roundup: Activities for the End of the School Year and Summer Learning | The Joy of Teaching - An Evan-Moor Blog

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