Standard Lesson

The Houdini Box: What Did Houdini Hide? Writing Creative Endings

3 - 6
Lesson Plan Type
Standard Lesson
Estimated Time
Five 60-minute sessions
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This lesson comprises five lessons that students love. During the first session, read aloud The Houdini Box by Brian Selznick to the class. Students then follow the steps of the writing process to create a new ending for this book. Students gain experience brainstorming, drafting, editing, and polishing their writing. Because their story endings must flow well with the rest of the book, students must understand what the book is about. The goal is for them to understand what they're reading and to demonstrate their knowledge of the book's content and their own creativity through a writing piece.

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From Theory to Practice

  • The teacher should assess students' comprehension of the topic presented in the unit.
  • Writing and revising in the classroom often involves peer discussion, whether in a one-to-one or group setting.

Common Core Standards

This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.

State Standards

This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.

NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts

  • 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
  • 5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
  • 7. Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and nonprint texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.
  • 8. Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.
  • 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).

Materials and Technology

  • The Houdini Box by Brian Selznick
  • Escape! The Story of the Great Houdini by Sid Fleischman
  • Who Was Harry Houdini? by Tui T. Sutherland
  • Harry Houdini for Kids: His Life and Adventures With 21 Magic Tricks and Illusions (For Kids series) by Laurie Winn Carlson
  • Harry Houdini: Young Magician by Kathryn Kilby Borland and Helen Ross Speicher
  • Chart paper and scratch paper
  • Markers and pencils
  • Glue
  • Scissors
  • Fishing line or string
  • Hole punch
  • Paper clips
  • Computers with Internet access
  • Three-ring plastic covers and a three-ring binder




  1. Write the Houdini Box chant lyrics on the board (see Session 1 under Instructional Plan tab).
  2. Read The Houdini Box by Brian Selznick before reading it aloud to students. This will ensure that all words are known and that you know about how long it takes to read straight through the book. (Keep in mind that this is without the questions and discussion that tend to happen when the book is actually read to students.)
  3. Print off enough copies of the Comprehension Cube for each student. Punch holes in the worksheets so that a string can be tied to a corner of the constructed box, and it can be hung from the ceiling. If allowing students to use the Cube Creator to complete their Comprehension Cube, reserve computer time, as necessary, and create a draft of the Cube and save to each computer students will use.
  4. Prepare an example of the Comprehension Cube that is completed, cut out, and glued together.
  5. Cut and prepare fishing line or strings that are the same length for each student (about 24”).
  6. Set out all other books on the Materials list that students need for their research: Escape! The Story of the Great Houdini; Who Was Harry Houdini?; Harry Houdini for Kids: His Life and Adventures With 21 Magic Tricks and Illusions; and Harry Houdini: Young Magician.
  7. Bookmark the two websites that students will use for research: America’s Story From America’s Library: Harry Houdini and The American Experience: Houdini.
  8. Do some of your own research on Houdini using the books and websites available. Explore the websites in particular so that you are able to help students navigate through them when it comes time for them to use the websites during research.
  9. Bookmark the Essay Map interactive website.

Student Objectives

Students will

  • Gain an understanding of what to think about in order to comprehend text by demonstrating comprehension of the book The Houdini Box by Brian Selznick
  • Develop the skills necessary to complete all steps of the writing process
  • Learn how to communicate in an effective way by presenting their written work to an audience

Session 1

  1. Introduce The Houdini Box by singing the following Houdini Box chant as a transition to the group area for the read-aloud.

    Houdini Box chant:

    Box, box, Houdini Box
    Whatever is in the Houdini Box?
    Box, box, Houdini Box
    Open up the lid and see!

  2. Read the book aloud. Ask students questions throughout the read-aloud to get them thinking about the book. These questions should increase their comprehension and should include the following:
    • What do you think this book is about?
    • Remember to think about the connections you’re making while the book is being read aloud.
    • What does the main character, Victor, like to do? Who is he interested in?
    • Do you know what an iron milk can is?
    • Why does Brian Selznick not show us Harry Houdini’s face in the story?
    • Why do you think Mrs. Houdini is so sad?

    Show illustrations of Harry Houdini’s grave to students at the end of the read-aloud.
  3. Read the Author’s Note and article at the end of the story to show students that the story is based on real events and the Houdini Box might actually exist. Ask students what kind of genre they think this book is, and develop a definition for historical fiction (i.e., Historical fiction presents readers with a story that takes place during a notable period in history, usually during a significant event in that period. It often presents actual events from the point of view of fictional people living in that time period.)
  4. Explain the Comprehension Cube to students and show them the example box template that you prepared. Indicate that you want students to answer the questions on the box thoughtfully and correctly, and show students how to make the box by reviewing the steps on the printout.
  5. Sing the Houdini Box chant together while transitioning to desks to work on the Comprehension Cube. Ask students to fill out each side of the box and then cut, fold, and glue the box together. You should attach the fishing line or string to each student’s box; the fishing line or string should have a paperclip on the end that serves as a way to hang the boxes from the ceiling. When everyone is done, display the finished boxes in the classroom or send them home with students.
  6. Point out that there are books (Escape! The Story of the Great Houdini; Who Was Harry Houdini?; Harry Houdini for Kids: His Life and Adventures With 21 Magic Tricks and Illusions; and Harry Houdini: Young Magician) for students to look at if they want to learn more about Harry Houdini. Students can use sticky notes to mark important pages that may be helpful when they start their research during the next session.

Session 2

Note: Before this session, make copies of the important pages that students marked in the books you’ve made available for research.

  1. Organize students into groups of four or five, and ask them to select one person to be the recorder. Ask each group to come up with at least 10 items that could have been placed in Houdini’s box at the end of the story The Houdini Box.
  2. Bring the class together. Ask for responses from each group, and make a list of all of the items on chart paper. Then provide instruction on how to conduct research using the books that were set out during the first lesson, as well as the following websites::
  3. Inform students that the purpose of this research is to find out what the real Harry Houdini could have put in his Houdini Box, based on his life and the actual magic tricks he did. Explain to students that their goal is to use these ideas to become authors and write a new ending to The Houdini Box in which they reveal what they think Victor found in the Houdini Box at the end.
  4. Have students use scratch paper to write down any information they find during their research that can help them write their story endings in the next session.

Session 3

  1. Conduct a brief book walk through The Houdini Box to refresh students’ memories on what happened in the story. At the end of the story, point out that the ending leaves the reader wondering what could have been in the Houdini Box. Tell students that within the next couple of days, they are going to become authors by writing their own endings to The Houdini Box and revealing what was in the box.
  2. Have students focus on the drafting stage of the writing process. Model how to use the online Essay Map interactive. Remind students that their story endings should be well thought out and detailed and that the Essay Map encourages them to think about the details they want to include in their stories. Approve each student’s idea before he or she begins writing. Circulate around the room and provide assistance for students who need help filling out the Essay Map. Remind them that they should start their stories with Victor opening the Houdini Box.
  3. Once students are finished filling out their Essay Maps, ask them to either save or print them and use them to write the first draft of their story endings. The rest of the class time is for students to complete their first drafts. If needed, support struggling writers in a small-group session. For example, if some students need additional help with making their writing detailed, conduct a small-group session where they practice discerning the difference between two writing samples (that you came up with), one detailed and one vague. They can also work together to provide sufficient detail for the vague writing sample in order to make it specific. If students do not complete their first drafts, they can work on them during free time or take them home for homework.

Session 4

  1. During this session, students need to focus on revising and editing their first drafts. Encourage students to reread their story endings aloud a few times to ensure that they wrote down what they really want their story endings to say. Then, in front of the class, use one student’s story ending to demonstrate how to peer-edit a paper. Have students switch papers with classmates, read them, and discuss suggestions that they have.
  2. Remind students that the more detail a story includes, the more interesting it is for the reader. Have students revise and recopy their papers and hand them in.

Session 5

Note: Prior to this session, look over each student’s story ending, and make comments and suggestions for how it can be improved.

  1. Return the story endings to students for them to type up on a computer. Have each student print his or her story ending and create an illustration to go along with it. Students should then insert these items into three-ring plastic covers and put them in a three-ring binder to create a class book called Houdini Box Endings, representing the publishing step of the writing process.
  2. Assess each student’s work using the Story Writing Rubric: The Houdini Box Ending, which covers topics including the writing process, creativity, neatness, illustration quality, spelling, punctuation, and knowledge of the topic. If you’d like, you can read a few of these endings aloud at the end of this session to sum up this lesson. The class book of endings should be available in the classroom for students to look at whenever they have free time.


Student Assessment / Reflections

  • Have students participate in the read-aloud and discussion during the first session and complete the Comprehension Cube after the second to be sure they have understood The Houdini Box. Use your class list to check off each student who completes the worksheet to make sure you have evaluated everyone.
  • Observe students as they work through the steps of prewriting, drafting, editing, revising, and publishing their new endings to The Houdini Box to make sure they have developed all the skills involved in the writing process.
  • Use the Story Writing Rubric: The Houdini Box Ending to evaluate students on how effectively they produced a clear, detailed, and interesting story that communicates with an audience. Watch as students peer-edit each other’s work to see if you need to intervene with comments or suggestions to help them reach their ultimate goal of letting their audience know what they’re trying to say.

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