Standard Lesson

The Mysteries of Harris Burdick: Using Illustrations to Guide Writing

5 - 9
Lesson Plan Type
Standard Lesson
Estimated Time
Seven 50-minute sessions
  • Preview
  • |
  • Standards
  • |
  • Resources & Preparation
  • |
  • Instructional Plan
  • |
  • Related Resources
  • |
  • Comments


Mysteries are a great way to hook students into writing about fictional happenings. In this lesson, students engage themselves in The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by examining the illustrations in the book and choosing one for which to create a Mystery Cube and then a creative writing piece. Finally, students present their mysteries to the class and allow students to guess to which illustration their mystery corresponds.

Featured Resources

From Theory to Practice

In "Literacy in the Arts," Peggy Albers argues that "if we want children to represent meaning visually, musically, and/or dramatically, along with their written texts-in other words, to create a semiotic system-we have a responsibility to teach them how to create meaning in many sign systems" (8). Albers' work provides useful theoretical background to support offering students the opportunity to connect art, existing text, and their own writing in the classroom.

The NCTE Position Statement on Multimodal Literacies supports Albers' claims, noting that the "[i]ntegration of multiple modes of communication and expression can enhance or transform the meaning of the work beyond illustration or decoration." The implication for teachers and the students in their classrooms is the need to study and produce an "interplay of meaning-making systems."


Further Reading

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.
  • 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
  • 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
  • 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.
  • 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 Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg (regular or portfolio/poster-size edition)
  • Computers with internet access
  • Mystery Cube: This tool is used to help students develop outlines for their own
    mystery stories.



This learning activity helps students write a mystery step by step by following tips and suggestions from writer Joan Lowery Nixon.

This official site for the book includes a message from the author, Chris Van Allsburg, Readers’ Stories, and Tips for Writers.

Chris Van Allsburg’s author site includes a look inside the book, teacher resources, and a kids’ corner, as well as information about Van Allsburg and his other works.


  1. Locate The Mysteries of Harris Burdick in your classroom library, your local library, or a bookseller.  Familiarize yourself with the content and the images within the book.
  2. Test the Mystery Cube student interactive and make sure that you have the appropriate software installed for it to run effectively.  You will need computers with internet access for each student to use this interactive.  If computer accessibility is a problem, print a copy of the Mystery Cube and make enough copies for each student. If you need additional help with this interactive, please visit our Technical Help page.
  3. Make enough copies of the Mystery Cube Planning Sheet and the Mystery Writing Rubric for each student.

Student Objectives

Students will:

  • focus on illustrations within a book to help spark their imagination and ideas for creative writing.
  • develop their creative writing skills to plan, draft, edit, and write a final version of a mystery.
  • present their mystery to other students in the class for feedback and discussion.

Session One

  1. Introduce students to the idea of mystery and have a class discussion about mysteries that your students have read, written, or tried to solve.
  2. Explain to students that today they’ll be learning about The Mysteries of Harris Burdick and trying to solve the mysteries within the book.
  3. Begin reading the book aloud to your students, beginning with the Introduction.  After finishing the Introduction, read page-by-page through the book, pausing to show the pictures on each page and reading the title and caption that go with each image. You may choose to display large, poster-size images from the book, which are available in the portfolio edition of The Mysteries of Harris Burdick.
  4. Allow students to comment about each picture and caption as you read the book aloud to help spark their imagination for the writing they will be doing.

Session Two

  1. Explain to students that their job as detectives is to unravel the mystery from one of the pictures in this story. They must write a creative mystery that goes with an image of their choosing from the book.
  2. Tell students that once their stories are written, they will be read aloud to the class and the other students will be responsible for figuring out which image from the book their story represents.
  3. To prepare for writing, introduce students to the Mystery Cube student interactive. This tool will be used to help students develop outlines for their own mystery stories.
  4. Complete a Mystery Cube as a class to familiarize students with the tool and what is expected of them. Allow the class to choose one of the images in the book (and the caption that goes with it) for which to create the class Mystery Cube.
  5. Allow time for students to peruse the images in the book and/or the larger portfolio images to read the captions and decide on which image they’d like to write about.  After students have decided on an image to write about, they should begin brainstorming ideas for their story and using the Mystery Cube Planning Sheet to flesh out their ideas. They will use this information to create their Mystery Cube in the next session.
  6. If the Mystery Cube Planning Sheet is not completed during the time allowed, it needs to be finished out of class in preparation for the next session.

Session Three

  1. Take students to the library or computer lab and allow time for them to create their own Mystery Cube based on one of the stories from the book. Make sure students have their Mystery Cube Planning Sheet from the previous session to help guide them. If computer access is not readily available, you could print out the cube (prior to this session) and provide each student with a paper copy on which to write.
  2. Remind students to print their Mystery Cube when they are finished. This interactive is not able to be saved on the computer.
  3. Allow time for students to assemble their Mystery Cube. These will be used in the next session to help guide students as they begin their story writing.

Session Four

  1. Before starting the writing process, share the Mystery Writing Rubric with students and discuss how it will be used to assess their writing. Using the class Mystery Cube as a guide, write a short mystery as a class. This can be done on a computer (to be projected onto a screen), or written directly on an overhead projector.
  2. To show the how the students will be graded on their own mysteries, use the Mystery Writing Rubric to grade the rough draft that the class created together. Go through each section step by step and ask for/allow student input on what the score should be and why.
  3. Students should now understand what is expected of them for this writing assignment. They will begin writing their own mystery in the next session.

Session Five

  1. Students may begin writing their own mystery story. They should use their Mystery Cube and the Mystery Writing Rubric for guidance as they write.
  2. Once students are done with their first draft of their story, they may begin self-editing and peer-editing. They may use the Editing Checklist for Self- and Peer Editing to assist them and a partner when they are ready to edit.

Session Six

  1. Allow students to finish their self-editing and peer-editing from the previous session, using the Editing Checklist for Self- and Peer Editing. After their stories have been edited by themselves and a peer, students may begin writing their final draft of their mystery story.
  2. Their final draft should be completed prior to the next session. When students have completed their final draft, they should turn in their rough draft, completed Editing Checklist for Self- and Peer Editing, and their final draft for the teacher to check for completion of all of the steps. Return each student’s story to him/her before the next session begins.

Session Seven

  1. Display the images from The Mysteries of Harris Burdick in front of the class if you have poster-size images, or display one or more copies of the book.
  2. Organize a class read-aloud where each student is given the opportunity to read his/her story aloud to the rest of the class. Allow the other students in the class time to discuss/comment on each story and decide which image/caption from The Mysteries of Harris Burdick it belongs to.
  3. Use the Mystery Writing Rubric to assess students' creative stories and attention to detail.


  • Have students create their own Stapleless Book that is full of mysterious images and corresponding captions.  Students could then write stories to go with these images and captions, much as they did in the lesson.
  • Around Halloween time, have a classroom spook-session!  Invite other students and family members to come to your classroom for read alouds of the students’ mysteries.  Try reading these stories in the dark with only a flashlight and decorating your classroom like a haunted house!
  • Have students submit their stories to the Houghton Mifflin’s Harris Burdick Book Site.  New stories are posted each month, and periodically writers are selected at random to receive books autographed by Chris Van Allsburg and other Burdick-inspired items.

Student Assessment / Reflections

Add new comment