Why is this working?

One of my favourite writing “units” each year was teaching descriptive and narrative writing through the mysterious illustrations of “Harris Burdick”.  As the story goes, Harris Burdick was a man who brought some fantastic black and white illustrations to a meeting with a publisher named Peter Wenders.  Each detailed drawing contained a caption and a title (see below for an example).  Burdick left the pictures with the publisher and promised to return the next day with the stories that accompanied the drawings.  But he never returned.


The House on Maple Street:  It was a perfect lift-off.

Since then, children everywhere have been writing stories that go with the illustrations.  I have also come across the book “The Chronicles of Harris Burdick” by Chris Van Allsburg, where famous authors such as Gregory Maguire, Lois Lowry, Kate DiCamillo, Louis Sachar and Stephen King have written a story based on one of Burdick’s 14 images.  The book even contains an introduction by Lemony Snicket and his take on Burdick’s disapearance!  I’ve passed this on to many teachers I’ve worked with this year.  It’s a great way to connect reading and writing.  And is it ever engaging!


Last year, I had the pleasure of hearing Dave Burgess, author of “Teach Like a Pirate” speak at my school during a PD day.  It was an amazing session on increasing student engagement, teacher creativity and transforming yourself as an educator.  One of the questions he asked us was something along the lines of “What lesson do you have in your repertoire that people would pay tickets for?”.  For me, the Burdick one stuck out for sure.


I have been working on another engaging writing task recently.  It has been created collaboratively with a Grade 7 teacher for a tech project that we are involved in. Together, we crafted a very successful writing task.  One, I dare say, we could sell tickets for!

We began discussing how historical fiction is right in the middle of fiction and non-fiction.  It’s based on something that happened, but the gaps are filled with realistic details. One of my favourite discussions with this group was on the following quotes, taken from “Genre Connections” by Tanny McGregor (click on it to enlarge).  We asked them which quote resonated with them the most.


I modeled my own research process.  I showed them a few articles I had found and the details in the articles that inspired a story in me.  I shared some of my family history.  I shared my passion for this genre of literature.

We asked them to choose an event between 1750 and 1850 that they personally connected with this year.  They would then write their own historical fiction piece, demonstrating a person’s perspective on a significant historical event in this time period.  We gave them the task of writing their historical fiction piece in the style of “Choose Your Own Adventure”.  This is an idea that I learned about through Sylvia Duckworth on Twitter.  Students are using Google Forms for this.

We are only at the graphic organizer phase, but we have been blown away by a few things.  The first is the high level of student engagement.  This is a class that is normally very chatty.  But for this task, it has been silent and they are on task.  I know, I know, they are supposed to be learning from each other!  But I would also argue that “creativity requires solitude”.  Secondly, the level of historical detail they have provided in their stories is amazing.  Thirdly – they are researching and asking questions as they go.  They are not deep questions yet – most can be answered with Google.  While they are not collaboratively inquiring, they are using inquiry skills.  Lastly, they are being extremely creative.  To be honest,  I don’t know if I could be as creative as these students.  I hope to share a sample story here soon!

I have been reflecting about “SAMR” too.  It is a tool teachers can use to reflect on technology use.  Ideally, we should be aiming above the dotted line, creating tasks that are in the blue and green zone in the graphic below.


I feel like this project has helped us go above the dotted line.  We’re in the M/R region.  But the task is not just engaging because of the tech.

Next, I envision a grand conversation about perspective when looking at historical events.  Do we experience any of the same challenges people in Canada experienced in earlier times?  What types of developments permit us to respond to them in different ways than people did in the past? What connections can we make between their stories? What “truths” can we learn from this?

So what do these two lessons have in common that make them engaging?  In both cases, the quality of the writing is higher than usual, more work is handed in on time and students that are not normally engaged are much more productive.  Why do students connect with them?  Could it be that both tasks require creativity and that is what is engaging them?  Do both tasks provoke curiosity?  I’ve read that “curiosity and creativity are cousins” afterall…

What lesson do you have that students LOVE every year and that you could sell tickets for?  How can we ensure we do more of this?  What do you do to provoke curiosity and promote creativity?

I don’t think I’ve got it all figured out.  I’m rambling mostly.  Perhaps you can help me shed some light in the comment section below!

In case you are interested, Sylvia Duckworth’s instructions on how to do a “Choose Your Own Adventure” using Google forms can be found here:


One Response

  1. Edyta C. at |

    Thanks for sharing, Jen!

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