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Title Creation with the Mysteries of Harris Burdick

Personally, I think a title should be the last thing students write.  After all, how can they possibly know the best title for a piece of writing until they’ve finished writing it?  This activity, however, is not about giving stories titles at all; rather, it is about creating titles that are more creative and not so “on-the-nose.” (i.e. a story about a class trip entitled “The Class Trip”).  This isn’t really one lesson but a series of exercises that can be done every day for a week or two, 10-15 minutes at a stretch.   (I like these repeatable mini-lessons because I believe students, in the long run, remember the concepts better.)

The only thing you’ll need is The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg.  It might be the best book for creative writing activities out there, even though, strictly speaking, it’s not a book of creative writing activities.  Here’s the premise of this remarkable picture book: a series of fourteen sketches has been left behind by the fictional Harris Burdick; there were, reputedly, stories that went along with the pictures, but they’ve all been lost.  The book is composed of the sketches (duh) along with the titles of the stories and a brief, teasing description (for example, “THE SEVEN CHAIRS: The fifth one ended up in France”).

For more information—or to snag a copy—see the website below:

The website has some great ideas on how to use the book, most of which revolve around using the pictures as story prompts.  There’s nothing wrong with that; I’ve done it before, and it works great!  I prefer to use the book to focus on titles, however, like so:

Show the class a sketch on your overhead projector (or ladybug thingy) and let them generate their own title in their journals.  Talk about some of the choices they’ve come up with, and discuss whether or not they fall into the criteria for a good title:

  1. Does it grab the reader’s interest?
  2. Does it fit the story? (Or, in this case, picture.)

After this, reveal the “real” title of the picture.  Though the official title of each sketch shouldn’t be considered the “correct” answer, students tend to see it that way.  Oh well.

I continue this for a week, doing 2 or 3 pictures a day.  Some kids begin to add their own teaser sentences once they get the hang of things, though this will be difficult for students who aren’t so creative.  Throughout the course of the week, you will see their titles start to improve, which is pretty cool.

The follow-up project, however, is the really fun part.  Students draw their own “Harris Burdick” illustration (i.e. a picture based on a story that does not exist).  They also come up with a title and a teaser sentence, but they must keep this a secret (you probably see where this is going).

At this point, you simply re-do what you did the first week, except using the students’ illustrations as opposed to the ones from the book.  The artists love hearing the titles that their classmates generate, and the idea that a title should be as creative as the story itself gets emphasized over and over again!


Writing to Music

This is an exercise designed to help students practice a writing element that is very difficult to teach: tone.  Such an abstract skill might sound a little fancy for younger students, but even if they’re not quite ready to incorporate tone into their work they’ll still have fun doing the activity!

The first thing you need to do is pick out three to five different pieces of music, using the following rules:

  1. Do not use music with words!  It’s really hard to concentrate on writing while a disembodied voice is harmonizing about lost love and broken pick-up trucks.  It’s like trying to memorize a phone number while someone is shouting random numbers in your ear.  Thus…no words.
  2. Try to keep the music clips to three minutes max, so that the entire writing portion of the exercise takes no longer than 15 minutes.
  3. Choose pieces of music that are tonally dissimilar.  Movie soundtracks work great (though don’t pick something your students know, like Star Wars or Harry Potter).   You might start with a scary piece, and follow it with action music, and then romantic music…you get it.  Classical music works as well.   The important thing is the contrast from one piece to the other—you’ll see why when I explain the second part of the activity.  Also, kids think it’s hilarious when the music takes a sharp turn from something like The Cider House Rules to the The Omen, or Sense and Sensibility to God of War.

Come into class with your music mix all lined up, then have students take out their writing journals and tell them their goal: to match the TONE of their writing to the TONE of the music.  Depending on the age/ability of your class, this can be done through the start of an actual narrative or through a simple list of poetic images.  For example, during a more relaxing piece of music a student might write: “rain pattering against a window, my dog curling up at my feet, etc.”

Do not tell students the title of each piece of music beforehand, as that will influence their writing.  Instead, number each music clip, and make sure that each student labels his/her writing with the number that corresponds to the song.  After the writing session has been completed, students should each share one of their five entries, and the other students should try and guess the musical piece that inspired it.  That’s the fun part!

This is definitely a repeatable activity; all you have to do is change the music, and once students “get it” they will become more sharply focused on matching their writing tone to the musical tone.  When I was teaching sixth grade, some students even made their own “mixes” for the class to use during the activity, which was really cool.  You can also use this as a center—just add headphones!


Teaching Kids to Restate the Question in a Sorta Fun Way

Here’s what I mean by “restating the question”:

Question: What are the three major predators of kangaroos?
Correctly stated answer: The three major predators of kangaroos are people, dingoes, and crocodiles.
Incorrectly stated answer: People, dingoes, and crocodiles.

In short, answers should be expressed as complete sentences, but also give some sort of context for their existence. The way I explain it to my students is that any stranger, upon randomly picking up their work (as strangers are wont to do), should be able to understand the initial question by reading their answer. “People, dingoes, and crocodiles,” by itself, could be the answer to countless questions, such as “What are three species that should never be locked in a room together?”

Anyway, this is one of those annoying things that kids really should be doing but have trouble remembering, because it completely counters how real-live people talk:

BILL: How was your weekend?
MANDY: My weekend was fine. Did you watch anything interesting on TV?
BILL: Yes, I did watch something interesting on TV. It was the final episode of Breaking Bad. Did you see it?
MANDY: No, I did not see the final episode of Breaking Bad. I prefer The Vampire Diaries.
BILL: Why do you prefer The Vampire Diaries?
MANDY: I prefer The Vampire Diaries because…

Ugh—you get it. If people really talked like that we would never get to the important things in life, like chatting about your neighbor’s unfortunate new hairstyle and watching Ylvis videos on Youtube.

That being said, restating the question is actually an important skill for students to develop, if just to give them a more concrete reason to use complete sentences. Tired of constantly writing, “Restate the question!” over and over again on my students’ papers, I decided to make a creative writing center out of it. It’s kind of fun, too: Students are given completely ridiculous questions to answer, and their response is 100% correct as long as they restate the question and use proper punctuation.

For example:

Why do the houses of Planet Tyronial have so many extra chimneys?

ANSWER#1: The houses of Planet Tyronial have so many extra chimneys because there is so much pollution.

ANSWER#2: Because that’s where the Santa Claus clones live.

Answer#1 is correct because it restates the question. Answer#2—though a far more creative response—is wrong.

I attached a very simple worksheet; feel free to use it. Just change the questions if you use the center for more than one week. For enrichment, have students make up their own questions, or give them the answers and have them write the corresponding questions. Change it up!

It sounds crazy, but if you do this center consistently for a month or two, students will start to restate the question more often on legitimate exams. That’s been my experience, at least!

Restating the question


Describing A Gift Activity

Although I certainly teach structure and revision and all that important stuff, much of what I do in class involves writing exercises or games.  Above all, writing is supposed to be fun.

This exercise is to help hone descriptive skills. A lot of times my students have fantastic ideas, but aren’t able to view things from a reader’s perspective and successfully transmit what’s in their head. (“I know you know that Mindy is a dog, but you never actually write that Mindy is a dog.”)  At the start of this exercise, I tell them that a good writer can take what’s in his or her head and project it into a reader’s mind, so that the reader sees the same thing.

This project has four parts, and can be done over 1-2 days.

Part One

I tell the students to visualize a wrapped gift sitting on their desk.  I actually have them stare at their cleared desks and not look at me while I ask them some questions (this is particularly fun if your principal walks in the room while you’re doing it—everyone looks crazy).  How big is your gift?  How much does it weigh?  What color is the wrapping paper?  What does it feel like when you run your hand over it?  I like to do these visualization exercises with my students because so much of writing is taking the time to picture things in your head, and a lot of times they skip this part and go straight to writing.

After this, I hand out pre-cut squares of construction paper and ask students to draw the present on their desk, exactly as they saw it in their mind.  If you have writing offices, it’s a very good idea to put these up so the students can’t peek at each other’s work.

Part Two

Once this drawing is done, I ask students to describe the gift with just the right details, so that another person would be able to picture the exact same gift in his or her mind.  They write this description on a half-sheet of lined paper (if you want to use some kind of fancy paper, or the back of wrapping paper, more power to you—I’m pretty simple when it comes to the crafty portion of these exercises).  I might model this part for them first, writing a description with the class based on a common gift shown on the overhead/SmartBoard.

When they’re done, I collect everything, putting the drawings and writing in two separate piles.

Depending on the age of your class, this is where you might stop work for the day.

Part Three

Keeping the drawings hidden, I pass out the descriptions randomly, making sure that no one has his/her own work.  At this point, students have to draw a new gift, based solely on the description before them.   If they find that there’s not enough information to do so…too bad.  They cannot go and ask for clarification (in fact, the best way to do this is Secret Santa style with numbers or something so students do not even know the identity of their partner).

Part Four

This is the really fun part.  My kids love this.

Lay out the first set of illustrations across a large table.  Students should take their new illustration and try to find its twin, without consulting anyone else.  It’s a sort of assessment.  If the description was well written, the two illustrations can sometimes look eerily similar, even though they were drawn by two different students.  If there was not enough detail in the description, the writer will know it, because the gifts won’t look the same.

Part Five

Allow students to mill about and share for a bit—they’ll be excited to compare their illustrations.  Afterward, however, have a brief discussion about which descriptions “worked” and which did not.  Ask students what they could have added to their descriptions to create a better image in the reader’s head.

That’s pretty much it!  The thing I like about this activity is that it’s repeatable (with a different object, that is—pumpkins and houses work well). The second time you do it will be much faster since the kids already know the score, and they will be so excited to do it again, which is always a plus.  You can also use it as a center (the first week they draw the illustration and describe it, the following week they are given an illustration to describe).

Besides being fun, I find that this activity helps kids with the concept of “Just because it’s in my head doesn’t mean it’s on the paper”—and that’s an important one!


Introducing the Concept of Showing Vs. Telling

Writing can be somewhat overwhelming to teach because there are so many moving parts.  Structure. Punctuation. Grammar. Spelling. Word choice.  First drafts. Revision.  That’s just the tip of the iceberg, and I haven’t even touched on content. 

It’s a crazy mess of stuff for grown-ups to keep track of, let alone children!

In order to remain relatively sane as one of my third-grade students yet again forgets to capitalize the first letter of a sentence, I try to remember my two basic, yearlong goals.  In the end, if my third graders can do these two things, I’ll feel like I earned my keep:

  1. They should have the tools needed to generate content.  In other words, if students are given an assignment, they should know several techniques to help them mine ideas from their fertile little brains.
  2. They should be able to distinguish between a showing sentence and a telling sentence.

I feel strongly that number two needs to be emphasized throughout the year in order to create more proficient writers.   Kids naturally tell everything, but although we expect showing in their writing they aren’t going to understand the difference until it is made crystal clear to them.  (I find that telling a student to “add detail” is more ambiguous and frustrating than helpful—what we really want them to do is show.)

I use character traits to introduce the difference between showing and telling.  As a class, we come up with a name for a character—let’s say Mr. Mosher.  And then we tell a character trait about Mr. Mosher.  For example, “Mr. Mosher is friendly.”  The assignment is to show Mr. Mosher being friendly.  We do the first one together, and I point out how you can show Mr. Mosher being friendly either through dialogue, action, or thoughts.

“How was your weekend?” asked Mr. Mosher.  “I hope you had a chance to enjoy the nice weather!”  (dialogue)

Mr. Mosher held the door open for the woman pushing the baby stroller.  (action)

That man looks like he could use some help, thought Mr. Mosher.  (thoughts)

After this initial introduction, I give a “Mr. Mosher prompt” for the next two weeks (in lieu of a journal entry).  I write a telling sentence with a character trait on the board, and the students are expected to change it into a showing sentence.  Some of the character traits that work well for this exercise are:

  • bossy
  • curious
  • rude
  • picky
  • polite
  • funny
  • foolish
  • brave

As enrichment, more advanced students are expected to write three sentences using dialogue, action, and thought.  As a follow-up extension, students could settle on the character trait they think best describes their Mr. Mosher, and write a story about him.

From here, I start to introduce showing vs. telling in more complex ways, which I’m sure I’ll blog about in the future!


Welcome to my blog!

I’ve wanted to keep a blog for some time, but I’ve gone back and forth between writing about being a writer or writing about being a teacher. When it comes right down to it, however, I’m not sure that I have all that much to share about the actual day-to-day routine of being a writer. For me, it usually goes something like this:

1. Wake up at an absurdly early hour.

2. Try to make coffee without knocking something over.

3. Drink coffee while I check to see how badly the Mets lost last night.

4. Do absolutely useless internet things while the caffeine kicks in.

5. Wonder what I’m going to write.

6. Realize that wondering what I’m going to write is not actually writing.

7. Get more coffee.

8. Write.

Thus it goes, day in, day out. Not a lot of variety there.

However, I’d love to share some of the writing lessons I’ve used in class–the good ones, at least (as any teacher can tell you, they don’t all pan out). A lot of these can be done in a short, ten-minute period; I’m a big fan of writing exercises and fun little games. My goal is to write one blog entry a week at the minimum, and I hope all you teachers out there find something that you can use!