Lesson Ideas Archive

The Mysteries of Harris Burdick
Posted on November 24th 2010

A Short Story Unit With Endless Possibilities

If you are launching a short story unit for grade 6/7, this is a great way to spark imagination and creativity.

The Mysteries of Harris Burdick are a collection of fifteen strange  pictures, with a background story as eery as the images themselves.  The pictures, each with a short caption, were dropped off at a publishing house by the author, with promise of stories to follow.  The author never returned and the mystery of what the pictures mean is unsolved to this day.  The fifteenth picture was actually found years later, when the mirror of a deceased woman shattered in her attic and the image was found behind it.

The pictures can be interpreted to represent a variety of genres, such as fantasy, science fiction, and horror.  As such, you can engage a large number of students with the freedom to write in the style of their choice.


white Christmas lights (or fake candles), mysterious music (look for “meditation” or “celestial” music on YouTube), paper, short story unit plan


“The Mysteries of Harris Burdick” by Chris Van Allsuburg (available in large prints or in hardcover book)


1. Before school or during lunch mount the pictures on the wall, as if in an art gallery.  Write “The Mysteries of Harris Burdick” on the board and put up Christmas lights for “eery” effect around classroom.  Turn out the lights and start the music.  Have the students enter quietly and sit at their desks.  Read the story behind the pictures (comes in package) out loud.

2. Allow students to circulate and examine pictures in silence.

3. Tell the students they have the rest of the period to brainstorm story ideas for the pictures.  They can choose one image, a few, or all of them to inspire what will become a short story.  There are no rules for this brainstorm, but remind students of the different ways to get ideas on their paper (web, free write, list etc.).

4.  At the end of the brainstorm discuss the genres students are leaning towards.  They will be interested to learn the different ways the pictures were interpreted and how the music influenced their perception of the images.

*I had initially planned to run this “hook” for forty five minutes, however my students were so engaged in their brainstorm they begged for another half hour!

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