SpookyWeb Lesson Plans – Telling Stories with Ghosts

Teaching Ideas from author Raymond Bial

Are you looking for teaching materials that will not only engage your students, but also generate a sense of excitement? Here are several related lesson plans that will definitely enthuse your students. You may freely use any or all of these suggestions or adapt them to the particular needs of your students.

These projects are especially perfect for Halloween activities. But these lessons and activities are sure to engage the creative imagination of students throughout the year. The fun of reading, telling, and discovering spooky tales is something kids (of all ages) enjoy anytime, not just at Halloween!

Materials Needed: Some engaging, well-written ghost stories

Naturally, we recommend good short-stories collections such as The Fresh Grave & Other Ghostly Stories or its sequel, Dripping Blood Cave & Other Ghostly Stories, or novels such as The Ghost of Honeymoon Creek or Shadow Island: A Spooky Tale of Lake Superior.

There are other ghost stories that would work well, but take care to look for good children’s literature that will will foster interest in reading, writing, storytelling, family and community history, and language arts.

The stories may be used for several variations of lesson plans as described below.

Note: The most basic activities that you can undertake with your students is to read to them. So, for starters, you may simply want to read a good ghost story to your students. Among my fondest school memories was when our teacher paused in our work at the end of the day or on a Friday afternoon and read a short story or a chapter of a novel to us—often as a reward for our completing all our assignments. My wife and I often read to our children as they were growing up. As American poet and humorist Strickland Gillilan (1869–1954) stated in his poem “The Reading Mother,”

Richer than I you can never be—I had a mother who read to me.

Students are similarly enriched when their teachers read to them.

Lesson Plan 1

Not a Ghost of a Chance: Telling Scary Stories

Grades: 3 to 6
Duration: 4 to 6 days

Objectives:

  • To improve listening skills
  • To foster critical thinking skills
  • To develop writing skills
  • To engage children in the art of storytelling
  • To improve public speaking skills

Teacher Preparation:

  1. Read all or selected stories or chapters from one or more of the above-mentioned books.
  2. Choose one or more stories or chapters to read to your class.
Day 1

Introduction:

  1. Read your chosen story to the students.
  2. Lead a discussion about the particular story, along with ghost stories and storytelling in general.

Possible Questions for Discussion:

  • What is storytelling?
  • What makes a good story?
  • What makes a ghost story scary?)
  • What are the main points of the story?
Day 2

Have your students choose and read a short story from a collection such as The Fresh Grave or another ghost story of their choosing.

Day 3

Ask your students to write a summary of the story that they have read, emphasizing what they liked and disliked about the story. Have the students present their reports in class.

Day 4

Have your students make up and write their own fictional ghost story. Or as outlined in Lesson Plan 2 your students can become “ghost detectives” and ask family members or other grown-ups about ghost stories in their community.

Note: Your students will find some in-depth advice on writing ghost stories in the third lesson plan on “Ghost Stories and Language Arts.”

Day 5

Your students can then relate their stories—either to the entire class or in small groups of 3 or 4 students. After the reading, the other students can evaluate the stories and critique each other’s storytelling abilities.

Hint: to create a scary atmosphere for the storytelling, darken the room by dimming the lights and pulling the curtains. You can also provide your storytellers with a flashlight and play some dreary music in the background.

Optional Activities:

Your students can write their stories and illustrate them on a classroom computer. Your students can then print and bind their stories in books of their own design. Or all the stories may be printed, gathered, and bound in a classroom collection of ghost stories.

Working in groups, your students can also write their own scary script and record the reading on audiotape, CD, or computer.

Lesson Plan 2

Family Stories and Community History

Grades: 3 to 6 (may be readily adapted to middle and high school classes)
Duration: 4 to 6 days

If you wish to emphasize family and community history in your lesson plan, you can vary the assignment slightly—or a great deal. Instead of “making up” their own stories, students can become “ghost detectives” and ask their parents, grandparents, aunts, or uncles for any scary stories. Or they can relate one of their own experiences. Yikes!

This project can be readily broadened to encompass a deeper appreciation of family and community history as indicated by the questions suggested below.

Objectives:

  • To cultivate an interest in family and local history
  • To develop interviewing skills
  • To develop writing skills
  • To improve listening skills
  • To engage children in the art of storytelling
  • To develop public speaking skills

You can follow the same calendar as Lesson Plan 1, but in Day 1 and Day 2 you will need to emphasize the interview, which is key to any successful oral history project.

Family Stories: Overview

Definition:

In day one and possibly two, define family stories, which are true accounts about people, places, events, and objects related to the members of our families—including our ancestors. Passed down through the generations, these stories are often casually discussed around the dinner table, or remembered at family gatherings. Emphasize that these memorable stories of our loved ones are significant because they are true and personal. However, the stories are often lost.

Significance:

Point out that these stories are often family heirlooms in the heart, but not of the hand, because they are often not written down or otherwise recorded. So, in this assignment, your students will be making a significant gift to themselves and future generation of their families by collecting and preserving these stories. The stories can then be remembered and passed on.

Listening:

To collect family stories, your students must be good listeners. Good listeners encourage t storytelling by showing keen interest, giving full attention, and not interrupting the storyteller. Your students can express interest simply by body language: smiling and leaning forward. In the interview, encourage your students to quietly make notes.

Tape Recording:

Ideally your students should also have a tape recorder. They should make sure that the recorder works and that they have extra tapes. Your students should place the tape recorder in an inconspicuous place so that the storyteller doesn’t become self-conscious. As they are listening to the stories, your students should then concentrate on the storyteller—just glance at the recorder occasionally to make sure it is working. These recordings will be an enjoyable way to listen to the stories again in the voice of the storyteller—and a treasure that families may value long into the future.

Suggestions for Questions:

Emphasize that your students will need to ask good questions to help their family members, especially older people, remember stories. Grandparents often have clear long-term memory, but they may need a little prompting to get them started on a journey back in time so they can recall these priceless stories.

Your students can ask some general questions about as outline below and then ask more specific questions about scary places, people, events, and objects.

Possible Questions about Places:

Could you describe the house in which you lived when you were a child?

How do you remember the room in which you slept as a child?

Can you describe other houses in your neighborhood? Where there any houses that were believed to be haunted?

Where was your favorite place to visit when you were a child?

Where did you go to school? What was in your classrooms?

Where did you go to worship?

Where did you shop for food and clothes?

Where did you go for fun and games?

Where did you go if you wanted to hide?

Did any mysterious or unexplained events happen in your house or these other places—your school, church, parks, or shops? Were there any strange noises? Where you ever frightened in any of these places?

Questions about people:

Who lived with you in your house when you were a child?

How many brothers or sisters lived there?

Can you describe your father or mother as you remember them when you were a child?

Who visited your house when you were young?

Do you remember any relatives in particular? What about your grandparents, aunts, and uncles?

Who was in the most unusual person in your family?

Were there any strange or unexpected appearances in your home or neighborhood?

Questions about life events:

When did the first person in your family come to America? Where did they come from? Did they remember any strange experiences from the old country? How did they get here? Did anything unusual happen during their journey? Where did they live when they came here? Were there any mysteries about this place?

How did you earn a living when you were young? What was your first job? Did anything mysterious ever happen at your place of work?

What were your favorite holidays? Did you have special customs or foods on holidays? Did anything strange ever happen on any of these occasions?

Did you ever go on a vacation? Where? Who went with you? Do you recall anything unusual about any of these trips?

In these questions about events, your students can especially focus on life changes, such as births in the family, growing up, going to a new school, changing jobs, moving into new houses, getting married, and going to funerals in the family. About each of these events, your students can ask if their family member recalls a scary story or other mystery and ask the following questions:

  • Who was involved in this story?
  • What happened in the story?
  • Where and when did this story take place?
  • Why do you remember this story?
  • How did this story end?

Questions about objects:

To help a storyteller remember mysterious or scary events, it can be helpful to look at objects, especially photographs, which may be associated with a strange or scary story. Your students can look at family photographs or albums and then ask questions such as: Where was this photograph taken? Who took the picture? How were the people in the picture related? Why were they gathered at this moment? What were they doing?

Your students can also use household objects to prompt storytellers and ask questions such as: Who wore this jewelry? Why was it given? Did it mark a special occasion? Who used this recipe? Where did they live? How was it used? Where did you acquire this furniture?

Your students can then ask whether their grandparent or other family member could describe any scary story related to the place, person, event, or object.

Community History

Students can also broaden this project and become local historians by collecting ghost stories around town from grownups, especially librarians, museum historians, newspaper writers, and community leaders. These people can further suggest old people – such as Mr. Satterly, the gifted old-timer/storyteller in The Fresh Grave and Dripping Blood Cave – elders who have lived in their community for many years and seem to know all the scary stories.

To gain some background, you can ask your students to first learn some general information about the community. Suggest that your students visit the public library to read community histories and the historical museum to look at old photographs or artifacts. When was the town founded and by whom? How were the major streets named, including the street on which they live? Are there any interesting people or tales about these street names? Are there any scary places in town about which people tell stories? Any haunted houses? Are there any mysterious events?

Ask your students write their own version of a ghost story based on one of the tales that they have collected. In their stories, suggest that your students describe the town from the point of view of people who lived there at the time—fifty, a hundred, or more years ago.

Your students can then present their stories in class followed by discussion and critiquing as described in Lesson Plan 1.

Here are some possible questions for discussion:

Do you think this ghost story is true or not? Why? Why not?

Why do you think this particular story is remembered in your family or the community?

What would be other good ideas for scary stories that may have happened in real life?

Ask your students to discuss their personal beliefs about ghosts.

Do your students believe in ghosts or not? Do their families believe in ghosts?

Lesson 3

Ghost Stories and Language Arts

Grades: 3 to 6 (may be readily adapted to middle and high school classes)
Duration: 4 to 6 days

This lesson will build on your students’ love of scary stories in helping them to explore language arts—and significantly enhance their story writing skills. Your students will explore all the key story elements, notably theme, setting character, research, plot (including conflict and resolution), vocabulary, and revision through reading stories aloud, independent reading, and the writing of their own scary stories. While this lesson uses some of my own books, such as The Fresh Grave, Dripping Blood Cave, The Ghost of Honeymoon Creek, and Shadow Island as models, you can use any good scary stories.

You can follow the calendar of Lesson Plan 1, but emphasize language arts activities and advanced story writing skills based on ghost stories.

Objectives:

  • To improve listening skills
  • To foster critical thinking skills
  • To expand vocabulary
  • To learn about story elements
  • To significantly enhance story writing skills
  • To engage children in the art of storytelling
  • To improve public speaking skills

After reading one or more of the ghost stories from the recommended books, as outlined in Lesson Plan 1, you can discussion on the following questions:

Theme:

What is the theme, or main idea, of the story?

Was the story written for entertainment or did the author include a moral, or lesson?

Is theme important in ghost stories? Why or why not?

Setting:

Where and when did the story take place?

Why is this setting of the story important or not?

Does the setting help establish a mood, or atmosphere, in the story?

Was the tale scary or humorous, believable or farfetched?

How does the setting help make the story scary or not?

Characters:

How does the author describe the characters?

What are some key words about the characters that reveal their personalities?

How do you determine the main characters and villains through their thoughts, actions, and words?

Are the characters in the story interesting and unique?

What about the ghosts? Are they “appealing” characters, too?

How do the characters’ thoughts, words, and actions create fear, suspense, and other feelings in the story?

Did the author make you care about the characters and worry about what happens to them?

What did you like and dislike any of the characters?

Why are characters important in moving the story forward?

Research:

Do you think authors undertake research on fiction books that are “made up” instead of factual?

Why might research be important in ghost stories and mystery books?

Many fiction authors want their books to be factually accurate. Why do you think that they do so, even in books that are technically not true?

Does factual accuracy make the story more believable or not?

Story Structure/Plot:

What are the important parts of a ghost story, especially the beginning, the middle, and the end?

What are some ways to “hook” the reader’s interest at the beginning of a story?

What is the plot of the story? How does this plot unfold?

How did the writer build suspense in the story?

What is the conflict in the story? Why does a good story need conflict?

What is the climax, or high point, of the story?

What is the resolution, or conclusion, in the story?

Did the ghost story have a satisfying ending? Why or why not?

Writing Style and Vocabulary:

What is the writing style of the author?

Does the author emphasize long or short sentences?

Are there any unfamiliar words? What do they mean? How are they pronounced?

How does the author use spooky words, such as “haunted house” and “midnight,” and phrases, such as “creaky stairs” and “howling wind,” to describe the setting, establish a mood, and scare the reader?

How do the inner thoughts and dialogue of the characters show they are scared?

How does the author use words and phrases to show that characters are scared or that something scary is about to happen?

Revision:

Is it important to revise stories? Why or why not?

Do stories become more polished with each revision?

How often do you think that authors usually rewrite or revise their stories?

Hint: the recommended books in these lesson plans were revised at least ten and usually many more times. In school programs, I often emphasize that authors never finish a book, because a manuscript can always be further refined. They simply stop writing and send the work to their editor, who suggests even more revisions.

Writing Your Own Ghost Story

After analyzing the key elements of one or more of these scary stories, your students can apply their new knowledge by writing their own scary stories and presenting them to the class as outlined in the first lesson plan.

Students may wish to look at the 5 Ws and H of Writing (Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How) that is often taught in journalism classes.

Who:

These are the characters in the story. Encourage your students to get to know not only who their characters are, but also everything about them. Authors become so absorbed in their characters that they seem to “live with” them, as if they were real people—not just the “good guys,” but also the villains, including scary ghosts. Readers should come to care deeply about your main characters and what happens to them. By contrast, the ghosts and evil spirits must be not only threatening, but also terrifyingly dangerous.

What:

What is going to happen in your story? Better yet, what if  . . . what if your characters were trapped on a haunted island, as happened to the three girls in Shadow Island, or in other perilous places? What scary things could happen in this dangerous situation? If you’ve created good characters, they will drive the story by their actions. So drop your characters into a dangerous situation and see what happens to them and what they do in response. This builds conflict, which is essential to good stories.

Where and When:

Both the where and the when of a good story comprise the setting of a good story. The setting is essential to the mood of the story, which must be creepy, and better yet, even terrifying, although some scary stories can be very funny, too. It has to be not only a scary place, such as Shadow Island, but it must also occur at a spine-chilling time. This helps to give your story a frightening atmosphere—in the black of night or in the midst of a thunderstorm.

Why:

This is the theme of the story—which is where I actually begin my stories. Ask yourself why you are writing this story. Is it just for fun—to amuse or scare your friends? Or do you have a moral or message to share with others? To simply write an enjoyable story is more than enough reason for doing so. Yet in my stories I often like for my characters to learn something about themselves and a little about their families or communities. It’s always good to offer a small lesson or insight. Just don’t overdo it. No one likes preachy stories.

How:

Having gotten trapped in a dire situation, my characters must struggle to find their way out—if they are to have any chance of survival. Their struggles become the how of the story. Your characters must overcome one obstacle after another and resolve the conflict that began with their first getting ensnared in their dilemma. Your characters should get into even deeper trouble as they face one challenge after another—this builds suspense as your readers wonder what happens next as your characters struggle not only to solve the mystery, but also to save their lives.

Here are a Few More Story Writing Tips:

Writing Style:

Write in your own voice, just as you would tell a story. People sometimes think that they have to cultivate a formal writing style, but this is often stiff and boring—and hard to do. Your story will be more natural, original, and believable, if you simply write it in your own words, which is easier to do anyway.

Action:

You will need to describe your characters and the setting, but avoid the passive voice and concentrate on the active voice—and lots of action. You do have to pause to briefly describe the characters and the setting, but it’s best to slid in a few descriptive lines here and there, and then concentrate on keeping the story moving so that your story becomes a “page turner.” Intense action helps to build suspense, especially if the characters must escape before time runs out.

Plot:

I like to jump right into the action of a story, with my characters getting caught up in a scary dilemma from the first page—or at least having a sense of foreboding that something bad is going to happen to them. Your characters can then become increasingly entangled up to the climax, which is a do-or-die situation. They either solve the mystery or face their doom. If they fail, the story becomes a tragedy, but in most ghost stories, the characters eventually overcome all kinds of dangers and the story has a happy ending.

Revision:

Every time you read over and revise your story, it will become at least a little better. I often scratch out a first draft, not worrying about the whole story or making corrections—or even having every situation worked out. This way, the essence of your story flows out. You can then go back and fill in the details over several drafts. With computers, this is now much easier than it was in the past, and this technology has helped authors to write better stories and books.

Read:

The best and simplest way to improve your writing skills is to read other books. You will build your own vocabulary by reading the stories, novels, and nonfiction of other authors. You can also study their writing style and see how other authors write in their own unique voice. You may then become more confident about writing in your own words. As if by osmosis, by reading, you will easily become a better writer yourself—and enjoy a lot of good books in the process.

Lesson Plan Ideas by Raymond Bial, acclaimed author of more than 100 books for children and adults, including Amish Home, The Underground Railroad, Where Lincoln Walked, Nauvoo, Ellis Island, and others. His books of ghost stories for kids include Dripping Blood Cave, The Fresh Grave, The Ghost of Honeymoon Creek, and Shadow Island. He lives in Urbana, Illinois.