Innovative practice - Stranger than fiction

Reference books weren't cool - until one teacher dreamed up The Encyclopedia of Strange Occurrences

Jana Christoffel

The background

A teacher at a comprehensive school in Hattingen, a town in northern Germany, was wondering how to get her pupils excited about encyclopedias, and at the same time improve their skills in visual presentation.

Numerous encyclopedias are available to children from kindergarten onwards. But Melanie Hoessel wondered if there might be topics missing that children wanted to know about.

She successfully applied for funding from the Landesprogramm NRW Kultur und Schule, a cultural programme run by the federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia, and started her project.

The project

Hoessel's idea was that a group of around a dozen 11- to 14-year-old pupils would write their own encyclopedia, and spend a year coming up with ideas.

However, when she asked them what they wanted to write their entries about, she realised that many of their imaginative proposals did not match the classical conception of an encyclopedia. The children were bursting with ideas, but they ranged from monsters under the bed to "school sickness" to a manual on how to feed a dragon.

Thus The Encyclopedia of Strange Occurrences (or Lexikon der Ungewoehnlichen Begebenheiten) was born. Hoessel says it was important for her to keep the project very flexible so it could match the children's interests. This was true of the book's design and its content.

Her initial idea had been that pupils would compile pages for a book, bind it themselves and use linocut, but this was discarded for something much more modern. They decided to set up a virtual book including text, photos and video clips. One boy produced an animation about his manual for fabulous creatures, while others found the unusual in the mundane: they filmed a classmate eating and then explained digestion with the aid of a torso from biology class.

The pupils are still working on completing the online book, and it will be available on the website

Tips from the scheme

"You need to have steady nerves. My pupils are clever but very wild," says Hoessel.

"If you have a creative project, you have to let go a bit. Trust them and you will be astonished by what they come up with," she adds.

Evidence that it works?

Hoessel says that the project gave the children the opportunity to discover creative elements in school lesson content. They learned how to develop an idea, structure it and transform it visually. They also learned of the history of encyclopedias and how to use an editing program.

The project

Approach: Creating The Encyclopedia of Strange Occurrences

Set up by: Melanie Hoessel, Landesprogramm NRW Kultur und Schule and the friends' association of Gesamtschule Hattingen

Location: Hattingen, Germany

Number of pupils taking part: About 12.

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Jana Christoffel

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