A simple lesson plan for Christmas, based on the classic short story by O. Henry. You can find the original story here (and on many other sites too) and an audio version with accompanying worksheets here at onestopenglish. The original text works well with advanced students, but it is a bit dense and archaic, so here’s another version, which can be adapted for almost any level.
Last year I used this story for a lesson with a group of mixed level teenagers. I had planned to used a simplified, modernised adaptation that I had written as a reading text. If you know O Henry, then you’ll know that all his tales have a twist in the tail. My plan was to get the students to read the story up until the twist and then write the end themselves. But I realised as I started to set up the lesson that the mood wasn’t right, that the class need energising and that the story wasn’t going to do it for them unless I injected some life into it. So I decided to “perform” it instead.
This is, more or less, as far as I can remember, how the class went.
Step 1 : setting up the story
I explained that I was going to tell them a story. I wrote the names of the main characters on the board, Jim and Della, and gave some background information about them. They’re young, they’re newly-married, they’re very much in love. But they’re poor. They live in New York, it’s the turn of the 20th century, it’s cold and snowing and very, very Christmassy. I did this in story-telling mode, hamming it up quite a lot. (once upon a time there were two people …. they were very, very much in love … ). I then explained that two key themes in the story are treasured possessions and perfect gifts. I explained that Delia’s most prized possession was her beautiful, long, red hair and that Jim’s most treasured possession was a pocket watch that he had inherited from his father. I asked them to think for a moment about what their most prized possessions were, prompting and giving examples until blank faces filled in. I asked them to quickly tell each other what they’d thought of. There were a lot of Blackberrys and iphones mentioned! But also a couple of pets, or a best friend.
I then asked them to write a sentence on a strip of paper explaining their idea of the perfect gift. I monitored and prompted and corrected where necessary and then we pooled ideas.
Step 2: story-telling
I explained that I was going to tell them the story and that they could interrupt and ask questions whenever they felt they wanted to. I referred to this text (The Gift of the Magi O. Henry) as I told the story, stopping to explain or embellish where necessary, paraphrasing and editing and miming to keep the students’ attention focused on me and the story. I twirled with Delia in front of her mirror, hesitated before opening the door to the hairdressers, stopped for a quick aside to explain that wigmakers bought real hair, shed a mock tear as I looked down at Delia’s imagined shorn locks on the floor. You get the idea! I’m not a performer outside the classroom. I’m quite shy of attention and the public eye, but in the classroom, performing and interpreting a story is different. And fun.
Step three: the twist in the tail
I stopped telling the story when it came to the crucial twist, when Jim hands Delia her present, when Delia hands Jim the tiny parcel she’s so carefully wrapped up for him. I handed out the copy of the story that I had been “reading” from, without the final paragraph ( separated by a line in the text in the link). I ask them to read the story so far and then to write the closing paragraph.
I must admit that at this point there was a slight dip in the attention, a small collective groan, but as they got into the writing the energy picked up again. As they finished their closing paragraphs I handed out the closing paragraph from my version and asked them to compare. They were generally pleased with the similarities.
Our time had come to an end. The one hour class was over. I wish I’d had time to ask them to read out their endings in story-teller mode. Maybe next time.
So, please feel free to use my text, or adapt it, or perform it. And if you do, I’d love to hear how it goes!