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If you are teaching “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry, you may be looking for tips and strategies for getting your students to dive deeper into the story. I’m excited to share my best tips for helping you navigate all elements of this festive tale with your students.
O. Henry’s story is about a young couple who, having very little money, struggle to buy each other the Christmas gifts they think one another deserves. Although “The Gift of the Magi” works well around Christmas, it can be read at any point in the year.
So, where to begin when teaching “The Gift of the Magi”? Below are some tips to bring this story to life for your middle or high school students.
Before introducing any short story to your students, I would suggest providing any context that students may need to fully understand the background of the story. When teaching “The Gift of the Magi,” I like to provide relevant information on a few elements of context in particular:
Start by giving students a little background information on the author himself. William Sidney Porter, known to us as O. Henry, was born in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1862 and wrote nearly 600 stories about life in America. Your students will be interested to know that he used this pen name, O. Henry, to hide from his readers his real identity and the fact that he spent time in prison for embezzlement.
In addition to O. Henry’s surprising background, I also like to give students some historical context for “The Gift of the Magi.” The story, which was published in 1906, is likely set in New York in the early 1900s. During that time, the mounting economic crisis in the country was made worse when the infamous San Francisco earthquake destroyed much of the city, leaving an enormous federal debt in its wake.
Finally, I give students context on the genre of the story. “The Gift of the Magi” is a parable—it uses a simple plotline (in this case, one about a couple buying Christmas gifts for each other) to make a broader moral point.
There are two pre-reading activities I like to do with students before having them dive into the story itself. The first activity involves reading a list of statements that relate to important themes in the story and getting students to stand up if they agree. Here are a couple of examples of the statements I use:
Then, I ask a series of pre-reading discussion questions that prompt students to make text-to-self connections. I use questions like “What is your most treasured item?” and “What does it mean to be selfless?”Both of these discussion activities get students engaged in the central ideas of the story before they even begin reading it.
Written in 1906, O. Henry’s story includes words that have since fallen out of fashion and are now just plain difficult. Because of this, I think it’s important to go over some of the challenging language ahead of time, and what better way to do this than with a game?
For the vocabulary game, students are placed into groups of 3 or 4 and are shown vocabulary words from the text. They will work with their group to write incorrect, but believable, definitions of the words. You will have the correct definitions on hand, and after each word, you will mix the wrong answers together with the right one. Read the definitions out loud, get students to guess the correct answer, and then repeat!
For each correct guess, the groups get one point. I also like to make it so that groups receive a point when made-up definition they wrote is chosen. This incentivizes students to make their definitions as believable as possible!
Once students have finished reading the story, you can give them reading response questions that get them to dive a little deeper into the text. For these questions, I like to focus on things like conflict, irony, and foreshadowing, which are important aspects of this story. You can have them answer these questions independently or in small groups. You might even get students to circulate the classroom and answer the questions on chart paper.
Next, I get students to go back to the story and use actual text evidence to support claims in the form of a scavenger hunt activity. For the first part of this activity, I provide a couple of claims about the story such as “Della and Jim struggle financially,” for example. I prompt students to find 3 quotes that prove this in text, and I get them to write these down.
For the second part of the activity, students need to write a well-structured paragraph to prove their evidence. Before they start writing, I find it beneficial to give them a handout that reminds them what makes for a strong paragraph (i.e. topic sentence, supporting details, concluding sentence).
Of course, the value of money has changed significantly since the publication of O. Henry’s story. In “The Gift of the Magi,” Jim and Della pay $8/week for their apartment. For the budgeting then and now activity, I get students to interview an adult with budgeting questions like “What things do you have to pay every single month?” and “What could $8 buy you now?”
Then, based on what they learned from this interview, I get students to compare the living expenses then to now and create a monthly budget for Jim and Della. Talking to an adult about finances is probably something your students don’t do very often, but doing so in this context will help your students gain perspective and make a real-world connection to the text.
At this point, I like to engage students in guided analysis. I divide the class into small groups, and I have them answer questions that prompt them to reflect on what are perhaps the most crucial aspects of “The Gift of the Magi.” I list the central themes of the story (like the power of sacrifice and selflessness, for example) as well as the symbolism and connections in the text. Once students have had the chance to reflect with their groups, I go over each of these important elements of the story with the whole class in some detail.
The last activity I like to do when teaching “The Gift of the Magi” engages students in creative writing. I give two creative activities to choose from. For both, I like to hand out graphic organizers to help them organize their thoughts as well as worksheets for writing for their final copies.
The first activity gets students to rewrite the story from Jim’s perspective. For this one, I ask students to imagine things like how Jim came to the decision to sell the watch and whether it was an easy decision, for example.
The second activity prompts students to rewrite the story in modern times. For this activity, they should consider how the characters will be different in this updated version of the story and what setting they will use.
There you have it! In my experience, teaching “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry is always an enjoyable experience. If you would like to grab a ready-to-teach bundle with all of the resources mentioned above, you can do so by clicking the button below.
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Looking for more stories like this one? Check out this blog post with my tips for teaching “All Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury.
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