The Gift of the Magi Lesson Plan

watch-iconThis The Gift of the Magi lesson plan packet has taken me years to compile!

“The Gift of the Magi” is without a doubt one of my favorite short stories, especially for the Christmas season. I’ve been teaching it to my students for years, and now I’ve compiled 15 different “The Gift of the Magi” lesson plans, activities, and resources for you. It’s 108 pages of activities, handouts and worksheets that cover vocabulary, irony, the moral of the story, character analysis, close reading, critical reading skills, and a lot more. The packet even includes some assessment materials. Each resource comes with comprehensive teacher notes and answer keys.

Isn’t “The Gift of the Magi” Too Difficult for ESL Students?

The story itself is actually very simple:

hair-comb1A husband and wife are very much in love with each other. The wife has very beautiful hair that she loves very much. The husband has a pocket watch that he loves very much. They want to buy very nice Christmas presents for each other, but they don’t have much money. So, the wife sells her hair to get money. and buys a chain for the watch. Unfortunately, the husband sells his watch to buy the woman beautiful combs for her hair. Each one gives up the thing they love for the other one. While tragic, the story proves that the couple love each more than anything.

It’s a beautiful and touching story, a perfect example of how situational irony can work. But we don’t often do it in class, because it’s a difficult story. But it’s difficult for only two reasons, both of which I’ve addressed in my packet.:

  1. The references: There are references to things that may be unfamiliar to a modern-day student, especially one from another country. There are also allusions to the Bible and other sources in the story that students may not be familiar with. That’s why I’ve provided a lightly graded text with footnotes to explain the more obscure references and early 20th century items. This lesson pack also includes warm-up activities to get at the main theme and explain the references to the magi.
  2. The vocabulary: Let’s face it. O. Henry was a wordsmith and this story has a lot of words that are off the 200 most frequently used lists and the AWL. That’s why I’ve included:
  • A master list of those hard words for your reference.
  • More importantly, a fun quick vocab match to teach hair comb, pocket watch, watch chain, and gift.
  • There’s also an extensive vocabulary learning lesson plan which focuses on 24 words that students may not know, but which are fairly easy to explain, such as butcher and howl and platinum. Students use social learning methods to learn the meanings and then do a series of flashcard games to review them.
  • There’s also a lesson plan on predicting the meaning of difficult words in context, including figuring out how much you need to know about a word to follow the story. Keep students from looking up every single word they don’t know!
  • Finally a critical reading skills lesson models reading for the gist, focusing on words you do know and grasping the main idea without knowing every word.

Continue reading “The Gift of the Magi Lesson Plan”

Celebrate Holidays at School

Teaching EnglishCelebrate holidays at school with these awesome Christmas and New Year's holidays. just posted this question on Facebook about how to celebrate holidays at school.

With Christmas just around the corner, many of us are looking for ways to bring a festive spirit into our classrooms. Have you got any suggestions for class activities that can help us to animate the last days of term?
Thanks! Ann

Here are just a few quick and easy things you can do to bring the holidays into your classroom!

  1. Presents. Buy the students small gifts like a pencil for the final exam
  2. Bring in holiday snacks like hot chocolate or Christmas cookies
  3. Decorate your classroom.
  4. Have students decorate your classroom. Bring in instructions and turn it into  process essay practice.
  5. Write Christmas cards to your students. Include one highlight and one thing they can do better.
  6. Have students write Christmas cards to each other.
  7. Have students write New Year’s resolutions. And practice the future tenses.
  8. Have students choose a local charity and collect money from the school for it–that could involve writing advertising flyers, going to other classrooms and giving persuasive speeches, or selling crafts.
  9. Have students write a holiday memory. Turn it into a narrative essay.
  10. Read to students. Every day for a week read them A Christmas Carol or some other Christmas book.
  11. Watch the Charlie Brown movies. Here are some Charlie Brown specials lesson plans to help you do that.
  12. Do a Word of the Day Advent calendar!
  13. Have a gift swap
  14. Merit points for doing good things. The winner gets a small present from you.

Other ideas for quick and easy ways to give your classroom a holiday spirit?

Future Tenses and New Year's Resolutions

This is just an idea I had to use New Year’s resolutions to teach the future tense. That in and of itself is probably nothing new. However one major issue that many students have with talking about the future in English is distinguishing between when we use “going to do”, when we use “will do” and when we use present continuous, “I am doing”. So here’s a way to help them understand the difference. Of course, we should be careful not to present these distinctions as hard and fast rules. In actual practice, the three modes are interchangeable or come down to subjective differences. Often comprehension is the most important point. They need to understand that when someone says, “Italy is going to win the World Cup,” it means the speaker has some reason to believe this is so. When someone says, “Italy will win,” it more likely means the speaker wants Italy to win.

Warm Up: Presentation

Explain briefly, if necessary, the idea of New Year’s resolutions–plans that we make to improve ourselves in the upcoming year. Then write three New Year’s resolutions on the board. These may or may not be your real resolutions. Do make sure that at least one of them uses “will” and at least one uses “am going to”.

For example:

  1. I will quit smoking.
  2. I am going to be a better teacher.
  3. I will be a kinder person.

Point out that the second resolution has a different grammar form. Ask why that might be. If you don’t elicit it, then explain that you used “am going to be” because you have already taken steps toward this goal and you feel that it is achievable. You got some teaching books for Christmas, and you have been evaluating your old lessons. So there is some reason to believe that you are going to be a better teacher next year.

Explain that quitting smoking is very difficult. So while you want to achieve that goal, you don’t necessarily believe it will happen. And you haven’t really prepared for it at all. So there’s no reason now to believe that you will quit smoking, but you really want to, and you are going to try.

This lesson has now moved to my Teacher’s Pay Teacher store. You can preview, purchase, and download New Year’s Resolutions and the Future Tense Lesson Plan there. It includes controlled practice, a verb tense worksheet, and a fun worksheet for students to write their own resolutions on with complete Teacher’s Notes and Extension Ideas. So check it out!


Christmas Tree Ornament

A Christmas lesson plan that discusses the American Santa Claus and his counterparts in other parts of the world. Since I teach in the post-Soviet Union, where Ded Moroz, or Grandfather Frost, brings presents on New Year’s Day and has some other differences, I thought a comparison of Kazakhstan’s holiday traditions and American traditions was a good introduction to Christmas. But of course, you could compare American Santa Claus and Sinterklass or other variations in your students’ cultures.


  • To discuss New Year’s and Christmas and other winter holidays
  • To promote fluency
  • To activate, elicit and teach Christmas vocabulary
  • To discuss the culture and traditions of Christmas in the West in a comparative context


Warm Up

Santa ClausShow them a picture of Santa Claus and ask them who it is. Then ask them what they know about Santa Claus. Don’t correct them at this point, let them discuss among themselves everything they know about Santa Claus and Christmas.


Now put a table up on the board with 3 columns. In the first column, write questions like:
When does he come?
What does he bring?
How does he get in the house?
How does he travel?
Where does he live?
Does he have family?
Who helps him?
How does he know what you want?
What does he wear?

On top of column one, write Santa Claus and on top of column two, write Ded Moroz or Sinterklass or whatever. Now discuss the answers to the questions as a class. Alternatively have students read the text, About Santa, and find the answers themselves. You could write up similar texts for Ded Moroz or other variations of Santa Claus and do a jigsaw reading where students in small groups read one text and then tell the other students about it.

Vocabulary Review

To reinforce vocabulary, hand out the Christmas flashcards. I recommend using only the flashcards that relate to Santa, and the words that came up in the lesson (North Pole, reindeer, presents, sleigh, chimney, fireplace/stockings, elves and so on). Call out a word and ask students to show you the picture of that word. Alternatively, use the word in a sentence or for higher level classes, give a definition or description of the word (How does Santa get into the house?). Get students to cycle through all the words.

Filler Questions

As part of the warm-up or as a closing, you can ask students what they want for Christmas or New Years, if they believe in Santa Claus, how old they were when they stopped believing, the best gift they ever got from Santa, the worst gift they ever got. You can also ask about family traditions, and what they are looking forward to doing for the holidays.

Inappropriate Christmas Lessons

Just an idea that was brewing in my mind. Spending so much time trying to adapt materials to different levels and pull pedagogical use out of them sometimes makes you a bit crazy. Or at least you realize that it would be just as easy to come up with terrible and offensive questions and activities as it would to come up with appropriate and useful ones. So here are a few Christmas lessons you probably shouldn’t use with your students.

  • Listening: The Kinks “Father Christmas” Discuss: Have you ever beaten up a department store Santa Claus? Would you like a machine gun for Christmas? Why or Why Not? Who would you shoot? Does your Dad have a job? If not, what is wrong with him?
  • Reading: “Why Santa Claus Definitely Does Not Exist” for young learners only. Discuss why children are too stupid to realize that Santa couldn’t possibly be real. Discuss how lying to children about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny is really a form of psychological child abuse. Elicit that parents who promote these myths should be put in prison. Homework: Have students video tape their parents putting the presents under the tree.
  • Listening: The Who “Christmas” Discuss the true meaning of Christmas. Elicit that Jesus was born to save our souls. Discuss: Will disabled people go to hell? Will people who don’t go to church or read the Bible also go to hell? Note that if you have a class with students from different cultures and religions you may have to emphasize that their beliefs are definitely wrong. Could be used as part of a longer unit on bullying cousins, pedophile uncles and using drugs to forget your problems.
  • Content-based ESL: Economics Have students look up the market price of reindeer meat in at least 3 different places. Hand out worksheet, “How Much is Ruldolph Worth Dead?” Have students calculate the weight of Santa’s reindeer and the total market value of their meat. Discuss: Wouldn’t Santa make a better profit if he ran a reindeer meat farm?
  • Listening: “Winter Wonderland” Discuss: Do you have a boyfriend or girlfriend? Why or Why not? If you are alone, is it depressing to be alone over the holidays? Focus students’ attention on the line “He’ll say, ‘Are you married?’ We’ll say, ‘No, man.'” Are people who are dating outside of wedlock bad? Should society take a more active role in shaming people who date but aren’t married? How could you pressure people to get married?For homework students should plan their revenge on the children who knocked down the snowman.

Any other contributions?

Yes Virginia There is a Santa Claus

A reading lesson plan on the famous editorial from The Sun Newspaper, “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus”. Students discuss whether they believe in Santa Claus and what Santa Claus symbolizes. It’s great for introducing Santa and the spirit of Christmas and it definitely crosses cultural boundaries as every culture has imaginary characters.


Warm Up

Ask students if they believe in Santa Claus. Chances are, they will say no.
Ask they why not and if they ever believed in Santa Claus. See if you can elicit any good stories about how they came to not believe. Did they see their parents putting the presents out? Did their friends tell them? Or an older brother?

Now ask why little children believe? Follow up by asking if it is important for children to believe in Santa Claus or is it better to tell them the truth, that Santa Claus is not real?

Now, ask about the symbol of Santa Claus and the Christmas/holiday spirit. What does Santa Claus stand for? Try to elicit the spirit of giving, kindness to others, happiness, childlike qualities, magic. Ask if they believe in those qualities?

Introducing the Editorial

Now introduce the article. Wikipedia actually has a nice introduction that you can adapt:

In 1897, Dr. Philip O’Hanlon, a coroner’s assistant on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, was asked by his then eight-year-old daughter, Virginia (1889–1971), whether Santa Claus really existed. Virginia O’Hanlon had begun to doubt there was a Santa Claus, because her friends had told her that he did not exist.
Dr. O’Hanlon suggested she write to The Sun, a prominent New York City newspaper at the time, assuring her that “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.” While he may have been buck passing, he unwittingly gave one of the paper’s editors, Francis Pharcellus Church, an opportunity to rise above the simple question, and address the philosophical issues behind it.

Church was a war correspondent during the American Civil War, a time which saw great suffering and a corresponding lack of hope and faith in much of society. Although the paper ran the editorial in the seventh place on the editorial page, below even an editorial on the newly invented “chainless bicycle”, its message was very moving to many people who read it. More than a century later it remains the most reprinted editorial ever to run in any newspaper in the English language.

You might tell them the first part, that this little girl wrote to a famous newspaper to ask if Santa Claus was real or not. Ask what they think the newspaper did with the letter. Then tell them that the editor decided to answer the letter. Ask what they think he said.

The Text

Give them the original or simplified text.

Have the students read it over. Check comprehension by asking if the editor believes in the person of Santa Claus? What exactly does he mean by saying that Santa Claus is real? Why does he talk about hiring men to watch chimneys? What does he say about a baby rattle (or in the simplified version, a car)?

You might at this point mention the fact that Church had been a war correspondent and that he felt the country had become very depressed and cynical. Discuss what the students think about this article. Do they agree with it? Was it a good answer? Would it have been better to tell Virginia the truth?


Now ask if they have changed their minds about any of the questions you discussed in the warm up. Have some of your students become less cynical?

It's a Wonderful Outline

I’m sharing  my detailed notes on showing It’s a Wonderful Life in class. Once upon a time, I had four days of extra class days around the holidays and I planned to show It’s a Wonderful Life in class–it takes four classes to cover it since it’s a good two hours long and presumably you want to do some kind of discussion.

What happened is,  I was working in Kazakhstan where Christmas isn’t celebrated but New Year’s is. So the students had their final exams during Christmastime, but I was teaching on a independent contract and so I was expected to teach X number of class-hours. To fulfill that contract, I was going to have to have classes while students were taking exams. I thought that there was no way students would want to learn anything. So I thought we could watch a long movie and discuss it and discuss American Christmas and have some fun.

In the end, the extra classes got cancelled. However I still have the notes on It’s a Wonderful Life and I thought someone might need to  use them. It includes a summary of the film, a list of characters, and notes on the whole film broken down by scene with every scene including running time, elapsed time, brief summary of the action, and key vocabulary or cultural notes students may need.

There are no comprehension questions or discussion questions or anything of that matter. I don’t want anyone confused about what this is. It’s a detailed outline that you can use to select scenes to watch with your class, or help you guide students through the film.

I’d be curious if anyone ever does use this for any purpose at all.