Looking for a Christmas Activity with “Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus”? This reading activity on the famous editorial from The Sun Newspaper, has students read and discuss the editorial. It’s a great way to introduce Santa Claus and the idea of the spirit of Christmas. Students discuss belief in Santa Claus and what Santa Claus symbolizes. Although focused on American views of Christmas, the activity definitely crosses cultural boundaries as every culture has imaginary characters, people who like to believe in magic, and others who think we should be more simplified.
- The original text of the “Yes Virginia” letter for more advanced students
- The simplified text of the “Yes Virginia” letter for beginners or lower level learners.
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 (The Sun) 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.
Give them the original text or simplified text. Have the students read it over and use the following comprehension questions to guide students and ensure they understood.
- Does 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, the author 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?
I hope you enjoyed this Christmas activity with “Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus”. Looking for more Christmas-themed reading lessons? Check out our Gift of the Magi Packet, a comprehensive packet of activities to teach the famous O. Henry story from every angle.
This 100+ page “Gift of the Magi” lesson and activity plan packet has taken me years to compile! I’m pretty proud of it!
“The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry 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. Many activities are differentiated so you can use them with different classes or multi-level classes!
The packet even includes assessment materials. Each resource comes with comprehensive teacher notes and answer keys.
Isn’t “The Gift of the Magi” Too Difficult for ESL Students?
Now when I tell teachers I love to teach “The Gift of the Magi” to my ESL students, I hear one thing over and over. Isn’t that story really hard?
No, actually! The story itself is pretty simple:
A 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.:
- 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.
- 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.
What Does This Packet Include?
- The original version of the story, untouched and unabridged. (From the Gutenberg Project-text in the public domain)
- The graded version, with some of the tougher vocabulary and turns of phrase simplified as well as explanatory footnotes for the more antiquated or obscure references.
- A brief one-paragraph summary and a scene-by-scene guide to the text that students could read as a simplified easy-to-read version.
- A word association warm-up where students brainstorm on the word “Gift”
- A quick vocab pre-teach activity to teach gift, pocket watch, watch chain, and hair comb. If students don’t picture the right kind of comb, the story can fall flat.
- Predicting vocabulary words meaning from context lesson plan.
- An extensive set of vocabulary activities to pre-teach 24 key words from the text.
- A thematic warm up on the moral of the story and the meaning of the magi. Students read the last paragraph closely and discuss the moral of the story. I love to start the lesson this way so that students can see the broader picture as they read.
- An alternate warm-up where students discuss what a wise gift is and compare wise things to valuable things. This gets at the heart of the theme of the story.
- A lesson on modelling critical reading skills, including ways of getting the gist of a story without knowing every word, lessons on forming questions and predicting as you read, and an unknown vocabulary prediction worksheet.
- Extensive comprehension questions to guide reading. There’s also a “Find the Phrase” activity to help students find examples of common themes in the story.
- Worksheet on the Scene to highlight the way the author sets the scene and establishes that Jim and Della are poor, but love each other very much.
- Character Study Sheets for Jim and Della, plus a fun creative activity to retell the story through another character’s eyes.
- A complete lesson on situational irony including what it is, how it works, and how it differs from coincidence or bad luck.
- Discussion Questions for students to dig deeper into the meaning of the text.
- Practice doing exegesis or deep passage analysis on selected quotations from the story.
- A set of essay and Creative Writing Topics
- Assessment tools in the form of various quizzes and tests, all in open-answer and multiple choice form.
This packet is designed for maximum flexibility and adaptability. Go through the whole packet and spend a week on this text alone. Or pick and choose the activities you like best. Follow the order of the packet for a great unit on this classic story. Or put together your own The Gift of the Magi lesson plan from the variety of activities included.
For a long preview, go to the Teachers Pay Teachers page and check it out for yourself.
This post describes one of the real historical mysteries discussed in our latest book, History’s Mysteries. This book includes 40 unsolved mysteries from history. Students read a text, discuss and analyze, do research on their own, and then complete a serious of projects designed to help them figure out what they think happened and why. In the process, they use critical thinking skills, academic research and writing skills, and get caught up in a fascinating story of intrigue! Read about the Osage Indian Murders and download a free unit teaching the Osage Indian Murders to try in your classroom!
The Osage Indian Murders or The Reign of Terror
One of the America’s most devastating unsolved historical mysteries involved oil, corruption, intrigue, over 100 murders and helped give birth to the FBI. And chances are you never heard a word about it, until now!
The Osage Indian tribe, like many Native American tribes had been forced off their native land and sent to a reservation, travelling the Trail of Tears to Kansas. However in due time, the US government again wanted to force the Osage off this land so they could develop the Midwest.
Coming to Oklahoma
In 1870 the tribe decided to buy dry and rocky land in Oklahoma. Their reasoning was that no one would want this land. No one would force them off of it. Life in Oklahoma was indeed hard. So it seemed an ironic, but well-deserved, blessing when oil was discovered on Osage land in 1894. The tribe decided to give headrights, the right to own and profit off the land, to all landowners. They paid a percentage of profits from the oil to everyone living on the reservation. This helped to enrich the whole tribe.
The richest people in the US
And there was quite a bit to go around! Checks given out to each member three times a year grew from $100 to $1000 ($13,000 in today’s money) to even higher as more oil was discovered and drilled. In 1923, alone it is estimated the tribe earned $30 million. That is the equivalent of $400 million today, making the members of the tribe the richest people on Earth! Unfortunately, that kind of money can bring a lot of problems.
Among other things, America was in the middle of The Great Depression, so people were envious of the Osage (But admired the Rockefellers and Gettys and white oil barons)! Under the guise of protecting the Osage, the US Congress passed a law that each Osage (50% or more of ‘native blood’) needed a court-appointed guardian. These guardians were usually white outsiders and they had total control over the money. The looting began immediately. Dozens of guardians were charged with corruption, but settled outside of court. Millions of stolen dollars were held by the guardian system and not returned!
The Reign of Terror
Then the killing started! In short order, 18 Osage and 3 outsiders were found dead, many connected to the first victim, Anna Brown. Brown’s mother had died so ownership of her estate was in limbo! At first, authorities called the deaths accidental, but it soon became clear that they were not. Local and state officials could not solve the murders or the web of fraud surrounding them! Possible the police were in on some of the corruption themselves.
So the tribe reached out to a new federal law enforcement branch, the FBI. At the time, this agency was called the Bureau of Investigations. It had little power or prestige. Their undercover operation investigating the Osage Indian murders helped put them on the map. They uncovered a web of contracted killings designed to eliminate members of the Osage and get their money! But many murders were never solved!
Can your students pick up where the FBI left off?
Download our free unit teaching the Osage Indian Murders below on Teacher Pay Teachers and try it out in the classroom!
Why use historical mysteries to teach English?
- Real historical mysteries are popular and engaging. There’s a reason that there are so many shows about them. Students are going to be motivated to read and discuss them, maybe be the one to solve the unsolved!
- When students study history, they are discussing events, using language to talk about cause and effect, order of events, pre-existing circumstances. And they are also expressing opinions and levels of certainty, all key language
- Analyzing a real unsolved mystery teaches key critical thinking, research, and analytical skills, important for academic work or civil life.
Check out the full lesson plan teaching the Osage Indian Murders.
A full unit with vocab exercise, warm-up questions, a reading, discussion questions, a history quiz, and writing and research projects.
Buy the whole book: History’s Mysteries
40 historical mysteries from all over the world covering a broad range of topics: unsolved crimes, strange disappearances, otherworldly events, conspiracies, strange ancient buildings!
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had students tell me that they don’t know how to be creative. They think creativity is a talent that you are born with or not. While it’s true that some people seem to be better at creativity than others, I really think being creative is more of a skill that can be practiced and honed. And not all our students need to be super creative all the time. However, creative thinking is a great life skill that helps with problem-solving. And in writing, even academic or professional writing, being able to come up with lots of different ideas is important. A creative person can communicate more effectively by being able to vary how the express themselves. What should we be doing to ensure we are building students‘ creativity?
The easiest way to help students be creative is to give them practice. And the best way to come up with good creative ideas is to come up with lots and lots of ideas. Many of those ideas will not be good. Creativity is really a percentage game.
So building students’ creativity is more about getting students to do the work and not putting obstacles in their way. That means doing lots of writing. It also means creating a classroom environment that is low-stress, experimentation-friendly, and failure-tolerant! There’s a time and a place for correcting students and doing more guided work, but generating ideas is not one of them.
Developing creativity also means avoiding prompts that can actually limit or stifle creativity. What characteristics do prompts that may limit creativity have? While every person and what inspires them is different, here are some of the things to look out for.
Limiting Student Creativity
- Repetitiveness: Teachers and materials writers (myself included) sometimes forget that students do more than one activity. How many times in a term are they asked their favorite color? Or a book they really like? Or even something like the kinds of things you can do in the summer. A story prompt like this might take the form of “You win a million dollars” or “You become President”. These questions may be fine for other reasons like a fluency practice, eliciting vocab, or practicing a grammar structure. However, the same old prompts can fall flat if you are trying to get students to be creative and come up with new ideas!
Note that younger learners may not mind this repetition, or may even like it. Most first-graders LOVE to tell you their favorite color, dinosaur, TV show, friend, food, and chair in the house. And their taste tends to change faster too!
- Limited Answers A lot of prompts and discussion questions really only have one answer. Take a question like, “Do you think protecting the environment is important?” Who is going to say no? Even something like, “Think of 3 reasons why protecting the environment is important,” is fairly limited.
Take a minute and think. I’ll bet you said: Save the animals, keep the air and water clean, preserve the planet for future generations. Or a variation on those three points.
- Expected Answers: In the same vein, a lot of our prompts have fairly predictable answers. If you do ask a student about saving the environment, and they answer that environmentalism is over-rated, or that the environment should be preserved for economic reasons, do you gently guide students back to the “right” answer? Or do your materials have leading questions that push them in one direction? If you give students a story about a conflict between friends, do you encourage them, intentionally or unintentionally, explicitly or implicitly, to write a happy ending where everyone gets along?
There is a time and a place for the predictable or expected. We should always allow students to write their true opinion, but it’s hard to be creative if students feel that one outcome is preferred or dispreferred.
- Too Open: On the other side, there’s the prompt that is too open or too out there and unpredictable. Some people think that being creative means getting really out there and surreal and random. “Write a story about a pencil eraser and a green squid with a mohawk” might inspire some, but many of us might struggle to put those things together, and come up with a reason why a squid has a mohawk. And it’s interesting that some modern children’s books that feature these kinds of wacky characters end up with fairly mundane framings. “Hi I’m Mr. Mohwak, the squid with a mohawk! Are you an eraser?” “Yeah, but I live in the ocean.” “Weird! Let’s get ice cream!”
I think there’s a time and place for these kinds of “be totally random” exercises, but it doesn’t always lead to productive creativity so much as randomness for the sake of being random.
So what does make a good prompt for building students’ creativity?
With the same caveat as above, that everyone is different and that there’s a time and a place for everything, good creative prompts are open enough to push students in a few different directions besides the obvious. A haunted house story holds open the possibility that the house really is haunted or that it’s a criminal hideout, or just a hoax.
Students also need support to fall back on. “Imagine you are a broom in Buckingham Palace” is pretty open and creative, but students may have a hard time imagining that. They know little about Buckingham Palace and the role of a broom can be pretty limited. Support can take the form of guiding questions such as, “What’s the weirdest thing you have to clean up?” or a longer story starter such as:
You are a broom in Buckingham Palace. Normally, you are used to sweep the kitchen and other rooms where the servants live. However, one day, the Queen calls for the maid who uses you.
“There is a huge mess in my bedroom. My crown has shattered into pieces. I need you to sweep up every piece so we can put it back together.”
How did the crown get shattered, what happens while you are sweeping up the pieces, and how can they fix a crown in tiny pieces?
Tell the rest of the story.
Now we have a plot and a location, but there’s still plenty left to the students’ imagination.
Finally, there should be no obvious direction the story has to go in. Sometimes this is implemented in the class. As a teacher, you can make it clear that students can write unexpected things. You can even do an opposite activity, where students have to write the opposite of what they naturally would, or twist the starter around. A romantic prompt turns into a thriller. A funny story starter turns into drama and so on.
Often the easiest way to help students be more creative and less likely to follow the obvious path is to design prompts that are outside the box! Instead of asking why nature is good, ask what would happen if we woke up to find all the trees dead. Or we lived in a world where recycling was illegal. Or make the prompt specific. Focus on a particular region or even species.
I hope this has given you something to think about when it comes to creative writing and building students’ creativity! Feel free to share your own creative prompts in the comments!
If you’re looking for some sample prompt ideas that are a bit outside the box, check out our books:
We also have individual downloadable, printable resources on Teachers Pay Teachers.
I was recently uploading more individual stories without end (from Taylor’s wonderful book) to Teachers Pay Teachers. One of the pieces of information you need to fill out there is how long the material will take to use. Well, the stories are designed to be adaptable so they can be used in one class period, or stretched out over several periods. There are a lot of ways to use Stories Without End in the classroom.
Obviously timing depends on the length of the story as well as the level of your learners, and how fast they read. In addition, there are a number of extension activities that you can choose to use or not. How you approach the vocabulary preview and the before you read question will also affect timing.
However, we’ve found teachers do fall into some standard patterns. There seem to be three ways to use Stories Without End in the classroom. But there are a few things every teacher should be doing:
- Have students keep a vocabulary notebook so they retain the new vocab they are exposed to.
- Give students all the time and support they need to read and comprehend the story.
- Align the time you given them writing with your expectations. If you’re using this as a filler activity, students can write a story in class, then revise for homework. On the other hand, if you want students to produce a polished story that will weigh into their grade significantly, they will need more time, the opportunity to write multiple drafts, and chances to get class and teacher feedback.
1. Some teachers do them in one 45-60 minute class period. This works best with the Short Takes (all of which are now up on our Teachers Pay Teachers Store). Students can go through the preview questions and the vocabulary as a class or in small groups.
Then have them move on to the story itself. Let them read individually and go around the room, as you provide support to anyone who needs it.
Let them thinking about the After you Read discussion questions, then go over them in groups or pairs. Finally, have them draft their ending with remaining class time to finish for homework.
This way is quick and doesn’t allow for much reflecting or editing, and it may be hard to fit in the extension activities. However, students get the benefits of reading and the practice in creative writing. You may want to use this quick method to generate a few drafts, then have students pick their best work to go back and revise for a final submission.
2. If you want to do the stories in 2-3 days, here’s a great way to do it!
Assign the Before you Read questions and the vocabulary for homework the night before. That way, students come in prepared to read.
In class, discuss the Before you Read questions. You can have students share their prepared answers in pairs or groups, go over them as a full-class, or have them interview each other and analyze the answers. Some questions even lend themselves to a short debate!
Ensure students are set on the vocabulary, and then have students read the stories in reading groups. That way, they can support each other’s comprehension. As class time permits, tackle the After You Read questions. For homework at the end of day one, have them draft an ending.
For day two, plan a writer’s workshop where students continue to work on their endings, revise them, provide peer feedback (and perhaps get feedback from you as well). You may want to continue working with the After You Read questions or tackle one of the other projects as well, depending on your time constraints.
3. Finally, it’s possible to stretch the book out and make it part of a longer lesson plan. To start with, for homework have students interview friends, family, host-families, or even the public about the Before You Read questions.
On the first day of class, students can discuss or debate the various opinions and ideas they’ve been exposed to. This can lead to a very deep reflection on the themes of the story and help students write a deeper ending when the time comes.
Another advantage of stretching out the activity is that you can spend some time doing vocabulary work. One of my favorite ways to teach new vocabulary is to have students work on the words in pairs, then use context sentences to guess the meanings, before going over them as a class. I then go on to give them a few activities in word-recognition. (You can purchase a whole vocabulary lesson plan framework here). You can then have students read the story in reading groups, as time permits. For homework, let them re-read the story individually.
On day 2, take time to address any questions or problems students have with comprehension. This might be a good time to cover any common mistakes with vocabulary or general misunderstandings about the story that you’ve been hearing.
Then have then look at the After You Read questions in pairs. Go over them as a class, or have students form new pairs/groups or two pairs, to discuss the questions. Students should be more than ready to come up with their own endings at this point. However, if you have the time, I love to introduce students to collective writing techniques.
In groups, students can do any or all of the following:
- brainstorm ideas together
- workshop each other’s ideas, giving advice and constructive criticism
- plot a group story, with everyone adding in their own ideas (a variation of Yes, And)
- Actually create a story as a group, orally or in written form.
- Do a story-writing game such as Exquisite Corpse.
Then for homework, students can pursue their own individual ideas, taking the best of the ideas they came up with in a group. Have students outline or write a draft to bring in on day three.
On day three, students can continue to work on their drafts, workshopping what they have written with a peer group and in a writing conference with you, the teacher. By the end of the day, students should have an excellent first draft which you can then take and provide detailed critiques of.
When students get their draft back (we’ll call this day four although it may not be consecutive), students can revise and produce a draft for homework. During class time, take on one of the extension projects such as dramatizing the story or writing a detailed summary. These make for excellent group projects that can fill a class session and be finalized for homework.
If you really want to extend the lesson out, when students have gotten their final drafts of their endings back, let them dramatize or videotape their completed stories. You may want to have students do this in groups, in which case they will have to choose whose ending to work with. So think about grouping students who wrote similar conclusions. To do a good job, dramatizing a script will take
- a planning period where students outline their drama (supplements provided in the back of the book)
- A script-writing period (or enough rehearsal time to be able to memorize their lines)
- A rehearsal period
- A performance period, where students perform for each other and/or videotape their creations.
- Evaluation, where they get feedback on their performances.
How do You Use Stories Without End in the classroom? Leave a comment or contact us and let us know!
For more posts about using Stories Without End in the classroom, check out:
And check out Stories Without End, as well as Taylor’s other innovative book, What Would You Do?