Authentic Lessons for 21st Century Learning

Motivations in "The Gift of the Magi"

Motivation in Characters 

Margaret Salesky, Daniel Schwarz | Published: September 7th, 2022 by K20 Center

  • Grade Level Grade Level 8th, 9th, 10th
  • Subject Subject English/Language Arts
  • Course Course American Literature
  • Time Frame Time Frame 150 minutes
  • Duration More 2-3 class periods


Students will evaluate what motivates people, especially as it relates to the main characters in “The Gift of the Magi.” As they read and listen to the story, students will identify thoughts and feelings that relate to the motivations and actions of the main characters. Students will also look for and create their own examples of selfless acts and altruism in our 21st-century world.

Essential Question(s)

What motivates people to take action? How do we determine selfless actions? 



Students view slideshow images of people to consider their emotions and motivations, then complete the first part of an "I Used to Think... But Now I Know" activity.


Students generate words or phrases that relate to different feelings and motivations people could have regarding their own actions.


Students listen to and follow along with the short story "The Gift of the Magi" by O. Henry and highlight words and phrases that relate to the emotions and motivations exhibited by the husband and wife in the story.


Students write an approximately one-page, modern version of the story.


Students submit their stories for evaluation and then revisit the slideshow images to consider how their initial thoughts about motivation have changed.


  • Lesson Slides (attached)

  • "The Gift of the Magi" by O. Henry (attached; one per student)

  • I Used to Think… But Now I Know handout (attached; one per student)

  • ABC Graffiti posters (one per group of 3-4) and colored markers (one color per group)

  • Pens/pencils

  • Student devices

  • Highlighters

  • Sticky easel pad

  • Markers

  • Permanent markers


Use the attached Lesson Slides to guide the instruction. Begin the lesson by displaying slide 2 and presenting the essential question to students.

Display slide 3, introduce the I Used to Think... But Now I Know activity, and pass out copies of the attached I Used to Think, But Now I Know handout. Proceed to show the students the images on slides 4–9. After each image, pause to give students time to write down an emotion or motivation they think influences the actions of the people in the image. They should write these in the "I Used to Think" column of their handouts. Once you have shown all of the images, display them a second time, pausing for the students to share out what they wrote down.


Display slide 10. Tell students they will now participate in an ABC Graffiti activity. Organize students into small groups, and present the following question to students: What are different thoughts and feelings that motivate people?

Provide each group with a different color of marker and a poster paper that lists the alphabet in two columns (one letter per row in each column). Make sure to provide room for students to write.

Display slide 11. Ask groups to write down words/phrases for as many letters on their posters as they can in the time provided using their prior knowledge of different motivations people could have for their actions. Give students an allotted amount of time, ideally 2–3 minutes. After time has expired, groups should rotate to the next poster and take their marker with them. They pick up where the last group left off in trying to fill out words and phrases for each letter. If they want, they can also add words and phrases to letters that were previously used. Once again, after the allotted time is up, invite groups to rotate again. After the third rotation, have students return to their seats.

Engage the whole class in a discussion about what they wrote or saw on the posters and what they identified about the nature of human motivation.


Display slide 12. Hand out copies of the attached story, "The Gift of the Magi" by O. Henry. Have students listen to the story. You can either read it aloud to them or play a read-aloud version of the story found on CommonLit.

As they listen, have students follow along in the text and use the Why-Lighting strategy to highlight and annotate instances when the main characters demonstrate their emotions and the factors that motivate them to take certain actions.


Display slide 14. Tell students they are going to use what they learned in the story and reflect on what it means to be selfless by putting the story into a real-world context for themselves. Instruct students to compose a short, one-page version of the story updated for the present day. Their writing can be a work of fiction, or it can be non-fiction based on a personal anecdote or a news story they have seen.


Ask students to submit their stories for evaluation. If time permits give students an option to read their stories out loud to the class or share through Google Classroom in order to get feedback from peers. You can use the attached Story Writing Rubric to evaluate students' writing.

Display slide 15. As a whole class, have students view the images they viewed at the start of the lesson. Display slides 16–21. Have students take out their I Used to Think... But Now I Know handouts. They will reflect again on the images and add to any thoughts they initially had. At this time, they can check to make sure the whole task is complete and submit their templates as a formative evaluation.