I've Got the Literacy Blues

9 - 12
Lesson Plan Type
Estimated Time
Six 45- to 60-minute sessions
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What are the blues? How can the blues be used to better understand a story's theme? Students will answer these questions in this lesson when they read O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi" and explore the story's themes using blues music, creative writing, and media study. Students begin by listening to several blues selections, reading essays about the blues, and discussing characteristics of blues music. Next, students build their background knowledge by conducting research and completing a graphic organizer about the blues. After researching the blues, students read "The Gift of the Magi" and identify the story's themes. They then make connections to their own lives by writing and performing blues poetry based on one of the themes from the story. As a final project, students create a mural to showcase their understanding of the story's themes as they apply to literature, music, poetry, and their own lives.

Featured Resources

From Theory to Practice

  • Popular culture is an excellent and often overlooked resource that should be used to enhance students' literacy skills, as students are exposed to music, film, video games, and television, but often do not explore, understand, or apply this media to their literacy lives.

  • Using the musical form of the blues can help improve students' critical reading, thinking, listening, discussing, and writing skills.

  • It is important to incorporate new forms of literacy, such as music and other elements of popular culture, into the classroom in order to better prepare students for the skills life demands.

Common Core Standards

This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.

State Standards

This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.

NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts

  • 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
  • 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
  • 5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
  • 7. Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and nonprint texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.
  • 8. Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.
  • 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
  • 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).

Materials and Technology

  • “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry [O. Henry. (1994). The Best Short Stories of O. Henry. New York: Modern Library.]

  • Materials for mural (e.g., chart paper, paint, crayons, markers, tape)




1. The Blues, which features brief audio excerpts of various blues artists. Scroll down the page to each of the songs listed below and click on "Listen." Make certain all computers have RealOne Player or other software downloaded for listening to the audio files. If not, follow instructions for downloading at the RealOne Player Download Center.

  • 1. "Lost Your Head Blues" (1926)
    Written and Performed by Bessie Smith

  • 8. "When Will I Get To Be Called A Man" (1957)
    Written and Performed by Big Bill Broonzy

  • 11. "Three O'Clock Blues" (1971)
    Performed by B.B. King
    Written by Riley B. King and Jules Bihari

  • 14. "The Other Woman" (2000)
    Performed by Shemekia Copeland
    Written by John Hahn and Joseph Anthony Hudson

  • 15. "Da Thrill is Gone from Here" (2002)
    Written and Performed by Chris Thomas King

2. Preview the essays What is the Blues? and Understanding the 12-Bar Blues. These essays will give you background information on the topic of the blues that will be helpful as you use this lesson.

3. Obtain copies of the short story "The Gift of the Magi" by O. Henry. If you cannot locate a print version, the story is also available online.

4. Preview the handouts and rubrics for this lesson to become familiar with the learning expectations. If you are not as familiar with this topic, you may also preview the websites listed on I've Got the Web Research Blues. Bookmark I've Got the Web Research Blues on student computers.

5. Gather supplies for creating a class mural. This may include chart paper, paint, crayons, markers, and tape.

6. Make sure that students are already familiar with interpreting literature and themes prior to completing these lesson activities.


Student Objectives

Students will

  • Work collaboratively in research groups to gather and evaluate information from multiple sources

  • Create a graphic organizer that synthesizes and summarizes information from varied sources

  • Analyze, interpret, and express the meaning of the short story "The Gift of the Magi"

  • Write a poem that expresses their understanding of one of the themes from "The Gift of the Magi" and uses the traditional call-and-response blues structure

  • Enact presentations of their poems that effectively express the connections between their life experiences and one of the story's themes

  • Create a mural that displays their understanding of the literary themes in the story through the use of literature, their own poetry, and popular culture

Session 1

The purpose of this session is to introduce students to varied aspects of the blues and to activate their prior knowledge on the subject.

1. Introduce students to The Blues website, which features brief audio excerpts of varied artists performing blues music. Scroll down the page to each of the songs listed in Preparation and click on "Listen" to share the musical selections with your students. Have students jot down their thoughts while listening to the music to prepare themselves for a class discussion.

2. After listening to the musical selections, discuss the following questions with the class:

  • Did you like what you heard?

  • Have you heard the blues before?

  • Are there places near where you live where live blues music is played?

  • What was your favorite selection? Why?

  • What was your least favorite selection? Why?

  • How did the music make you feel?

  • What kind of mood did the music evoke?

  • Does this music remind you of other kinds of music?

  • Why do you think this music is called the blues?

3. As a class, read the essay What is the Blues? As you read, encourage students to make predictions, ask questions, and make connections between what they already know about blues music and what they are learning as they read. What themes are typically associated with blues music? Are these same themes reflected in the works of other artists (e.g., writers, artists)? Can they make any connections to popular culture and the media? Record students' ideas on chart paper so you can revisit them later in the lesson.

4. As a class, read the information on Understanding the 12-Bar Blues. If you have students in the class who are musicians, ask them to help clarify the essay. Although this essay is somewhat complicated, it is important for students to understand that, like poetry, blues music has a specific structure. It is not necessary that students understand all the musical elements in the essay.

Session 2

The purpose of this session is to provide students with background knowledge on the topic of the blues and to teach them how to create and use a graphic organizer.

1. Divide the class into small research groups and provide each group with a copy of The Blues Graphic Organizer. If students are unfamiliar with a graphic organizer, tell them that it is a visual/spatial representation of information that will help them as they explore new information and the interrelationships among concepts. Tell students that the purpose for creating the graphic organizer is to help them to collect, record, and categorize information as they conduct research on the blues. Remind the class to use the handout as a model, and encourage them to modify it by adding additional shapes and text to show connections among the information they collect about the blues.

2. Have students access I've Got the Web Research Blues. Students can use these websites to begin researching the blues.

3. When students have finished creating their graphic organizers, ask each group to share their work with the class. Compare and discuss the differences among the groups' organizers. As you view each group's organizer, point out examples of how students connected information and furthered their understanding of the blues.

Session 3

The purpose of this session is to help students comprehend, interpret, and analyze a short story. Students are asked to determine a theme for the story and provide supporting examples from the text.

1. Tell students that there are many common themes in music, literature, and media. Review the list of themes that are associated with blues music and students' examples of how these themes are also incorporated by other artists (from Session 1).

2. Have students read the short story "The Gift of the Magi" by O. Henry. In this story, there are many themes. These include sacrifice, the power of love, and wisdom. Your goal is to help students generate themes from the reading and support their thoughts with specific examples from the text.

3. After the students are finished with the story, ask them to respond to the following writing prompt:
What do you think is the theme expressed in this story? Give a minimum of four examples from the text to support your theme.
4. Ask students to share the themes they identified. Make and post a class chart displaying students' themes.

Session 4

The purpose of this activity is to encourage students to express their understanding of a literary theme through poetry and the blues.

1. Tell students that it is important to reflect on the connections between their own lives and the literary themes that were reflected in "The Gift of the Magi."

2. During this session students will create a blues poem based on a theme from "The Gift of the Magi." The students' poems should use the traditional form of blues called "call-and-response," in which the first line is repeated as the "call" for help, and the final line is the "response" or the answer to the problem at hand. The last word of each line rhymes within each verse. Share the following Robert Johnson poems as examples of the "call-and-response" structure.

3. If you feel it will benefit your students, you may wish to create a class poem on an overhead prior to students writing individual poems.

4. Provide time for students to write individual poems connecting a personal experience with one of the themes they identified for "The Gift of the Magi." Remind students to use moods evoked by the blues as they create their poems.

5. Allow students to discuss and share drafts of their work with others. Encourage students' creativity.

6. If students need more time to finish their poems, have them complete the assignment as homework.

Session 5

The purpose of this activity is to help students enhance their understanding of a literary theme through listening to and performing poetry.

1. Host a class "Blues Poetry" reading where individuals read their poems aloud.

2. After each poem has been presented, ask students to think of examples from literature that share a theme with the poem. These may include poetry, short stories, novels, or essays that they have read. You may wish to help students reflect on examples from selections that you have read as a class, as well as works they have read outside class.

3. After students have finished presenting their poems, lead a class discussion using the following questions as a guide:

  • What were some of the common themes that the class poems expressed?

  • Why do you think there are connections between musical and poetic expression?

  • Why do you think there are connections between the themes expressed in your poetry and other literature that you have read?

  • How did expressing the themes of "The Gift of the Magi" through poetry enhance your understanding of the story?

  • How did using the structure and moods of blues music enhance your poetry and your presentation?

4. Have students brainstorm a list of examples from popular culture such as film, television, and other media that have themes similar to those expressed in their poetry. Post this list and continue to add examples to it throughout the year. Encourage students to focus on commonalities across different genres of expression.

Session 6

The purpose of this activity is for students to display their understanding of the literary themes in "The Gift for the Magi" by creating a class mural that features the students' blues poems and highlights the blues/literature theme connections.

1. Before creating the mural, brainstorm ideas about the elements present in a compelling mural. Ask students to think about what a mural can convey that other artistic representations cannot. The mural should be organized by literary themes and include examples of the students' poetry, the blues, and popular culture. Encourage students to be creative.

2. If possible, invite other members of the school and community to view students' work.


  • Ask students to create a page for a class blues book that includes biographical information, images, and songs of a blues artist. Students may select an artist from the following list or select a different blues artist of their own choosing:

  • After students have finished their research, compile their individual work into a class blues book. If possible, present this book to a class of younger students to introduce them to the blues.

  • Encourage students to set their blues poems to music. If possible, work with musicians in the school and community to develop and share students' creations.


Student Assessment / Reflections

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