Gift Of Words

The Perfect Classroom Gift: A Gift of Words
by Jane Hancock

I belong to a book club, one that has continued since 1990. Think of all the books we have read together. And we’re serious about this, too. We’re not one of those clubs that gather together to eat and then never talk about the book. We talk about the book.

One month a year we read a play out loud — assign parts, read from beginning to end. We are not a group of actors and it’s a cold reading, but we enjoy it. Sometimes we read and then go to the play; sometimes we see the play first and then read. Both work.

Once a year, in December, we each buy a book of poetry, mark in some way a poem or two that we particularly like, wrap it attractively and bring it to book club. We have this crazy little ritual where we put all the books on the dining room table and then walk around the table. At some unknown signal that we all recognize we stop and take the package in front of us. And then we open our gifts, one at a time, and read the chosen poem out loud to the whole group. What a wonderful evening of words, a breathless barrage of ideas, images, stories. We enjoy meeting our old favorites, delight in exploring new poets. We go home fulfilled.

Twenty-two years equals 220 books read, 22 plays acted out, and 22 evenings of poetry.

In the Classroom
“How can I replicate this poetry experience in my classroom?” I wondered as I drove home that first December of the book club. “I can’t ask my students to spend 10 dollars or more but they have to experience what I just experienced.” And out of that came what I call “the gift of words.”

Okay, class, here’s what I want you to bring to class with you on the last day of school before winter break. I want you to find a poem, a saying, a paragraph you like — something that speaks to you because of its message, its beauty, its format. I want you to copy it onto a piece of paper, put it into a box, wrap it, and bring it to class. Be sure to include, before you wrap it, the name of the author and your name as the giver.

When the day came, students placed their packages on my desk. They varied from huge to tiny, from carefully wrapped to hurriedly tossed together. And yes, there were those who forgot, who scribbled “Just do it” on a piece of notebook paper, folded it like a paper football, and added it to the pile. I provided a few extra, just in case.

How to start. “Whose birthday is closest to Christmas? Okay, you’re first. Pick any present you want.” Suspense. What would she get? I was not disappointed. The contents varied — favorites from “Where the Sidewalk Ends” by Shel Silverstein to Bible verses, song lyrics, and short sayings like “Just do it.” The experiment was a success. Everyone in the class had a gift and I had the greatest gift of all.

With Adults
Since that December in 1990 the idea of a gift of words has spread out of the classroom — into professional development meetings, into family gatherings. When Center X at UCLA wanted to “celebrate” my pseudo-retirement, my first words were, “No gifts.” “How about a gift of words?” was their response.

And that is what I received: a basketful of little boxes, beautifully packaged, each holding a precious gift — words just for me. I savor each message. My favorite was by James Michener: “I love writing. I love the swirl and the swing of words as they tangle with human emotions.”

I have watched the words swirl and swing in my book club, in my classroom, in my writing groups. I could not ask for a better gift.