The Thanksgiving holiday offers a unique opportunity for teaching students about actual historical events, and also various factors that affect perception of those events in the popular imagination.
Perhaps it is appropriate that lessons start with the very positive underlying themes of Thanksgiving: giving appreciation for family and that which sustains our lives together; the parable of two cultures coming together, with one helping the other in need.
At the same time, especially with older students, it is important to recognize the true history and context of Thanksgiving, and the fuller ramifications of that fateful meeting of cultures.
In today’s New York Times, Esther Storrie describes her inquiry-based approach to teaching about Thanksgiving:
I start by providing resources. A lot of resources from different points of view. The plan? Have students read, watch and learn for themselves. We ask questions like, “What is the traditional narrative of Thanksgiving?” and “How does the story change depending on who is telling it?” Along the way, I collaborate with classroom teachers to explicitly teach skills such as how to find the main idea of a text or how to define a word in context. As a team, we create a space and provide tools for genuine inquiry and critical thinking that applies to Thanksgiving as it applies across subject areas. When a child reading a picture book tells me, “This picture doesn’t show the real facts because the Wampanoag didn’t wear this kind of clothes,” that’s when we know we are shifting from memorizing names and dates to critical thinking.
Fortunately, there are some great resources out there for teaching about the first Thanksgiving. Plimoth Plantation, in Plymouth, MA, is a living history museum that strives to provide an authentic experience. For those who cannot travel to Plymouth, check out their Thanksgiving Interactive page, and resources page.
For teachers wanting to provide a Native American perspective, the National Museum of the American Indian is a great resource:
Most texts and supplementary materials portray Native Americans at the gathering as supporting players. They are depicted as nameless, faceless, generic “Indians” who merely shared a meal with the intrepid Pilgrims. The real story is much deeper, richer, and more nuanced. The Indians in attendance, the Wampanoag, played a lead role in this historic encounter, and they had been essential to the survival of the colonists during the newcomers’ first year. The Wampanoag were a people with a sophisticated society who had occupied the region for thousands of years. They had their own government, their own religious and philosophical beliefs, their own knowledge system, and their own culture. They were also a people for whom giving thanks was a part of daily life.
Of course, a Thanksgiving lesson would be incomplete without a discussion of the food! The Pilgrim Edward Winslow gives us a first-hand account:
“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others.”
Bringing it back to the present, I think Thanksgiving is the perfect time to be cooking locally-grown, regional foods, as well as providing lessons about the history of regional foods and preparations.