Teaching Thanksgiving: historically accurate and developmentally appropriate

For years I’ve known the story of “The First Thanksgiving” that I (and likely most of us) learned in school is historically inaccurate and white washed. It can be tricky to balance teaching the holiday, cute crafts, classroom/school traditions, and hard history especially in an early childhood setting. In the past, I have focused on thankfulness when teaching Thanksgiving in an effort to avoid teaching inaccurate history but still celebrate the holiday. I have also used the Scholastic News Thanksgiving issues to talk about Thanksgiving long ago and today but have realized they perpetuate problematic stereotypes of the first Thanksgiving story.

This year, I tried something different. I went out on a limb, took a risk, and attempted to discuss the truth behind Thanksgiving with my brave first graders. Our conversation focused around 2 images and the concept of myths.

Students looking at the images while they eat snack getting ready to discuss what they see.

North Carolina Department of Public Instruction has some really great resources for teaching culturally responsive instruction here. I used one article in their list for my lesson: The True Story of Thanksgiving from Muse Magazine. I read the article prior to teaching and used the images in the article to show my students. It isn’t an appropriate text for first graders to read on their own.

First I displayed this image on my Smartboard. There were laughs as soon as I put it up.

I used a protocol for students to turn and talk about the image. The protocol is very familiar to my students because we use it regularly. The protocol is called See, Think, Wonder. Students used the sentence starters, “I see…” “I think…” I wonder…” to discuss the image with a partner. Then I asked volunteers to share what they think is happening in the picture. The class agreed that it shows a big meal, probably Thanksgiving dinner. I asked for evidence that leads them to believe it was a gathering for a meal and they pointed out the big table, all the people, some food and drinks. Then I asked what was wrong and I’m sure you can imagine the laundry list. I guided them to discuss things like which season is it and how do you know, which holidays or celebrations are shown, who might the people be and why don’t we expect to see them together, does this look like the past or present and how can we tell. Each thing we discussed I invited students to point out evidence in the image to support what they were saying.

Next I introduced the concept of a myth as a story that some people think is true but isn’t and we noted that the above picture is a myth because it confuses holidays and seasons, the alien, it looks like its both past and present, and the penguin dancing on the tray.

Then I projected this image which is a portion of a famous painting depicting the First Thanksgiving that shows a very similar scene to the picture shown prior.

We followed the same protocol and discussion prompts: What do you see? What do you think? What do you wonder? What is happening in this image? What is wrong about the image? Students quickly stated this is an old Thanksgiving feast because of the clothes and the turkey on the tray. Things they noticed we wrong were the “judge” on the left side (their word) and what looks like snow on the ground by a red fall bush but the tree has green leaves. One student pointed out the Indigenous man at the table guessing maybe he doesn’t have a home. Which was a great opening to the first important myths about the image: this man does have a home, he is Indigenous meaning he lived on that land before the other people got there (We talked about Indigenous peoples rather than Columbus day in October), he was not the only Indigenous person at this meal there were actually more Indigenous people than there were English people. I briefly talked about how people usually refer to the 2 groups of people as Pilgrims and Indians but that we will call them English and Indigenous because it is more accurate. I then asked who looks like the helpers in this image? They guessed the English were the helpers because that’s what it looks like in the image – another myth. Actually a lot of the adult English people got sick and even died. Most of the English people at the feast would have been children and teenagers. The Indigenous people were the helpers and taught the English settlers how to live on the land. We also discussed the food in the image and the truth is that at this gathering the Indigenous and English wouldn’t have had turkey, they would have eaten fish, duck, venison, corn, and wheat based on the crops at the time. A student shouted out, “I bet the didn’t even call it Thanksgiving!” Yes little friend that is accurate.

We did discuss what happened after this meal, did the Indigenous and English remain friends? My students remembered from our discussion on Indigenous People’s Day that the settlers told them to leave the land and sent them away and were violent toward the Indigenous people. That is as far as we went with this part of the discussion.

I next gave my students the 2019 Thanksgiving issue of Scholastic News and asked them to cross out parts they through were myths. I challenged them to look at the images and read the text but most just looked at the images. Some kids crossed out everything assuming everything is a myth, some looked critically and asked questions of classmates and me. We reviewed the issue by discussing the parts that were historically accurate, things we know are myths, and some things I was unsure about. That’s where we ended the discussion.

Things I’ll do differently next time:

  • Tell my students up front we will be talking about something tricky that makes a lot of people nervous
  • More time for students to reflect on new learning
  • Talk about cultural appropriation and why it is not ok to dress up like Indigenous people
  • If I choose to use the scholastic news again, we will read it together so they analyze the text and not just the images.

I know that it is scary and uncomfortable to have these discussions with adults and I’m not going to lie, my stomach was in knots for the whole 45 minutes this discussion went on in my classroom with 6 year olds. Depending where you are in your journey toward educational equity and culturally responsive teaching you may need to just stop what you used to do and try something low risk.

Low risk ways to celebrate Thanksgiving :

  • STEM activities such as Balloons Over Broadway or How to catch a Turkey
  • Crafts like disguising a turkey (this can be extended using chatterpix to make a short video of kids telling why the turkey shouldn’t be captured)
  • Focusing on turkeys
  • Focusing on Thankfulness
  • Compare and contrast foods

Thank you for taking the time to read this. I’m still processing and reflecting on the conversation I had with my students. What feedback for growth do you have for me? How do you celebrate Thanksgiving in your classroom?

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