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Jennifer Orr on Teaching Thanksgiving

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Nov 28 2010 Photo, Handy Plaid Turkey, October 30, 2010, patti haskins, Flickr
The Challenge of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a complicated holiday. As seen in most elementary schools, one would never guess that, however. Small children parade up and down the hallways in feather headdresses and construction paper hats with buckles. They trace their hands to make turkeys and color pictures of the Mayflower. The story we teach them is straightforward as well. Unfortunately, it's inaccurate. Very little of what we do in elementary schools regarding Thanksgiving is accurate.

We give credit to Pilgrims in New England with celebrating the first Thanksgiving in 1621. However, there were documented celebrations of thanksgiving in many other areas prior to this and likely many for which we have no documentation. Pilgrim children did not wear hats with buckles on them and Native Americans in New England did not wear feather headdresses. I don't think our elementary school children would be the only ones surprised by these facts.

Resources for Tackling the Challenge

There is no other holiday with which I struggle as much as I do with Thanksgiving. As a day to give thanks, to recognize all that we have, it is a day I love to share with students. When it comes to the actual history of Thanksgiving, it is much tougher. Attempting to help young children understand the realities of the interactions between settlers and Native Americans is a monumental task. It is also a task I don't believe to be developmentally appropriate for early elementary school students.

There are many wonderful places to look for useful information for planning lessons throughout the elementary years. Plimoth Plantation has several good resources. An interactive You are the Historian takes students through myths and facts, daily life for Pilgrims and Native Americans, and the lead-up to 1621. There are also several interesting articles about Thanksgiving. However, Berkeley Plantation on the James River in Virginia also claims to have celebrated the first official Thanksgiving.

For primary source resources, the Library of Congress has a collection that includes letters and proclamations about Thanksgiving, photographs of Thanksgiving celebrations, and paintings depicting artists' interpretations of the Plimoth Thanksgiving. For the history of Thanksgiving as a holiday the Smithsonian has a brief, well-written article.

As for my 1st graders, this year we'll be reading Eve Bunting's How Many Days to America? A Thanksgiving Story. This book tells the story of a young family hurriedly leaving a Caribbean nation, facing many challenges in an attempt to reach America. It's a beautiful tale of giving thanks. We'll share our reasons to be thankful and celebrate them.

I'd love to read more of your

I'd love to read more of your thoughts on balancing "developmentally appropriate" lessons for elementary school students with the tough realities of history. I gather that your curricular choice is to sidestep the clichés of Pilgrims and Indians, at least for 1st graders.

When and how can students begin to understand that English-Indigenous interactions were often disastrous for native peoples? How do elementary-education specialists teach that content without running afoul of more... patriotically-minded school administrators?

In response to the above

In response to the above question, honestly, I've been lucky to work with administrators who understood and agreed with my sentiments here. So it's hard for me to speak about how to handle that tricky situation.

When I taught fourth grade we did tackle the challenging ideas of early interactions between Native Americans and settlers. Those students were definitely ready to handle it. My second grade daughter has some idea about this (but that may be because she has a father who is a college history professor who can't let historical misconceptions slide). I would think that late second grade or third grade is a time when students can begin to understand this. It would help a lot, I think, if we presented history to students from a young age as something that is not set in stone. If students learned from the beginning that people interpret history in different ways they would be better equipped to tackle complex issues. Kids can get that idea pretty early. Everyone has had a time that they remembered an event (good or bad) differently than a family member or friend.

For many Americans,

For many Americans, Thanksgiving is a celebration, and I teach the holiday's history in that spirit. I acknowledge the tragedies of first contact between early European settlers and Indigenous Americans, but I focus my history narrative on Sarah Josepha Hale and Abraham Lincoln, who together initiated the first annual American Thanksgiving holiday in the middle of the Civil War, shortly after the Battle of Gettysburg.
Hale's abolitionist leanings, her story as a widow with five children to support, and her unstoppable letter campaign for a compassionately protected union, make a great story of triumph in the face of tragedy, hopefulness and thanksgiving. We read President Lincoln's Thanksgiving Proclamation, October 3, 1863, as a significant primary source. It's a great story for all ages, in keeping with the spirit of celebration.
There are many ways to talk about Indigenous Americans in American history in terms of American tragedy, our fixation with property and prosperity, sovereignty, and the uniqueness of federal Indian law. But when most of my students' minds are on turkey, pie, and family, I want to catch them with the power of history narration with the Hale-Lincoln story.

We read quite a few books,

We read quite a few books, and compared the way they put things so that students could realize that you can't just trust the way one book puts it. One book said what they ate, and then a video told us no one knows completely for sure, and we talked about how accounts from that time are unreliable, and why.

Maybe I'm teaching 2nd graders to be skeptics, but I just think it's worth knowing not to believe everything you hear. They love being history detectives and trying to figure out the real story.

Reading about Squanto's life helps to balance how good or bad Europeans were to the Native Americans, and it fit well with when we talked about Columbus Day (trying to break some preconceived notions there, too!).

What bothers me most about our celebrations of Thanksgiving, though, is that we still have people saying "Indian." Seriously? How many generations have we had to get it right?

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