How Does the TT Community Teach Thanksgiving?

As you consider addressing Thanksgiving in your classroom, the approaches of the educators in our community offer great places to start.

You probably have vivid memories of school festivities surrounding Thanksgiving. Maybe you traced your hand to create a turkey-shaped masterpiece. Perhaps you participated in a school play illustrating a harmonious meal between the Pilgrims and a gathering of generic “Indians.” It may have felt magical at the time, but for social justice educators, this simple tale of fellowship and goodwill leaves far too much of the surrounding story untold. Some find it so hard to reconcile that they don’t teach about it at all.

We wanted to learn more about how socially conscious educators negotiate teaching about a popular holiday with a troubling origin story, so we surveyed the experts: the Teaching Tolerance community! Respondents shared a number of valuable titles that go beyond the traditional “first Thanksgiving” story. In addition to recommended online resources from the History Channel, Discovery Education, PBS and Scholastic, here are some of our favorite suggestions from the poll:

  • Giving Thanks: A Native American Good Morning Message by Chief Jake Swamp, illustrated by Erwin Printup Jr.
  • Encounter by Jane Yolen, illustrated by David Shannon
  • 1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving by Catherine O'Neil Grace and Margaret M. Bruchac
  • Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years, edited by Bill Bigelow and Bob Peterson
  • Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen
  • A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn
  • A Different Mirror for Young People by Ronald Takaki, adapted by Rebecca Stefoff

These titles point to oft-overlooked perspectives, especially those of the indigenous peoples affected by the advent of colonization in the “New World.” Thanksgiving offers not only an opportunity to clear up some historical mythology surrounding the Thanksgiving story and its aftermath; it’s also a chance to link the topic of colonial expansion to other national and international events, regime changes, independence struggles and migration patterns—factors that may even apply to students’ own experiences and those of their peers.

Perspectives for a Diverse America, our K-12, literacy-based, anti-bias curriculum, also includes texts that allow students to consider the short- and long-term social justice implications of colonization. Look for these titles in the Central Text Anthology, and connect the anti-bias domains of identity, diversity, justice and action to your coverage of Thanksgiving:

  • “How the World Came to Be” (K-5, literature)
  • “The First Americans”(6-8, informational)
  • “Sure You Can Ask Me a Personal Question” (6-8, literature)
  • Andrew Jackson “Indian Removal” Message (9-12, informational)
  • “Rescue Mission” (9-12, informational)
  • “I Am Everyone” (9-12, literature)

The results from our poll revealed more than a desire to address the social justice implications of the holiday’s history, though. Almost 66 percent of respondents said they use Thanksgiving as an opportunity to focus on gratitude—a value and practice research suggests contributes to emotional and health benefits, including the building and maintenance of stronger relationships. This social emotional approach can also privilege the students’ own family identities, traditions and experiences by offering opportunities to discuss how families gather and celebrate the season at large.

As you consider possibilities for addressing Thanksgiving in your classroom, consider diving into the historical, political and social emotional approaches. You and your students can still choose to enjoy Thanksgiving, but that doesn’t mean you have to shy away from the reasons others might choose not to. The educators in our community have done valuable preliminary legwork. Survey your classroom and pick a place to start.

Bell is a writer and associate editor for Teaching Tolerance.

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