Monday, November 19, 2012

Teaching the History of Thanksgiving

While preparing for teaching about Thanksgiving last November, I'm pretty sure I did more research and with more enthusiasm than I ever had in any month of my life, even as a PhD student. Something about feeling solely responsible for my children's education motivated me to get my facts straight before passing it on to them. It was also my first month homeschooling too, so I was just plain freaking out.

When it comes to teaching social studies and history, I generally feel incompetent and underprepared, perhaps because as compared to other subjects, I am more critical about what and how I was taught it in school. For my own children's education, I definitely want to provide more context and also emphasize more about social justice, cultural studies, diversity, inclusivity, tolerance, and the link to our Christian faith (whether that paints Christians in a positive or negative light).

Below I review some resources that helped me and my children think more critically about the historical event that we've come to know of as a first Thanksgiving.

For ease and accessibility, I recommend anything by Plimoth Plantation. Plimoth Plantation located in Massachusetts is a museum/recreation of what the first colony of the same name would have looked like in 1627. For those of us in Central Illinois who are not close enough the take a field trip there, their online resources are fantastic. Children will especially enjoy the video game (I use that term loosely) "You are the Historian", where they will virtually explore the Plantation, investigate one of only two only primary sources of information about the first harvest feast, and hear about the Wampanoag people and their culture, particular their traditions of giving thanks. Last year, my 5 year old learned and remembered a lot from these online videos and from another one that we checked out from the library.
Bean's drawing of The Warrior Counselor of the Wampanoag, Habbamok
after watching some videos last year
Everything I've encountered so far by Plimoth Plantation attempts to teach history by encouraging asking questions, investigating primary sources and considering multiple perspectives while respecting cultural differences. These are great foundations to lay for students. It prepares them to investigate the complexities of American history, which is not always to peaceful, friendly, and neighborly as the stories of the first Thanksgiving would have us believe. In addition to the Plimoth Plantation materials, I just piece-mealed what I taught about colonists, Native Americans and Thanksgiving.

I used some basic guiding principles that I read about in this article called "Teaching Young Children about Native Americans." While I don't think it is a comprehensive list of what to do and what not to do, it really got me starting to think about how the history and culture of Native Americans are generally taught. If my child were in regular school too, I think this would help me guide (be it supplement or challenge) what my children are learning outside my home about America's native peoples.

For a more Native perpective on the holiday, "The Real Story of Thankgiving" on the the Manataka American Indian Council website is informative and heart-wrenching. The first two sections are difficult to read, mostly because they are so full of violence, (but isn't our history?). The final section "The Plymouth Thanksgiving Story" however, is geared toward children and tame enough for young and/or sensitive students to read. This should be required reading, really!

"Thanksgiving on the Net: Roast Bull and Cranberry Sauce"can be read on the website for the Society of the Descendants of the Mayflower (I didn't even know there was such a group). It attempts to set the record straight about common myths surrounding Thanksgiving by reviewing over 200 websites. It is cumbersome read at times, but well worth the read if you have the time and interest. If nothing else, I'd skim the main headings and some text. It certainly helped me identify some myths that I incorrectly assumed to be true. As with the previous reference, knowing the bias of the author is important in assessing the value of the piece, and a good lesson to pass on to the kids too!

As we approached Thanksgiving week this year, my husband commented that we haven't really "taught" anything about it yet. No, we have not done any formal lessons on the historical event and national holiday like we did last year. Instead, we have focused on truly being thankful and reflecting on what we are thankful for, as a family and as individuals. It has become part of our daily discussions and prayers. It's so simple I almost feel guilty about it, but it has set a great tone in our household that is so needed to replace the usual hecticness that generally surrounds our winter holidays.

While we may never know the exact and full historical truth about what happened in 1621 that lead to the holiday that we celebrate this week, we certainly can start writing our own stories about what this holiday means or could mean for each of our families. Lately I've been feeling challenged to rethink the deeper meanings of each holiday instead of just going with the flow of what everyone else does. This also includes delving deeper into the history of the holiday and tying that into our current traditions. It just seems that we've gotten too far from that with every holiday on the calendar. I'm completely convinced that having kids is the perfect opportunity to tweak our holiday celebrations if need be so we can better pass on the culture and traditions that are most dear to us. Which are most dear to you? How do they pass on your family history or stray from it?


  1. great post! I will definitely be bookmarking your links to supplement our education around here. I love seeing my children/our family establish traditions. We put up the Christmas tree this past weekend and I found such joy in the simple things such as looking at all our personalized ornaments and talking about them. Colder weather brings homemade breads, cookies, and other treats that not often made during the rest of the year. I like that my children can depend on these things to happen....a routine or cycles during life...they know what they can expect to happen....keeping things as simple as possible is important around here.

  2. Thanks Carla! I saw your pins on Pinterest. I hope you find these as helpful as I have. And I completely agree with you about the winter rituals and these natural cycles. Routines and traditions are the backbone of making happy family memories. Wishing you and yours some great ones this year!