Teaching Thanksgiving Across All Grades

Teaching Thanksgiving Across All Grades

It is so important for children to have an understanding of why we celebrate national holidays that they are even included in the Common Core State Standards in the early grades.  Although the holidays are not explicitly listed as students grow the CCSS continue to emphasize the importance of learning about our nation’s rich history and how history ties into our lives today.  Thanksgiving provides the perfect opportunity to teach students about our past and link historical events to the present. 

Thanksgiving also lends itself to lessons on gratitude.  In our consumer driven society, gratitude is something many young people struggle with, but studies show that grateful children grow into happier adults.  The classroom is the perfect place to help students develop an understanding and practice of gratitude. 

Primary Grades

Students in the primary grades are still new to the Thanksgiving story and may never have heard it before.  Picture books are the perfect way to present the story to this grade level.  Caldecott honor winner, The Thanksgiving Story, by Alice Dalgleish is a wonderful first Thanksgiving story for young children.  Scholastic even offers online lesson plan resources to go along with the book that are perfect for busy teachers.  Even at this young age, be sure to introduce students to culturally sensitive language and wording such as “Native Americans” rather than “Indians” and help them to understand that while there was much to be celebrated, the first Thanksgiving also brought challenges for everyone involved. 

A discussion of the challenges of the first Thanksgiving provides the perfect jumping off point for a lesson on thankfulness.  When they compare their lives to the Pilgrims and early Native Americans even the youngest children will realize that warm homes and healthy food are much to be thankful for.  To add some festivity to your gratitude lesson, try creating a “thankful tree” on your classroom door.  Post the tree trunk (cut from cardboard or construction paper) and provide students with fall colored leaves on which to write or illustrate things they are thankful for.

Middle Grades

By the time they reach the middle grades, most students are familiar with the basic Thanksgiving story.  This age is the perfect opportunity to introduce students to some of the hardships faced by all parties on that first Thanksgiving.  It is also a prime opportunity to introduce a lesson on empathy as students imagine how it might have felt to be either a Pilgrim or a Native American.  Try introducing students to a variety of nonfiction literature on the topic and then engaging in a whole class discussion using the Circle of Viewpoints routine from Project Zero.  This thinking routine provides a framework for stepping into the shoes of everyone involved in the story and helps students to understand how different parties may have had very different first Thanksgiving experiences. 

Students in the middle grades have often become comfortable in their lives and may struggle with gratitude.  As their teacher or administrator, you can help them realize just how much they have to be thankful for.  At this age, students are able to grapple with poverty and hardship, so it may also be a good time to tie a charitable project into your practice of gratitude.  For example, middle grade students will be reminded to be grateful for their health as they work on holiday cards to be delivered to children in the hospital.  Or, if you have family participation, they could also be reminded of how fortunate they are to have food to eat and enough to share as they participate in a canned food drive.

Upper Grades

In the upper grades, sometimes lessons that integrate the holidays can feel forced or even cheesy.  Don’t fall victim to the misconception that these students are too old to benefit from lessons rooted in holidays.  There is in fact much to learn now that students can grapple with the larger issues surrounding the holidays, especially Thanksgiving.  Upper grades students are the perfect age to embark on a web quest in search of the other side of the Thanksgiving story.  The story they’ve heard over and over again likely centered on the pilgrims, but what can they learn about the Native Americans who called America their home long before European settlers arrived?  Allow you student’s time to explore this controversial topic and then present their findings to the class.  You might even learn something new as well.  

Current events provide the perfect starting point for a lesson on gratitude in the upper grades.  Sometimes seeing the circumstances that others around the globe are living in is just what older students need to inspire gratitude for all that we have in America.  You could also root a gratitude lesson in the Bill of Rights, while reminding students that early settlers like the Pilgrims paved the way for the freedoms we enjoyed today. 

Wherever you find yourself in the classroom today, take advantage of the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday in your lesson planning.  This traditional American holiday offers a rich starting point for many lessons that will serve your students both in the classroom and for the rest of their lives. 

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