How To Teach About Thanksgiving Mindfully at Every Grade

Many Thanksgiving-related school activities are outdated, insensitive and incorrect. Young students dress in brown paper smocks with feathers to represent Native Americans while their peers wear black and white paper to be Pilgrims. They reenact a play where both parties come together to celebrate peace and prosperity.

Older students might learn about the actual treatment of Indigenous people throughout history, but they already have a strong foundation of a Thanksgiving that is peaceful and fun for all. The brown smocks and paper turkey legs never leave their basic idea of what Thanksgiving is. 

Educators are challenging this. K-5 teachers are helping younger students understand the real history behind Thanksgiving, and teachers in higher grades are disproving myths and having students think critically about what these first interactions were like.

It’s possible to teach students the truth about Thanksgiving regardless of their age. This doesn’t mean that kindergarteners are learning about genocide, but rather establishing an accurate foundation to learn about the hardships of Indigenous people as they get older. 

Removing Colonial Thought from Thanksgiving Lesson Plans

As you rethink your Thanksgiving lesson plans, you may need to confront just how much colonial thought is presented in the material.

“Many white Americans hold it very dear, the idea that the main impetus for colonization was the search for religious freedom,” says author of “This Land Is Their Land,” historian Dr. David Silverman. “If you ask the general public, even educated people, that’s the most common explanation. It’s not right.” 

The Puritans did originally go to Holland to break from the Church of England. However, they couldn’t find work and worried about Dutch influence, which drove them to set up a colony in America instead.  

Additionally, teachers might want to explore why Americans celebrate Thanksgiving and who stands to benefit from keeping the colonial perspective as the main focus. 

“Thanksgiving really has nothing to do with Native Americans, and everything to do with an old (but not the oldest) guard conjuring a lie of the first peoples welcoming the settlers to bolster their false authority over what makes a ‘real’ American,” says Sean Sherman, founder and CEO of The Sioux Chef, a catering company that specializes in pre-contact Indigenous foods. “Remember, only in 1924 were Native Americans allowed to become citizens of the United States — and it took decades more for all states to permit us to vote.”

Look at all of your Thanksgiving materials with a critical eye. You may start to uncover parts of your lessons that support colonialist and white supremacist narratives. 

young student drawing

See if Your School Has an Accurate Thanksgiving Curriculum

As more educators are challenging the way they teach about Thanksgiving, school districts are working to provide accurate curricula for them to work from. If you find yourself wanting to rewrite your whole approach to Thanksgiving, know that you are not alone. 

Dr. Star Yellowfish, director of Native American Student Services for Oklahoma City Public Schools, created a lesson plan for educators around the first Thanksgiving. 

“Our teachers needed something meaningful, tangible, and easy to follow in their classrooms,” she says. “And Native parents were frustrated with their child coming home with make-shift feathers and inaccurate stories of Thanksgiving.” 

Yellowfish encourages teachers to highlight how the Wampanoag were essential to helping the English survive — and students should know the Wampanoag still exist today. She also wants teachers to do away with vague terms like “pilgrims” and “Indians” to instead give real names and meanings to the people involved.

“When we talk about Thanksgiving in the classroom, sometimes we unintentionally give the impression that Native Americans lived in the past and that they aren’t a part of the current dialogue,” writes teacher Kelli Drummer-Avendano. “Each week in November, make it a point to learn about a different tribe, including the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe from the original Thanksgiving celebration.”

Your lessons about Indigenous people don’t have to stop after the Thanksgiving holiday. Native Americans have a rich history in the country that carries well beyond colonization, the Trail of Tears and exploration of the West.

“Build a foundation of knowing and respecting Native peoples,” writes educator Meghan Fitzgerald, a cofounder at play-based outdoor curriculum provider Tinkergarten. “Start by teaching children real stories and truths about Native and Indigenous peoples, both from the past and the present. The more our children can be curious and aware about people for their strengths and rich history, the more they will push back on stereotypes and absorb the real history in a way that makes them compelled to act.” 

Instead of relegating Native Americans to history, you can make them part of the present in almost any classroom and in any grade. 

Allow Students to Explore History on Their Own

If your school doesn’t have an existing Thanksgiving curriculum, look for ways to help your students challenge their beliefs. Create lesson plans that explore new ideas and allow for independent research and study. 

“We carry this Colonial view of how we teach, and now we have a moment to step outside that and think about whether that is harmful for kids, and if there isn’t a better way,” says teacher Susannah Remillard, founder and coach at Nautilus Education Collaborative in Massachusetts. “I think we are at a point where people are now ready to listen.” 

Remillard has her sixth-grade students rewrite the story of the first Thanksgiving using historical records and then challenges them to write poems from the perspective of a person from that time. Half write as settlers and half as Wampanoag. This allows for concrete research but also reflection. 

“Rather than telling children what to think, give them the tools to think critically,” writes the team at Success by Design. “Find books about Thanksgiving that offer various perspectives. Older children may also benefit from reading books and visiting websites that talk more about the Native Americans’ role in history and what happened after that first Thanksgiving celebration.”

These steps can allow students to keep learning even when the Thanksgiving holiday has passed. They also teach students to challenge other narratives they are told and to view history from multiple perspectives.  

students at laptops in front of blackboard

Teach About Thanksgiving Mindfully With a Forward-Facing Outlook

Thanksgiving isn’t just a holiday for the past. It also serves as an opportunity to reflect on the present and the future of this country and the sovereign nations of Indigenous people. 

For younger students, this might mean highlighting the parts of Thanksgiving that involve family traditions, rather than emphasizing outdated beliefs about “pilgrims and Indians.”

“Focus less on the origin story and more on what the holiday has become,” says Winonah LaGrande, assessor and training specialist at McCormick Center for Early Childhood Leadership. “This has the benefit of connecting the holiday to tangible elements in the children’s lives. We can do that by talking about being thankful or discussing how traditional foods vary from family to family.”

Teachers can also research local tribes to understand how people in their area acknowledge the holiday — if at all. This is particularly beneficial if you have Native American families in your classroom. 

“Keep in mind that while some Native Americans may celebrate Thanksgiving, some definitely do not,” says Joanna Eng, cofounder of Dandelions, a parenting and social justice newsletter. “In 1970, a group called the United American Indians of New England dubbed Thanksgiving as a National Day of Mourning of the genocide, theft, and marginalization of Native peoples and lands.” 

For older students, teachers can use Thanksgiving as a jumping-off point to discuss current issues in America and systematic racism against Indigenous communities.

“Learn about causes that are still affecting Native people, such as healthcare, violence against women, and land disparities,” writes Kristin Salaky at Delish. “Where the last point is concerned, you can find out the Indigenous history of the land you live on by using resources like native-land.ca.”

These lessons tie into the role your students will play in their communities as they get older. Today’s high schoolers are future voters, advocates and policymakers. 

“We can’t use inaccurate histories to inform our understanding of Native communities,” writes Jackie Menjivar, content and creative strategist at DoSomething.org. “By recognizing the true history of these events, we can affirm the experiences of Native communities and do a better job of tackling the systemic issues that they have faced (and continue to face) as a result. After all, how can you properly address a problem if you don’t understand its root causes?”

Thanksgiving doesn’t have to be an event that happened in the past for people in the past. It can serve as a holiday for reflection and discussion that guides your lesson plans throughout the rest of the year. 

Challenge How Your School Approaches Thanksgiving

Just because you want to rethink how students learn about Thanksgiving doesn’t mean your district, principal or fellow teachers will be as eager. Some educators have a harder time pulling away from Thanksgiving traditions than others. They have fond memories of growing up with the Pilgrim reenactments and feather headdresses. Even so, respecting the past, culture and future of Indigenous people is more important than fond childhood memories. 

“When you work at a public school, you don’t get hired to teach what you feel, you teach what you have to,” says Dr. Danne Davis, associate professor of Early Childhood and Elementary Education at Montclair State University. “You obviously can’t teach kindergartners about genocide. However, a teacher could use broad concepts, talk about what happens when people take advantage of other people.” 

By challenging how students are taught about Thanksgiving, you can become a voice for change within your school. You can speak up for the Native American families who feel exhausted by the way their people are depicted every year.

“The most dangerous phrase in education is, ‘But we have always done it this way,’” says Lauryn Mascareñaz, director of equity for the Wake County Public School System in North Carolina. 

A few years ago, Mascareñaz tweeted her frustrations about teachers still dressing their students up as Native Americans and telling the same incorrect stories. While some educators reached out for guidance, Mascareñaz also received hate mail questioning her patriotism.

This isn’t a matter of merely giving up some outdated pageants but instead presenting history in an accurate light that honors the suffering of Indigenous people.  

“Presenting Thanksgiving to children as primarily a happy time trivializes our shared history and teaches a half-truth,” says Dennis Zotigh, cultural specialist at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. “While I agree that elementary-school children who celebrate the first Thanksgiving in their classrooms are too young to hear the truth, educators need to share Thanksgiving facts in all American schools sometime before high school graduation.”

More teachers and parents are speaking out and asking their districts to rethink how Thanksgiving is taught. Your voice may seem small now, but soon you will be joined by others who feel the same way and want lesson planning resources to teach the holiday correctly. 

“We have an ethical obligation and moral responsibility as educators to teach Thanksgiving accurately — without promoting the one-sided colonial narrative that continues to perpetuate harmful misperceptions,” says teacher Rose Cherussery at Classroom for Change.

Thanksgiving is a complicated holiday to teach. Educators of younger students will have to determine what information their students can understand and how to challenge colonialist narratives early on. Educators of older students will need to keep confronting stereotypes and misconceptions ingrained in our history. Each step we take to present the holiday in an accurate light can help American Indian families get the representation and respect they deserve.

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