Be Thankful Without Being Hurtful

Teaching Thanksgiving Responsibly This Year

I remember learning about the first Thanksgiving in school. Half of the kids in my classroom made paper pilgrim hats.The other half made “Indian” head dresses with feathers. Our teacher gave us pumpkin pie and snacks as our “Thanksgiving feast.” We also made turkey crafts out of tracing our hands. As a fourth grader, I remember believing that the Native American and White colonist relationship consisted of peacefully gathering together to have a jolly time eating turkey and expressing their thanks.

Unfortunately, Millennial and Gen X educators were taught a Thanksgiving that excluded the story of White colonists taking advantage of Indigenous people in a number of ways including mass genocide and stealing their lands. Although making paper hats and eating is fun, we have to be honest with our students and ourselves about our nation’s history, and it must start at the very beginning.

What can we do to teach Thanksgiving responsibility?

Learn and teach it accurately. When we tell students the truth, we model the importance of being honest. This goes a long way toward the idea of teaching students “to be smart in order to do good” as EL Education stresses so strongly. Depending on the grade levels of your students, there are different ways to help students understand the harm that has been done with the fairytale story of Thanksgiving.

Younger students can learn about our country’s Indigenous communities and their culture and values.  Look for indigenous communities in your local area from which students can learn. I happened to find a museum within my community that holds artifacts from the Indigenous communities that live within the neighborhood. Students can learn about the contributions indigenous communities made long before their communities were colonized.

With older students, ask that they compare the myths about the first Thanksgiving to the realities. I would even have them complete an activity of writing a press release about the first Thanksgiving.  This would help them understand true perspectives of history. Teaching Tolerance has a great resource in understanding how to teach this accurately.

There are educators that avoid history altogether and have students reflect on being thankful. This is just avoidance of having them learn historical facts out of fear to rock the boat. We must let that boat rock and rattle as long as the ship doesn’t sink and do what we can to ensure that our students understand the dangers of seeing this as a greeting card holiday. 

We can be thankful everyday of the year without being hurtful. We can teach multiculturalism in a respectful way that isn’t harmful, and students can learn the real and brutal history of our country. 

For more resources on creating an anti-racist classroom and more equitable schools, click here.

Sarah Said is GW26qYQY_400x400the Director of Language and Equity Programs at an EL Education School in the Chicago Suburbs. In her role, she oversees support programs for Multilingual Learners, works with others to create a community that fosters success for students from the diverse communities her school serves, helps strengthen school to community outreach, and coordinates Title grants. In the past, she has been a Director of ELL, Dean and Curriculum Coordinator. In addition to her role in her building, she is a contributor for ELL Confianza and has written a variety of blog posts online. She is a member of the #ELLChat and #ELLchat_bkClub where she helps advocate for Multilingual Learners. Follow her on twitter: @MrsSaid17