You know the drill: Trace your hand, then add the details. Two feet, a beak, a single eyeball. Color it in, and voila! Hand becomes turkey.
You know the rest too: The Pilgrims fled England and landed on Plymouth Rock. The native people there, the Wampanoag, taught them to farm the land. In 1621, they sat down together for a thanksgiving feast, and we’ve been celebrating it ever since.
It’s a lesson many remember from childhood, but the story has some problems.
There is evidence, in the form of a colonist’s letter, to suggest the feast did happen, but the holiday didn’t take off nationally until the civil war, when writer Sarah Hale advocated for it as a way to unite the country.
And, of course, it leaves out what happened to native communities over the next few centuries.
Bettina Washington, the Wampanoag tribal historic preservation officer, says it’s crucial to acknowledge what happened. “It’s not a pretty history by any stretch of the imagination,” she says, “but we need the story to be told truthfully.”
Each year, elementary teachers across the country search for the best way to address the elephant — or turkey — in the room.
There isn’t a guide: Social studies standards vary by state. Most are intentionally vague.
In many states, Thanksgiving is not explicitly mentioned in the standards. And yet children bring their lives into the classroom, leaving educators to decide how to tackle a holiday fraught with broken treaties and forced exodus.
Here are some of their strategies.
Shift the focus
When the 20 or so second-graders enter Crystal Brunelle’s library, she keeps the lesson simple.
“Other people celebrate Thanksgiving besides us. Some people have turkey,” says Brunelle, a library media specialist at Northern Hills Elementary in Onalaska, Wis. “Others may celebrate in a different way or not at all.”
Brunelle tells her class: “Lots of cultures have a holiday to give thanks and many cultures celebrated a thanksgiving prior to the Pilgrims.”
She focuses on the distinct ways different cultures show gratitude, from China to Mexico. And she makes sure to include readings from the nearby Ho Chunk Nation and books written by native authors — a challenge considering just 19 of the 3,400 children’s books published in 2014 were written by Native Americans.
Brunelle says second grade is a critical time.
“It’s a time when they’re still forming their opinions and they are very open and accepting of others,” she says. “I don’t want to miss that time. Later is too late.”
Rebecca Valbuena has been teaching mostly third and fifth grade for 28 years. She has seen the whole range when it comes to teaching Thanksgiving.
“I know school districts that are very tight and there are no holidays. Other schools, they’re talking about how nice it was for those natives to share their meal,” says Valbuena, who coaches teachers in the Glendora Unified School District in California.
Valbuena says one timely strategy is to connect Thanksgiving to the Syrian refugee crisis.
“Make it relevant to today,” she says. “Turn it into a lesson of what a pilgrim really is. These people left looking for freedom. It’s a really strong connection to people of the past.”
Bettina Washington, of the Wampanoag tribe, agrees that making connections is key but says it can be as simple as emphasizing that all students have ancestors.
“We’re not using clay pots anymore. We use a stove just like you. We’re still here,” Washington says. “Where were your ancestors from? What were they wearing and how were they cooking? It’s very important to make that connection.”
Emphasize critical thinking
Brunelle and Valbuena both say Thanksgiving is an opportunity to get students to ask questions and focus on multiple perspectives.
“We want to teach children how to be historians,” Valbuena says. “We talk about reading the book but also reading behind it: Who’s the author, what’s the message, and what’s their motivation?”
With her fourth- and fifth-grade students, Brunelle pulls out a history textbook and asks students to examine the portrayal of Native Americans.
“We see Native Americans in a particular way and then we don’t see them again. They disappear,” Brunelle says. “We talk about that and look to see who is missing.”
For Washington, that disappearance is what matters most. No matter how you teach the complicated history of Thanksgiving, she says, keep students talking about it.
“We always get called in the month of November and then we’re not here the rest of the year,” says Washington, but she added: “The positive thing about this time of year is that we are thought of. That opens the door to greater learning and understanding.”
A version of this story was published on NPR Ed in November 2015.
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