What I Teach the Week Before Thanksgiving


The weeks before a break always seem like the longest.  The kids are restless, I'm restless, and we all understand that all we're really doing is biding our time until that last bell before break.  

Thanksgiving is a different type of beast altogether though.  My district gives an entire week, the first real break since school started, and we know that right around the corner is Christmas.  It is hard to focus, let alone get 150 students to focus.  But one thing I've learned in all my years of teaching is that the best catalyst for engaging students is to tell them they don't know something that they think they know.   

Enter my week before Thanksgiving unit.  Each day is about dismissing the beliefs that they think they have about Thanksgiving.  They look at encyclopedia entries, primary source documents, secondary source documents, speeches, and even listen to a podcast to get the right story, the truer story, surrounding Thanksgiving... and not just from the perspective of the pilgrims.  I let them watch A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving on the last day.

Anyway, below you'll find a breakdown of what I do.  If you're interested in the documents, you can find them in my TPT store here, and I'll have the links for the individual lessons down below.

Day 1: Before America: The Pilgrim's Journey to the New World

First things first and I introduce the week to the students.  I explain to them that before the end of the week, they will have a better understanding of the true story behind the holiday and be able to see it from multiple perspectives. 

I show the students an encyclopedia entry, either with the handout I made or by going to https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/united-states-and-canada/us-history/pilgrims

I then give them the handout I created, The Pilgrims Journey to the New World, and have them work through it in any way I choose based on student ability and desired scaffolding: individually, partners, groups, and whole class.  They will answer questions about credibility, chronology, text to text, text to self, and text to world.

If you're interested in this lesson, you can find it here.

Day 2: The Pilgrim's New World: Analyzing Primary Source Documents as Literature

On this day, students take a look at primary source documents.  The first one is the Mayflower Compact.  After students read through the document, they answer a question about the pilgrim’s purpose for writing it.  Difficulty should be based on student ability: for example, for my SF classes, I had them write a one sentence answer while annotating and highlighting for evidence that proves what they wrote; for my on-level classes I had them write a complete thoughtful answer after annotating; for my AP classes, I had them write a complete paragraph essay using evidence from both the Compact and the encyclopedia entry from the day before.

Once students have completed the activity with the Mayflower Compact, I hand them the William Bradford’s Diary Entries Handout.  I explain to students that William Bradford was one of the original separatist Puritans from England.  He signed the Mayflower Compact and went on to become Governor of the colony for 30 years.  His journal is a detailed account of the lives of the colonists from 1621 to 1646 and is considered to be THE most authoritative account of the Pilgrim’s lives during this time, even though it was written after the events it chronicles.   

Students can work through the document in any way I choose.  I have, depending on time, done a round-robin, with each group taking one section and working through it, giving the class a summary of their findings.  I have also done this activity as a whole group or let the students take it on individually. 

If you're interested in this lesson, you can find it here.

Day 3: The First Thanksgiving: Evaluating Primary and Secondary Source Documents as Literature

I display The First Thanksgiving PowerPoint slide 1 as students walk into class.  Once students are seated and ready, I then display slide 2.  I hand students The First Thanksgiving Student Handout.  There are three first- hand accounts of The First Thanksgiving.  Students are to read each account and write a summary of the events that are described.  Once again, students can work through this document in any that I choose based on ability.  Once they have completed that part of the handout, they should answer the first question: Based on what you’ve read, what can you assume actually happened at The First Thanksgiving.

Once they're finished I move on to slide 3.  On it, I've placed the podcast “How the First Thanksgiving Worked” from Stuff You Missed in History Class.  The audio can also be found here: https://www.iheart.com/podcast/stuff-you-missed-in-history-cl-21124503/episode/how-the-first-thanksgiving-worked-30208244/.  I have students take notes while listening (the podcast is about 13 minutes long).

Once the podcast is over, slide 4 goes over some of the myths associated with Thanksgiving.  This slide is optional, in case some of the details from the podcast were missed.  I then have the students answer the question: “After listening to the podcast, was your assumption right? Explain.” and “Write a paragraph about the misconceptions you had what you now know about The First Thanksgiving.”

If you're interested in this lesson, you can find it here.

Day 4: Native American Perspectives: Analyzing a Speech

I display The Native American Perspective PowerPoint slide 1 as students walk into class.  Once students are seated and ready, I move on to slide 2.  After giving students a chance to look at the illustration, have a class discussion of the things they notice: on a surface level they will say obvious things, but I try to pull out observations like the Native Americans are at a lower level; the Pilgrims are giving the natives food; they are seated around a table while the Native Americans are eating on the floor.  I then ask the students why Ferris would choose to depict The First Thanksgiving this way even though we know this wasn't how the First Thanksgiving was.  Hopefully, students can come to the answer that history is always shown by the victor.  I Explain that traditionally, this leaves out the experiences of “the other,” and that today they will be looking at The First Thanksgiving through the eyes of the other side.

I then handout the Harvest Study Guide.  In past years, I've done a round-robin activity where, in groups (six of them), students summarize their reading and discuss their section with the class (the breakdown of this is on slide 3).  However, this activity can be done in almost any way or disregarded completely.  I just use it to give background information on the Wampanoag people.

Once students have completed that exercise, I hand out The Suppressed Speech.  Students are expected to annotate the speech with the essential question I have at the top of the handout in mind.  Once completed, students should answer the 11 questions at the end of the document.  

If you're interested in this lesson, you can find it here.

Day 5: Analyzing A Carlie Brown Thanksgiving as Literature

On the last day, students watch the short film A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving and analyze the film for its literary elements.  You can find the film for streaming on Apple TV, or you can buy the DVD here: https://amzn.to/3f1h0SF.  A quick google search will also lead you to free (but probably illegal) copies of the movie.

As students watch the film, have them answer the questions on the handout in complete sentences.  If they run out of room they can use the back to finish their answers.  

If you're interested in this lesson, you can find it here.

If you're interested in the entire week of lessons, you can find it here.