Thursday, November 19, 2015

The First Thanksgiving and the First Immigrants

There are at least as many interpretations of the Thanksgiving story as there are recipes for gravy, but many include disingenuous representations of the meal shared between Native Americans and our nation’s first immigrants.

Teaching about Thanksgiving – comparing its myths and likely realities – is an opportunity to examine multiple perspectives about the dominant Thanksgiving narratives. For example, when the first immigrants arrived in America, what was life like for them? What hardships did they endure? How did the Wampanoag Indians, who had long been holding ceremonies to give thanks for plentiful harvests, respond to these newcomers? 

As Sarah Shear, assistant professor of social studies education at Pennsylvania State University in Altoona and former social studies teacher said in a Huffington Post article, “I think especially in the telling of U.S. history, there is a specific narrative that really does not lend itself to incorporating the voices of people who are not considered members of the dominant cultural group.” 
The First Thanksgiving 1621, Piligrims and Natives Gather to Share a Meal, oil painting by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris, 1032
Moreover, she said that her undergraduate students are "frustrated that they learned a very specific narrative of Thanksgiving and never learned the greater complex narrative of not only the relationship between the indigenous people of New England and the settlers, [but] how those relationships changed over time."

This day has symbolically been marked with unity, gratitude, and welcoming others to sit at the table and eat -- and in this sense too, we can incorporate the less often told versions of the Thanksgiving story to better understand America’s history as a nation of immigrants.
In our lesson plan, The First Americans and the First Thanksgiving, elementary students learn and discuss myths and more probable realities surrounding the first Thanksgiving and the first immigrants in a thought-provoking and humorous read-aloud that challenges them to analyze dominant and resistant readings of this national holiday.
We wish you all a happy holiday with friends and family!

Additional Resources:

  •  Celebrate America Creative Writing Contest: Thanksgiving is an opportunity for all to reflect upon what it means to be American and the 19th annual Creative Writing Contest with the theme “Why I’m Glad America is a Nation of Immigrants” is a perfect vehicle for discussing American immigrant past and present with fifth grade students.  

  • What Really Happened? Comparing Stories of the First Thanksgiving by The Learning Network: Teaching and Learning with The New York Times - a lesson where middle and high school analyze several different versions of the first Thanksgiving to better understand not only the event itself, but how and why different groups of people interpret the event in radically different ways.

Stay Connected!
We offers free lesson plans, resources, book/film reviews, and grants to teach immigration. We also welcome teacher and student book reviews and contributions to our blog. Email us at and follow us on twitter @ThnkImmigration #teachimmigration

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