Using Primary Sources to Teach Thanksgiving

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There is one day that is ours. Thanksgiving Day is the one day that is purely American.
O. Henry

A recent TeachersFirst blog post by Paula Deal discussed the use of primary sources and suggested several resources for finding primary sources for all grade levels. What better time of year to include primary sources than Thanksgiving? As Paula mentions, “these types of materials are easy to find online today, can be interesting, fun and even compelling.”

Let’s first consider why it is important to use primary sources in the classroom, especially as it relates to Thanksgiving.

  • Primary sources provide fact-based evidence of real historical events, making information understandable to students. Primary Sources also allow students to compare and contrast their understanding of the first Thanksgiving to reality, based on documents such as paintings and original manuscripts.
  • Primary sources offer opportunities for personal connection to events. As students explore early Thanksgiving celebrations, they provide a way for each of them to connect to their Thanksgiving traditions and consider how they evolved over time.
  • As students become increasingly sophisticated, they learn that information is subjective, based on differing points of view. The perspective of resources used during learning experiences sometimes leads to misconceptions and less than full understanding. For example, if younger students only hear and read stories about a Thanksgiving event in 1621, then they don’t learn that Native Americans (and other Indigenous nations from around the world) have celebrated and given thanks for bountiful harvests as part of their traditions well before 1621. They also don’t understand that our annual holiday came into place until over 200 years later, with Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1863.

Luckily, there are many sites for finding primary sources to teach about Thanksgiving for all grade levels. One of my favorites for comparing and contrasting Thanksgiving traditions and experiences is The Great Thanksgiving Listen. Created as an opportunity for high school students to create an oral history by interviewing an elder, these conversations become part of a collection at the Library of Congress to preserve and document personal history over time. All students will enjoy browsing through the site and hearing stories from around the country. Although not all stories relate directly to Thanksgiving, this holiday provides the perfect opportunity to gather and record stories for preservation. Here are some ideas for using this site in your classroom:

  • Use the Teacher Toolkit on the site, and have your students participate in The Great Thanksgiving Listen
  • Have students conduct interviews with their family members using a tool such as Online Voice Recorder
  • Create a three circle Venn Diagram  to compare Thanksgiving in the colonies to current traditions and those from a century ago

Another interesting site for learning about Thanksgiving through primary sources is The Year We Had Two Thanksgivings. This article explains the background on American’s designation of the fourth Thursday of each November as the official Thanksgiving Day. Documents include several letters and telegrams to Franklin Delano Roosevelt discussing date changes for Thanksgiving.

  • Challenge students to write a persuasive letter on Throwww outlining reasons for FDR to consider changing Thanksgiving to a time of their choosing.
  • Have students create a Fakebook page for FDR, local merchants, or citizens as they consider changing the date of Thanksgiving.

The Library of Congress offers several primary source sets, including one for Thanksgiving. Resources include original prints, photos, and manuscripts of Thanksgiving proclamations. Be sure to take a look at the Teachers Guides and Analysis Tool to assist with primary source evaluation of resources including newspapers, maps, and oral histories. This site also allows users to narrow down content by state, Common Core, and organization standards.

  • Use the teaching guide and analysis tools to develop questions to stimulate student thinking
  • Share an image or another source from the Library of Congress set on your interactive whiteboard, then have students create a news report as if they were reporting on that event. Create your podcast featuring student recordings using podOmatic or another podcast creation tool
  • Have students use one of the images to create an infographic using Easel.ly, or create an annotated image using Thinglink. Include important dates, statistics, and people to tell the story.

Thanksgiving provides the perfect opportunity to incorporate primary sources into a topic familiar with students of all ages. In the past, many lessons on Thanksgiving included misconceptions, omitted historical detail, or included inaccuracies. Take advantage of these suggestions along with the many other resources to offer factual and compelling lessons for your students.

What primary sources do you use when discussing and teaching Thanksgiving? Share them in the comments below.

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About the author: Sharon Hall

Sharon Hall was a recipient of the Presidential Award of Excellence in Math teaching. With over 15 years of classroom experience as a National Board Certified teacher, Sharon shares her content knowledge and reflections on ideas for basic classroom technology integration with us.


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