Looking for a simple and educational Thanksgiving social studies lesson? Check out this discussion prompt and free downloadable workbook that helps young learners reflect on the complex history of Thanksgiving in the United States.
Often times when learning history, we learn one perspective about a series of events and learn it as fact. Many events throughout history, however, seem very different when we view them through the lenses of different people or groups that are involved.
In the United States, we see this with Thanksgiving and the history behind this national holiday. For many years, we told a single narrative from the perspective of white Europeans sailing to North America on the Mayflower. But the story is so much more expansive than that. And until recently, the story of the Native Americans was often left untold, at least in mainstream educational materials and school curricula.
Fortunately, that is beginning to change. Picture books written by Indigenous peoples and featuring Native perspectives on the origins of Thanksgiving have arrived on bookshelves. The story of Thanksgiving for white Europeans is quite different from the story of Thanksgiving for Native Americans.
Revisiting History & Comparing Perspectives on United States Thanksgiving | Free Downloadable Workbook
Below, we’ve shared a simple lesson to use picture books to facilitate a discussion about the history of Thanksgiving in the United States and how the real history behind Thanksgiving is more complex than a single narrative. While you can use the questions and book recommendations below, we’ve also prepared a FREE 15-page educational Thanksgiving workbook to make it easier to bring this lesson to your young learners.
The workbook includes all the questions and book recommendations we’ve shared below. Additionally, it includes worksheets for students to answer questions on their own if you prefer to use the exercise as an independent reflection activity instead of a shared group discussion.
To download the workbook, drop your email address in the sign-up form below. We’ll deliver the free workbook right to your inbox to make this important and timely Thanksgiving social studies lesson simple to share with your students.
Revisiting History & Comparing Perspectives on United States Thanksgiving | Lesson & Discussion
Use the following picture books and discussion questions to examine how history is complex and can look different from different perspectives. To really understand our history and learn from it, we need to hear from multiple voices and engage with various groups and communities (through books, movies, discussions, etc…) that were involved in respective historical events.
Thanksgiving Lesson Objectives
- Read about the origins of Thanksgiving from multiple perspectives
- Compare and contrast the views from different groups of people about the origins of Thanksgiving
- Consider how these perspectives might inform current events and cultural norms today.
Thanksgiving Picture Books To Read
Pre-Reading Discussion Questions
Before reading the three books used in this lesson, discuss the following questions with your students to reflect on what they know already know about Thanksgiving and how what background information or assumptions they may have about the holiday.
- What do you know about the origins of Thanksgiving in the United States?
- How did Thanksgiving start?
- Why do we celebrate Thanksgiving?
Post-Reading Discussion Questions
- Who is the author of each book and what is each author’s ethnicity and background?
- When was each story written?
- Who is telling the story in each book?
- How do they feel about Thanksgiving? (Happy, sad, anxious, nervous, excited, etc…)
- What are the most important parts of the event?
- What types of foods do they eat in each of the stories? How do the meals compare to each other? Do different versions of the story highlight the same foods?
- What common elements or themes come up in the books? Are there elements of history that each of the books mentions? How are the perspectives about these things the same or different?
- Examples to consider:
- Seeing empty villages and unused housing units – how does each group perceive these villages? To whom do they belong?
- Corn seeds in the ground – how does each group view them? Use them? To whom do they belong?
- Examples to consider:
- How much do the main characters interact with other groups of people? With whom do they interact? What do they do together?
- How do they view their relationship with the other groups in the story (like the Indigenous people and the Europeans)? How does that relationship change throughout the story?
- How has the relationship between Europeans and Native Americans from the past impacted current culture and communities today?
- How might expanded knowledge of the history between these two groups change how we live together today?
Extensions: Other Educational Thanksgiving Resources & Books To Read
Here are a few other books and resources that can supplement this lesson.
Honest History: A Native History (Issue 15)
Honest History is a magazine designed for young learners that dives into history about topics not often covered (or not covered well) in the traditional curricula in history classes. This particular issue features the history of Native Americans in the United States including topics like where Indigenous people lived, what their communities looked like, the proper terminology to use, the history of boarding schools, critical cultural elements, and more. It doesn’t specifically address Thanksgiving origins but offers an excellent perspective on Indigenous culture and history.
Sharing The Bread: An Old Fashioned Thanksgiving Story by Pat Zietlow Miller
This story does not discuss the history or origins of Thanksgiving but focuses on family coming together to prepare and share a meal together. It may offer a nice extension to the conversation about how the meaning of Thanksgiving has changed over time for people in the United States.
This is the Feast by Diane Z. Shore
This is a shorter, more recent, and more illustrated version of the story of Thanksgiving told from the European perspective. The book is another example of a story that highlights the generosity, work ethic, and ingenuity of the Europeans while downplaying or entirely excluding the perspectives of the Native Americans.
As an example, the story mentions Squanto as the only surviving member of the Patuxet tribe. But the book fails to mention that he survived because he had been forcefully taken to England while substantially of his tribe died of disease brought over by the Europeans while he was gone.
The book is one perspective of the origin story of Thanksgiving but leaves much to be desired if not taught with other materials as it reflects a single, white-washed narrative that is misleading about the relationship between Europeans and Native Americans without a broader perspective.
Balloons Over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade by Melissa Sweet
While not related at all to the Thanksgiving origin story, this book highlights the history of large balloons and floating characters at Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. It’s a fun and uplifting story that illustrates how traditions related to a particular holiday or event can change over time.
This is a great example of how we can watch celebrations and important cultural holidays change and evolve through the years. It also reinforces that one event can carry multiple narratives, including those that speak to significantly different emotions and experiences. History isn’t static or boring. History is complex and ever-changing, and it can represent joy, grief, and many emotions at the same time.
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About The Author
Jen Panaro, a co-founder of Raising Global Kidizens, is a self-proclaimed composting nerd and an advocate for sustainable living for modern families. She’s also a serial library book borrower and a messy gardener.
As a mom to two boys, she is passionate about helping families be more responsible stewards to their communities and the planet. She also owns Honestly Modern, an online space focused on eco-friendly living for modern families.