By Elisabeth Miller, High School History Teacher in Columbus, Ohio
“History is written by the winners.” How often have you heard that before? It is a quote that is used so often it almost seems tedious, but it could not be more true. When teaching history, it is tempting to only focus on the dominant culture’s perspective. Why? Because it is what we have always been taught. It is what is comfortable. Changing the narrative means rewriting what we have always known to be true. Yet the “truth” comes from the perspective of the person who wrote the story, the so-called winner.
The “First Thanksgiving” is often portrayed as the time when the Pilgrims and Native Americans came together to feast and give “thanks.” As a social studies teacher, I have a responsibility to encourage my students to think beyond this one single narrative. In other words, to promote critical thinking. How we teach the story of Thanksgiving is the perfect place to start.
Some tips for teaching Thanksgiving:
- Get to know your students. Do you have exchange students? Do your students even celebrate Thanksgiving? Thanksgiving is an American holiday. How could you explain the holiday to a non-American? Thanksgiving customs can also vary from family to family and culture to culture. How do your students celebrate the holiday? Do they have specific Thanksgiving traditions? Facilitate an open discussion about the holiday, allowing students to educate one another.
- Evaluate Fact v. Myth. Like the game of telephone, history can be miscommunicated and misinterpreted as it is passed along. There are different versions of the same story depending on one’s perspective and/or lack of evidence. This is why it is important to fact check, but put the work in the hands of your students. Give them a list of myths about Thanksgiving, but do not actually tell them they are not true. Present the myths as facts and have your students fact check. Allow them to rewrite history.
- Include multiple perspectives. The story of Thanksgiving is going to look different depending on the perspective you are viewing it from. The key is to present multiple sides. How might the Native Americans have viewed the Pilgrims’ arrival? What about the Pilgrims’ perspective? How might present-day Native Americans view Thanksgiving? How do your students view Thanksgiving? Does their cultural background affect their viewpoint? Have students rewrite the story of Thanksgiving from multiple perspectives including their own.
- Focus on universal themes. What can we learn from the holiday? How can we apply its lessons to our daily life? How might these lessons change how we interact with one another? How we view the past? We all have a story to tell, so why not give your students the chance to share.
So the question remains: Is the modern Thanksgiving holiday we celebrate today about giving thanks for our blessings? Absolutely, but it is also about recognizing the importance of the past and how it shapes our point of view. There is much we can learn from the story of the “First Thanksgiving.” The important part is to learn from it in order to create a better future.
Elisabeth Miller is a graduate of Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in History and Secondary Education. A native of Columbus, Ohio, Elisabeth currently teaches high school social studies in the Catholic Diocese of Columbus. A travel enthusiast, Elisabeth loves experiencing history through the eyes of those who lived it.