How Do You Teach 6-Year-Olds About Thanksgiving in 2012?

A 22-year-old educator in rural Mississippi struggles to explain the complexities of the holiday in her ‘Diary of a First-Year Teacher.’

A first-year teacher talks about teaching her students about the first Thanksgiving. (Photo: Sean Locke)

Nov 19, 2012

Each week, an anonymous first-grade teacher will share her confessions, musings, struggles, and successes during the first year of her teaching career in rural Mississippi.


This week marked my first holiday-themed week. Apparently, it’s an expectation for first-grade classes to acknowledge holidays—something you forget when you are simply trying to stay a float.

Let’s talk about teaching children about the “first Thanksgiving.” I vividly remember the way I learned about this day when I was a first grader. A Hallmark image of pilgrims and Native Americans preparing that first Thanksgiving turkey in a picturesque clearing in the woods was imprinted in my mind. But what I remember even more clearly is when my eighth grade history teacher broke the news to us that the story didn’t go that way, and shattered that idyllic image.

Thus, I felt it my moral duty not to mislead my students in the same fashion. I struggled over the weekend preparing the spin I would throw on the first Thanksgiving, while keeping it simple enough to be grade-level appropriate for my six and seven year olds.

More: Diary of a First-Year Teacher: An Experiment in Teaching Compassion

After plenty of rewriting, I arrived at describing the pilgrims and Native Americans as very different people who were able to overcome their struggles and work together. I think I did a respectable job, although admittedly, I did reference Pocahontas at one point to give them a little context. You have to pick your battles.

After the history lesson, I thought it would be a fabulous idea to make handprint turkeys with my class to hang on our door—a school Thanksgiving project classic. 

Rather than do a search on how to make our turkeys, however, I instead planned it based on how I thought it went. So I had my students trace their hand, cut out the tracing, and then put their painted handprint on construction paper. So far so good—until I had my students decorate their hands with markers to add the eye, gobble, and beak. Now, under most circumstances I would never call any child’s creation ugly. However, since I can take full responsibility for the quality of the endeavor, they were an ugly mess of paint and marker on dark construction paper—so ugly, in fact, that I had some students in frustrated tears because they couldn’t get their paint and marker creation to look like a turkey.

Needless to say we decided not to put these up on the door. And next time I will reference the experts before embarking on a major art project. Hopefully our Christmas project will be a little less of a turkey massacre.

Luckily, there is a happy ending to Thanksgiving in room 12. At the end of the week, we sat in a circle and shared what we are all thankful for. I then had the students write a few sentences. I’ll let their words stand for themselves— and I note proudly that these are unedited responses:

  • “I am thankful for my mom. Because I love my mom.”
  • “I am thankful for family.”
  • “I am thankful for school because teachers help us learn.”
  • “I am thankful for my friends and God and my family and eating food.”

Finally, a success. They were proud of their writing and so am I. That kind of reflection is worth more than a hokey handprint turkey anyway.

These are solely the author's opinions and do not represent those of TakePart, LLC or its affiliates.

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