Rediscovering Thanksgiving

November 08, 2023

This blog post was originally published November 2, 2022 and was updated on November 8, 2023.

As the Thanksgiving holiday approaches, many students sit in classrooms decorated with hand turkeys and a mental image of the first Thanksgiving as it is often described; a joyous coming together of Native Americans and pilgrims. Unfortunately for many students, this is where the learning ends: A misrepresentation of reality and a missed opportunity for students to build knowledge. 

This time of year presents a unique opportunity to engage students in critical thinking about what stories are told, about whom, and by whom. To bring a more holistic version of this story into the classroom, Fishtank ELA created the 3rd Grade ELA unit Rediscovering Thanksgiving: Fact vs. Fiction. We wanted to bring this unit to teachers’ attention in time to digest it, intellectually prepare it, and present it to students at the appropriate time of year. 


Why Did We Create This Unit?

At Fishtank, we think it's incredibly important to empower students to think critically and develop knowledge of topics that both affirm their experiences and expand their worldviews. Originally, this unit was created to introduce students to the experiences of Native Americans and Pilgrims, but primarily focused on a European perspective. In reassessing the unit, our ELA curriculum team decided that Rediscovering Thanksgiving should be updated to reflect a more complete view of history. 

The team wanted students to understand that the Indigenous people were here first and use that new knowledge to analyze bias in a narrative and build their critical literacy skills. To accomplish this, the unit was shifted to center an Indigenous perspective and provide opportunities for students to grapple with questions about whose stories they were reading and consider who was left out of those stories. 

While the team has done a lot to improve this unit, we still acknowledge the imperfections; there aren’t a plethora of grade-level appropriate texts written by Indigenous authors and the unit still leads with a European experience to align with how the texts are written, even as we attempt to look at it from a different angle. However, rather than let those imperfections stop students from engaging, we view them as opportunities for students to begin using a critical lens to explore Thanksgiving, and the often hidden bias present in children’s books. We hope to continually improve this unit with texts written by and about Indigenous people in the future.  

Teachers using Fishtank ELA have told us how much their students have been drawn to this unit and how powerful it has been for them to build this knowledge. In a recent school interview, PJK Elementary Principal Kristen Goncalves Redden shared how excited she was for students to learn about Thanksgiving in this way;  “Even the idea that there could be two sides to that story is really powerful for students.”


What Will Teachers Find in this Unit?

Within this 3rd Grade ELA unit, students learn about the Pilgrims and the first Massachusetts colonies, including why the Pilgrims came to the New World, their relationships with the Indigenous peoples, and the truth behind the first Thanksgiving.  While students engage with a variety of articles and books in this unit, the two core texts that ground Rediscovering Thanksgiving are Pilgrims: A Nonfiction Companion to Magic Tree House #27 and The Wampanoag (A True Book: American Indians).

This unit challenges students to view history with a critical lens, and to notice how there is always more than one side to a story. The unit begins with the Mayflower and helps students develop an understanding of why so many colonists decided to leave England and travel to the New World. Students will explore the hardships faced by the colonists, both on the ship and once they arrive in the New World, and how the colonists persevered and relied on the geography and environment to meet their needs. 

Students will then learn about the Wampanoag, the people who were on the land before the Pilgrims arrived. They will learn about what the Wampanoag valued, how they viewed the Pilgrims, and how the arrival of explorers and settlers negatively influenced their tribe. Then students will be pushed to analyze what really happened at the first Thanksgiving, and whose story is being told. Students will realize that the traditional story of the first Thanksgiving contains many myths that don't accurately reflect the Wampanoag and what really happened in 1621 and begin to notice those gaps in the way stories are told. 

Over the course of 24 lessons, students dig into the following Essential Questions: 

  1. Why did the Pilgrims leave England? What challenges did they face when they reached the “New World”? 
  2. Who were the first people to live in present day New England? How were their lives and communities impacted by the Europeans?
  3. What parts of the Thanksgiving story are true? What parts are myths?
  4. Why is it important to look at history from multiple perspectives?

To ensure all students have access to texts, class discussions, and unit tasks, teachers can utilize guidance found in the Preparing to Teach Fishtank ELA Teacher Tool which includes support for intellectual prep and supporting all students. Fishtank Plus users can also access the Unit Launch that offers additional guidance and reflection questions for teachers to engage with before teaching the unit.  


How Does This Unit Prepare Students for Future Learning?

In addition to the critical literacy skills that students will develop over the course of this unit, students will also build knowledge that prepares them for future Fishtank ELA units. Students use their knowledge of Indigenous people and their history to help them access texts in the 3rd Grade ELA unit Honoring Indigenous Peoples. Throughout the unit, students address the Essential Questions below: 

Essential Questions 

  1. In what ways are Indigenous cultures in the United States similar and different?
  2. How did the arrival of European explorers and settlers impact Indigenous societies? How is this impact still seen today?
  3. Who are some Indigenous heroes, and how have they changed the world?

In 4th Grade ELA, students examine the ideas and values behind the American Revolution and apply their critical literacy skills and knowledge of European colonists in Examining Our History: American Revolution. As in the Rediscovering Thanksgiving unit, students read texts that require them to consider who is telling the story and who is left out. Throughout the unit, students address the Essential Questions below: 

Essential Questions

  1. What key events led to the outbreak of the American Revolution?
  2. How did opinions differ on the idea of independence?
  3. Were the colonies really a land of equality and liberty?
  4. Why is it important to look at history from multiple perspectives?


Ready to bring Rediscovering Thanksgiving to your students? Access the unit plan, 24 lesson plans, and content assessment with your free Fishtank Learning account. Want more? Upgrade to Fishtank Plus to unlock additional in-lesson features and resources, comprehensive intellectual prep support with Unit Launches, and an expanded suite of Teacher Tools to make the most of your time with students. 

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