The Real Significance of the First Thanksgiving

I know it’s a bit early, but I wanted to give teachers ample time to think about how they will present the first Thanksgiving in their classrooms this year.  When I taught English as a Second Language, it was one of my favorite times of the year because of its relevance to English as a New Language (ENL)  learners.  It was exciting to watch them learn about this important American holiday and how relevant it may be to their own origins.

I don’t know about you, but it took a long time for me to become aware of the fact that Native Americans were people who had traveled from eastern Asia, across the frozen Bering Strait to the North American continent during the Ice Age, to hunt for food. I was taught, or thought, that the Native Americans were always here…part of the landscape. (Excellent material for a Common Core Social Studies lesson or unit.)  Then the Pilgrims arrived, suffered a disastrous first winter during which many died, and were saved in Spring by the Native Americans who taught them to plant corn, beans and squash, now known as “the three sisters.” The first Thanksgiving was actually a celebration of the Pilgrims’ survival, thanks to the Native Americans. The eventual genocide of most Native Americans that later took place is better left for middle or high school discussions.

I think most cultures are ethnocentric.  They like to think that everything that happens in their history is positive and have little interest in the perceptions of other cultures. But this version of history is changing. Thanks to the wonders of the digital age, borders have become more porous and what happens elsewhere can easily impact others in farflung places.  There are no more secrets; the truth will emerge thanks to all our social media outlets.

Even before the worldwide phenomenon of the digital revolution, I enjoyed teaching my English Language Learners that many of them came from countries where Native Americans were their ancestors, particularly in Central and South America. This has been a revelation to most of my students. The Asian students are amazed to learn that their ancestors walked across the land bridge from Asia to the new world  for their survival and then dispersed throughout the Americas. Most of my students (grades 1 to 8) had never had these conversations with their families, and those who were born here had even less connection to their roots. Latino students are amazed to learn of the great migrations that brought The First Nations to our land and how they steadily moved through the two continents of what we now know as North and South America to become their ancestors,

Because English Language Learners often feel like “outliers,”  they are often  amazed to learn that their ancestors were actually on this continent long before any of the European settlers arrived.  In fact, learning that the Europeans immigrants arrived long after the Native Americans turns the whole story around. I remember how enlightening this perspective was when I first learned about it. It made the world seem like a  place with people constantly on the move looking for a better place to live, just as our new immigrants are doing today.

This open-ended perspective lends itself to teaching so many wonderful lessons about the interconnectedness of people. It presents immigration as a dynamic process that is as old as mankind itself, and it empowers those who don’t yet feel part of American culture to learn that their ancestors may have actually been the first Americans. In my classroom there was always palpable excitement as my students and I looked at the globe together and followed their families’ migrations with a finger across continents and oceans. For many of my students, these discussion are doubly empowering as many of them don’t even know about their family roots. I patiently explain to them that they are not only Dominicans, or Chinese, or Mexican if they were born in the United States; they are, in fact, our newest Americans.

My intention is not to diminish their connection to their heritage, but to give them the bigger picture of what immigration is all about. To me, it’s about learning about where your family came from and then learning to embrace the reality of where you were born or brought to start a new life. I wish that the curriculum would emphasize this perspective more in elementary, middle and high school because I think it would open some fresh discussions about where we all came from and would help our more recent arrivals to feel more welcome. We would learn together  that we are all part of this ever changing world in which we live.

Next week, I will share a mentor text that I have used in my classes to demonstrate the ideas I have discussed here today. This text will generate lively discussions in both mainstream and integrated classrooms.



9 thoughts on “The Real Significance of the First Thanksgiving”

  1. The perspective you give here about immigration is beautiful. “Learning to embrace the reality of where you were born or brought to start a new life” shows the strength and courage of a new comer to this country. I read Home of the Brave this year. It resonated with my ELLs. It made them feel like heroes not outsiders. Your lesson is necessary for all of us.


  2. Wow! What an intelligent, thoughtful, compassionate way to think about immigration and connectedness related to Thanksgiving. This post needs to be shared with a wider audience. To be honest, I’m one of the people who believed Native Americans were “always” here. I think that was what I was taught and never questioned it. Thanks for educating me this morning!


  3. Kudos to you for going beyond what most consider the confines of an ESL program. You’ve given them both much needed history and a reason to stand taller. Good for you.


  4. I remember teaching about the land bridge when I taught 4th grade, but your perspective is so much better! The sad part is because of testing and the emphasis on math and language arts, lesson such as these are few and far between.

    Thanks for the history lesson within a slice. Can’t wait to read next week’s slice about the mentor text.


  5. My grandparents were immigrants as children, so I am only the second generation born in this country. That’s a startling thought to me as your post makes me realize how young our family is to this country. Interesting information Barbara!


  6. Anyone teaching an older class, or just wanting to see the whole human picture, should read Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond if they have not done so already. It allows us to understand just how and why we are so migratory, and why what happened when, including the near extermination of native populations in America by fortified diseases.
    To more fully appreciate the breadth of native American accomplishments the best (although controversial) book is 1491 by Charles C. Mann. It is shocking to consider the pre-Columbus Americas as an engineering powerhouse. It is also unsettling to realize that the native American cultures we are familiar with may have been the sad post-apocalyptic remnants or brilliant civilizations already destroyed by the diseases of the early Spanish explorers (and even worse the diseases carried by their escaped domestic animals like pigs.)
    My one additional cautionary comment is that the central core of American culture is the idea that your ancestors do not matter _ you are responsible for your own life. Many American immigrants, including the Pilgrims, were running away from a bad place at home.


    1. I’ll have to find the book you recommend, 1491 and perhaps Guns…., as well. I have become more and more fascinated by the continued wanderings of people around the globe. Thanks for your interest and suggestions.


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