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.


The Taking of Palmyra by ISIS and My Peonies: Taking Back the World, One Garden at a Time

Yesterday (Friday)  it was all over the news.  ISIS had captured Palmyra, an oasis in the Syrian desert.  Visiting my son in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn on Saturday for a post-Mother’s Day celebration, I asked him to describe Palmyra to me; he had visited there several years ago just before the outbreak of the Arab Spring revolutions.  He told me that this oasis in the middle of the vast deserts of Syria allowed it to become a cultural crossroads.  In a moving article in Saturday’s  New York Times, its author, Patrick Symmes, explains that Palmyra was “a crucial nexus on the Silk Road, a trading post where Arab caravans disgorged their precious cargoes from the East,” turning this spot into a “kind of dry Venice, a hub of exchange that enriched everyone involved.” Here, under layers of desert, lie the ruins of civilizations preceding the arrival of the Romans, and the area is abundant in Roman ruins as well. Though Symmes and my son called it the “Venice of the Desert,” neither of them spoke of seeing gardens there. To me the very name, Palmyra, is evocative of palms, and perhaps the ancient gardens of those who were fortunate enough to flourish there and grow them. I will have to do some research to catch up on the history of a place I know nothing about.  My son is devastated that, one by one, the ancient cities and monuments he has visited in the Middle East, are being plundered and erased from memory. Mr. Symmes, although deeply despairing of the depth of destruction, urges us to be even more concerned about its people, and rightfully so.

What can we ordinary people, here in the West, do about all this death and destruction?

Meanwhile, back in Brooklyn we hovered over my son’s new garden, started a year ago, from the shambles of what was probably once a well-tended garden that had been neglected for years.  We talked about the fading shoots and leaves of the bulbs that had all bloomed and disappeared, as well as the new sprouts just beginning to make their presence known in the soil.  We also joked about the awkward evergreen which sits  in the middle of it all, taking up too much space and casting a shadow over all the new arrivals.  He has been judiciously pruning it back, hoping not to capture the wrath of his landlady who cherishes any weed of yore still growing there.

I am filled with love and pride that he is cultivating a garden. He, who has been so caught up in the world the past decade, working beyond his limits at times, to make a place and a future for himself. He has traveled far and wide, including Africa and the Middle East,  but now seems content to tend his garden and settle into a slightly more sedentary life with his lovely partner.  He now knows more about specific plants than I do and was able to take us on a walk in his neighborhood pointing out his favorites in  the well and not-so-well tended gardens in each front yard on his street.

My daughter, too, has caught the bug…or is it a gene?  She had lived in the Bay Area of California along the coast for 7 years, and like me, had become infatuated with the lusciousness of whatever grows there including birds of paradise, lavender bushes the size of small Volkswagons, scented eucalypus trees and majestic redwoods.  In reaction to the turmoil in her life, she, too, turned to gardening and created her own oasis of calm and beauty.  She introduced me to native California blooms, succulents and the everyday beauty of ice plants growing along the slopes of the Pacific and blooming gorgeously in early spring.  When she left California several years ago, she was heartbroken at having to leave behind her garden which she had cultivated with so much love and pride.

Now she has her own garden again.  At our home on LI, her brother generously cleared a plot of land overgrown with ivy and brambles one beautiful day in early spring.  Since then she has planted jack o’lantern flowers, African daisies, red and yellow sunflowers and a multitude of other plants that will attract butterflies and bees.  Like her brother, she goes immediately after a workday to tend her garden and soothe her nerves.  Every day we chat about what is growing, what seems to be thriving and how beautiful it will all be in a month or two.

We are not alone in this endeavor to cultivate gardens.  We have friends both near and far-flung who are lovingly tending their own gardens.  Every Christmas our Canadian friends send us a Christmas card with a photo of their latest horticultural triumph.  In Oakland and Santa Cruz, California we have friends who have lemon and orange trees in their yards and hummingbirds in their gardens.  A nearby friend on LI creates a Monet-like painting of pinks and violets on her patio, choosing her plants carefully and lovingly to achieve just the right combination.

Today, as I write this post, I am sitting next to my white peony whose blooms we have all been patiently awaiting.  She is the showgirl of our backyard garden and flaunts her huge white petals in front of the dainty, humble mini-irises that were the stars until they were eclipsed by this extravagant display.  I think there are many reasons for this renewed interest in horticulture.  I believe there is such an overload of information from the media and social media about a world that is disturbingly rearranging itself while we wait to see what is left…that we are seeking, each in our own way, to create our own oasis of peace and contemplation.  We are eager for our prizes to bloom; sad when they disappear; hopeful they will return; and certain that no matter what happens, our gardens will be here to protect us from the bad news that seems to be encroaching on our space each and every day…and, perhaps, to remind us that hope will bloom eternal, even for those under siege in the faraway deserts of Syria.