Throughout my teaching career, I have been consistently surprised by how little my students know about the Pilgrims and the origins of Thanksgiving. Since the Pilgrims are such an important part of our nation’s history, I make it a point every year to teach my students about them and the history of Thanksgiving. At the conclusion of my lesson, I always show a wonderful half-hour video version of the book Molly’s Pilgrim by Barbara Cohen. In this article, I’d like to share exactly what I do with my students to introduce a study of the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving.
Learning About the Pilgrims
On the whiteboard, I write the following words or short phrases (The answers are in parentheses for your benefit):
- Who: _______(A group of 102 men, women, and children)
- Came from: _______(England)
- When:_______(November of 1620)
- How: ________(Sailed across the Atlantic Ocean on the Mayflower)
- Why: ________(Seeking religious freedom)
- Went to: ________(Present-day Massachusetts and established a colony called Plymouth)
Along with the words/phrases I put on the board, I draw a map depicting North America, the Atlantic Ocean, the Eastern coast of Europe, and the British Isles. Then, I lead a class discussion in which students answer the six questions above. During the discussion, further details about the Pilgrims emerge as the students ask questions.
After the historical facts have been covered, I lead the class in a discussion on the origins of Thanksgiving itself. This helps students understand the reasons that the Pilgrims held the first Thanksgiving and why it became a national holiday. They are always surprised to find out that Thanksgiving didn’t become a national holiday until 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln designated the last Thursday of every November as Thanksgiving in an attempt to help our country heal from the terrible wounds caused by the Civil War.
Thanksgiving and Molly’s Pilgrim
Once the mini-lesson is complete, I have my students sit back and enjoy the splendid video version of the book Molly’s Pilgrim, which is very easy to find in DVD form. In a nutshell, the story is about a young girl who moves to New York from Russia with her mom and dad. She speaks very little English and must endure taunts and teasing from many of her third grade classmates because she is different from everyone else. It is November, and her teacher assigns the class a Thanksgiving task. They must create a doll for a class display that depicts a Pilgrim man, woman, or child, or one of the Wampanoag Indians. When Molly brings in the doll that her mom helped her create, her teacher and classmates react in a way that leads to a beautiful, new understanding of what the word “Pilgrim” means.
For homework that night, I send home an assignment that allows my students to review information about the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving by using activities involving matching, filling in the blanks, and answering short questions. The assignment also includes a writing component in which students share their opinions about the video.
I hope you will consider using my mini-lesson and Molly’s Pilgrim with your class as Thanksgiving approaches. Below are some other fine lessons which involve an exploration of the Thanksgiving holiday.
Thanksgiving Lesson Plans:
Thanksgiving: A Celebration of Gratitude
This story-based lesson is designed for first and second grade students and is centered on teaching the concept of gratitude. This is accomplished by using the stories of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians. This is an excellent lesson!
You Are the Historian: The First Thanksgiving
This inventive lesson is designed for middle-elementary students. Using a variety of resources, students study facts about the first Thanksgiving and create a museum display of their own which depicts the event.
An Attitude of Gratitude: A PowerPoint on Being Thankful
Another lesson with gratitude as a theme! This time, junior high school students each create a PowerPoint slide, using a variety of media resources, depicting what they are grateful for. The slides are combined into a full-class PowerPoint presentation.
Let’s Talk Turkey: The Cost of Thanksgiving Dinner
This practical lesson is designed for high school students. After sharing how their families celebrate Thanksgiving, the class accesses information published by The American Farm Bureau and utilizes mathematical concepts such as the price index to calculate the costs involved in Thanksgiving dinners of all kinds.