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School Thanksgiving Traditions It’s Time To Break

In 2020, when we couldn’t safely gather with our extended family members, my husband, stepsons, and I enjoyed a small celebration. With no one to tell us otherwise, we decided to break with tradition and have a crab boil instead of the usual turkey and mashed potatoes fare.

It turned out to be one of the best Thanksgiving meals we’ve ever had. We may never go back to the tryptophan coma!

Thanksgiving is approaching again and it has me thinking about other traditions it’s time to break.

When my younger sister was in elementary school, she did a Thanksgiving project for a class in which she filmed a re-enactment of the first Thanksgiving. My other sister and I, my sister’s friend that lived next door, all had roles to play. Our neighbor even helped out and cooked us an entire Thanksgiving feast. It was an elaborate project, but none of us, including my sister, learned anything about the true story of the first Thanksgiving. This is just one example of a common classroom tradition where we miss the opportunity to learn something.

Here are some other classroom traditions that may look familiar:

  • Dressing kids up in Pilgrim and American-Indian costumes made from paper bags and construction paper
  • Romanticized retellings of the first Thanksgiving
  • Worksheets with caricatured images of American-Indian people.

Unfortunately, these aren’t past traditions — we can still find these activities in many classrooms today. These actions perpetuate harmful stereotypes and give students an inaccurate history of the relationship between the English colonists and Wampanoag. They can also give students the false idea that Indigenous people only exist in history.

I may have to go back to cooking a turkey if my mom shows up to dinner this year, but there are some traditions we can all stop for good.

Here are some resources to inspire you to start some new, more inclusive Thanksgiving traditions:

Rethinking Thanksgiving Celebrations: Native Perspectives on Thanksgiving
An excellent resource from the National Museum of the American-Indian that includes classroom resources and activities.

A Racial Justice Guide to Thanksgiving
This site includes Native American perspectives on Thanksgiving celebrations, lesson plan ideas, resources for families, and book lists.

What Kids Are Learning About Thanksgiving is Changing
This is a great article about how a group of teachers have changed their way of teaching about Thanksgiving with links to resources.

Decolonizing Thanksgiving: A Toolkit for Combatting Racism in Schools
Another article filled with resources, including sample letters that parents can use to change practices at their school.

Thanksgiving Activity for the Classroom
A culturally appropriate activity from the National Museum of the American Indian.

While we’re at it, let’s remember to include the stories of Indigenous peoples throughout the year and not just in November. Much like what I wrote earlier this year for Black History Month, we need to tell the whole story.

Here are some books to add to your library:

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