How Should Teachers Approach the Thanksgiving Story?

In the week leading up to Thanksgiving, many classes – particularly in elementary schools – study the historical origins of the holiday. They learn about the Pilgrims and their struggles, the help they received from Squanto, and their harvest feast with the Wampanoags.

All of these stories have a basis in historical documentation, but of course, the actual historical events were far more complicated than what we teach our children each year. In fact, some historians see the standard classroom narrative of Thanksgiving as worse than an oversimplification – they see several aspects of the story, and particularly the depiction of the Wampanoags, as inaccurate and problematic.

A recent article in Education Week discussed the views of historians at Plimoth Plantation Center on the traditional Thanksgiving narrative. The article also raised a related, important issue – how should the Thanksgiving narrative be taught in schools within the American Indian community? The article cites interviews with several teachers explaining how they use Thanksgiving to talk about American Indian history, pluralism of perspectives in history, and even the process of making historical narratives over time.

Should schools teach the traditional Thanksgiving narrative, leaving the season as a time for celebration? Or is there a moral imperative to address the inaccuracies in the narrative? And if a more critical perspective on Thanksgiving is taught in the classroom, at what age should it be taught? Tell us what you think in the comments.

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