Books and Activities to Explore the History and True Meaning of Thanksgiving

Turkeys, pilgrims, and pumpkin pie.  For most Americans, those are the images that come to mind when we hear the word “Thanksgiving”.  That’s because turkeys, pilgrims, and pumpkin pie are three of the key details in the Thanksgiving story we were taught as children.  The story is so ingrained in our culture that you probably know it by heart.  According to nprEd it goes something like this: 

The Pilgrims fled England and landed on Plymouth Rock. The native people there, the Wampanoag, taught them to farm the land. In 1621, they sat down together for a Thanksgiving feast, and we’ve been celebrating it ever since.”  

But as you (hopefully) know, there are lots of problems with that story.  It’s a blend of fact and fiction.  So what can we do as teachers to give students a better understanding of what Thanksgiving was and why we celebrate it on the fourth Thursday in November?  

One solution is to teach students about the true story, or the history of Thanksgiving. 

Luckily there’s a variety of picture books that provide a nice springboard for mini lessons focused on exploring the true story of Thanksgiving.  BookPagez has resource sets to pair with books that tell the traditional story of Thanksgiving as well as books that tell about some of the people responsible for the Thanksgiving traditions we follow today.  Try these activities to help your students explore the history and the true meaning of Thanksgiving.

Get On the Same Page

Book: The Very First Thanksgiving Day by Rhonda Gowler Greene

Supplies: chart paper, markers

Get started by building an anchor chart listing the things your students think of when they hear the word “Thanksgiving”.  Then tell your students you are going to read a book that tells the traditional story of Thanksgiving.  Read The Very First Thanksgiving Day aloud.  

After you’ve finished reading reflect on the anchor chart.  Work with students to circle all of the items on the chart that are part of the traditional Thanksgiving story.  Explain that the circled items are part of our Thanksgiving traditions, which have been handed down from generation to generation.  Tell students that tomorrow, you are going to read a book about modern-day pilgrims, which are people who are coming to America now, just as the first pilgrims did hundreds of years ago.   

Connect America’s First Pilgrims with Today’s Pilgrims

Book: How Many Days to America? A Thanksgiving Story by Eve Bunting

Supplies: chart paper, markers, compare and contrast resource set (optional)

Optional Weblink: https://www.scholastic.com/scholastic_thanksgiving/webcast.htm

Begin by asking students to think about the pilgrims in the book The Very First Thanksgiving Day.  Then ask your students to tell about the Pilgrim’s journey on the Mayflower. Discuss why America’s first pilgrims came to America (answer: freedom).  Explain that there are many places in the world where people are not free.  They are not free to go to school, they are not free to wear what they want, and they are not free to drive or speak other languages.  Tell students that their job is to listen to the book and think about the ways in which modern-day pilgrims are similar to and different from America’s first pilgrims.  

After reading the book either use one of the graphic organizers included in the BookPagez Compare and Contrast resource set or draw a Venn Diagram on chart paper to compare and contrast the experience of the Mayflower pilgrims to those described in How Many Days to America.  

Optionally, if time permits, Scholastic has several virtual tours and videos of the Mayflower and Plimoth Plantation available on their website.  Spend some time exploring the Mayflower and hearing from reenactors about their journey on the Mayflower and Pilgrim life.  Use the information learned from your exploration to further compare and contrast Pilgrim experiences and what it means to have a day of Thanksgiving.  

Set the Story Straight

Book: Thank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving by Laurie Halse Anderson

Supplies: chart paper, markers

Introduce your students to Sarah Hale, otherwise known as Thanksgiving’s superhero by reading Thank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving.  After reading the book talk with your students about why Thanksgiving was so important to Sarah (answer: Sarah wanted the country to celebrate all of the things we have to be thankful for).  Then ask your students to turn and talk with a partner about the things we have to be thankful for.  After students have had time to talk begin building an anchor chart listing all of the things your students are thankful for. 

Invite students to continue adding to the chart paper each day until you break for the Thanksgiving holiday.  The growing list will serve as a reminder to your students that we have a lot to be grateful for, which is why it’s important to have a day of Thanksgiving. 

Meet Tony Sarg

Book: Balloons Over Broadway by Melissa Sweet

Supplies: none

Optional Weblink: https://www.newsweek.com/macys-thanksgiving-parade-photos-1213890?page=6

Bring the history of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade to life for your students by sharing Balloons Over Broadway with your students.  The book tells the story of Tony Sarg, an incredibly talented man who introduced helium balloons to the Macy’s Parade. 

Explain to your students that Macy’s is a big department store that has been around for a very long time (October 28, 1858).  In 1924 a lot of the people working at Macy’s were immigrants, so Macy’s wanted to put on a parade for their employees to help them celebrate America’s biggest holiday – Thanksgiving.  

Tell students that their job is to listen to the book and think about the reasons why America loves the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.  After reading the book talk with your students about why the parade has become a tradition and why people love the parade. 

Optionally, Newsweek has a slide show and a short video showing what the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade has looked like through the years.  Share the slides and video with your students to supplement the book. 

Last, to illustrate whether or not the tradition of the Thanksgiving Day parade is important to your students, you can ask the students in your class to stand up if they plan to watch or attend a parade.  It will be interesting to see whether or not the tradition persists in the age of streaming vs. live network television.  

Save a Turkey

Book: Turkey Trouble by Wendi Silvano

Supplies: turkey printable, pencils, crayons, markers, Turkey Trouble extension activity (optional)

Treat your students to Wendi Silvano’s laugh-out-loud story about a turkey in trouble.  After reading the book challenge your students to come up with a clever disguise for Turkey. 

Either use the extension activity included in the Turkey Trouble resource set or provide your students with a copy of a Turkey. Invite your students to share their disguises then have the class vote on which disguise is most likely to keep Turkey out of trouble.  

Keep Reading

Theme your comprehension strategy instruction to focus on reading books related to Thanksgiving.  BookPagez has dozens of comprehension strategy mini lessons and activities that make it easy to celebrate the season and meet your instructional goals.  Here’s an overview of the mini lessons and activities available for Thanksgiving books.  

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The Very First Thanksgiving Day by Rhonda Gowler Greene

Guided Reading Level: M

Genre: Informational

In this historical fiction book, beginner readers will journey back to the very first Thanksgiving Day, when the pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians met peacefully to celebrate the Earth’s harvest. Since most readers will be familiar with this historical event, they can focus on the information they need from this story to accurately retell, make connections and further their understanding of this text.

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How Many Days to America: A Thanksgiving Story by Eve Bunting

Guided Reading Level: S

Genre: Realistic Fiction

Eve Bunting’s story of a family forced to flee their home in the dead of night is one that takes a departure from the traditional immigration story. The stark description of the family’s journey across the Caribbean will keep students on the edge of their seat and provide them with a keen perspective of what it means to be a modern-day pilgrim.

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Thank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving by Laurie Halse Anderson

Guided Reading Level: L

Genre: Biography

Leave the classic tale of Pilgrims and Native Americans behind and share the untold story of an American holiday instead. In Thank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving, readers will learn the Story of Sarah Hale, the woman who penned “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, became the first magazine editor in America, and who fought for Thanksgiving. This fast-paced read makes it easy for students to make predictions, ask questions, and infer information as they read about Sarah Hale’s crusade to establish a day of thanks for our nation. Readers will also learn how authors use ellipses to create suspense, connect information, and to encourage their readers to make predictions.

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Balloons Over Broadway by Melissa Sweet

Guided Reading Level: N

Genre: Biography

Award-winning author Melissa Sweet brings the history of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade to life in this informational book about Tony Sarg and his marionettes. Students will thoroughly enjoy working with this creatively told story about puppetry. Reading about Tony Sarg, an incredibly talented man who introduced helium balloons to the Macy’s Parade, will compel children to ask questions, find answers, and summarize the information. Beautiful illustrations and captions throughout the story support readers as they retell the events.

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Turkey Trouble by Wendi Silvano

Guided Reading Level: K

Genre: Fantasy

Treat your students to Wendi Silvano’s laugh-out-loud story about a turkey in trouble. Thanksgiving is fast approaching and Turkey must find a way to escape his fate as the star of Thanksgiving dinner. Students will learn to improve their comprehension by making predictions, synthesizing, and by understanding a variety of text structures as they follow Turkey’s attempts to disguise himself as barnyard animals.

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