By Teachers, For Teachers
Fed up with building pilgrim hats out of paper bags?
Try one of these less predictable, equally educational Thanksgiving activities for students of any age.
A holiday can be the perfect tool to help students understand the literary concept of symbolism. Younger children can start with the most obvious symbols, like the turkey, while older students can consider how symbols like the cornucopia and the fully-loaded Thanksgiving dinner table are deeply rooted in the images we all have of the First Thanksgiving.
Practice Persuasive Writing
Have students write from the point of view of a turkey trying to convince the farmer to have a vegetarian Thanksgiving. Note: you may want to warn parents about their children’s potential aversion to eating turkey after this exercise.
Bust Thanksgiving Myths
For a scientific twist on the Big Day: is it true that you get sleepy after Thanksgiving dinner because of something in the turkey? Help students research why people might think that is true (The answer is here).
Or try a history myth-busting activity: have students tell you what they remember of the “First Thanksgiving” stories they heard as a child, then guide them through historical research to establish how accurate those stories really are.
Celebrate Family History
Have students interview a family member about their “most memorable Thanksgiving ever” or “our family’s best Thanksgiving tradition.” Once the interview is conducted, have students write up the story they learned; they can even decorate it and create something to be displayed at home during the holiday.
Whether they find out that Great Grandma learned her famous stuffing recipe during the Depression or hear a terrific story about how Dad learned to carve the turkey only after he’d knocked it onto the floor, it will be a memorable writing assignment!
This can also be a terrific way to approach cultural differences. For children who have immigrated to the U.S., how is their Thanksgiving different? Do they serve different foods? If some students don't celebrate Thanksgiving, what are some other holidays with family traditions? How is their attitude towards this very American holiday different from students who grew up here?
“Explore” a New World
Dealing with older, cynical students who have “seen it all” when it comes to Thanksgiving? Why not challenge them to write a story about a “new Thanksgiving” in the future, when a small group of explorers are trying to colonize a strange planet somewhere in the universe.
Encourage students to use what they know about the First Thanksgiving as inspiration, but to make appropriate changes. For example, would there be air and water on the new planet? Might that be something the “natives” of the planet could help the colonists obtain? This can provoke some really interesting stories, as well as a fresh appreciation for the original history behind this national holiday.
Holiday Math & Measurements
Planning for Thanksgiving provides plenty of mathematical moments.
Student chefs can convert measurements as they adapt simple recipes to serve different size parties. This kind of activity easily adapts for different grade levels by choosing simpler or more complex recipes. Young students can use a simple mashed potato recipe while middle students might use a pumpkin pie recipe and advanced students could convert recipes with metric units. Also, it's easy to adjust the recipe to suite your learning objectives!
Want to add a budget or Algebra angle? Try this 3-5 Math Printable: Calculating Thanksgiving Costs. OR have your students create a party budget or equations that help identify the overall cost depending on the number of attendees. For instance, if it costs $9 to feed each guest and $25 for decorations, your equation would be: 9x + 25 = y.
Activities about Gratitude
While Thanksgiving Day can be a source of interesting activities, some teachers prefer to focus on the concept of “giving thanks” instead of the day itself. These activities can be more complicated to pull off, but can be extremely powerful experiences.
Make a Gratitude Tree
Gratitude is a complex concept; younger students in particular may not realize how many things in their lives they are “supposed to be” grateful for – a roof over their heads, food on the table, good health, etc. You may wish to take class time to help students brainstorm a list of all the things they are grateful for.
Keep in mind that while students may have some things in common, each student should keep an individual list. A student may honestly feel grateful for a younger sibling or for their favorite stuffed animal, but not wish to say that out loud.
Have students copy the items from their individual lists onto pieces of paper shaped like autumn leaves. Use those leaves to decorate a “Tree of Gratitude” to help students remember the good things in their lives. This can be a great opportunity to have a discussion about gratitude in general. Help students to recognize that some things cause short-term gratitude – for example, passing a hard test feels good, but only until the next hard test comes along – while other things (family, friends, pets, good health) cause long-term gratitude.
For older students, this can be the starting point for a conversation about “instant gratification” as well.
Do a Gratitude “Secret Friend” Exercise
Like a Secret Santa gift exchange, the goal of this exercise is to anonymously reach out to someone. Brainstorm a list of the people in students’ lives who they don’t always thank – teachers or coaches, school custodians or cafeteria workers, bus or carpool drivers, the postal worker who delivers the mail, the crossing guard at the corner, their doctor or their pet’s veterinarian, or the garbage collector who picks up their trash and recycling. Ask students to choose someone and anonymously find a way to say “thank you.” They could write an anonymous note and have someone deliver it, or give a small gift, like a cookie or a flower, to their Secret Friend.
Encourage students to get creative; they can help each other with the deliveries or get their family members involved. This can be a great “homework assignment” over the Thanksgiving break. Emphasize that students need to remain anonymous – the experience will be totally different if the Secret Friend knows who is acknowledging them.
After the activity is over with, lead a class discussion or have students do a written assignment about their experience. Did it change how they look at that person or people who do that job? How did it make them feel?
However you decide to celebrate Thanksgiving in your classroom, these activities can put a new twist on the familiar holiday.
How do you recognize Thanksgiving in your classrooms? Share in the comments section!