Comparing Stories of the First Thanksgiving – A Lesson in Understanding Author Perspective

I’m no historian, but I am a fan of History. I have binge watched Crash Course, attended local history events, enjoy reading history books for fun, and from time to time, teach a US history-themed course. Whenever I can, I inject US history into my classes, not as a form of patriotism, but because it provides a great platform for critical thinking and contextual / cultural understanding.

Thanksgiving is in several days and I was inspired to do something related to the holiday in my reading class, where most of my critical thinking instruction happens. I found a great lesson plan from the New York Times called “What Really Happened? Comparing Stories of the First Thanksgiving“. In this lesson, students are supposed to investigate competing stories of the first Thanksgiving and by doing so consider evidence and author perspective. They link to several general articles about Thanksgiving, several articles written from a Native American perspective, and several from a more conservative or right-wing perspective.

The articles they link to are great, but are written in a way that is very inaccessible to English language learners, even at advanced level. Furthermore, the lesson plan as they described it would likely take several hours or class sessions. Given that my learners are advanced but still would struggle with the readings, and that I simply wanted to do a one-off pre-Thanksgiving lesson, I heavily adapted their suggestions and did the following in jigsaw reading lesson in class:

  1. I found three suitable articles, one from each perspective, and simplified the language so that they were short (could be read in less than 10 minutes) and relatively easy to understand. You can see the articles I used here.
  2. I divided the class into three groups and gave each group copies of their respective articles. They had 10 minutes to read the article.
  3. Students then discussed the article in their groups. They had to answer the following questions:
    1. What were the main events of the article?
    2. What was interesting or surprising about the article?
    3. Who wrote the article? Why do you think they wrote it?
  4. After about 10 minutes, I broke the students up into new groups, where 1 student from each article came together to form a group of students who read different articles. I then gave them the final discussion question:
    1. Briefly summarize your article.
    2. What differences exist between the stories?
    3. Why do you think the stories are different?
  5. I walked around, monitored and facilitated student discussions, hinting at them to check the article’s authors to help answer the last two questions.
  6. Finally, we came together as a whole class and I asked them about the last question. We talked about perspective and the need to understand who the author is and why they may be writing something.
  7. We then briefly review each article and why they were written. I frame this debriefing discussion in terms of “myths” and explain how all countries have them, and that the story of Thanksgiving is an important founding myth of out country.
    1. The First Thanksgiving” from National Geographic Kids is the typical story of Thanksgiving, but it is simplified story missing many details. This is due to the general audience, trying to take a neutral stance, and the fact that kids should probably not be exposed to violence. We talked about what a neutral stance means and the fact that this may be the only story Americans are exposed to.
    2. The Real First Thanksgiving” is told from the Native American perspective. It is described as one event in a long series of injustices against the Native people, and it is mostly historically accurate. I reviewed briefly how Squanto and the Wampanoags are treated in these first two stories. (Note: despite its unprofessional look, the website contains information that is very accurate – I checked them against several other sources).
    3. The Real Meaning of Thanksgiving” is told from a conservative, right-wing political perspective. Students generally have little background on what this means in the American context, so this needs a brief explanation. I also point out that the article focuses on individualism, capitalism, and American values, but it has debatable accuracy (something that is explained more in this New York Times article).

By the end of this lesson (which, by the way, I taught for the first time), students were shocked by the details of Thanksgiving, but they also really enjoyed seeing a story from multiple perspectives and they told me they realized how important it is to not only judge an article based on where it was published, but also on who wrote it, and that this may actually have an effect on how something is interpreted.

This is a lesson I will definitely reuse again, as it was very timely and interesting for the students, and introduced a powerful lens of critical thinking. Hopefully, next time I can take more time and get students to do deeper reads on this and similar topics.

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