A Culturally Responsive Approach to Discussing Thanksgiving in the Classroom

In this ongoing series, we explore what culturally responsive teaching looks like at different grade levels and offer concrete examples and resources. Last week we explored going beyond “The Single Story”Today, educator Lindsay Barrett offers a culturally responsive approach to discussing Thanksgiving in the Classroom. 

Culturally Responsive Teaching Thanksgiving

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Discussions of holidays can be challenging for teachers to navigate. School expectations can range from complete avoidance to blind participation in longstanding outdated projects and events. For historically based holidays, there’s the issue of how to cut through mainstream perceptions to be historically accurate. Furthermore, fully embracing culturally responsive teaching means thinking of differences like how we celebrate holidays as just the “tip of the iceberg.” Regardless, students across the US will soon have time off school for Thanksgiving and be inundated by media and marketing related to the holiday, so being prepared with a culturally responsive approach is important. One way to discuss Thanksgiving that will be meaningful to your students -whether or not they’ll be tucking into a turkey dinner- is to share books that expand upon some of the universal themes the holiday evokes.

Yum! ¡Mmmm! Que ricoThe Harvest

Discussions honoring the bounty of a harvest need not be limited to today’s stereotypical Thanksgiving menu or even what the colonists and Wampanoag actually ate. Enjoy Pat Mora’s Yum! Mmmm! Que Rico! America’s Sproutings with your class to give students a broader perspective. This collection of haiku celebrates American crops from pecans to prickly pears and includes nonfiction information about each food. Read about a surprising and possibly unfamiliar harvest in Ghosts for Breakfast. Or, present an alternative account of the relief of a plentiful harvest can bring. In Sweet Potato Pie, a loving and industrious family sells pies at the Harvest Festival to save their farm. Invite students to share their own harvest knowledge and family traditions.

Food and Family

Limiting multicultural teaching to discussions of different foods could be considered lingering in the “tip of the iceberg” category referenced above. However, when you expand the conversation to explore the many family traditions that exist around preparing and eating food together, conversations become much more rich. Discuss select paintings in Carmen Lomas Garza’s Family Pictures/Cuadros de Familia and In My Family/En Mi Familia to explore traditions like making tamales and harvesting nopal cactus. Auntie Yang’s Great Soybean Picnic has many parallels to typical Thanksgiving traditions, including a family road trip, hoards of aunts, uncles and cousins, and a big family meal. The book also introduces Chinese culinary customs and offers opportunities to discuss how families can maintain traditions –and create new ones- even if they differ from mainstream culture.

Giving ThanksGratitude

A typical Thanksgiving classroom activity is for students to list what they are thankful for. The book Gracias-Thanks can initiate broader conversations about expressions of gratitude. The bilingual text and illustrations depict a vibrant and close-knit family of color, offering a culturally sensitive departure from the common image of a family gathered around a turkey laid out on a white tablecloth. Presented alongside a more stereotypical Thanksgiving text, teachers can even ask students to analyze what makes Gracias-Thanks a more inclusive look at being thankful.

Discussing how various families and cultures express gratitude is a culturally responsive take on this theme. The classic Giving Thanks: A Native American Morning Message (also available in Spanish) presents the Mohawk “Thanksgiving Address,” which honors the gifts of the natural world. The book can be a springboard for investigating diverse gratitude rituals and celebrations.

True, culturally responsive teaching means going “beyond heroes and holidays,” but it also means approaching holidays in a nuanced and intentional way. Diverse books and the discussions that follow are reliable tools for any classroom.

Lindsay BarrettAbout the Author: Lindsay Barrett is a former elementary teacher and literacy nonprofit director. She currently works as a literacy consultant and stays busy raising three young boys. Find out more about her work at lindsay-barrett.com.

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