Thanksgiving Since the Beginning – An American Celebration

Thanksgiving Since the Beginning – An American Celebration
Michelle Obama: Economics, Discovery and Daily Life

Skill: Middle School
Time Required: 3-5 class periods


We all know that Thanksgiving was first celebrated in the American colonies in 1621, but did you know that in a Pilgrim household, the adults ate first, served by their children and servants?  Did you know that now, nearly 400 years later, although the holiday is celebrated as a harvest festival in many parts of the world, our version of Thanksgiving has become a uniquely American celebration.  The tradition at the Obama household is to gather their extended family – mostly Michelle’s relatives, notes the President – for a dinner in which everyone brings something.  In 2008, Thanksgiving was just after the election that put the Obamas in the White House, but they weren’t there yet.  They had Thanksgiving in Chicago – “My contribution is the house!” said the First Lady.


Students who participate in this lesson will explore a number of sources to learn the history of the Thanksgiving celebration in the American colonies and the United States. They will prepare a Thanksgiving timeline, use “fun facts” about Thanksgiving to create a Jeopardy Game, and write a short memoir about their most memorable Thanksgiving.

Materials Required:

Access to the Internet; paper and markers, or watercolors, access to text programs on a computer (optional).


1.  To begin, show students the video on the history of Thanksgiving (available at the first website listed below) and discuss with them some of the things that might have been new knowledge to them from the video. 
2.  Then, tell the students that there are two major projects to be done and ask them to sign up for one or the other.  The two tasks are to create a Thanksgiving timeline, and to develop a Jeopardy game about Thanksgiving. Pass around a sign-up sheet for each task.
3.  There will probably need to be some sub-division of research work in the two groups, so encourage students to select the kind of work he or she might be most interested in. For example, in creating a timeline and using the websites and/or books listed below, a smaller group of students might:
·        Work on the history of the holiday in the colonies
·        Work on the history of the holiday in the 19th and 20th centuries
·        Look for pictures that could illustrate the timeline
·        Find out about the “official” dates for Thanksgiving as proclaimed by various governmental units
The finished timeline might be a series of 8 ½ by 11-inch posters, with both text and drawings, or, if the technology is available, a single long stream of text and pictures created on the computer.  Either can be hung on the walls of the classroom.

(Note: there is a timeline listed below, but tell students to use all the sites to create a timeline of information that they think is important – not to just copy the one there.)
4.  In creating a Jeopardy game, using the instructions for creating a Jeopardy game as a PowerPoint and the websites and/or books listed below, smaller groups of students might:
·        Decide on the Jeopardy categories and research the answers and questions for the first category
·        Research the answers and questions for the second category
·        Research the answers and questions for the third category
·        Research the answers and questions for the fourth category
·        Research the answers and questions for the fifth category
5.  When the timeline groups have completed their tasks, they should report on their work and post it around the room.
6.  When the Jeopardy game is completed, it should be played by the class.
7.  Finally, as a culminating activity, each student should write a short (1 page) memoir of their most memorable Thanksgiving, which, depending on time, could be shared with the class – either by reading them aloud, or sharing them on a class webpage.

Extending the Lesson:

This lesson can be extended by taking a leaf from the early Pilgrim “book” in which children served their parents and adult relatives first at the big meal of the day.  Having gathered so much information on Thanksgiving, and with a little help perhaps from their parents and the school staff, students can organize and serve a “Thanksgiving” meal for their teachers, to thank them for all they do. The following quote from an article by Michelle Obama can perhaps serve as the inspiration for such an event: 
   We all remember the impact a special teacher had on us—a teacher who efused to let us fall through the cracks; who pushed us and believed in us when we doubted ourselves; who sparked in us a lifelong curiosity and passion for learning. Decades later, we remember the way they made us feel and the things they inspired us to do—how they challenged us and changed our lives. So it's not surprising that studies show that the single most important factor affecting students' achievement is the caliber of their teachers. And when we think about the qualities that make an outstanding teacher—boundless energy and endless patience; vision and a sense of purpose; the creativity to help us see the world in a different way; commitment to helping us discover and fulfill our potential—we realize: These are also the qualities of a great leader.
-- from an article in U.S. News and  World Report by Michelle Obama, October 15, 2009

Sources & Resources:

Colman, Penny. Thanksgiving: The True Story. Henry Holt, 2008.
Grace, Catherine O’Neill. 1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving. National Geographic, 2004.
History of Thanksgiving Video
The History of Thanksgiving
The First Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving Timeline
An African American Thanksgiving Sermon
Thanksgiving Remembered
Thanksgiving Fun Facts
Coolest Thanksgiving Facts, Traditions, and History
 Directions for Creating a Jeopardy Game


This lesson was developed by Averil McClelland, Kent State University.