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nrm3.jpgColumbus Day, Halloween,Thanksgiving, and Christmas.

These holidays used to be staples of the elementary school year. Who doesn’t have memories of a rhyme about 1492, wearing a pilgrim hat, a spooky school parade or a Secret Santa exchange from their childhood? But some of these one-dimensional celebrations should stay in the past.

How do we strategize our acknowledgement of Thanksgiving without whitewashing it? When the story we are usually telling is that of European ancestors stepping into the story of the Wampaoag- a tribe that had spent twelve thousand years on the land and then offered generosity, repaid with genocide?  

And how do we teach our students?

November is Native American Heritage Month. The good news is that the resources are available for re-evaluating the way we “do” thanksgiving in the classroom.

These strategies help point the way:

  1. Celebrate Native American Heritage Month. Its okay if you didn’t have a huge thing planned and are just now learning about it. Start small. As a young social studies teacher I found myself teaching a high school course on Central and South America and felt woefully uprepared. I took a tip from a veteran educator started everyday with a few facts, a short poem, or a news story about  the culture we were studying. It took only a minute or two, and then I simply made the resource available for the students. It deepened curiosity and broadened the very shallow knowledge base we were starting from. Start here.
  2. Listen. Listen to the words of Native People about this time of year. Teaching Tolerance has some amazing resources and the .gov website even has some CUT- PRINT-GO lesson plans.
  3. If a play’s the thing, then on with the show! But try a different kind of demonstration. Tell the story from the Native perspective, or scrap the ‘traditional’ narrative and go with other thanks-giving practices from across many Native cultures.

    Consider the thankfulness culture of the Wampanoag themselves:

    “Every day (is) a day of thanksgiving to the Wampanoag . . .(We) give thanks to the dawn of the new day, at the end of the day, to the sun, to the moon, for rain for helping crops grow. . . There (is) always something to be thankful for. .. Giving thanks comes naturally for the Wampanoag.”

  4. When in doubt, follow the formula. When Kim Tran, an ethnic studies professor at Berkley, was pressed by a student for a “formula” with which to determine whether something was appropriating or whitewashing culture, she laughedbecause of course it is an ongoing conversation and learning experiencejust like all education is.

    BUT she also came up with 5 questions that help us on our way, including “What         makes is possible for you to engage in this practice?”  And let’s be honest with our students upon the shoulders upon which we stand.

  5. Focus on Giving, and Thanks. An oldie but a goodiethere are endless stories of tough hope in the face of unspeakable circumstances that are perfect for this holiday. Gratitude journals, letters to friends and family and classroom decor are classics for a reason.

    Additionally, current study of neuroscience and mindfulness affirms that a practice of gratitude improves overall health including sleep, metabolism, satisfaction and fights depression, anxiety and stress. Tap in with some classroom thankfulness! 

Our classroom traditions and indeed ways of living  are “made possible” by many uncomfortable truths. As always, a curious and self-reflective education practice guides the way.

What classroom traditions do you use to deepen cultural understanding?

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