ANNAPOLIS – While the history of Thanksgiving hasn’t changed much since the Pilgrims bowed their heads over their bountiful harvest in 1621, schools are increasingly teaching about the holiday from other points of view, especially multicultural perspectives.
Students, said Frederick County’s Lewistown Elementary media specialist Deborah Jones, “don’t have a real understanding” of what it was like in those times.
“We try and dispel the myths of the tall hats, wearing black and white and help them understand what it was like. And we try to tell all points of view,” she said.
The points of view, particularly the ethnic and cultural, are different since she was a child learning about the holiday.
“There is more of a multicultural perspective compared to when my children were in school and even when I was in school,” Jones said. “They’re smart about these things . . . and Thanksgiving will mean something to them after this.”
There are also innovative ways of teaching Thanksgiving to the students.
At Lewistown, about 50 special education and first graders listen as Jones reads, “Thank You, Sarah: The Woman who Saved Thanksgiving.”
The story tells of Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, the woman who wrote letters to presidents to make Thanksgiving an official national holiday. While some states had already approved a holiday by then, in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared a day of national thanksgiving.
Although the students may not understand everything then taking place, they understand “what kind of woman she was . . . and understood she made a difference,” said Jones, who is also a fourth-grade, co-social studies teacher.
History at Lewistown Elementary is based on background, Jones said.
“We teach in more general terms, look at the hardships and talk about how difficult daily life was,” Jones said. “As part of our history unit . . . they experience it. They definitely remember the colonial unit.”
Other schools, too, try to broaden the study of Thanksgiving from a simple history lesson.
Across the county at Monocacy Valley Montessori Charter School, Thanksgiving lessons are integrated into other subject areas, like science and math.
In a math class, students learn how to divide Thanksgiving recipes to serve different numbers of guests, and in the science class, students learn about botany by studying pumpkins and corn, said Bettejane Weiss, principal of Maryland’s only and first charter school.
“Everything is a spiral and relates back to something they’ve done or will do,” Weiss said.
Once students get to higher grades, however, the focus turns to the nation’s history, said Marty Creel, Montgomery County social studies supervisor.
About 10 years ago, the school system asked teachers to be more specific in the lessons they teach, he said. Instead of just talking about Pilgrims, teachers should talk about who they were and why they came to America.
“Students are learning more than just a politically correct puzzle, they’re putting the pieces together into something they can investigate and (they) want to know more,” Creel said. “It’s a great learning opportunity.”