WASHINGTON – For students in English as a Second Language programs, Thanksgiving may be just as foreign as their new language.
Teaching the traditional American holiday can be a challenge for some ESOL teachers, because most students do not celebrate Thanksgiving at home and have little historical reference for the holiday, said Linda M. Sahin, assistant director at the Maryland English Institute at the University of Maryland, College Park.
But teachers can find creative ways to teach students about Thanksgiving with vocabulary lessons and interactive activities. Sometimes, they can even link students’ cultures with American traditions.
“Most cultures have a special day for giving thanks,” Sahin said. “So that concept isn’t totally alien to them, there are just some specifically American meanings of United States Thanksgiving, so we explain those.”
At Rachel Carson Elementary School in Gaithersburg, Allison Lee teaches 45 kindergarten-through-second-grade students the cultural aspects of Thanksgiving, its history and relation to their own cultures.
“If you think about it from a different perspective,” Lee said, “the story of the Pilgrims is similar to a lot of immigrant families. The idea of celebrating the harvest is also common through many cultures, whatever they call it.”
Students often find cultural links to Thanksgiving. One of Lee’s students from China told her instead of turkey, on special occasions her family eats duck. Lee, who is from Korea, finds she and many of her students have similar comparisons.
“It’s interesting and fun,” Lee said. “Most of the cultures my students are from celebrate in similar ways. You spend time with family, you eat.”
To explain Thanksgiving to her students, Lee relates the story of the Pilgrims to their families and also previews their regular education lessons to prepare them for unfamiliar vocabulary.
But she makes sure to have a little fun. This year, students traced their hands on construction paper to make colorful hand-turkeys and wrote thank-you cards to give to their families.
Holidays aren’t incorporated into the state’s ESOL curriculum, Lee said, probably “to avoid the topic all together.” So she uses online resources and mainstream education lesson plans to help her students understand the celebration.
“These children, some of them have just come, some of them were born in the country, but this is where they’re living,” Lee said. “Some of these children have never heard of the word Thanksgiving before. It’s just a holiday that everyone can relate to … we don’t put any religious beliefs into it.”
ESOL families usually don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, so Lee has built in a family discussion as a lesson. Last week, she asked students to discuss with their families what each of them was thankful for and then share their answers with their classmates.
It’s more difficult to teach ESOL students about Thanksgiving because some never heard words like ‘turkey’ or ‘Pilgrim,’ and they have no historical background, Lee said.
But, teaching Thanksgiving to ESOL students isn’t much different from teaching younger, mainstream students, she said.
“I used to teach regular second grade, and they didn’t really know what the holiday was for either,” Lee said. “They knew you eat a lot, you maybe fly somewhere and you have days off school.”
After teaching both regular education and ESOL classes, holiday lessons in ESOL classes are more exciting for Lee.
“I think it’s more eye-opening or just fun,” she said. “Even though some of our ESOL families don’t celebrate the same way, everyone has things they celebrate. They learn and I get to learn.”