Thanksgiving Lessons for Grades 3-5
Take a closer look at the historical significance of the Pilgrims' voyage, settlement, and first harvest celebration.
- Grades: 3–5
- Unit Plan:
The focus of "The First Thanksgiving" for this age group is to explore the experiences and historical significance of the Pilgrim's voyage, settlement, and first harvest celebration.
Throughout the activity, students will develop an understanding of historical events from different perspectives while practicing reading comprehension, creative writing, sequencing, and analytical and research skills.
While participating in "The First Thanksgiving" online activities, students in grades 3–5 learn to do the following:
- Use technology tools to access, explore, and synthesize information on the Mayflower, Pilgrims, Plymouth colony, Wampanoags, and the first Thanksgiving
- Develop an understanding of the Pilgrims' experiences and hardships while traveling to and establishing a settlement in the New World
- Develop an understanding of the colonial and Wampanoag cultures of the early 1600s
- Compare and contrast lifestyles of the Pilgrims and Wampanoags
- Interpret information from timelines
- Understand and identify cultural and social changes from colonial times to the present
- Read for detail
- Participate in a variety of active writing activities
- Demonstrate comprehension through experiential response
- Reflect on what has been learned after reading by formulating ideas, opinions, and personal responses
- "The First Thanksgiving" online activity
- Venn diagram (PDF)
- KWL chart (PDF)
- Timeline (PDF)
- Basic art supplies (paper, glue, crayons, markers, etc.) will be needed for several activities
- Optional: PowerPoint, LCD projector, overhead projector
Transparency paper: If you don't have access to a computer in the classroom, print out selected Web pages and make transparency copies to post on the overhead.
Set Up and Prepare
Depending on the grade level and maturity level of each class, activities can be facilitated as independent work, collaborative group work, or whole class instruction.
If a computer is available for each student, guide students to the activities through printed URLs on handouts or on the board.
If there are fewer computers than students, group the students by reading level. Assign each student a role: a "driver" who navigates the web, a timer who keeps the group on task, and a note taker. If there are more than three students per computer, you can add roles like a team leader, a team reporter, etc.
If you are working in a learning station in your classroom, break your class into different groups. Have rotating groups working on the computer(s), reading printed background information, holding smaller group discussions, etc. Details are described further in the Teaching sections.
You may also want to create a special display of Thanksgiving books in your classroom library. Check out our Recommended Booklist for suggested print materials. Include room for the projects that your students will create through the activity.
Voyage on the Mayflower
- KWL Graphic Organizer (PDF)
Tell students that they will be learning about the layout and operations of the Mayflower, its voyage to the New World, and the crew and Pilgrims who sailed on the ship. Hand out the KWL graphic organizer and have students fill it out. Then as they work through the activities, have them periodically return to their KWL charts to compare, correct, or add new information.
Invite students to explore the "Voyage on the Mayflower," "Tour the Ship," and "Pilgrim Timeline" components for this section. Then direct them to the Mayflower interviews. Provide time for them to read — either individually or in small groups — the interviews for Ship's Cooper John Alden and Mate Robert Coppin. (You may want to print out copies of the interviews for individual reading.) To learn more about the Mayflower, have students refer to additional online resources (see More Resources) and books in your class library (see Related Booklist).
Discuss the construction and layout of the Mayflower. Using information gathered from the activity and other sources, have students talk about the size and dimensions of the ship, identify the key parts of the ship, and explain the function and importance of each one. Also ask them to describe some of the crew members' positions and responsibilities.
Pass out poster boards to small groups of students and have them create a diagram of the Mayflower. Using an overhead or LCD projector, display the "Tour the Ship" opener screen for students to use as a model for their work. Ask them to label the main parts of the ship and write a brief description about each one: its importance, who is responsible for it, what activity occurs there, etc.
Students can write this information on large index cards, attach the cards to the borders of the poster, and use yarn to connect each card to its corresponding part. Instruct students to distribute the responsibilities for completing the project among themselves so that everyone has an equal share in developing each phase.
To familiarize students with the passengers' experiences on the Mayflower, have them read — either individually or in small groups — the Mayflower interviews for passenger Elizabeth Hopkins and passenger Desire Minter. (You may want to print out copies of the interviews for individual reading.)
Then have students imagine they are Pilgrims traveling on the Mayflower. Ask the following questions, as well as adding your own, to help evoke in students the sense of a personal, first-hand experience:
- What are your feelings about leaving family, friends, and belongings behind?
- How do you spend your time on the Mayflower?
- How do the passengers and crew treat you and each other?
- What do you eat? Do you get enough to eat?
- What frightens you about the voyage?
- Have you felt angry during the voyage? If so, why?
- What is the best thing that's happened during the voyage? The worst thing?
- What do you expect to find when you reach the New World? How does this make you feel?
Letters to England
While students are in a Pilgrim mindset, invite them to write a personal letter about their voyage to a friend or family member back in England. In their letters, have them describe their living conditions, daily activities, interactions with each other, and any memorable events. They can refer to "Voyage on the Mayflower" and "Pilgrim Timeline" to help organize the contents of their letters so that they follow the sequence of actual events. As students compose their letters, encourage them to also include their own opinions and feelings.
Extend the Lesson
- Ask students to assume the role of Pilgrims in their minds. Have them create personal picture timelines of their experiences on the Mayflower, starting and ending with the dates of the actual voyage and filling in plot points in between with their imaginary events. In addition to labeling their timeline with pictures and brief text, have students add a comment about their emotional response to each event.
- On November 11, 1620, the Pilgrims drew up and signed the Mayflower Compact. Read and discuss the meaning of this document with students. Work with students to create a similar document that outlines six to eight rules for the "common good" of the class.
- Venn diagram (PDF)
Invite students to be lifestyle reporters on assignment in the Plymouth colony. Have them view and take notes on the daily lifestyles of the Pilgrims in the Compare and Contrast sections of "Daily Life" and the "Pilgrim Timeline."
Divide the class into small groups, and assign one of the "Pilgrim interviews" or "Life as a Wampanoag" to each group. (If computers aren't available for students to share, pass out printed out copies of the interviews.) Provide time for students to read their interviews and take notes. Allow additional time for them to learn more about different aspects of each group's lifestyles by searching other online resources (see More Resources), as well as books in your class library (see Related Booklist).
Have students share what they learned about daily life in Plymouth colony. Discuss the similarities and differences in the lifestyles of the Pilgrims and Wampanoags. Pass out the Venn diagram graphic organizers. Ask students to label their diagram with one of the "Daily Life" categories — such as housing, clothes, or food — and then organize the information gathered for that category on the diagram. Have students use this information to write a news article comparing the lifestyles of Pilgrims and Wampanoags in their selected category.
Tell students that the Wampanoags befriended the Pilgrims and taught them ways to survive in the New World. Direct them to "Life as a Wampanoag" and have them read the interview to discover how the Wampanoags helped the Pilgrims. (If computers aren't available for students to share, pass out printed copies of the interview.) Invite them to also explore other online sources (see More Resources) and books in your class library (see Related Booklist) to learn more.
Discuss with students what they learned about the ways in which the Wampanoags were helpful to the Pilgrims. Talk about how, without this help, the Pilgrims might have never survived that first winter.
To help students understand how important this help was to the Pilgrims, ask them to imagine they are Pilgrims. Have them create a two-column chart. In the left column, ask them to list the things they needed to learn in order to survive in the New World. On the right of each item on their list, have students fill in things that the Wampanoags did to help meet that need. When completed, have students use the information on their charts to give first-person presentations about how they were helped by the Wampanoags.
Extend the Lesson
- Tell students that the average Pilgrim home was about 800 square feet — about the size of a small apartment. Help students mark off an outdoor area of this size. Discuss with them how they would arrange the furnishings in a home about this size to accommodate two adults and four children. Invite them to draw and share their floor plans with the class.
- Since the establishment of Plymouth colony, development has spread across the country. Ask students to locate Plymouth, Massachusetts, and their own hometown on a large map of the United States. Have them calculate the distance between the two points. Then instruct them to find other locations on the map — such as state capitals — and calculate the distance between the specified location and Plymouth. Have students compare the distances to determine which places are the least and greatest distance from Plymouth.
The Thanksgiving Feast
- KWL Graphic Organizer (PDF)
Explain that the 1621 feast held a year after the Pilgrims moved to the New World is known as the first Thanksgiving. Tell students that they will be learning how the First Thanksgiving came about, how long it lasted, who was there, what foods were served, and what activities were part of the celebration. Hand out the KWL graphic organizer and have students fill it out. Then, as they work through the activities, have them periodically return to their KWL charts to compare, correct, or add new information.
Invite students to explore the "Thanksgiving Feast" slideshow and the "Thanksgiving Timeline" components for this section. Then direct them to the "Pilgrim interviews" and "Life as a Wampanoag." Ask them to find and read the parts of the interviews that address the 1621 Thanksgiving feast. (If computers aren't available for students to share, pass out printed out copies of the interviews.) Provide time for students to read their interviews and take notes. Allow additional time for them to learn more by exploring other online resources (see More Resources), as well as books in your class library (see Related Booklist).
Discuss with students what they learned about the people, food, and activities that were a part of the 1621 celebration. Work with them to create a separate list of each aspect of the first Thanksgiving. For example, make one list of the foods that were served, another of the activities, and a third list of the people who attended.
Then invite students to imagine that they were participants in that historical event. Have them make a scrapbook of their memoirs. Students can use a combination of sources for their scrapbook: their own drawings, magazine cutouts, online printouts, homemade artifacts, etc. Ask them to write a caption to go with each item included in their scrapbooks.
Ask students to quietly reflect on what they've learned about the origins of Thanksgiving and its evolution into a national holiday (see "Thanksgiving Timeline"). Have them compare how Thanksgiving Day is observed today versus the 1621 feast. Encourage them to also consider what kind of observation Sarah Hale, Abraham Lincoln, and others had in mind as they worked to set aside a special day of thanksgiving.
Taking all these things into account, have students write personal perspectives about how they (or our nation in general) observe the Thanksgiving Day celebration. Ask them to address things such as: similarities of today's holiday to early thanksgiving observations, ways it reflects a time of thanksgiving, what they like or dislike about it, what they would change and why, etc. Invite volunteers to share their perspectives with the class.
Extend the Lesson
- Tell students that many of the foods served at the First Thanksgiving were different from those found on today's holiday table. Discuss some of the foods served at the 1621 feast. Have children fold a large sheet of paper in half and then unfold it. Ask them to write "First Foods" on the left side of the paper. Have them draw and label foods served at the First Thanksgiving on this side. On the right, ask them to write "Future Foods" and then draw and label foods served during a present-day Thanksgiving celebration. Finally, on the back, have students write a description of each celebration.
- Ask students to define pilgrim. Invite them to tell about any modern-day pilgrims they know of. Discuss reasons why people from other countries might choose to move to America. Then ask students to share their opinions on how today's pilgrims might view the significance of the first Thanksgiving in their lives and how their views might be similar or different from that of lifelong American citizens.
Supporting All Learners
Reading/Language Arts Standards
International Reading Association (IRA) and the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE)
- Read a wide range of print and non-print texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information
- Apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts and draw on their prior experience, interactions with other readers and writers, knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, word identification strategies, and understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics)
- Adjust spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, and vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes
- Employ a wide range of strategies to write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes
- Apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and non-print texts
- Conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems
- Gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and non-print texts, artifacts, people) to communicate discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience
- Use a variety of technological and informational resources to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge
- Develop an understanding of and respect for diversity in language use, patterns, and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, geographic regions, and social roles
- Use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information)
Social Studies Standards
National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)
- Explore and describe similarities and differences in the ways groups, societies, and cultures address similar human needs and concerns
- Explain how information and experiences may be interpreted by people from diverse cultural perspectives and frames of reference
- Compare ways in which people from different cultures think about and deal with their physical environment and social conditions
- Give examples and describe the importance of cultural unity and diversity within and across groups
- Interpret patterns of behavior reflecting values and attitudes that contribute or pose obstacles to cross-cultural understanding
Time, Continuity, and Change
- Read and construct simple timelines, identify examples of change, and recognize examples of cause and effect relationships
- Compare and contrast different stories or accounts about past events, people, places, or situations, identifying how they contribute to our understanding of the past
- Identify and use various sources and processes for reconstructing the past, such as documents, letters, diaries, maps, textbooks, photos, and others
- Demonstrate an understanding that people in different times and places view the world differently
- Develop critical sensitivities such as empathy and skepticism regarding attitudes, values, and behaviors of people in different historical contexts
People, Places, and Environments
- Create, interpret, use, and synthesize information from various representations of the earth, such as maps, globes, and photographs
- Examine, interpret, and analyze physical and cultural patterns and their interactions, such as land use, settlement patterns, and cultural transmission of customs and ideas
Science, Technology, and Society
- Make judgments about how science and technology have transformed the physical world and human society and our understanding of time, space, place, and human-environment interactions
Technology Foundation Standards:
- Use technology tools to enhance learning, increase productivity, and promote creativity
- Use technology tools to collaborate, publish, and interact with peers, experts, and other audiences
- Use a variety of media and formats to communicate information and ideas effectively to multiple audiences
- Use technology to locate, evaluate, and collect information from a variety of sources
- Use technology tools to process data and report results
Have students take this Web Quest quiz to test their Thanksgiving knowledge. Each question is self-checking and links students to a Web site where they can discover the correct answer and more.