Thanksgiving Lessons for Grades 3-5
With Common Core-aligned lessons and activities, take a closer look at 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 Pilgrims' 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.
The lessons here address 15 Common Core State Standards. See how they are aligned in this listing of each lesson and its standards.
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, Plimoth 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
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 Book List for suggested print materials. Include room for the projects that your students will create through the activity.
- 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, including the tour of the ship and the Pilgrim timeline components of this section. 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.)
Lesson One: Graffiti Wall
Divide the class into groups of four or five students. Hang a poster-size piece of paper for each group to use. Invite each group to take a marker and graffiti their posters with words or phrases. Their graffiti should be about these words: Mayflower, Pilgrim, and Thanksgiving. You may give them each word individually and let them work or provide them all at once. At the end of the working time, have each group share their graffiti. Students should present their work and clarify anything that is unknown to other groups.
Lesson Two: The Mayflower Compact Close Read
On November 11, 1620, the Pilgrims drew up and signed the Mayflower Compact. Use the Mayflower Compact (either the Mayflower Compact article or the Mayflower Compact PDF) throughout your Thanksgiving lessons. Have students shift their analysis of the document and focus on different aspects of it as you move through the lessons.
In the first reading, go over the document and its vocabulary, which may be difficult for students. Use the Document Analysis questions. In the second and third readings, which may be done over several days, encourage students to think critically about the text in relation to what they are learning about the Pilgrims at Plimoth and their interactions with the Wampanoag.
Students can annotate their copy of the Mayflower Compact as they develop an understanding of the document.
First Reading: Document Analysis
- Who is writing the compact?
- Why did the Pilgrims decide to go on this voyage?
- What action are the Pilgrims taking in this document?
- What is the reason they are taking this action?
- What will they do after this?
- When did they all agree on this compact?
- In two sentences, provide a summary of the Mayflower Compact.
- Who do the Pilgrims say they are signing in the presence of?
- The Pilgrims say they will do what from "time to time"?
- Why do the Pilgrims say this is necessary?
- Without the Mayflower Compact, what might have happened? What were the Pilgrims trying to avoid?
- Read the first line of the Mayflower Compact. Why does it begin that way?
- The Constitution created a separation of church and state. The Pilgrims did not have such a separation. What line in the compact best demonstrates this?
- What is a “civill body politick”?
- What is the overall purpose of the Mayflower Compact?
- Can you name other documents from other historical time periods that have a similar overall purpose to the Mayflower Compact?
Lesson Three: Mayflower Schematics
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.
Lesson Four: Passengers' Reflections
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?
Multiple-Choice and Short-Answer Questions
What word best describes how the passengers feel about the Native Americans?
Which statement from the interviews best shows that the journey from Europe did not go as expected?
A. The weather has been bad.
B. The Speedwell and its passengers had to be left behind.
C. The weevils attacked the bread.
D. There are no bathrooms on the ship.
What do the passengers think America will be like?
A. Beautiful beaches and food from the sea is plentiful.
B. Snowy mountains and cold weather.
C. Desert land with hot weather.
D. Wild forests with many animals.
According to the passengers, how was much of the time on the ship spent?
A. Playing games and laughing.
B. Praying and singing hymns.
C. Preparing for landing in America.
D. Waiting, cooking and cleaning.
Read this line from passenger Elizabeth Hopkins’s interview:
“I am just glad to be in sight of land, even though it is a wilderness.”
What does this statement say about life on the Mayflower for the Pilgrims?
A. The voyage on the Mayflower has been difficult and tiring.
B. The people on the ship have been waiting with excitement for landing.
C. The people on the ship probably do not get along with one another.
D. The voyage has left people frightened of what is to come after landing.
Lesson Five: 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 the 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.
- 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.
- Work with students to create a document similar to the Mayflower Compact that outlines six to eight rules for the common good of the class.
- Venn diagram (PDF)
Lesson One: Graffiti Wall
Have one student from each group return to their graffiti wall with a marker. Ask the class to brainstorm, together, new words and phrases to add based on the lesson. Students at the graffiti walls should record the shared responses onto their group’s graffiti walls.
Lesson Two: Lifestyle Reporters
Invite students to be lifestyle reporters on assignment in the Plimoth 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 additional online resources as well as books in your class library (here's one list of recommended books).
Have students share what they learned about daily life in Plimoth colony. Discuss the similarities and differences in the lifestyles of the Pilgrims and Wampanoag. 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 Wampanoag in their selected category.
Lesson Three: Wampanoag Ways
Tell students that the Wampanoag 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 Wampanoag helped the Pilgrims. (If computers aren't available for students to share, pass out printed copies of the interview.) Invite them to also explore additional online resources and books in your class library.
Discuss with students what they learned about the ways in which the Wampanoag 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 Wampanoag 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 Wampanoag.
Multiple-Choice and Short-Answer Questions
During the Pilgrims’ first year in America, the Wampanoag were very helpful to the Pilgrims.
In the sentence above, helpful probably means
How did the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag communicate with one another?
A. Through sign language and beating on drums.
B. The Pilgrims learned the dialect of Algonquin that the Wampanoag spoke.
C. Squanto acted as an interpreter between the Pilgrims and Wampanoag.
D. They both learned from fishermen.
A statement that best shows the differences between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag is:
A. “The Wampanoag had no such weapons and were deathly afraid of the white man’s musket.”
B. “When the Wampanoag helped the Pilgrims bring in their first crop, there was a great feast during that harvest time.”
C. “At first the Pilgrims were friendly with the Wampanoag, because they helped them learn the environment and how to survive on the land.”
D. “The Wampanoag were here thousands of years before the Pilgrims arrived in Plimoth.”
Select all that apply.
At one point in the interview, Fast Turtle says, “Life was good before the English came.”
This statement most likely refers to the idea that Wampanoag:
A. were living alone before the English came.
B. had to give up their lands and religion.
C. were afraid of the Pilgrims.
D. didn’t have as much food.
E. came down with diseases from the Pilgrims.
F. were forced to learn English.
Explain how the Wampanoag’s feelings toward the Pilgrims changed from when the Pilgrims first landed to after the Thanksgiving feast. Use at least two details from the interview with Fast Turtle to support your answer.
Extend the Lessons
- 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 Plimoth 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.
- 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 additional online resources, as well as books in your class library.
Lesson One: Special Scrapbooks
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.
Lesson Two: Personal Perspectives
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 Lessons
- 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.
Imagine you have a pen pal in another country who is a student your age. The student knows little about U.S. culture. In a friendly letter, tell the student the story of the first Thanksgiving. Your story should follow the true events of the first Thanksgiving that you have studied in these lessons. Be sure to write about the main participants. Use details from what you have read and studied to support your letter.
- Use a friendly letter format
- Tell the story of Thanksgiving while remaining faithful to the true events
- Use details from the texts you have read to support your story
Using the graffiti wall that you have worked on during the lessons on Thanksgiving and the Mayflower Compact, explain the purpose of the Thanksgiving holiday. Be sure to discuss the events that led to the first Thanksgiving, as well as the people involved. Use details from the lessons.
- Explain the purpose the Thanksgiving holiday
- Talk about the events and people involved in the historical Thanksgiving
- Use details to support your answer
The year is 1621 and you are a Pilgrim. A fellow Pilgrim expresses to you that the Pilgrims should not be celebrating with the Wampanoag Indians. Respond to your fellow Pilgrim. Build an argument for why Thanksgiving should be celebrated with the Wampanoags.
In your response, remember to:
- Present a claim for why Thanksgiving should be celebrated
- Provide a rationale to support your claim
- Use details from the texts you have read to support your answer