Serve a Side Dish of Common Core for Thanksgiving

By Mary Blow on October 27, 2011
  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8

Photo: iStockphoto © Studio-Annika.

If you currently teach a Thanksgiving unit, add a side dish of Common Core State Standards by investigating two of the only primary source documents that provide written accounts of the first Thanksgiving. Read on to bring this Common Core Thanksgiving lesson to your classroom.


Reading Informational Texts

According to the Pilgrim Hall Museum, the only known primary sources that document the first Thanksgiving in 1621 are Edward Winslow’s writing in Mourt’s Relation and William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation. In this lesson, students will read the 17th century English writings and then use text-based details to summarize what they read in modern English.

The Common Core asks us to increase text complexity and to use less scaffolding. But exposing students to frustration-level text can cause them to feel inferior and lose motivation. To meet the needs of a diverse student population and the Common Core, use Winslow’s account to model how to navigate the complex text, and Bradford’s account to provide students with independent practice. The Pilgrim Hall Museum presents the passages in both 17th century and modern English.




Prereading Activities

Engage students in a think-pair-share activity, listing what they know about the first Thanksgiving. Gather as a whole class and add the details to a poster-size K-W-L chart.


During Reading

Project the document on a SMART Board or document camera. Using Winslow’s passage, model how to make sense of the text. Read it out loud. Start the interactive activity, “Investigating the First Thanksgiving.” Click “The Evidence” to hear the passage read in a 17th century English dialect. Notice how the reader pauses at the semi-colon as though it were a period. Ask students how the punctuation functions in the text, Help them to make the connections. Ask students why they think it is so difficult to read (possible answers include "17th century English," "sentence syntax," "spelling," and "punctuation"). Reread the text, annotating it phrase by phrase. Write the phrases in modern English, editing the spelling and changing the punctuation. Model how to translate the 17th century English text to modern English with these phrases:

1.      “our harvest being gotten in”

2.      “our governour sent foure men on fowling”

3.      “so we might after special manner rejoice together”

4.      “gathered the fruits of our labours”

5.      “we exercised our Armes”

6.      “bestowed on our Governour”

7.      “although it be not always so plentifull”

8.      “we are so farre from want”

9.      “We often wish you partakers of our plentie.”

As a class, rewrite the paragraph in modern English. Provide less scaffolding by pairing students to decode the second text from Of Plymouth Plantation by William Bradford. They will follow the process modeled, “peeling back the layers” with a partner and making meaning of the text. Each pair of students will submit a translated version of the paragraph to demonstrate understanding of the text. Allow the visual learners to add illustrations. Higher-level students might write a detailed description of the first Thanksgiving and draw illustrations, using text-based details from both passages.

Close the lesson by revisiting the K-W-L chart. Make a list of inquiries or “what they want to learn” to engage them in research.


After Reading Research

Engaging students in short research projects to answer a question, drawing on several sources and refocusing the inquiry when appropriate, is a requirement of the Common Core Writing Standards (Common Core State Standard W.6.7). Scholastic’s Thanksgiving Web Quest takes students on a tour of Web sites about the Pilgrims, the Wampanoag, and the famous harvest feast, searching for answers to questions and learning new facts along the way.  More advanced students may use the primary documents, like historians, and form their own inquiry questions. Scholastic’s “Plymouth Colony” research starter provides a great starting point in the research process. You might also listen to a reenactment of Miles Standish’s first-person interviews at Plimoth Plantation.


Publishing Student Writing

Common Core Standard W.6.6 requires students to “use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing.” To fulfill this requirement, students might use Museum Box, a free Web 2.0 tool that allows students to digitally publish their historical research. Students select a Thanksgiving topic to research and present a virtual box of images, hyperlinks, sound files, videos, and documents.

When students finish the research, they can share what they learned with the class, the last stage of filling in the K-W-L chart.


Digital Connection

Watch the video History of Thanksgiving (, which depicts the evolution of our national holiday, from the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth Plantation to the traditions we celebrate today. Students use information from the video and the primary source documents to create a time line, reinforcing their understanding of how traditions evolve throughout history.

Don’t forfeit field trips as a result of educational budget cuts. Take advantage of one of Scholastic’s most exciting resources, The First Thanksgiving, a virtual field trip to the Mayflower and Plymouth Plantation. Sign up for a Webinar.


Other Resources


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I Anonymous on 11/5/2011,

I feel your frustration. We are all out of our comfort zone. I believe we are asked to challenge our students and create thinkers. Instead of telling students what the story is going to be about, teach them how to make predictions. What happens when they don't have it and we are not there to provide it? Laura Robb says that it is our job to teach them how to create their own background knowledge by surveying the text and making predictions. She uses vocabulary concept maps to activate prior knowledge. Picture books are especially important for this in elementary school. I believe we still need to scaffold, except we need to scaffold by teaching skills to navigate the text. For example, instead of teaching the definition of the words before reading, we teach the different types of context clues that help students to figure out the meaning of unfamiliar words. I model how to do this. I provided guided practice, Finally, I ask them to do it independently. Then we repeat the process using complex text. We are being asked to scaffold toward higher-level complex text by the end of the year. Overall, it comes back to balancing academic and pleasure reading. This way they are creating independent, life-long readers. ~Happy Holiday, Mary

The Common Core asks us to increase text complexity and to use less scaffolding. But exposing students to frustration-level text can cause them to feel inferior and lose motivation. To meet the needs of a diverse student population and the Common Core, use Winslow’s account to model how to navigate the complex text, and Bradford’s account to provide students with independent practice. The Pilgrim Hall Museum presents the passages in both 17th century and modern English.
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While Anonymous (11/5/11 10:06am) is entitled to his/her opinions, both the anonymity and the lack of any real information to support the opinion suggest that this comment is little more than a comment from someone lacking information. The CCSS commission has been highly transparent.

To see the development process, the names and positions of the 25 member external validation committee, please see pages ii and iii of

Upon review, one will see that the 25 member validation committee included 4 practicing educators and many others who were professors of education, and/or renowned and highly regarded educators such as Linda Darling-Hammond whose work on teaching and learning is respected worldwide.

The comment from Anonymous is evidence of why CCSS Writing Standard 1 - argumentative writing - is now included as 1 of the 10 (and only 10) writing standards.

Are you kidding? Do you really support the use of LESS scaffolding while increasing text difficulty in the elementary school????? Why can't children learn from high quality picture books, modern texts - and include a bit of primary documents to demonstrate what they were like? The Common Core was not written by any teachers and should not be promoted by a quality company like Scholastic, or any professional organizations.

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