This post originally appeared on the blog Being Teacher.

Thanksgiving is coming and while I love the holiday, I get a little tired of teaching about pilgrims and turkeys, so last year I sought a better way to teach my reading and language arts standards with a Thanksgiving theme. Little did I know that I would find the secret history of Thanksgiving.

While scouring the internet for a Thanksgiving lesson, I discovered a little gem of a primary document, an open letter to the public published in The New York Times in 1911. The letter issued a proclamation to end the practice of Thanksgiving “mumming.”

Have you ever even heard of mumming?

In the early 20th century, many working class poor couldn’t afford a turkey. Poor children would dress in costumes, beg for money or treats, and pull pranks. On Thanksgiving, no less! Their “mumming” had its origin in the European traditions of carnival

The letter I discovered complained how this “pernicious custom” was supposedly undermining our national identity. It was written by a group of church and charitable men who urged New Yorkers not to nurture habits of blackmailing and begging.

Eventually petitions from these urban leaders led school teachers to assign their students to write festive poems, perform plays, and draw pictures of turkeys, pumpkins, and Pilgrims. The hope was to create a common understanding of American history and culture in school children, driving out the transplanted and disruptive alternatives like “mumming.”

So the lessons teachers use today are still mostly filled with colorful clipart of pilgrims. But I imagine almost no one remembers their twisted origin, or how they made Thanksgiving time a more sedate family holiday.

After reading the letter, I knew I had the object for a perfect Thanksgiving assignment. With it, I can have my students Last year I sought a better way to teach my standards with a Thanksgiving theme. Little did I know that I would find the secret history of Thanksgiving.determine the meaning of vocabulary words in context through clues and decomposing the word on the first day in small group.

On the second day, we build fluency by reading the letter silently (for my above-grade level students) or choral reading for my approaching-level kiddos. As we read, I have them ask and answer comprehension and higher-order-thinking questions with partners.

On the third day, I model answering text-dependent questions. We do one together and then they answer one on their own. By the fourth and fifth day, they’re able to work from a writing prompt using text evidence. For centers, they can write a letter supporting their opinion about mumming, or draw posters protesting the practice if they’d prefer.

The value of using primary documents for teaching is that you can apply to multiple standards and skills. But they often touch on social studies standards too. Students are able to think like historians, picking apart the text and writing from multiple perspectives. They can even do additional research to determine what was occurring in the country at the time mumming was a practice.

Besides eating dressing and pumpkin pie, I can’t think of a better way to celebrate Thanksgiving. Through the analysis of historical documents, my kiddos can learn about our country’s strange holiday heritage and have fun doing it!


Being Teacher: Teachers Pay TeachersBrooke Hamby began her professional career with a doctorate in anthropology, teaching and writing in pursuit of her first love: understanding the human experience. Soon after the birth of her son, Brooke’s human experience changed, as she sought a career where she could make a difference in the lives of children, “sacred beings” to her way of thinking. After getting her Master’s in education, Brooke turned her love of children into becoming a classroom teacher and instructional coach. Brooke teachers 5th grade ELA and devotes her spare time to helping other teachers find balance through strategies and time saving tools.