November is the perfect time to teach students about the time in America’s history when the Pilgrims arrived from England and settled in Plimoth Colony. It’s important that all lessons and activities involving Thanksgiving be historically accurate. This post will provide teachers and homeschooling families with some tips for teaching about the culture of the Wampanoag people who lived in the area prior to the European colonization. It will clear up some misconceptions and provide you with ideas and resources for teaching in November.
It is helpful to open your unit by helping students think critically about stereotypes. Helping them understand what they are by listing false stereotypes about Native Americans. Discuss why stereotypes are harmful. I also found it to be important to talk about cultural sensitivity. They will encounter images of Wampanoag people dressed in traditional summer clothing. A proactive discussion goes a long way. These lessons can be taught during a class meeting or as part of your anti-bullying curriculum.
There are many great books, videos and websites for supporting your study of the topic. Unfortunately, many of them include some stereotypes and errors. This is a great opportunity for teaching your children to find those examples as well as contradictions in texts and discuss the historical inaccuracies. Some of the best learning moments in my 3rd grade classroom each year have come from the fact that different sources made different statements about the same topic. It helped them with research throughout the remainder of the school year.
- You may see “Plimoth” spelled different ways. The area the Pilgrims first colonized is now a town called Plymouth, Massachusetts. However, the historical accounts from Governor William Bradford refer to it as Plimoth. When speaking historically it is best to use Plimoth.
- There were no teepees. The Native People associated with the arrival of the Pilgrims are the Wampanoag. They are part of the Eastern Woodland nations. They lived in homes made from branches and bark. In the summer they lived in smaller dwellings called wetus and in the winter they relocated to larger, shared homes called longhouses.
- The Wampanoag people did not have horses or wear elaborate feather headdresses. Explain to the children that there are many different nations and tribes and that each nation has its own name, language and culture. Avoid creating headbands with fake, colorful feathers as a class project.
- Do not speak of the Wampanoag only in the past tense. While their way of life has changed, they are still a very culturally active group.
- Avoid the word “squaw.” It was once an Algonquin word meaning “woman,” but the modern meaning is offensive.
- The Pilgrims did not “land on Plymouth Rock.” The Mayflower arrived in the area of Massachusetts that is now known as Cape Cod. They spent several days exploring the area and ultimately settled in the town that is now Plymouth. There is no historical record of Plymouth Rock.
- The purpose of coming to America was not for religious freedom. The Pilgrims first left England and went to Holland where that desire was met. Although they had religious freedom in Holland, they found there were still obstacles. It was hard to make a living and they struggled to maintain their English identity. For those reasons they chose to sail to the New World.
- The Pilgrims did not leave England to “come to Plimoth.” They were actually sailing to the area of Jamestown, Virginia that had already been colonized. Bad weather and the onset of winter forced them to settle in Plimoth.
- The Pilgrims did not live in log cabins. They built wood clapboard houses made from sawed lumber.
I’ve taught this unit 8 or 9 times and it is a topic I always found to be fun to teach. I have always had the students document their understanding as we learned and assembled each individual project into a learning portfolio The final results really showcased their new knowledge and made an excellent keepsake. I just did a complete makeover of the lap book/ interactive notebook I had always used and am really pleased with the result. Not only did I update the fonts and graphics, but I also made it very user-friendly for teachers and students.
The Pilgrim and Wampanoag Interactive Notebook can be assembled using only 2 sheets of 12 x 18 construction paper. There is not a lot of cutting, folding or glueing. You can pick and choose which activities you wish to include in your classroom or homeschool setting.
I also added a teacher guide that outlines the sequence in which I taught the unit and now includes links to online sites you can use with your students with each activity. It also includes book lists for Pilgrims, the Wampanoag, and the First Thanksgiving. You can also view the recommended book lists on the Clutter-Free Classroom November resource page.
I use a lot of children's books throughout the unit. Some I read aloud to the class and others I have them use as resources to complete their portfolio project. While I have collected a lot of books on the subject over the years, these are my go-to books that I would recommend.
Books about the Pilgrims, Wampanoags and First Thanksgiving:
If You Sailed on the Mayflower in 1620 by Ann McGovern is organized in a way that allows you to read it sequentially or by skipping around to answer specific questions. The short sections hold my students' attention and the illustrations help them to visualize what they are reading about.
Another great Ann McGovern book for introducing the topic is The Pilgrims' First Thanksgiving. I feel it is a much more simple book than the first one and would be very appropriate for Kindergarten through Third Grade.
If You Were At The First Thanksgiving by Ann Kamma is another book written in the same format of If You Sailed on the Mayflower. The "Table of Contents" is a list of questions with short, but detailed explanations. I do like using both of the books together.
Because my students are always interested in what life was like for the children of that time, the three books pictured above are always favorites with them. Tapenum's Day: A Wampanoag Indian Boy In Pilgrim Times, Samuel Eaton's Day: A Day in the Life of a Pilgrim Boy, and Sarah Morton's Day: A Day in the Life of a Pilgrim Girl were all written by Kate Waters. They include wonderful photographs and rich vocabulary. Each has a glossary.
Mayflower 1620: A New Look at a Pilgrim Voyage and 1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving were both collaborative efforts by Plimoth Plantation and National Geographic. Needless to say, they are both historically accurate and include amazing photography. Another book that falls into this same category is Pilgrims Of Plymouth which uses stunning photos and simple text to again relay to students today how different life was for children their age in the 1620s.
I find it more challenging to find good literature to support the teaching of the life and culture of the Wampanoag People, but throughout my unit we spend a lot of time focusing on them and their role in that era. I do find a lot of the books available to be inaccurate and lack cultural sensitivity. The main book I use is The Wampanoags (True Books: American Indians), but it seems like it may be hard to get at a decent price.
Most of the books I recommended do include a lot of information about the role the Wampanoags played in the settling of Plimoth Colony. I also use online sources. Although not specific to the topic, Life in a Longhouse Village does cover quite a bit of information about the Native Americans of the Northeast.
And as a special treat on the day before the break we watch A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving which includes the bonus feature: The Mayflower Voyage...a surprisingly fact-filled cartoon featuring that wacky Peanuts Gang. We do spend some time afterwards talking about the facts presented and how Squanto was depicted and it really shows how much they learned throughout the unit. As an added bonus, the end-of-unit assessment for Treasures will have my kiddos reading a biography about Charles Schultz and I found in the past that many of the students had no idea who the Peanuts were so it's nice to give them a little schema. :)
Websites and Online Resources for Teaching About the Pilgrims and Wampanoag People
The Plimoth Plantation website is a treasure trove of images and information. This would be great to use with an interactive white board or on individual student computers.
You'll also find wonderful information on the Scholastic Website.
One of our state assessments included a passage titled, "Don't Throw Your Bones on the Floor." It's about the eating habits of the Pilgrims. You can access and print the passage along with the comprehension questions online at this link. I usually create a different open response activity to go with it and send it home as homework during the shortened Thanksgiving week in place of our usual homework packet.
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