Historical Thinking Assessment Using Thanksgiving Primary Sources

Thanksgiving is a national holiday celebrated as a day of giving thanks with a robust but often misunderstood history. Though it wasn’t made a federal holiday until October 3, 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln issued an official proclamation, colonials are said to have celebrated a good harvest starting in 1621 in Plymouth.

During class, have a discussion about what your students know about Thanksgiving, e.g. why and when it started, how their families celebrate it, and what they are thankful for. Handout copies or display “The First Thanksgiving 1621” to the class and investigate the painting using the Observe, Reflect, Question, Analysis strategy.

An important part of using primary source documents and developing historical thinking skills is being able to establish the credibility of the document.

After investigating the painting, ask students to answer one question:

  • Is this painting a useful resource for understanding the relationship between the Wampanoag Indians and the Pilgrim settlers in 1621? Why or why not?

Have students answer the question in writing in 2-3 sentences. You will be able to use their responses as an assessment of their ability to correctly source documents. Hint: the painting was published in 1932. This is a good time to present the actual facts surrounding Thanksgiving.

More about this assessment and other resources at the Stanford History Education Group.

Also, view the Stanford History Education Group’s presentation, Beyond the Bubble: A New Generation of Historical Thinking Assessments at the TPS Online Conference.

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