With Thanksgiving coming, it's time to reflect on what it means to us personally, as well as the context in which we traditional celebrate the holiday. For my older students in my homeschool writing co-op, I found writing about history is a nice way to approach it.

Why Read and Write about Thanksgiving?

When it's time to learn, I always default to great picture books. Yes, I know that older children have the ability to read longer items, but picture books allow them to look more in depth at the text and content than they would be able to if they were workingn with a longer book. 

I chose two books for our writing project. 

Squanto's Journey

Squanto's Journey by Joseph Bruchac is a first-person historical biography detailing Squanto’s life story. In the course of seven years, Squanto faced a lot of challenges. First, he was kidnapped by an Englishman claiming to be a friend and sold into slavery. Then, he taught himself English and returned to America. After all that, Squanto still helped the Pilgrims in Plymouth colony survive their first year in the land that was once his home.

As students read, they get the story of Thanksgiving from a different perspective, that of the Native American who helped the Pilgrims. The following four writing process prompts may help students develop the ability to write a few different types of paragraphs, including an informational paragraph, a convincing opinion paragraph, and a narrative paragraph describing a scene from Squanto’s life.

I especially like this book since it is written by a man with Native American heritage. It is a nice balance between what Native Americans experienced, specifically Squanto, and the pilgrim's traditional heritage.

The Thanksgiving Story

The Thanksgiving Story by Alice Dalgliesh is a 1955 Caldecott Honor story of the Pilgrims and the difficulties of their voyage and first year, ending with the traditional first Thanksgiving. The Thanksgiving Story is told from the perspective of the three Hopkins children, who really lived and traveled on the Mayflower. It includes details like the following:

  • The Speedwell had to turn back, and therefore the Mayflower was more crowded.
  • The ship mistakenly arrived in Plymouth rather than the warmer and more established colony in Virginia.
  • The Pilgrims faced fortuitous circumstances (such as corn discovered and fields already plowed for planting) due to the recent plague that had killed the Native American Indians.
  • The Native American Indians assisted the Pilgrims during the first year.
  •  The Pilgrims and Natives celebrated a traditional first Thanksgiving (harvest) meal together.

As students read The Thanksgiving Story, they learn of the many difficulties that the Pilgrims faced and better understand why they were so “thankful.” The following four writing process prompts may help students develop the ability to write a few different types of paragraphs, including a narrative letter about traveling on the Mayflower, an informational compare and contrast paragraph, an informational paragraph about how the Native American Indians helped the Pilgrims, and a convincing opinion paragraph as to why those Pilgrims should celebrate with a Thanksgiving feast.

What is a Writing Process Prompt?

A writing process prompt helps students respond to the events and details in the story, by working through each step: brainstorming, supporting/organizing, and finally writing. By walking students through the writing process, the assignment to write a paragraph will not be as overwhelming.

For example, my co-op class responded to one of the Thanksgiving Story prompts.

I put them in groups of two or three. The kids first had a chart on which to brainstorm things they might see, here, feel, smell, or taste aboard the Mayflower. Then they wrote sentences for each of those senses. They cut out the sentences and put them in an order they liked, tweaked it, and put it together into a paragraph, written as if they were a child writing a letter back to a friend in England about what the boat journey was like. Here is my favorite final product:

If you cannot read it, it says this:

Dear Friend,

We felt wood under our feet when we walked on the ship. Then I saw lots of people sleeping on mattresses. Later we smelled lots of stinky people. At lunch we ate a piece of hard bread. The boat made a loud creaking noise.

From, ____ and  ____.

Get these Writing Prompts

Squanto's Journey

The prompts are as follows:

  • Prompt #1: Explanatory — Squanto’s Positive Character Traits
  • Prompt #2: Persuasive — Should the Natives befriend the English?
  • Prompt #3: Sensory/Descriptive — What did a person see, hear, smell, taste, and touch at a harvest feast in 1621?
  • Prompt #4: Compare/Contrast — How was a harvest feast different for the Native Americans and the Pilgrims? How was it similar?

The Thanksgiving Story

The prompts are as follows:

  • Prompt #1: Sensory/Descriptive — Letter about the Mayflower Journey
  • Prompt #2: Compare/Contrast — New Plymouth versus Virginia Colony
  • Prompt #3: Explanatory — How did the Native Americans help the Pilgrims?
  • Prompt #4: Persuasive/Explanatory — Why should we be thankful?
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