In years past, Dominick Lignell has had to draw a hand turkey for a class assignment.

However, the Brown Elementary School fifth-grader has also had to help younger students figure out how to unlock a breakout box using clues that were directly tied to Thanksgiving themes.

Dominick, 11, is among several students who have been treated to a more unique approach when it comes to learning – and celebrating – the Thanksgiving holiday.

“I’ve learned Thanksgiving isn’t just about eating food. It’s about realizing you’re blessed in this world,” said Dominick. “It’s great that we have these traditions to celebrate. But it’s important to know why you celebrate them.”

Over the years, several Southwest Michigan schools have gravitated toward this form of curriculum rather than only focusing on re-enacting the first Thanksgiving dinner.

Students still get their history lesson covering the Pilgrims’ voyage on the Mayflower to Plymouth Rock, and how the early settlers faced starvation and turned to help from Native Americans for survival.

However, some school districts are blending those Thanksgiving themes into other subjects, like math and English.

At Brown Elementary School, Principal Kristen Bawks said they link the holiday to Common Core-based standards.

“We try to meet the needs of our learners and make it relevant and applicable to what’s happening,” Bawks said. “As far as Thanksgiving, some classes are embedding STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) activities. Many classes do something with writing, like how to cook a turkey. Some classrooms do persuasive writing. Like writing from a turkey’s point of view to convince a person not to cook them for Thanksgiving.”

From a schoolwide perspective, Bawks said their students celebrate the idea of gratitude and community. All this is capped off with parent volunteers who serve a special luncheon for students and teachers.

She said it’s a longstanding tradition at all three elementary schools in the St. Joseph school district.

Thinking back to her elementary school days, Bawks remembers a Thanksgiving lunch and not much else.

“We do much less of the dress-up as Pilgrims and Native Americans. We try to be more culturally sensitive nowadays with what we’re doing in everyday practice,” Bawks said. “We’ve pushed students on that whole notion of gratitude and giving. We want students to be grateful for what they have and help others in need.”

Giving thanks

In the Lakeshore school district, schools are taking this notion of helping others up a notch.

Hollywood Elementary School Principal Natalie Macerata said their students go outside the classroom for a Thanksgiving experience.

As it gets closer to the holiday, Macerata said students from her school take part in a “Giveback Day” that involves multiple activities.

Hollywood Elementary partners with the village of Stevensville each year to do a community service project.

This year, the Christmas in the Village Committee asked for volunteer elementary students to put together more than 500 cookie kits that will be decorated by children who visit.

Students portion out icing and sprinkles and then package them ready to go.

Thanksgiving activities at Hollywood differ between grade levels.

In second grade, students celebrate Thanksgiving by studying the Plymouth Colony, including the daily life of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag people. 

Macerata said students compare and contrast the two cultures.

Fifth-grade students write thank you cards to people who have positively impacted their lives. Macerata said the class also makes a gratitude circle and students describe what they are thankful for.

“To finalize our Thanksgiving experience, we come together as a grade level and focus on the things that we are most thankful for in our lives,” she said.

A personal touch

In Berrien Springs, students still get the history lesson.

However, Mars Elementary School Principal Dee Voss said their students take part in activities following the lesson. The school’s second-grade class breaks into groups that collectively creates a poem with specific bead colors that form a bracelet.

“We are focusing a lot on feelings and doing a lot of talking about social and emotional growth,” Voss said.

She said Mars Elementary School teachers pull from several resources, including websites, along with literature from the library/media center, and incorporate spelling and math games.

“I think the foundational piece of being thankful for things and learning the history of how our country came to be is an important part of teaching Thanksgiving,” Voss said. “Being thankful goes beyond just the holiday. I’ve seen out students being kind and working together on a broader spectrum.”

Quandra Robinson, who teaches kindergarten at Benton Harbor’s Discovery and Enrichment Center, said they introduce students to the history of Thanksgiving by teaching them about why the Pilgrims traveled to America to escape King James and the oppression of Puritan separatists.

She said they next discuss the Native Americans and their culture – as well as the mixup that led to them being labeled as “Indians.”

“Mostly, we talk about how we are thankful today just as they were back then,” Robinson said.

Since she has taught at the Benton Harbor school district since 2002, Robinson said one of the Thanksgiving projects that stands out is the thankful tree.

The collaborative project involves students writing what they are thankful for on a paper leaf that is attached to the tree.

“When I was in school, I only remember making a hand turkey. They didn’t talk about the history of it,” Robinson said. “Now we incorporate that into our social studies curriculum.”

Navigating history

Although it wasn’t called Thanksgiving in 1620, the original story celebrates Pilgrims and Native Americans coming together to celebrate a successful harvest.

But Thanksgiving isn’t a celebration for everyone, particularly Native Americans, and navigating that nuance can be difficult for some educators.

Part of the difficulty in teaching Thanksgiving is how the story of the first Thanksgiving is incomplete.

There is research that suggests a shared meal took place, but within a generation, Native Americans and settlers were at war with each other. Native communities were destroyed and that part of the story tends to be left out.

At Brown Elementary School last week, a group of students were tasked with solving several breakout boxes that focused on problem-solving and other forms of enrichment challenges. The boxes included a Thanksgiving theme with several clues and puzzles for solving the box.

Becky Lokey, a fifth-grade teacher at Brown, said it’s creative assignments like those that offer an alternative to untangling the history of the first Thanksgiving that fell in between the early colonization period and the American Revolution.

“We were just talking about giving a perspective to all the players and using historical empathy on what happened,” Lokey said. “It’s a more comprehensive view of what happened and not that narrow of an interpretation.”

When she was her students’ age, Lokey said she remembers making cornucopias and other crafts for Thanksgiving that aren’t necessarily a good fit for the classroom in 2019.

“I had some sort of dated projects on Pilgrims in school when we had to wear the hats with the buckle on them,” Lokey said. “Now it’s about focusing on their perspective and doing some critical thinking on what was happening at that time.”

Contact:, 932-0358, Twitter: @TonyWittkowski