Is your child celebrating Thanksgiving in school? What does that look like?

Written by Rorri Geller-Mohamed, LCSW

October 13, 2019

I need to share this parenting and advocacy moment with you and I wonder how many other people have had a similar situation. As a parent, it is super important to me that my kids learn about cultural diversity, history, kindness, and making change in an unjust world. I wrongly assumed that my children’s preschool (which we chose partially because of its cultural diversity of both students, staff, and admin and opportunity for bilingual education in Spanish) would know how teach Thanksgiving accurately. Nope. I was wrong.

The other day when I picked my son up from school, his teacher explained to me that they had split the class in half and for the Thanksgiving party they would be dressing up as Pilgrims and Indians so I should send him to school wearing black on Friday. My stomach knotted up and my first thought was how do I respond. I know that to some extent the teachers make the lessons and activities but that the school provides the curriculum. Plus, the teachers are the kindest, attentive, and most loving people so I know that this activity doesn’t line up with what they teach or how they treat others.

I also feel conflicted as a white person explaining that this is racist to my son’s Latino teacher who has likely had first hand experience of what racism is. So I respond in a very long run on explanation that it’s 2018 and that I want my children to learn the accurate history of thanksgiving in an age appropriate way and that I’m concerned that this activity could be considered culturally offensive and appropriation. (I used the word “could” even though I know it is for the purpose of the goal of softening the conversation to create a dialogue while keeping my goal in mind.) One of the hardest parts of this for me is that being a white person I’m still not always sure where my place is in having a conversation about racism with a person of color. Other emotions that came up for me included feeling ungrateful since they do so much for my son and they care so much for him.

The situation was similar for the activity in my daughter’s 1 year old class. They were to bring in white t-shirts that they would decorate with symbols from Thanksgiving but a picture of an Indian was brought up as one of the possible symbols. But just like my son’s teachers, my daughter’s teachers are also people of color and some of them may not have grown up in this country so besides it being a curriculum issue, it’s possible there may just be a lack of awareness.

My next step was to approach administration but I wanted to gather resources first that I could bring to the school to help them discuss Thanksgiving respectfully, accurately, and age-appropriately. To my surprise in 2018, there were limited resources on the internet for actual activities for early childhood ages 1 through 3. Most resources started at age 4 and up.

Community is often one of the best places to get resources so this where I started. I reached out to my Facebook communities including Reading Your World; Teaching Literacy Skills with Diverse Books and Are Those Your Kids? Navigating Multiracial Motherhood One Day At A Time to ask for recommendations. This was extremely helpful and I also did some of my own research.

Here are the resources that I found helpful:

Decolonizing Thanksgiving: A Toolkit for Combatting Racism in Schools

Native American Children’s LiteratureRecommended Reading List

Teaching Thanksgiving in a Socially Responsible Way

How To Talk To Kids About Thanksgiving

#IndigenousReads by Indigenous Writers: A Children’s Reading List

American Indians in Children’s Literature (AICL)

I approached the administration with these articles and resources. They were appreciative and stated they would review and discuss the materials. That’s the stage we are at right now. It’s a work in progress but I’m appreciative that they are open to the dialogue. Systemic change doesn’t happen overnight but planting the seeds are necessary.

Looking back I should have brought this up earlier. At the beginning of the school year I should have asked how do you teach Thanksgiving? I’m sharing this because it’s likely I’m not the only parent in this situation and because advocating for change is something that I often encourage other parents and clients that I work with. I always find it helpful when others share their journey and so I hope that you find my journey helpful. I think it’s important to acknowledge that yes it can be messy but that if we believe in building a loving and inclusive world then we need our actions to show that.

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