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Thanksgiving in Class - Strategies for Safe Celebrating

One of my beloved former students used to refer to Thanksgiving as “pre-game.” Along with his classmates, he would anticipate family gatherings, feasts, and other joyful celebrations. In school, we would celebrate with parties or cute Thanksgiving-themed projects. One year, my students made little turkeys out of Oreo cookies and candy corn. None of that is happening this year. In less than two weeks, most of us will be hunkered down for a Thanksgiving celebration unlike any we have ever experienced. Whether we are currently teaching virtually, in a hybrid model or in a building, how can we summon the festive spirit of the holiday season to come without sacrificing any health protocols? Below is a list of safely distanced classroom activities to engage students in tapping into the best part of Thanksgiving: gratitude.

For the next few weeks leading toward both Thanksgiving and winter break, ask students to keep a gratitude journal. Each day, the class will spend five minutes writing down one thing to be grateful for. The day before winter break, students can share their favorite items via Jamboard, Padlet, or similar and discuss. Alternatively, students could write some of their grateful thoughts onto a cutout of a turkey feather, and the class could gradually build a “Thankful Turkey” either in person or, if virtual, the teacher could create an image to represent the turkey and share online.

In the spirit of facing difficult times, students can reflect upon the things they miss about this year, and what they look forward to experiencing in better times. For younger children, that could be one thought or sentence, while older students can share their ideas with a partner or group, and then the class can look for commonalities. Activities like these will help to build relationships during a time when it can be more challenging to relate to fellow students behind masks or computer screens.

Even at a distance, students love doing small crafts projects for the holiday. For example, the class can work on making fun Thanksgiving placemats with large pieces of paper. Students might decorate their placemats by gathering a few leaves, placing the paper over the leaves, and rubbing a crayon over the area to make leaf shapes. They could also draw on the placemats, or even look up trivia about Thanksgiving and write the questions on the front, and the answers on the back. In a similar vein, small items like napkin rings or place cards are easy to make with just paper and colored pencils or markers. These little projects are a nice change of pace during class on the day before the holiday.

Sometimes, a little competition can spice up the class, and what better way to do that than with a Thanksgiving-themed Haiku-a-Thon? To do this activity, divide students into teams. For each round, teams will get a different theme: it might be pumpkin pie, or football, or parades. In each round, students have a specific time period (about two minutes) to write a haiku. Then, the judge (usually the teacher) decides who “wins” each round. This is all in good fun, so no prizes or other incentives should be offered, and it doesn’t even have to be competitive. The idea is to get students pumped about writing poetry in a silly, no-risk way.

At any age, we can ask students to share favorite recipes for the holiday. Younger children can make these up, and it’s always entertaining to see what ingredients they put into dishes, and in what amounts. For older children, they are able share the actual recipe, and either write or talk (or both) about why this recipe is meaningful to them. All of these contributions can be compiled into a class holiday cookbook, which the teacher might wish to share with families.

To get students to think positively in dark times, ask them to write about what their vision of a perfect Thanksgiving holiday looks like. Ideally, students will elaborate with lots of detail, go outside the bounds of reality (and even into the supernatural) if that makes it more true to their vision, and be encouraged to think without limits. Right now, we all need hope, and this writing prompt should get our students to think beyond the many obstacles of where we are now, and look forward to a different future.

We may be limited in what we can do, but we can still celebrate good times with the students we love so much. Someday, we will make turkeys out of Oreos again and gather for classroom parties as we look ahead to large holiday gatherings. This is not the time for that, and we are all making sacrifices. Our children see that, and they will follow our lead of positivity in a time of incredible instability. As we head toward an unprecedented holiday season, let’s reframe how we teach our children to cherish what we have with gratitude.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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