These teachers say they’re telling ‘true story’ of Thanksgiving. Some critics disagree.

Social studies teacher Keisha Worthey wants her 13-year-old students to consider the Native American perspective as they celebrate the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday.

Worthey asked her students at East Millbrook Middle School in Raleigh to go beyond the traditional story about Pilgrims and their American Indian neighbors celebrating the “First Thanksgiving” in 1621. The seventh-grade students heard about how Thanksgiving is a day of mourning as opposed to a day of celebration among many Native Americans.

“Our question for the day is how do we frame the narrative — or the story — of Thanksgiving?” Worthey told her class on Friday. “For some of us, that means we’ve been taught ‘oh the Pilgrims and Indians had a great time at the first feast. They were best friends.’

“But historically we know what happened to the indigenous population in America. What happened to them? They were killed. Can we talk about Thanksgiving without talking about that conversation? No.”

Worthey is among a growing number of educators who are changing the way Thanksgiving has historically been taught. These educators say they’re peeling away the myths that have surrounded the Thanksgiving story.

Teaching Thanksgiving in a culturally appropriate way

Earlier this month, the Wake County school system’s Office of Equity Affairs tweeted that teachers should teach Thanksgiving in a historical and culturally appropriate way that includes centering on the voices of indigenous people. The tweet included links from the state Department of Public Instruction and the Center For Racial Justice in Education.

“I don’t feel comfortable with a generation of kids growing up thinking that Native Americans and Pilgrims sat down at a table together and everything was fine,” Lauryn Mascareñaz, director for coaching and leadership in Wake’s Office of Equity Affairs, said in an interview. “As educators we should not be OK with that because it’s not the right story.”

Last November, one of Mascareñaz’s tweets went viral after she said teachers shouldn’t have their students make “Indian” feathers/clothes. The tweet also said teachers shouldn’t “culturally appropriate an entire people for ‘cute’ activities.”

She’s quoted in an upcoming issue of TIME magazine about how the way Thanksgiving is being taught is changing.

Mascareñaz said Equity Affairs has been pushing teachers to go outside their comfort zone of what they’ve learned and what they previously taught. She said social studies teachers are being encouraged to present both the dominant and “counter-narrative” of issues so that students can analyze all the data and become critical thinkers.

“It’s important not to perpetuate a false narrative to our kids,” Mascareñaz said. “I think that we do them a disservice by telling them a story that is not true. Our job is to educate kids and by not telling them the entire story about what really happened for Thanksgiving is to perpetuate a lie.”

Students work on a mind map about the narrative of Thanksgiving during a lesson on being culturally responsible during Thanksgiving at East Millbrook Middle School in Raleigh, N.C. on November 22, 2019. Caleb Jones

Mascareñaz said Worthey does a good job of exposing her students to different perspectives as they come to their own conclusions. Worthey said what’s always on her mind is that her students will be old enough to vote just five years from now.

As part of Worthey’s seventh-grade social studies classes, students have been learning about the “Age of Exploration” as explorers like Christopher Columbus visited the Americas.

Marking Thanksgiving as a National Day of Mourning

Heading into Thanksgiving, Worthey also had her students watch a Huffington Post video about how the United American Indians of New England mark each Thanksgiving with a National Day of Mourning. They also read “Thanksgiving: A Native American View,” where the author talks about how her ancestors survived the “evil” brought by the Pilgrims.

The class is having an impact on how Worthey’s students are approaching Thanksgiving. Worthey posted online some of the tweets she had her students write about what they had learned.

“When we are taught about Thanksgiving we are only shown the ‘good things’ that happened, but we are never told the full story or the true story” one student wrote.

Jainaba Sanneh, 13, a 7th-grade student, said she won’t view Thanksgiving the same way she did before. She also said Worthey has made social studies her favorite class.

“Now that I’ve learned about how the Europeans committed genocide and were killing 10 to 30 million people of the Native Americans, I should think about the Native Americans more on Thanksgiving,” Sanneh said.

Thanksgiving-related activities like those advocated by the Office of Equity Affairs has drawn a backlash from some critics, who say it’s revisionist history. A.P. Dillon, a Wake County parent and conservative blogger, questioned Equity Affairs’ linking to the Center For Racial Justice in Education’s “A Racial Justice Guide to Thanksgiving for Educators and Families.”

“The Office of Equity Affairs’ ‘racial justice guide’ is yet another example of how hell-bent the OEA is on dividing our students by their skin color than bringing them together by their minds and spirits,” Dillon said.

Mascareñaz said the backlash comes from people wrongly thinking educators are criticizing how the holiday is celebrated.

“Get together with your family, eat a bunch of food,” Mascareñaz said. “That is not what this is about. This is actually about telling the truth and teaching history to children.”

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.