Bring Thanksgiving to Your Classroom!

A rhetorical look at Thanksgiving celebrations from all sides of the American dinner table.

By Alicia Johnson

Colorful blocks that read 'Give Thanks'

As a teacher, by the time November rolls around I am feeling a time crunch. The things I want to cover seem to get squeezed out by the topics that I must cover. For instance, I love to give classes a chance to discuss current issues, celebrations, hot topics in the media, or even a new CD by a popular group. The more engaging the subject, the more passionately my students participate in class. However, I also have educational content and learning goals that should be completed prior to Winter Break. This means that I am constantly re-working lessons to include the topic that I think is most engaging with the core learning goals that need to be met. It's like I stack the content and curriculum similar to the way I stack a sandwich. One of the skill sets that high school juniors and seniors need to master, but just cannot be covered in one or two lessons, is the skill of using rhetorical techniques to make their messages more clear to their audiences. I found that if I wanted my classes to master the use of rhetorical techniques, I had to allow them opportunities to keep practicing in one way or another, all year long.


Merriam-Webster defines rhetoric as "the art of speaking or writing effectively." Helping the upcoming generation to communicate effectively will not only help them in their future personal, professional, and educational lives, but will also help them now. One excellent way to discuss the use of rhetorical techniques is to teach how to recognize them when they are used by others. If we can recognize the techniques used (poorly or successfully) by others, we will be on the right road to being able to use them more effectively. 

The Sandwich

I find the best time to talk rhetoric is with subject matter that students care about. Since Thanksgiving is one of those subjects, it can be part of a lesson sandwich on rhetoric. I say lesson sandwich because the lesson would contain a subject we want to discuss (Thanksgiving) as well as the things we have to discuss (rhetorical techniques). This lesson involves reading, viewing, or listening to what some marginalized Americans have to say about one of our most cherished holidays, with a chance at the end for pupils to create their own Thanksgiving-themed presentation.

The Plan

Separate your class into five groups. Announce that they will be discussing the rhetorical techniques used in one of five different stories about how modern Americans celebrate Thanksgiving. They will then, as a group, create their own Thanksgiving celebration presentation. Each group will complete the following:

1. Discuss with each other how they learned about Thanksgiving.  Did they learn about it at home, at school, or both?  What stories did they hear about the first Thanksgiving and the meaning behind the holiday?  A group note-taker will document the discussion for use in the final presentation.

2. After being assigned one of the stories below, groups will read, watch, or listen to their story together.

3. Groups will discuss what message the story is trying to deliver and the underlying theme (read between the lines).

4. Groups will analyze the techniques used by the writer/speaker to get his message across. They will document at least five rhetorical techniques used, cite the technique, and provide the quote where it occurs in the story. TEACHERS: You can make a list of techniques that you want your groups to use as starting point. There are ten techniques listed in this article that you could use for reference. Also, here is a list created on Quizlet, which is great because pupils can also use the site to study. (If you have never used, I suggest you give it a try. It is a great, free, online study site. My students used to ask me to give them five minutes on Quizlet before a vocabulary test).

5. Groups will discuss and note whether or not the techniques used were effective.

6. Groups will finish by creating an audio or video interview, essay, or OPED article describing a compilation of the group's Thanksgiving celebrations. They will mention some of the things they learned about early Thanksgiving celebrations (taken from notes made in #1 above). They will also consider how others celebrate (from the story they analyzed) and will mention if they still maintain their initial beliefs about the holiday.

Common Core Connection

Speaking and Listening Standards for Grades 6-12 (11/12 Grade Focus)

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.3 Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric, assessing the stance, premises, links among ideas, word choice, points of emphasis, and tone used.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.4 Present information, findings, and supporting evidence, conveying a clear and distinct perspective, such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning, alternative or opposing perspectives are addressed, and the organization, development, substance, and style are appropriate to purpose, audience, and a range of formal and informal tasks.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.5 Make strategic use of digital media (e.g., textual, graphical, audio, visual, and interactive elements) in presentations to enhance understanding of findings, reasoning, and evidence and to add interest.

More Lessons:

Thanksgiving: Simple Present Tense Review

This is such a simple way to bring Thanksgiving into the classroom. It includes something you want to discuss like Thanksgiving, with something you have to cover like grammar. It is listed as a first grade and higher skill-level worksheet.

Thank You Notes

Presented by the New York Times, this five-star resource has everything you might need to have a meaningful Thanksgiving-themed lesson. Your class will discuss presidential proclamations, decide what America has to be thankful for, and create their own proclamation of thanks. Beginning with an article that includes a proclamation by President Bush (link provided),  and followed by comprehension questions, vocabulary words, extension exercises, and interdisciplinary connections, it is easy to implement. Use this in history or English classes, seventh grade and higher.

Lets Talk Turkey

If you are a math or economics teacher, you will love this excellent Thanksgiving-themed lesson that has pupils doing math while reflecting on their own celebrations. Concepts such as the Consumer Price Index, inflation, and deflation are the focus.  Learners will look at several years worth of Thanksgiving data and compile their own Thanksgiving price index. There's nothing wrong with being practical when approaching a holiday that usually calls for spending money!