Props & Pilgrims

Leah Shaeffer HeadshotLeah Shaeffer is Gulfshore Playhouse’s Director of Education. She will be blogging every Thursday throughout the 2014-2015 season

Happy November, friends! Gulfshore Playhouse’s Education department is happily busy, busy, busy with our ThinkTheatre program this month, visiting schools all over Lee and Collier Counties.

A popular theme that keeps popping up in educators’ requests for ThinkTheatre this November is, unsurprisingly, Thanksgiving. How can we teach our students about the fabled “First Thanksgiving” in a way that they will identify with? The Pilgrims and American Indians of Plymouth Rock seem so mythical and distant from our contemporary visions of Thanksgiving.

And, indeed, they are. First of all, 1621 is incomprehensible to most of our youngest students. Our Thanksgiving-themed lessons are peppered with questions like “Did they eat the dinosaurs?” Secondly, Thanksgiving is different for every modern family. These little students share their favorite Thanksgiving foods with the class—ranging from the typical “turkey” and “mashed potatoes”, to family favorites like “Haitian rice” and “Grandma’s gumbo”. Some students go to a restaurant, while others travel across the country to be with family. Others may not celebrate Thanksgiving at all.

So the question remains: How do we connect these students with such an iconic moment in American history? When their experience is so drastically different from the origin of the holiday, how do we engage and excite them, connecting their family traditions and memories with the past?

I sit down in a circle with the students, using a beautifully illustrated storybook to tell them the basics of the First Thanksgiving. On each page I ask the students connecting questions, such as: “Look at the food on the Pilgrims’ table. Do you see any foods that you eat for Thanksgiving with your family? Is there any food you don’t recognize? What do you think it is?”

This active read-aloud is helpful in many ways, but alone, it can’t fully engage the students. So I turn to one of my favorite tools in theatre-integrated education: Role play!

The_First_Thanksgiving_cph.3g04961The students take on the roles of Pilgrims making the rough voyage aboard the Mayflower from England to America. They role play as American Indians, meeting these strange new neighbors and sharing their wisdom and bounty. They work together to “prepare the feast”, using their vivid imaginations to catch wild fish and fowl, harvest corn and berries, knead bread dough, cook over a fire, and set a long table with the fruits of their labor.

Working to guide and direct the students as they excitedly hop from one activity to another, I always take a moment to enjoy the organized chaos around me. I love to hear the students giggle and chatter, comparing the sizes of the “fish” they caught, popping “berries” into their mouths, and excitedly talking about the feast that is to come. As the students fully engage in the history of their country and take ownership of their own learning, this cacophony of joy is a beautiful thing to behold.

At the end of the lesson, we all come together and hold hands around the “table”, going around the circle and—you guessed it—sharing what we are thankful for. The students’ answers never fail to alternatively amuse and tug the heartstrings, but my answer is always the same. I am thankful to be part of an organization that recognizes the importance of the joy, the opportunity, and the empowerment that theatre education can bring to our community.

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