Thanksgiving Classroom Discussion: The Meaning of Thanksgiving

TurkeysStill looking for that last-minute classroom activity to keep the class occupied before the Thanksgiving break? Mark Twain’s newly released autobiography includes a comment on the meaning of Thanksgiving that is bound to lead to a lively classroom discussion.

Begin the classroom discussion by asking students to brainstorm or freewrite about the meaning of Thanksgiving. To help focus their comments, you might first ask them to reflect on what Thanksgiving means to them by sharing some of their personal experiences.

Next, ask them the talk about the cultural and social messages related to the holiday. It’s likely you can arrange their shared responses into a handful of categories like family, tradition, patriotism, thankfulness, and shopping.

Once students have recorded their ideas on the meaning of Thanksgiving, turn to Twain. The New York Times published some Excerpts From the ‘Autobiography of Mark Twain’, (found via Chris Boese on Facebook) that included this vitriolic rant “On the Meaning of Thanksgiving”:

Thanksgiving Day, a function which originated in New England two or three centuries ago when those people recognized that they really had something to be thankful for – annually, not oftener – if they had succeeded in exterminating their neighbors, the Indians, during the previous twelve months instead of getting exterminated by their neighbors the Indians. Thanksgiving Day became a habit, for the reason that in the course of time, as the years drifted on, it was perceived that the exterminating had ceased to be mutual and was all on the white man’s side, consequently on the Lord’s side, consequently it was proper to thank the Lord for it.

Twain’s syntax is a little complex, so you might start by breaking down that passage and unpacking the words. Ask students to look in particular at the word choice Twain is using to establish his opinion on the meaning of Thanksgiving:

  • It’s a function, rather than a holiday or celebration
  • The pilgrims are “those people.”
  • The function marks “exterminating their neighbors.”

There’s no whitewashing in Twain’s account of Thanksgiving! Those are some tough words, and Twain’s meaning is very clear.

Have students think about the religious and cultural references in the quotation, and challenge them to think about how Twain’s personal experiences may have influenced his opinion. Have students compare Twain’s comments to the ideas they brainstormed at the beginning of the activity, and encourage class discussion of the accuracy of Twain’s statement. Are there ways that Twain’s take on the meaning of Thanksgiving could be seen as accurate?

As an extension, ask students to adopt Twain’s structure and tone and apply it to Black Friday or Cyber Monday. What would Twain say was the meaning of those commercial events?


[Photo: Turkeys by Hey Paul, on Flickr]

March of Time Newsreels in the Classroom

Film Canisters by Mr. T in DCBack in the days before 24-hour news networks, people went to their local movie theaters to see what was going on in the world.

The March of Time, perhaps the most well-known producer of these videos, distributed documentaries that covered everything from American culture and lifestyles, to business and industry, to the nation at war.

To celebrate the 75th anniversary of this precursor to breaking news videos on YouTube, the Museum of Modern Art has a special film exhibition, running September 1 through September 10. Turner Classic Movies has posted background information on The March of Time and will show five of the newsreels on September 5th.

Luckily, highlights from the collection of historical videos are also available online from HBO Archives. Note that a free site login is required to view the videos. Additional materials are also available from the March of Time’s Facebook page.

The newsreels and documentaries on the HBO site include historical events, cultural happenings, and biographical profiles. The videos provide a wonderful snapshot of life in America and around the world.

I first wrote about the March of Time collection on Bedford Bits last summer. You can check my blog entry Use Newsreel Videos for Background and Analysis there for specific ideas.

One of my favorite possibilities for class discussion this fall is the Oil and Men video, which offers a profile of Standard Oil of Indiana from 1951. What a great pairing that 30 minute video would make for videos and news stories on BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Here are some others you may want to spend some time with:

  • Basic English 1, with text by I. A. Richards, is quite odd, though perhaps not the best “teaching picture.” There’s also a Basic English 2 if you survive the first video.
  • Tobaccoland, USA might pair nicely with an analysis of cigarette advertisements and anti-smoking commercials.
  • Leadbelly is a short biopic on the famous musician, which might be compared to profiles on celebrities shown on TV or in magazines like People.
  • Wit and Humor is a dramatization of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment.”

It’s unfortunate that HBO has left the running clock on the videos, but it’s still a handy collection with limitless possibilities for the classroom.

[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by Mr. T in DC]

My Literary Genes

I’ve written before about my literary claim to fame: I’m slightly related to Ralph Waldo Emerson, through my great-great-grandmother Anne Emerson.

While I know that Anne was Ralph’s third cousin once removed, I’m not exactly sure what that makes me. Genealogy isn’t exactly my area of expertise.

That’s why I’m loving the relationship in Wolfram|Alpha. I entered the information I knew, and got a lovely chart that made everything clear:

My genealogical relationship to Ralph Waldo Emerson

Depending upon how I described the relationship, I’m Emerson’s 4th cousin 3 times removed or his 3rd cousin 5 times removed.

Either way, it appears that I share a 1/8192, or 0.012207%, blood relationship. We share a 13th degree of kinship, which apparently means I’m free to marry him or serve on a jury considering his fate. I don’t think either of those situations is likely to arise. But enough of my poetic cousin.

The relationship query in Wolfram|Alpha could be used in the classroom to help clarify family relationship students read about as well. If you’re reading Faulkner, you may well need complete family trees. If you’re just trying to explain third cousins, this may be just what you need.


Even More Literary Ten Bests

Ten Bells, Spitalfields, E1Can you name ten memorable vegetables from the literature you’ve read? How about ten pieces of literature that include a shipwreck or perhaps a volcano? You’ll find lists for these and much more below.

When I went searching for the literary lists of “Ten Best” from the UK newspaper The Guardian, I somehow missed dozens of interesting collections. These links will take you to ten of the best:

Always be sure to check for newest additions to the list on the Guardian site. You may find a new list that’s perfect for the texts you’ve been reading in class

Obviously there are more lists there than you’ll need for any one class, and some of the lists may be inappropriate for your students. There’s enough range though that you’re bound to find something useful whether you want to model a year-end activity with the literary lists of ten or try something else.


[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by Ewan-M]

A Year-End Activity with Literary Lists of “Ten Best”

Clock Showing Ten Minutes Till the HourThere’s not much time left in the school year, and you may find that students are uninterested in reviewing for final exams when they could be making plans for summer fun or a few days off between terms.

You can use the literary lists of “Ten Best” from the UK newspaper The Guardian as the basis of a student-driven exam review activity that can add a bit of fun and entertainment to the last days in the classroom.

If time is short, you can share a relevant list with a class and discuss the examples. Look for a list that fits the content the class has covered, or find one that lists a text that students have read during the course. If students have enough background in the area that list covers, you can discuss whether you’d change the list.

You can also ask students to extend one of the existing lists with something from a reading. Time may require that you narrow the options, so you can give students a list of several options from your readings and ask them to choose one or two to add to one of The Guardian lists. The lists on lotharios, monsters, and unrequited love are focused broadly enough that you’re bound to have read a text with some examples for at least one of the categories. If you’re teaching American literature, the list on American frontier would work well.

If time allows a more in-depth project, have students make their own lists, modeled on the examples from The Guardian:

  • Choose several literary lists and share them with the class.
  • Ask students to look at the both the things that are listed and the information included for each item on the lists (e.g., short plot summaries, descriptions of the relevant characters, and quotations). You might share the heroes from children’s fiction list and the books about war with students to demonstrate how images can be included.
  • Explain that students will make their own lists, using The Guardian lists as models.
  • Brainstorm some possible topics for class lists, based on the readings of the term. Encourage creativity. Maybe the class will come up with some options as unique as best tattoos or best pairs of glasses.
  • Narrow the list down to the topics that will work best for the class if desired.
  • Arrange students in groups. Have each group review the brainstormed options and decide on a topic to explore.
  • To ensure that everyone in the group contributes, ask each group member to find 3 to 5 items for the group topic as a homework activity. If desired, narrow the homework further by having each group member search through a different section of the class textbook or a different time period that you’ve covered (e.g., Student 1 takes readings from the 1700s, student 2 takes readings from the 1800s).
  • During the next class session, have group members share their suggestions and narrow their collection down to ten items. You might ask students to rank the items or announce that, like the lists from The Guardian, the order has no relevance.
  • Have groups add the appropriate details for the items on their list, following the models from The Guardian as a minimum requirement. If desired, groups might make their list more robust by adding images, sound effects, or music.
  • Ask students to prepare their lists to share with the class. Depending upon your classroom resources, you can have students read their lists, create overhead transparencies, posters, or Powerpoint presentations.
  • Once all the work is completed, have groups share their lists as a review of all you’ve read during the year.

The activity works well because students get lost in the task and forget that they are actively reviewing all their readings for the year. I’ve had students voluntarily reread texts to find evidence when they work on projects like this one.

Customize the activity as appropriate. If ten items seems too long, just adjust the number. “Five Best” would work just as well as ten. The number is fairly arbitrary. There’s nothing magical about the number ten after all.

Add a reflective piece, if you wish, by having students journal about why they have chosen the items they have (and why others have been discarded). While the examples all focus on literature, the activity could be adapted to other content areas. Students can gather the “Ten Best” scientific innovations they’ve learned about during the course, or they can list “Ten Best” historical documents for a history or social studies class.

Encourage more synthesis and analysis by asking students to rank the items on the lists. Groups might narrow their lists to the top three or four items. You can then set up voting that asks students to rank the top items. Take a look at Mother’s Day: 12 Of The Most Horrifying Mothers of Literature from The Huffington Post. Along with the list of moms and their descriptions, the article includes a poll that asks readers to rank the characters. The Huffington Post list may not be one that is appropriate to use in the classroom, but the online poll demonstrates one way you might invite students to vote (and it makes the results easy to tabulate).

Finally, you can tie the activity to the final exam for the course itself with these suggestions:

  • Give students a full list and ask them to narrow the list to the 3 or 4 best and to justify their opinions.
  • Have students take a list and draw conclusions about how the topic has been defined by your readings. Using an example list from The Guardian, for instance, you might ask, “What are the characteristics of a lothario, based on the characters listed as Ten of the best lotharios in literature?”
  • Ask students to transform one of the lists to an “Eleven Best” by adding an item to an existing list. Have them write an explanation of how the item would be appropriate.

[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by cesarastudillo]

Literary Lists of “Ten Best”

Ten Street SignThe UK newspaper The Guardian has an ongoing series that focuses on “The 10 Best of” a variety of topics. They’ve covered a range of interests, including fashion, movies, comedy, politics, and music. Fortunately for those of us who teach literature, The Guardian feature has included these unusual literary lists of ten:

You’ll find that some of the lists are stronger than others. For instance, I was disappointed to find that the heroes from children’s fiction focused solely on white heroes, and the books about war failed to include Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. How could a list of best war books not include The Things They Carried?!

What the lists do extremely well however is demonstrate a great amount of creativity in topics. That’s certainly the only list of best pairs of glasses or best tattoos I’ve ever seen. Sometimes the lists are particularly relevant to current events, such as the best elections list published today. If you do nothing more than read through the lists, you’re bound to find a new text to add to your reading list—or a reminder of a text that would be enjoyable to revisit.

Come back tomorrow for a great year-end activity inspired by these literary lists!

Video Interview of Author Tim O’Brien

Vietnam War Soldier Helmet, CC Flickr photo by MattsipIf you’re teaching Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, be sure to take a look at Big Think’s video interview with the author.

In addition to talking about his novel, O’Brien talks about the process of writing and the role that literature plays in our lives. Having just written an Inbox blog on making personal connections to the texts that we read, I was especially taken by O’Brien’s story about how his writing had touched one specific reader. He concludes by noting that “Literature does touch people; it’s not just to be read in English classes.”

The video interview is accompanied by a text transcript, so you can read excerpts to your classes if you do not have the equipment to play the video itself in the classroom.

[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by Mattsip]

Poem 14: “[Blank Verse]”

Somehow I never saw Ernest Hemingway’s "[Blank Verse]" until tonight. When I first saw it on someone else’s blog, I was certain it was a hoax, but I actually confirmed its authenticity. It’s right there on page 6 of Hemingway’s Complete Poems, written in 1916.  I think it’s a little hard to read, so I added boldface to make things stand out.

[Blank Verse]

"                         "
       !             :                  ,                 .
              ,            ,            ,                 .
      ,              ;                              !

I would say that I appreciate Hemingway’s fiction, but his work falls outside the areas I usually follow. Having found "[Blank Verse]" though, I’m wondering if I shouldn’t take some time to page through his poetry. Maybe there’s another hidden wonder inside. For now, I’m going to head to bed wondering how on earth you present that poem at a poetry reading :-)

Poem 10: “Theme for English B”

 Langston Hughes’s "Theme for English B" isn’t my favorite Hughes’ works, but it so perfectly describes the student’s dilemma when writing for a teacher who will never understand him that I think every teacher, especially every writing teacher, should read this poem.

Since I did write a book on the topic, I’m compelled to address the assignment that begins the poem:

    Go home and write
    a page tonight.
    And let that page come out of you--
    Then, it will be true.

Poetically, it’s a lovely thing. As a writing assignment, it lacks a great deal of detail and support. Every writing teacher should note the speaker’s difficulty at pinning down the details of the assignment—Whose idea of truth? Will the teacher understand truths that don’t match his or her views of the world?

Ultimately the speaker draws conclusions about truths, both personal and social. I just hope that teacher is up to the challenge of responding!

Poem 9: “Richard Cory”

I know. Another narrative. I think I liked Edwin Arlington Robinson’s "Richard Cory" first because it tricked me. I recall reading it in my sophomore American Lit survey class. I think it was the simplicity of the lines and their abab rhyme scheme. I was taken in by the nursery-rhyme-like quality and then shocked by that last line. That was the point, of course. Robinson got exactly the reaction he wanted out of me.

For better or worse though, the version of the poem that I carry around in my head is courtesy of Simon and Garfunkel: