Taking Culture and History beyond a Single Holiday

Thanksgiving is clearly noted on any U.S. calendar. It’s always the fourth Thursday of November. Not every calendar marks the day after Thanksgiving as another holiday, however. My kitchen wall calendar is empty of text on November 25, but the calendar on my phone correctly observes that today is Native American Heritage Day. Did you know that the entire month of November is actually Native American Heritage month?

Surely, at the time of year when Americans gather with family to give thanks, it’s also appropriate to be mindful of our past and the history that unfolded once European settlers came to what is now the United States of America. Where we are today is connected to decisions and actions of the past. While we can be grateful for all we have in the present, we must remember that it exists through others’ sacrifice and loss. For students learning American English, exposure to Native American Heritage can help broaden and deepen their understanding of the U.S. Every country has its complexities and contradictions. The United States is no exception.

In a recent interview I had with a well-known Canadian polyglot, my guest, Steve Kaufmann, talked about how culture may not always be the trigger for one’s initial interest in a language, but it can be something that draws you further into your studies. He also described how his knowledge of a people’s history and culture then strengthens his understanding of who they are. Following this logic, we can argue that awareness of Native American history and culture can strengthen a student’s understanding of the present-day American population and its diverse nature. Who are the Native Americans and how can their stories and voices be shared?

I’ve been using this free site for a number of years with high beginners through high intermediate students. The graded readings cover many different topics, including U.S. history and culture. You’ll find texts about different Indigenous peoples of North America, such as the Apache, the Choctaw, and Cree. Many of the readings have human audio recordings. (I’ve contributed some, and I’d encourage other teachers to do the same.)

If you’d rather focus on listening skills than reading with upper level students, StoryCorps is a solid option. In November, I shared the story of Sacheen Littlefeather, a woman of White Mountain Apache and Yaqui heritage, with one of my advanced students. Her short, but compelling story reminds us of the courage it takes for some to find their voice and make sure it’s heard — especially when the audience isn’t ready to listen. My student and I also watched the initial speech she made back in 1973 at the Oscars. We the discussed the context, the tone, and the impact of the speech.

Interviews and Documentaries
Some of the longer videos on YouTube likely provide more information than could be addressed in an ESL class. The History Channel has a 40-minute video titled The Real Story of Thanksgiving, and perhaps it’s best for extended, independent listening. I appreciate a 6-minute clip produced by ABC News because it’s short enough to make it accessible in the context of an ESL lesson and the guest speaker is very articulate. His English will be comprehensible to ELLs. The importance of understanding the true history of Thanksgiving features David Silverman of George Washington University.

During the Thanksgiving holiday, it’s important for learners to have familiarity with the most common associations and traditions Americans hold, but it is also appropriate to unfold and unpack the holiday to the degree that our ELL’s proficiency allows. As Professor Silverman explains, it’s not about waging war against a cherished national holiday, but rather we must be careful not to reinforce any false narratives or myths. For someone learning American English and the American culture, there’s quite a lot to absorb and make sense of. Such lessons can’t be packed into a single day once a year. Perhaps seeing “Native American Heritage Day” on our calendar can serve as a checkpoint. Let’s pause and ask, Have we been sharing various voices and stories that have made the United States as we know it today?

Featured image by Marco Lopes from Pixabay


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