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Thanksgiving in the Time of Lincoln

Lesson Overview

Overview: The lesson examines the origins of the American Thanksgiving holiday through primary sources.
Grade Range: 3-5
Objective: After completing this lesson, students will be able to:
  • Appreciate the value of primary sources in enlightening events in the history of our country.
  • Explain the creation of the nation-wide celebration of Thanksgiving in the United States.
  • Summarize and share facts from primary source documents.
  • Respond personally to the history of Thanksgiving by writing a letter to be shared with family and friends on Thanksgiving. 
Time Required: Two class periods of 50 minutes.
Discipline/Subject: Social Studies, Reading, Writing, Technology
Topic/Subject: Presidents
Era: Civil War and Reconstruction, 1861-1877



Illinois Learning Standards:

Language Arts:

1-Read with understanding and fluency.
1.A-Apply word analysis and vocabulary skills to comprehend selections.
1.B-Apply reading strategies to improve understanding and fluency.
1.C-Comprehend a broad range of reading materials.
2-Read and understand literature representative of various societies, eras and ideas.
2.A-Understand how literary elements and techniques are used to convey meaning.
2.B-Read and interpret a variety of literary works.
3-Write to communicate for a variety of purposes.
3.A-Use correct grammar, spelling, punctuation, capitalization and structure.
3.B-Compose well-organized and coherent writing for specific purposes and audiences.
3.C-Communicate ideas in writing to accomplish a variety of purposes.
4-List and speak effectively in a variety of situations.
4.A-Listen effectively in formal and information situations.
4.B-Speak effectively using language appropriate to the situation and audience.
5-Use the language arts to acquire, assess and communicate information.
5-A-Locate, organize, and use information from various sources to answer questions, solve problems and communicate ideas.
5.B-Analyze and evaluate information acquired from various sources.
5.C-Apply acquired information, concepts and ideas to communicate in a variety of formats.

Social Studies:

16-Understand events, trends, individuals and movements shaping the history of Illinois, the United States and other Nations.
16.A-Apply the skills of historical analysis and interpretation.
16.B-Understand the development of significant political events.
16.D-Understand Illinois, United States and world social history.



Handouts: KWL Chart (available on PDF page 4), LOC Primary Source Images
Analysis Tools: More You Look the More You See Photo Analysis, Letter Analysis, Written Document Analysis
Books: Thank You, Sarah: The Woman who Saved Thanksgiving by Laura Halse Anderson
Thanksgiving in the White House by Gary Hines and Alexandra Wallner 
Other: Kidspiration software, SmartBoard
Library of Congress Items: Title of Source: Sarah J. Hale to Abraham Lincoln, Monday, September 28, 1863 (original and transcripts)
  Title of Source: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875 Statues at Large
  Title of Source: Gardner photograph of Lincoln and Tad



  Day One:
1. Introduce the lesson by asking about how the children celebrate Thanksgiving in their home and family
2. Record students responses on a KWL chart (PDF) on the SmartBoard.
3. Explain vocabulary: primary source, letter proclamation, document, transcript, photograph, folklore, historical fiction.
4. Using the More You Look, the More You See Photo Analysis, analyze  the Gardner photograph of Lincoln and Tad by giving each group a piece of the picture which has been divided into six pieces.
5. Use ideas from the photo analysis form s to elicit responses form the class.
6. Show entire photo of Gardner photograph of Lincoln and Tad on SmartBoard and discuss further.
7. Introduce LOC site.
8. Display Sarah J.Hale to Abraham Lincoln, Monday, September 28, 1863 letter on SmartBoard.
9. Use the first half of the Letter Analysis form to point our parts of a letter with the whole group.
10. Distribute copies of the letter to partners to read. Complete lower half of he Written Document Analysis form. Share what students discover.
11. Distribute the transcripts of the letter and the proclamation for small groups to read. Share what students discover.
12. Share copies of the Thanksgiving proclamation. Use the written document analysis form to discuss.
13. Add What we have learned about the creation of the Thanksgiving holiday to the KWL (PDF) chart.
14. Repeat cycle if needed to address unanswered questions.
  Day Two:
1. Read Thank You, Sarah and Thanksgiving in the White House.
2. Based on primary source documents examined in lesson one, confirm what is "true" in the books and what is folklore. Accept responses and add to KWL (PDF) chart.
3. Make a Kidspiration web showing worlds and pictures and the most important facts about the Thanksgiving holiday.
4. Write a letter about what you have learned about the Thanksgiving holiday to share with family and friends on Thanksgiving. Put the letter in an envelope and address it to the recipient. 


1. Kidspiration webs will be evaluated using a rubric.
2. Letter written by students will be evaluated as to elements of a letter, spelling, punctuation, grammar.
3. Observation of brainstorming, critical thinking, small group work, and individual work will be used to assess student success.



Share photos of Sarah Josepha Hale, young and old, and a biography.
Share The Ungobbled Gobbler folklore which explores the truth of the turkey pardoning folklore.
View other primary source documents at LOC about Thanksgiving (i.e. states proclamations, changes in the 20th century, donations of turkeys to the president, photos of Thanksgiving during the Civil War, etc.)
Visit the Teacher's Page Thanksgiving Timeline at LOC. 
Read other books about the history of Thanksgiving, Tad Lincoln, Lincoln's other children.
Research Sarah J. Hale, magazine editor, author, teacher, possible author of Mary had a Little Lamb.
Have music teacher play the Thanksgiving Hymn Lincoln commissioned in 1863. 
Encourage children to choose other works of historical fiction and "test" their accuracy.

Author Credits:
Carl Sandburg Elementary