There are two sides to the Thanksgiving story — the one taught in most American grade schools and a more complicated one that coexists alongside it.

Every year, millions of Americans gather around family tables to eat turkey and toast the fellowship of the Pilgrims and their American Indian hosts. And every year, Native American educators attempt to re-contextualize the holiday to add more first-American perspectives to the traditional telling of the history.

The differences are often striking: While most lesson plans treat the first Thanksgiving as a feast co-planned by the Pilgrims and their Native neighbors, from the Wampanoag perspective, the meal was one they happened upon by accident and nonetheless helped rescue with a successful deer hunt. While many non-Native Americans treat the feast as a celebration, many Native people observe the holiday as a day of mourning.


One such educator is Gillian Murr, a fourth-year eighth-grade humanities teacher at Marysville School in Portland, Oregon — and an alum of the American Indian Teacher Program at Portland State University.

Photo via Gillian Murr.

Murr, who is Walla Walla and Yankton Sioux, told me about how she approaches the holiday in the classroom and what other teachers can do to include Native perspectives in their lesson plans.

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

UPWORTHY: What do you love most about your job?

GILLIAN MURR: My favorite part of teaching is really connecting with my students — sharing and learning from them. I don't remember ever having a connection with any teachers when I was younger, and I think it is so important.

I work in a very diverse school, and a Title I school, and I think connections, especially in eighth grade, can make or break the learning that goes on in my class.

UP: What kind of connections do you make with your students? What do you bond with them over?

GM: Having persevered through poverty and oppression, I really try to connect with my students on that level. I think there is a level of vulnerability that is required and that students, this age especially, need and respect.

I let my students know that I have gone through things like they are. I grew up poor, I had parents with addiction problems, I have family members in jail/prison, etc. I think it makes them feel more comfortable in my class. I also share a lot about my own children with them. They in turn feel safe to share and open up in my class.  We also connect about current events, music, TV/movies, etc.

UP: Do you feel like your students come into class with a lot of misconceptions about Thanksgiving?

GM: They come in with all the typical myths. There is always one or two students who have already had the myths debunked, but by and large, the myths are strong when they enter my classroom: "The Pilgrims came on the Mayflower and the Indians helped them by giving them food and helping them plant and grow food, and then they all had a dinner together where the Pilgrims gave thanks."

Murr with students. Photo via Gillian Murr.

UP: How do you start breaking down these myths for them?

GM: We always start with what they know and then discuss why that is what they know. One of the overarching questions we always come back to in my class is: "Who is writing the history?" So I like to remind them of that.

Then we just really get into the meat of the lesson. In the past, I have done a couple different lessons. My main objective for them is to be able to look at Thanksgiving from the tribe's perspective.

UP: How do you fold the Wampanoag perspective into your lesson plan?

GM: Last year, I found this great lesson on the Teaching Tolerance website, which has a speech and an essay about Thanksgiving from two different Natives. We analyzed these and then discussed why what they learned is different. We also watch portions of Part 1 of the "We Shall Remain" series. It gives students, especially students who have different learning styles, a solid understanding that it wasn't all potlucks and thanks.

I generally have a class discussion after students have had time to analyze the texts and watch the movies where I have a few leading questions, and they are allowed to come to their own conclusions about why we know what we know. A lot of them are truly blown away with what was left out of history and their earlier teachings.

UP: What parts of the Thanksgiving story are typically left out?

GM: The Native perspective is usually completely left out. I think it is important for them to know while, yes, the Wampanoag people helped the Pilgrims, that help was not reciprocated.

The Pilgrims were religious people, and they gave thanks to their god for subduing the Native peoples. That's a pretty big myth, or lie, rather. Furthermore, this began the long genocide of the Native people of the Americas that continued, and still continues today.

UP: How do your students typically react when they hear this?

GM: There is definitely some surprise involved in their reactions, but at the same time, by this time, we have already studied Columbus, and so they have some prior knowledge about how our history books like to skew things.

Murr and family on the beach. Photo via Gillian Murr.

I don't really get any kind of pushback from students. Maybe partially this is because I am a Native educator, and they don't feel comfortable pushing back, and/or more likely also because I teach a diverse population who already have insecurities about how their families and ancestors have been treated in the history of the U.S.

UP: What's the most important thing you think your students get out of your lesson?

GM: I think the most important thing I convey to them is to look for what, or who is missing, and then [encourage them to ask] why?

UP: What advice would you give to fellow teachers who are struggling to teach Thanksgiving?

GM: I would say to look into what you teach now and ask the same question I hope my students start to ask: Whose perspective is being told, and whose is being left out?

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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