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November Upper Elementary Adventures: STEM, Culture, and Thanksgiving Using Picture Books

November is a time to dive into the rich history of the Mayflower, the Wampanoag, and First Thanksgiving, but how about adding a unique twist this year? Let's use STEM to teach culturally responsive lessons that touch on kindness, overcoming adversity, and the sharing of traditions and favorite celebratory meals. This is an exciting way to teach the two sides of history and connect students with hands-on STEM challenges, making it perfect for any busy teacher. 


I love using these three STEM challenges, using a picture book to help me make the connections that I need in order to start the perfect class discussion. Using everyday items, you too can engage your students and create teachable moments. Let me share with you three perfect ways to do that!

STEM Challenge 1: Building the Mayflower - Learning through Adversity

For this challenge, students build a model of the Mayflower using supplies that you set out for your class. The focus here is on learning about the adversity and struggles that the Pilgrims went through on their journey. This provides a valuable opportunity to discuss how we can deal with struggles of our own, offering an essential life lesson to our learners. We utilize Leader In Me so we use this opportunity to discuss how we overcome difficulties. When you add the struggles of the Native Tribes at the time, the ability to show two different points of view can only lead to a win-win. Grab some aluminum foil, build a boat, and see how may pennies can fit in the boats until they sink!

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I also love showing this video for students to watch for information about the Mayflower.

Start your lesson by grabbing the perfect non fiction book to tie it all together. Here are some picture books that I use for this STEM challenge:

  1. “The Mayflower” by Mark Greenwood and Frané Lessac

A beautifully illustrated book that tells the story of the Mayflower's voyage, making it an excellent fit for the Mayflower STEM challenges

2.“The Story of Thanksgiving” by Nancy J. Skarmeas

This book narrates the story of the Pilgrims and the Native Americans, ideal for teaching both sides of history.

3.“Pilgrims of Plymouth” by Susan E. Goodman

A perfect companion for the Mayflower STEM challenge, this book provides insight into the lives of the Pilgrims who journeyed to the Plymouth Colony.

STEM Challenge 2: Let’s Talk Traditions - Thanksgiving Table STEM Challenge

I love this challenge because it is all about celebrating cultural connections and the sharing of favorite family meals and traditions. It encourages students to discuss and appreciate the different celebrations they take part in and what a Thanksgiving meal looks like in their homes. It's a beautiful way to foster cultural awareness and understanding.

This is a perfect opportunity for a writing connection. I like to ask my students what a tradition is. We discuss traditions other than holidays as well. For example, here in Wisconsin a tradition on Friday’s is to go out for a fish fry! 

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Epic Books has a wonderful series that we use to learn about traditions: Cultural Traditions In...

What a great way to have each student pick a country and learn how we are the same and how we are different. Speaking of traditions, each year the third graders in our district head to school forest to learn about the turkey. From habitats to how the turkey became the traditional meat at Thanksgiving. This is a perfect opportunity to learn about the first Thanksgiving and what was really served. Not only can we build a hideout for the turkey or even learn about the turkey and its habitat, but what a great chance to discuss the first Thanksgiving back in 1621.

STEM Challenge 3: The Wampanoags and Their Role in Pilgrim Survival - Food Pouch/Container Creation

This challenge not only ties in with Native American History but also provides an opportunity to make connections to the past. Students will create food pouches or containers similar to those used by the Wampanoag people. This project highlights kindness, helping others, and explores the potential outcomes of such acts of goodwill. 

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Books that you could use might include:

  1. “The Thanksgiving Story” by Alice Dalgliesh

This classic story captures the essence of the first Thanksgiving in 1621, complementing both the Mayflower and Thanksgiving Table challenges.

      2. “1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving” by Catherine O'Neill Grace

This book delves into the history of Thanksgiving, including the hardships and significance of the holiday.

     3. “Thank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving” by Laurie Halse Anderson

This book is about the woman who campaigned for Thanksgiving to become a national holiday, fitting beautifully with the theme of kindness.

Now Let's Talk Turkey now...

Each year, the third graders in our district head to school forest where they learn about's a tradition. Working at the country school in our district, there isn't a day that goes by that I don't see a turkey somewhere on the road or in a field. As we continue to work toward understanding, we also have to look at the facts of the first Thanksgiving. Was turkey served? Who was present? How long did it last? For all of the turkey hideouts or traps that we create during November, we also have to look at the first Thanksgiving and understand the evolution of a tradition. Several activities that we have implemented are to discuss traditions, but to also learn how to integrate it into this wild bird that we see as a traditional part of many tables in November. We take this opportunity to add research and sharing...whether it be learning about traditional meals or the habitat of a turkey that is so prevalent in our landscape as we go to school.

This November, let's make history come alive for 3rd through 5th graders by infusing STEM challenges with cultural connections, kindness, and Thanksgiving traditions. By pairing these STEM ideas, or some of your own you'll create a learning experience that not only educates but also fosters a deeper understanding of history and appreciation for diverse cultures. It's a month of discovery and connections!

Check out the complete pack with everything you would need to get your students set for these November Thanksgiving themed STEM challenges along with writing connections! Find it HERE!

Thanksgiving STEM, STEM, TPT

 Happy teaching, and have a wonderful November! Thanks for joining me in the School Yard! Don’t forget to check out the Science School Yard, too for more engaging lesson ideas and freebies!