Food for Thought: Students Ponder First Thanksgiving

The roots of the Thanksgiving celebration sparked an “epic” discussion at Olney Friends School, where students examined the traditional account of the pilgrims’ feast and its role in American culture.

Humanities teacher Emily Carton introduced freshmen to the topic by reading “The Very First Thanksgiving Day” by Rhonda Gowler Green, a children’s book illustrated with paintings by Susan Gaber. The simple story and vivid images made it easy for student to identify and analyze important elements of the tale.

As part of a unit focused on epic compositions, Carton’s students explored the various elements of the Thanksgiving story. As with other epics they had studied, including “The Epic of Gilgamesh” and the “Ramayana,” students were able to identify the story’s heroes, their friends and enemies, the challenges they faced on their journey and the resolution of their conflicts.

The class also considered “The True Story of Thanksgiving” as told by a national news publication. That article termed the fabled partnership between the Pilgrims and the American Indians a “fairly recent fiction.” It described the clash of cultures that occurred along the eastern seaboard as Europeans arrived and colonized North America, including the settlers’ poor planning and lack of survival skills.

In September of 1620, the Mayflower sailed from England with 102 passengers on board. The group, consisting mainly of religious separatists, traveled for 66 days before reaching the coast of Massachusetts. There they hoped to find religious freedom, abundant resources and prosperity.

Most passengers remained aboard the ship through the brutal winter months with only half surviving until spring. After moving ashore in March, the Pilgrims encountered Indians, including the now-famous Squanto, who helped them learn to survive and thrive in the New World.

A celebration of their successful harvest the following fall inspired the modern-day accounts of the “first Thanksgiving,” though that festival probably did not include many of the foods we associate with Thanksgiving today.

Not only did Carton want to help students understand why the Thanksgiving story fits the mold of an epic, but she also hoped they would challenge the story and develop critical thinking skills.

“Epics reinforce societal and cultural values, but they aren’t always true. The reason epics exist is to transmit values from generation to generation,” she said. “Epics reflect our ideal – the values to which we aspire. An epic is not always true, but it serves its own purpose.”

Carton’s students determined that the traditional tale’s messages about togetherness, hard work and thankfulness reinforce American cultural values. They also were inspired by the story’s portrayal of the pilgrims as brave and pioneering individuals.

“It makes you want to be a hero,” one student said.

Following their exploration of the Thanksgiving epic, students shared epics they had composed with the rest of the class. Each of those stories focused on a class member, who served as the hero of the yarn.

Humanities classes at Olney blend the study of literature, history and geography. Those courses utilize the Harkness method of discussion, which helps students improve the way they listen and speak. Sitting in a circle, the students discuss the topic at hand while their teacher maps the conversation. At the end of the discussion, group members review their interactions and consider how they could improve.

Values such as truthfulness, simplicity, non-violence and respect for others and the environment define the curriculum and the community at Olney Friends School today, just as they have since 1837.

Founded by the Religious Society of Friends at Mount Pleasant and moved to Barnesville in 1876, Olney still relies on those guiding Quaker principles as it challenges students to grow. Today, Olney educates students of all faiths and ethnicities in grades 9-12, with pupils coming from across the United States and around the world. Olney is a boarding school that also welcomes day students from the local region.

Olney Friends School is currently accepting applications for mid-year enrollment of day and boarding students from all parts of the Ohio Valley. For more information, visit or call 740-425-3655. To schedule a campus visit, email Admissions Director Musa Hamideh at