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October 23, 2020

The Great Thanksgiving Listen: Helping Students Create History

The Great Thanksgiving Listen is a national movement empowering young people to create an oral history by recording an interview with an elder.


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By Juanita Douglas

The Great Thanksgiving Listen: Experience History Firsthand

I have spent the last 26 years of my life as an urban educator in the heart of Chicago. My goal has been the same each year: Infuse a sense of self-respect and self-identity in my students. I want my students to believe they are gifted young people who can make the world a better place for everyone. The best way to do this is to meet my students where they are and guide them with love to where I need them to be at the end of the school year.

There are specific skills and content that I must cover; however, there is flexibility in how we get there. The Great Thanksgiving Listen is one treasure on my map to uncovering the greatness within my students.

As members of Generation Z, my students have been conditioned to consume media and ideas from apps. Ideas are frequently served up at Thanksgiving, of course, since gathering with family always includes storytelling. The Great Thanksgiving Listen turns the table. It makes the occasion more purposeful. It allows my students to become creators of information, and in ways that move beyond posting on social media. They are preparing narratives that will be archived in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

    The goal of the Great Thanksgiving Listen is to empower students, to make them the leaders in learning and gathering history that exists right under their noses.

    The Great Thanksgiving Listen Toolkit

    Three years ago, I decided to incorporate the Great Thanksgiving Listen into my African-American history courses. The teacher toolkit provided with the project is an excellent resource that guided me along: instructing my students in how to begin collecting their family histories, and in how to share them on the free StoryCorps app.

    Through the teacher toolkit, my students learned how to download the app and began practicing right in the classroom. I was very pleased with the directions for using the technology — and even more pleased with the grouping of questions, made available for students to select and use in their interviews along with original questions that most of my students included in their projects. We practiced listening skills so the students could become better at asking follow- up questions. The students were also able to email me links for their stories. Students are given the directions for uploading their stories. From start to finish, it is a very user-friendly experience.

    the great thanksgiving listen

    One of my students, John Johnson (pictured in the top image with me), was able to interview his great-grandmother, who was more than 90-years old at that time. John learned about her childhood and her relationship with her parents. Throughout the interview, you could hear the laughter and imagine the huge smiles they shared as they spoke to one another. It was an eye-opening interview. John was motivated and prepared to get her story with ease and confidence. The engagement of the student and the family was a gift that would not have happened without the Great Thanksgiving Listen.

    The goal of the Great Thanksgiving Listen is to empower students, to make them the leaders in learning and gathering history that exists right under their noses. It has been an amazing experience for us all.

    Remote video URL

    I am so excited about participating in the Great Thanksgiving Listen again this year. It gives me an opportunity to learn more about my students and their families. More importantly, it gives my students the opportunity to become experts at telling their family histories. Through this activity, they are increasing their self-identity by connecting with their elders. They are also learning to demonstrate their new found self-respect.

    I highly recommend the Great Thanksgiving Listen to every teacher: Every student deserves this chance to turn the holiday into a truly moveable feast! Get more Thanksgiving lesson plans in this Share My Lesson curated collection.

    AFT member Juanita Douglas teaches African-American History in Chicago public schools and is a National Board for Professional Teaching Standards Certified Teacher

    • This blog post is re-published with permission from AFT Voices. Read the original post. To learn more about AFT's Schoolhouse Voices from PreK-12 public educators, click here. Follow on Twitter @rweingarten or on Facebook
    • This blog was originally published on November 22, 2017 and has been updated to reflect new information.

    Participate In The Great Thanksgiving Listen

    The Great Thanksgiving Listen is a national movement that empowers young people— and people of all ages—to create an oral history of the contemporary United States by recording an interview with an elder using the free StoryCorps App.

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    American Federation of Teachers

    The American Federation of Teachers was formed by teachers more than 100 years ago and is now a 1.7 million-member union of professionals that champions fairness; democracy; economic opportunity; and high-quality public education, healthcare and public services for our students, their families and o

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