Thanksgiving & Abraham Lincoln: A Rhetorical Analysis Activity

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For Thanksgiving this year, I decided to go back to the roots of our celebrated "Turkey Day" to address the fact that the original Thanksgiving had nothing to do with pilgrims or turkeys at all.  In fact, Thanksgiving was a celebration that had been suggested by leaders since George Washington but only took hold when Abraham Lincoln gave out two proclamations to celebrate the holiday in 1863 and 1864-- during the Civil War.  As it turns out, Thanksgiving has more to do with war than with turkey.  The nation was witnessing unprecedented bloodshed on the battlefield.  The Battle of Gettysburg alone had seen 51,000 casualties, and violent riots had erupted in northern cities.  Lincoln himself was still mourning the death of his son.  In hindsight, it seemed like an odd time to show gratitude for anything.  But that's where Lincoln saw the opportunity to unite Americans around a national holiday to be thankful for what we have rather than what we lack.  

Today, Thanksgiving is so entrenched in every aspect of American culture that we often don't stop to think about the origins of this holiday with all of the distractions of "Black Friday" and "Cyber Monday."  So, I wanted to do something different this year-- especially in the light of all the tragedies our nation has witnessed over the past decade.  It was important for me to take my students back to Lincoln's proclamations and to truly internalize the true purpose of Thanksgiving.  It's not a day meant for turkey, stuffing, and pie (although those things are definitely not too shabby!).  Instead, Thanksgiving is a day for us to focus on what we are grateful for despite the inevitable hardships and tragedies of life.  It is a day that reminds us to embrace the small moments of happiness and how important it is to break bread with family and friends.  Wise Old Abe was certainly wise.   

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Thanksgiving & Lincoln:  Rhetorical Analysis Activity

For this lesson, I created a rhetorical analysis activity for students to close read Lincoln's proclamations and then to write a proclamation of their own.  First, students read an article from The New York Times about the origins of Thanksgiving that also debunks the myth of the pilgrim feast.  Then, students move into the proclamations, which are broken into sections with close reading questions for students to consider as they read.  These questions also ask students to identify rhetorical devices in the proclamations, and these questions are open-ended to make them easy to differentiate among classes.  

The writing assignment at the end asks students to write their own Lincoln-esque proclamations, which is a different way to write about what they are thankful for.  You might discuss with students the persuasive purpose of a proclamation and how they can utilize rhetorical devices to be persuasive.  Students are to use rhetorical devices in their proclamations to create a piece of persuasive writing that simultaneously reflects their gratitude but also calls others to celebrate Thanksgiving.  Student responses to this assignment are always amazing!  Most students tend to really think about why they shouldn't take Thanksgiving for granted and that they have so much to be thankful for.  It's a great time of year to have students write essays that matter while also targeting reading and writing skills.  

Click on the image below to check out this lesson by Bespoke ELA! 

A Personal Reflection

This year has been one of ups and downs.  We moved to a new state (again!), struggled in our new home, bought a new house, struggled some more, lost one of our sweet dogs (heart failure), and dealt with the blow of a Stage IV Ovarian cancer diagnosis for my mother-in-law. Whew!  But through all of that, I will be expressing my gratitude this Thanksgiving for a day with family, especially with my darling daughter, as well as an awesome community of new friends that I've made through becoming a teacher-author and in my new town.  I will turn my eyes heavenward to thank God for all of the blessings in my life, and as we sit down to share a meal with my mother-in-law, we won't focus on the chemo or the wigs or the surgery to come but on the fact that we are all together, for a brief moment in time, that will mark our lives forever.  

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Meredith is the founder and creator of TeachWriting.org and Bespoke ELA.  She has taught high school English for 10+ years in Dallas, Chicago, and New York City and holds a M.A. in Literature from Northwestern University.  She has always had a connection to the written word-- through songwriting, screenplay writing, and essay writing-- and she enjoys the process of teaching students how to express their ideas.  Meredith enjoys life with her husband, daughter, and sweet pups.