The days leading up to a holiday can be stressful for teachers. If you’re looking for easy-to-use Thanksgiving activities for middle school students, here are five tried-and-true ways to engage students in ELA.

thanksgiving activities for middle school

The few days before a holiday can be tricky for middle school teachers, especially if you’ve just wrapped up a unit. Deciding whether you should start a new unit or find a filler activity to get you through to break is difficult. The guilt of doing a filler activity is no joke because instructional time is already limited and you don’t want to waste valuable time. I get it! That’s why I’m sharing a few tried-and-tested Thanksgiving activities for middle school that make perfect fillers but leave the guilt behind! 

Thanksgiving Activity #1: Read “First Thanksgiving of All” by Nancy Byrd Turner 

thanksgiving activities for middle school

Nancy Byrd Turner’s Poem “First Thanksgiving of All” offers a notable opportunity for students to close read a festive text. This particular poem is centered less on the history of the holiday and more on the spirit embodied. Invite students to make inferences about Peace, Mercy, Jonathan, and Patience, analyze the form & structure of the poem, find examples of alliteration, & more. 

Afterward, allow students to use the poem as a mentor to write their own Thanksgiving poem. You might have students follow the structure of Turner’s poem as they write, or you might have them attempt to use rhyme in a similar way. 

Alternatively, you could pair the poem with a Gratitude Jar. Invite students to write down three things they are thankful for. They can write these on strips of paper if you are short on time, or you could put them on something festive (like a fall leaf, for example). Place them in a class jar. In order to encourage unique answers, invite students to name something quirky, someone important, something you eat, or something funny. Once all classes are finished, assemble the leaves into class wreaths for classroom or hallway decor, or place them on a bulletin board!

Thanksgiving Activity #2: Read O. Henry’s “Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen”

two thanksgiving day gentlemen

O. Henry is well known for writing “The Gift of the Magi.” But many teachers aren’t aware of his lesser-known story “Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen.” This one makes the perfect Thanksgiving activity for middle school!

In “Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen,” O. Henry sheds new light on the Thanksgiving traditions of the United States, making readers question their rituals and beliefs through wit, humor, and irony.

This Thanksgiving text offers an excellent opportunity to teach students about verbal, dramatic, and situational irony. You could also enrich the lesson with a short research project on hunger in your local community. You can find my Google-Slides-ready lesson plan on TPT here.

Thanksgiving Activity #3: Watch “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving”

thanksgiving activities for middle school ELA

If you just need a day to get some grading done and tie up lose ends to challenge students in a novel way, turn on “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” and have students complete a character sketch. Instruct them to pick one character from the movie: Charlie, Peppermint Patty, Linus, Franklin, Lucy, Marcy, Sally, or Snoopy, and analyze them for direct and indirect characterization. Provide students with a white piece of paper with a head outline and some colored pencils. Task them with illustrating their character and filling the paper with examples of characterization by the episode’s end (~30 minutes). If your students need more structure, you might add additional requirements like including two quotes, two symbols, two images, and two statements. 

Thanksgiving Activity #4: Celebrate Diversity By Examining Cultural Dinner Customs

thanksgiving research project

I’ve always loved Amy Tan’s personal narrative “Fish Cheeks.” I knew there had to be a way to use this text during Thanksgiving, so one year I paired it with a deep dive into dinner customs. You can learn a lot about your students when you ask them to share their dinner traditions!

After reading “Fish Cheeks,” discuss the differences between the Chinese dining customs and the American customs. How did they clash at the special dinner? Next, invite students to reflect on their family customs when it comes to Thanksgiving.

  • What is the expected attire?
  • How do you decide what you will eat?
  • What are you expected to contribute?
  • Who is expected to cook and or prepare the meal?
  • Where do you eat? 
  • How do you set the table?
  • How do you serve the meal?
  • Are there any customs you perform before eating?
  • What do you do when you’re done?
  • Who cleans after the meal?
  • Are there any customs you perform after eating?

If you have additional time, you can invite students to conduct a short research project on the dining customs of a culture different from their own and share their findings in a one-pager.

Thanksgiving Activity #5: Host a Thanksgiving Figurative Language Escape Room

thanksgiving activities for middle school

Escape rooms make perfect Thanksgiving activities for middle school. Last year I created a Thanksgiving escape room and tasked students with saving the day from a Thanksgiving disaster.

The problem: “A severe winter storm has blown in, and it doesn’t look like you’ll be able to make it to Grandma’s house after all. Your family is scrambling to put together a last-minute Thanksgiving dinner, and you must use your knowledge of figurative language to make it happen.”

There were four breakouts for students to solve:

  1. Appetizer Alliteration
  2. Side Dish Similes
  3. Main Dish Metaphors
  4. Personification Pies

This fun and festive escape room took about 20 minutes to print and set up, and 20-30 minutes for students to work through. Because of the craziness of COVID-19, I also made a digital Google version for my remote kiddos.

Give Yourself the Guilt-free Give of Time

Finding guilt-free Thanksgiving activities for middle school ELA can be a challenge, but I think you’ll agree with me when I say that it’s not impossible. I hope you’ve found some ideas in this article that make filling that day or two before break both engaging and challenging. If you’d like to save valuable planning time and purchase any of the lessons or activities mentioned above, feel free to check them out below.

Happy teaching!

All the best, Natayle