Celebrating Thanksgiving with Montessori’s Third Great Lesson

Celebrating Thanksgiving with Montessori. The holiday season is upon us once again. With the Covid-19 pandemic, our beloved Montessori traditions may not be actualized this year due to social distancing restrictions. In a time when learning to pivot is now a fact of life, it feels like we are once again being called to give up something beloved without much in return. Rather than dwell on what is being lost, what if we looked at the holidays through a new lens? What if, during this time of what feels like enforced solitude, we return to the Five Great Lessons and the Common Needs of People?

The Common Needs of People: Exploring Human Culture Through Our Commonality

In the Third Great Lesson, Montessori elementary students discover that the fundamental needs of humans are the same now as they were when humans first appeared on earth. Humans around the world need food, shelter, clothing, medicine, transportation, defense, art, and religion/spirituality in order to survive. Using the story of the first American Thanksgiving as the setting, we can retell the Third Great Lesson through the eyes of the Native Americans, the Wampanoag people, and the Pilgrims who settled in Plymouth Colony.

The Third Great Lesson begins about 2.5 million years ago and is primarily a story about the early humans who lived in the Stone Age (or Paleolithic Period) and how they satisfied their Common Needs: ● food ● shelter ● clothing ● medicine ● transportation ● defense ● art ● religion/spirituality

This is the perfect opportunity for group projects, pairing older students with younger, to explore how both the Native Americans and Pilgrims satisfied their needs in the years 1620–21. Whether in person or virtual, working in pairs helps students build relationships and promotes collaborative learning.

When presenting project-based learning, guide students to using higher-level thinking skills that demonstrate true learning and mastery. Rather than copying and pasting facts into a written report, students should develop projects that demonstrate the ability to analyze, evaluate, and synthesize information and creatively produce something new that informs their audience of what was learned. (Read about higher-level thinking skills and project-based learning in the NAMC blog article Project Based Learning in the Montessori Elementary Environment.) Allow students freedom to decide how they will present their information rather than assigning it for them. This truly makes the project their own, and their creativity and imagination will deliver far more than we might have imagined ourselves.

Whether referring to our teaching practices or the way we present topics of study, we often rely on what has always been done because it is a tradition. While traditions bring comfort in their expectation, they can also stop us from experiencing something new. Now is the perfect time to consider innovative ways in which students can learn familiar information in a new way.

Collaborative learning 

By encouraging students to decide how they will present their research, we are trusting them to be in control of their own learning. By sitting back and assisting rather than directing, we truly allow this to become the work of the children – and that is something we can all be thankful for. 

Learn more about the Third Great Lesson and the Common Needs of People in NAMC’s Lower Elementary Five Great Lessons and Cosmic Education manual. Find activities about the origins of Thanksgiving, the history of American indigenous people, and Pilgrims in NAMC’s Upper Elementary US History manual.


Michelle Zanavich — NAMC Tutor & Graduate


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