Things to Do with the Whole Family over Thanksgiving

Most Americans know at least a little of the history of Thanksgiving—how the Pilgrims fled England in search of religious freedom, arrived in Plymouth in 1620, and befriended Native Americans prior to a feast of celebration.

Even if we’re not descended from those who arrived on the Mayflower, each of us has our own family history. And the long Thanksgiving weekend, combined with close proximity to relatives, provides an ideal time to ponder family roots and the stories that make your family unique.

Beyond sharing tales at the dinner table or in the backyard while tossing the football, family members might consider recording an oral history. Older family members might relive stories of war, of bravery or survival—coping with obstacles, The Great Depression, or the Blizzard of ’78. Younger family members might offer tales of school, friends, or adventure.

Whether happy or sad, funny or inspiring, everyone has a story to tell. And creating a recording for future generations can be an informative, rewarding, entertaining, and inspiring way to capture and preserve family heritage.

Through The Great Thanksgiving Listen, StoryCorps is encouraging high school students to interview a grandparent or elder during Thanksgiving, and upload their recordings to the StoryCorps archive at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress by using a free mobile app. StoryCorps’ aim is to more than double the approximately 100,000 recordings it has amassed in its first 12 years.

“In this time of great disconnect and division, we hope The Great Thanksgiving Listen will prove a unifying moment for the nation,” said Dave Isay, StoryCorps’ founder and president. “Together we will collect the wisdom of a generation and archive it for the future, while at the same time reminding our grandparents how much their lives and stories matter.”

Isay used a $1 million TED prize to launch the app, which enables thousands of interviews to be recorded simultaneously from any location. Previously, StoryCorps interviews were possible only one at a time from designated recording sites.

Although available to anyone over the age of 13 (under 18 requires parental consent), The Great Thanksgiving Listen is designed to engage high school students, some of whom will participate as part of social studies, history, civics, government, journalism or political science classes.

The app guides users through the interview experience, from recording to archiving to sharing their stories with the world. It also provides tools to help prepare interview questions, record high-quality conversations on mobile devices, and upload to the website.

StoryCorps has previously conducted other national projects, including initiatives for September 11, African-American voices, Latino stories, and military memories.

Visit The Great Thanksgiving Listen site for more information or to register. The “browse” tab provides access to a sampling of recently recorded family stories, which are also available on the StoryCorps main site.

Of course, not all family members will be available to tell their stories. The vast majority of ancestors lived long before the age of audio/visual recordings. This is where a family tree can help students grasp their heritage. Knowing not only the names but where ancestors hailed from, how they came to America, and why they settled in a particular area can help those of all ages understand who they are.

Word of mouth—discussing family history with older relatives—can provide a wealth of information in establishing the basis for a family tree. To delve more deeply, families might consider a subscription to, which offers a free 14-day trial. Timing such a trial to coincide with the Thanksgiving holiday can be a natural way to build and appreciate your family tree, limbs of which can be expanded with information provided by birth and death certificates, immigration records, census lists, and military records.

For younger children, plan to keep the family tree simple. Visit Family Tree Magazine for resources.

For interesting reading or for those with a special story to tell, consider JellyBeanScoop, a website designed to engage young readers that also provides a way for budding writers to compose and publish their own stories of interest.

Jellybean’s professionally written true stories provide audio files, comprehension tests, and vocabulary building functions for readers of all levels. For the writer, there are design templates to upload photos from your computer to create your own news story or book. The JellybeanScoop app is available in the App store and Google play and some applications require Adobe Flash Player.

Another (decidedly low-tech) way to document family history is through photos. Perhaps you have old photographs tucked away in envelopes, shoe boxes, and other places that never see the light of day. Thanksgiving is a great time to break out those seldom-viewed photos, news clippings, and school memorabilia to create a fresh photo album or one or more scrapbooks.

old photos

Consider asking relatives to bring their old photos and paper mementos to family gatherings. Then work with the kids and relatives to produce a family heritage album, selecting a variety of the oldest, best, and most informative items to tell stories of where your family members have been, what they’ve experienced, and what they’ve accomplished.

Perhaps you’ll even add some holiday photos from this year’s family gathering, making your own bit of history in 2015. Be sure to check out Learning Liftoff for more ideas on ways to celebrate the holidays with your family.

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