Sixteen years ago, Oakdale Elementary School second-grade teacher Paulette Hallman began teaching her students about Thanksgiving by having them each portray a Pilgrim coming to America during playground re-enactments. The students then wrote about their experiences in a journal.
Lacey Sanders was in that first class of students, who, like every group afterward, culminated the unit with a feast students sometimes helped cook themselves.
Sanders, now 23 and a new teacher at Oakdale, brought her first class of second-graders to the feast on Tuesday.
Members of the Catawba Indian Nation drummed, danced and chanted for the students.
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"For the kids, it kind of put things into perspective with how Indians live now versus how they lived then," said Sanders, who is one-eighth Catawba. "It helped me to want to know more about my culture for my kids."
Sanders, who dressed in a traditional off-white leather outfit with turquoise accents and beading, said interacting with the Catawbas helps students understand that Indians live similar lifestyles. For example, they no longer live in bark huts.
The Pilgrim journals help students learn by doing.
"It's just exciting when you do it. It can help you," said 8-year-old Raymirea Johnson, a student in Hallman's class. "I don't want to change to a different classroom because it is so fun."
This year's feast was the first in more than 30 years that Gilbert Blue attended as someone other than the Catawba chief.
Blue, who stepped down as chief earlier this year, shared an emotional embrace with newly elected Chief Donald Rodgers during a Catawba honor song at the beginning of the program.
Blue and Rodgers, whose Indian name is Red Cloud, both said it's important to teach the students that Catawba Indians are not any different than they are.
"I try to explain to them when I visit any school that we have many people in schools, but inside ... we're all the same," Blue said. "We've learned to respect each other a little more."
The mutual respect and friendship that has developed between the students and the Catawbas is the most important part of the Thanksgiving program, Hallman said.
"What things like this do is it makes an authentic, meaningful connection between the things we do at school and the things that are important in the real world," she said.
View video highlights of the Oakdale Elementary Thanksgiving celebration at