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Fostering a Sense of Gratitude Year-Round with Thanku

Thanku: Poems of Gratitude 

Edited by Miranda Paul, Illustrated by Marlena Myles 

Published by Millbrook Press, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-5415-2363-0

Grades K-6

“We need to give thanks

every dawn

for the gifts of life,

for each breath drawn.

For everything

that keeps us living,

we speak our words

of true Thanksgiving.”  – Joseph Bruchac

Book Review

In her editorial debut, Miranda Paul provides young readers and their teachers, librarians, and parents with poems of gratitude to read throughout the year. With over thirty different types of poems, and over thirty poets from around the world included in the collection, Thanku serves as a window into the world of poetry and the world as it unfolds each day all around us. Intimate moments are captured and celebrated: a cobbler fixing a shoe, a child returning a lost wallet, a warm bath on a snowy day, a shared birthday party, walking in the woods and playing in leaves. Musings and awe also permeate the collection: the brilliance of animal adaptations and mutations, the scope of the sky, and the concept of zero. No poetic form is repeated, and the forms range from the simple and common (Found, Concrete, Acrostic) to the complex and more obscure (Septercet, Pantoum).  While the poems were written to express gratitude more generally, two poems written by Native Americans can serve as welcome additions to November classroom read alouds. The collection begins with Joseph Bruchac’s poem “Giving Thanks,” (quoted above) dedicated to Mohawk citizen, diplomat, and picture book author Chief Jake Swamp. The first lines of the poem remind us “Thanksgiving is more/ than just one day,/ so a Mohawk elder/said to me.” Muscogee Creek Nation member Cynthia Leitich Smith’s poem “Stories for Dinners” presents a snapshot of a “feast-day table” where family members “say Grace and talk Story,/ sharing turkey, potatoes, cranberries, and casseroles.” Beyond a focus on giving thanks in November, Thanku can be used across the school year for read alouds at the beginning and end of the day, poetry genre studies, as an exploration of theme across language arts, and as a window into small moments in writer’s workshop. 

Teaching Ideas and Invitations

Duet Reading: Gratitude Across Texts. Pair Thanku with Cherokee author Traci Sorell’s Orbis Pictus and Sibert honor picture book We are Grateful: Otsaheliga. Start off by reading We are Grateful: Otsaheliga aloud to your class. Have your students identify the different ways in which members of the Cherokee Nation express their gratitude throughout the year. Next, have students explore the poems in Thanku. Depending on the age of your students, you might have them read the poems independently in small groups, or you might provide specific selections that you read aloud using a document camera. Again, have your students identify the different things for which the various poets are grateful. In a shared or interactive writing activity, have your students compile a class list of the things for which they are grateful. Have students decide whether they would like to use We are Grateful: Otsaheliga or Thanku as a mentor text for your own class book on gratitude. 

Gratitude, Journals, and Poetry. In Start with Joy: Designing Literacy Learning for Student Happiness, Classroom Bookshelf co-author and co-editor Katie Cunningham describes a gratitude journaling process that two fourth grade teachers used to help students become agentive in shaping their own happiness. Each morning, students wrote something they are grateful for and suggested something that would make “today great.” At the end of the day, students documented one “amazing” thing that happened, and something they learned. Over time, Katie and the teachers with whom she worked noticed that the fourth graders were often writing about the ways in which they made other people happy; they understood that “making others happy is the greatest source of finding sustained happiness in our own lives” (p. 17). Introduce gratitude journaling in your classroom.  Read aloud a poem from Thanku each day for the first month of the launch. What do you notice your students on grateful for? What changes do you begin to see in their behavior? What are the ways you are better able to support your students because you’re learning more about their lives through these journals? Allow the gratitude journals to serve as inspiration for poetry writing and classroom community conversations throughout the school year. 

Grades 3 -6 

Exploring Animal Adaptations Through Poetry. Use the poems “Dinosaur” by Sun Yung Shin and “Constellation” by Ed DeCaria as scaffolds to a more in-depth exploration on animal adaptations and evolution. After reading the two short poems aloud, ideally projected with a document camera so that students can also read the illustrations for meaning, ask students what they think the poems say. Next, as why the poets may have been prompted to write them. What questions do they have about animal adaptations? Next, have different groups explore different poetry picture book collections that focus on animal adaptations, such as A Place to Start a Family: Poems About Creatures that Build, Flutter and Hum: Animal Poems, Winter Bees and Other Poems of the Cold, and Superlative Birds. Have each group generate a list of things they learn about animal adaptations, and new questions they have about adaptations. Use this as the launch into an in-depth animal adaptation unit that draws on a range of observations, experiments, and nonfiction texts. 

Exploring Poets. Thanku offers readers an introduction to over thirty poets from around the world. What poems do students like best? What poets are they most curious about? Work with your school or public librarian to assemble a collection of works – poetry or otherwise- written by the poets included in this collection. Have students make connections between the poet’s body of work (poetry and otherwise) and the poem in Thanku.  

Hyperbole Poems. In Thanku, Janice Scully’s “First Responder” poem is extended hyperbole about tape without ever mentioning the word. After reading the poem, allow your students to explore your school building. As you walk through the halls, and perhaps in and out of the library, the art classroom, the gym, the cafeteria, and the front office, have students document all the everyday objects they see other students, teachers, and staff members using. Some students can take notes, others can take pictures with tablet devices.  Compile their notes into an anchor chart and allow each student to pick an object of choice to write about. To get started, students can borrow the structure of the opening line of Scully’s poem: “Like a ________ on the ______.” Create a class book of illustrated hyperbole poems and read the poems aloud to a group of younger students, to see if they can guess the object of each poem. 

Mask/Personal Poems. First, read aloud read Diane Murray’s poem, “Diary of a Sweatshirt: The Best Day Ever” without sharing the title. Have students guess the identity of the speaker of the poem. Reveal the answer with the title. Have students brainstorm a wide range of objects that they wear or use (types of clothes, glasses, hearing aids, wheelchairs, hats, shoes, insulin pumps). Next, have students free-write about a happy memory or two. What were they doing? Where? When? Why? Next, have students review the list of brainstormed objects. Have them draft Mask/Persona poems about their special day told from the perspective of one of those objects.

Etheree Poems. First, read aloud “All This,” the concluding poem of the collection, written by Liz Garton Scanlon. Project the poem as you read it. Ask your students what they think the poem says. What is it about? Next, ask how the poem is built. What do they notice about the lines in this one stanza poem as they read through it? Etheree poems are unrhymed, and begin with one syllable. Each line adds a new syllable. Have your students brainstorm all the places that they feel cozy, like Scanlon did. Or, have your students brainstorm something they do when it is really, really cold, really, really warm, really, really wet, really, really dry or really, really windy. Have them compose etheree poems about those moments.  

Narrative Poem with Allusion. Read Patti Richard’s poem “Alice Thanks the Looking Glass(es).” The poem is about two things at once – going to the eye doctor, and the story of Alice in Wonderland. Ask your students what they think the poem says, to see if any of them catch the reference to Alice in Wonderland. Students may know the character from movies but not realize that she first appeared in a book. Next, have students make a list of some of the favorite stories you’ve read this year. Have students select their top three favorite characters. Next, have them brainstorm things that the character could be doing in everyday life, like brushing their teeth, walking to school, going to the dentist. In a shared writing experience, select a character and activity, and write a class narrative poem that uses an allusion. If students are interested, have them write their own poems alluding to the other characters listed. 

Illustrator Study. After reading Thanku, ask your students to identify their favorite illustrations within the collection. Ask your students how they think illustrator Marlena Myles, of the Spirit Lake Dakota, Mohegan, and Muscokee Creek Nations, created the illustrations. What materials may she have used? Next, have students look at the book to find out (from the verso page: Adobe illustrator with Texturino). Share the illustrator’s website with students, and ask students to make connections between her picture book illustrations and her other artwork. How are they similar? How are they different? Let Thanku serve as a mentor text for illustration throughout the year.  

Critical Literacy Work for Teachers

Thanksgiving: Rethinking Your Role. Editor Miranda Paul tells readers in her Author’s Note: “I remember being in school and learning happy lessons about the first Thanksgiving…I wasn’t aware that there was much more to the story than what I was taught, or that the assigned activities and my participation in them were misrepresenting, distorting, and shaming other cultures….Presenting Thanksgiving to children primarily as a happy time diminishes our shared history and gives an incomplete account of the diversity among Native and First Nations people.” She also goes on to say that “[l]earning and sharing the fuller context of Thanksgiving doesn’t mean that we need to stop celebrating entirely.” How do you “teach” Thanksgiving? What are the stories that need to be told about these first encounters between European colonizers and Indigenous Americans? What do you do in your classroom that might not provide your students with an honest portrayal of the history? If you are not a Native American educator, what might you be doing to present a Euro-centeric view of the events of the past?  How do you contextualize a single harvest dinner in 1621 with scant historical documentation with the larger history of the past four hundred years? Meet with your grade level team and/or other interested teachers in this school to begin a conversation about social justice work within the curriculum. Use the resources in the Further Explorations below, some curated by us, some by Miranda Paul, some by others, to reconsider how Thanksgiving is discussed in your school and to reframe how American history can be taught through an indigenous lens. 

Further Explorations 

Miranda Paul’s Official Website

Marlena Myle’s Official Website 

Poetry Resources 

Poetry Book Entries from The Classroom Bookshelf 

Children’s Poetry, The Poetry Foundation

Poems for Kids, Academy of American Poets 

NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry 

Resources on Thanksgiving/Teaching Indigenous History 

The Classroom Bookshelf: Rethinking U.S. History through an Indigenous Lens: An Indigenous People’s History of the United States for Young People 

American Indians in Children’s Literature Blog, Debbie Reese and Jean Mendoza 

A Racial Justice Guide to Thanksgiving for Educators and Families compiled by The Center for Racial Justice in Education 

American Indian Booklist from Social Justice Books, Teaching for Change

From Miranda Paul: 

“American Indian Perspectives on Thanksgiving,” National Museum of the American Indian

“Native Knowledge 360: Framework for Essential Understandings about American Indians,” National Museum of the American Indian

“Dear Teachers: An Open Letter about Images of Indians,” Debbie Reese, American Indians in Children’s Literature, November 17, 2015 

Ruth A. Myers Center for Indigenous Education, University of Minnesota 

Mary Ann Cappiello About Mary Ann Cappiello

Mary Ann is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former public school language arts and humanities teacher, she is a passionate advocate for and commentator on children’s books. Mary Ann is the co-author of Teaching with Text Sets (2013) and Teaching to Complexity (2015) and Text Sets in Action: Pathways Through Content Area Literacy (Stenhouse, 2021). She has been a guest on public radio and a consultant to public television. From 2015-2018, Mary Ann was a member of the National Council of Teachers of English's Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction (K-8) Committee, serving two years as chair.


  1. Thank you for this.