Curious about Day of the Dead?

This week schools all around will be dressing up and talking about Halloweeen of course, but Spanish classes will be talking about the cultural holiday of Day of the Dead, or “Dia de los Muertos” which coincides with All Saints Day, starting from October 31 at night and going until November 2.

Aside from teaching about one of Mexico’s most famous holidays, it is also an opportunity to teach students to think about death with a different approach and understand other perspectives. Unlike many western cultures where death is marked by the color black for mourning and overall sadness, in Mexico, the dead are remembered and celebrated with music, bright colors, and community. There is a famous phrase : Recuérdame y viviré para siempre (Remember me and I will live forever). It is a perfect opportunity to have students learn more about beloved members of their own family that have passed on, strengthening their feeling of belongingness to their roots and identity, and even raising questions like “who am I and where do I come from”?

Before moving onto a few ideas for interactive activities to do with the kids this week- it is important to understand a bit about the background and history of this holiday.

  1. It is NOT Mexican Halloween.
  2. It originated from the Aztecs, who viewed death as an essential part of life as this way, we are able to appreciate our every day, and every person who has touched our lives. For the Aztecs, it was the memories, experiences and lessons of those who left the physical world that provided for us the essence of life that allows us to live.
  3. While for the Christian faith, death is fearful and unpleasant, for the Aztecs, and in general for the Mexicans, death was and remains, the only reason for life to exist. For the Aztecs, celebrating death meant honoring life itself. For them, life was a cyclical process that repeated itself, having multiple beginnings and endings fading into eternity. For the Europeans on the other hand, life has always been linear and could not be conceived without a beginning and an end.
  4. In 2003, UNESCO recognized The Day of the Dead as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

Before embarking on the below activities, warm the students up by asking them some reflective guiding questions such as:

  1. What kinds of things do they think about when remembering a loved one who is no longer with us? Using our senses often helps. Teacher can give their own example like this:

I remember my father. Every time I remember him, I can hear his laugh and see his smile. I can hear the music he would play in the car, and his pet name he would call me, and remember the smell of his after shave.

2. Ask students to think of a special person who is no longer there and to share orally or in writing one or two feelings or images that come to mind when they think of them. They can do this individually or with a partner. This way we are establishing a connection between how the Aztec and Anglo-Saxon cultures see death. Although we are talking about loved ones who are no longer with us, through this exercise we can remember them fondly with joy, happiness and love.

If there is one message we want students to come away with by the end of this holiday, it is that celebrating Day of the Dead is a celebration of LIFE, not death.

Below are 10 different DOD activities to keep your week busy celebrating life in the Mexican tradition.

  1. This award winning 3 minute video expresses it beautifully through music and animation.
  2. Watch this slideshow interactive presentation to learn about how the rest of Latin American celebrates the holiday, as well as about the Arts, and so much more.
  3. A Day of the Dead QFT collaborative task using DOD realia around the room.
  4. Music: Ask your students to share a favourite musical piece of a loved one who is has passed. Let that music play during a class activity. It is not necessary that it be in Spanish or that it be listened carefully by everyone. Just by playing it, that person is remembered and honored (as is the student).
  5. Writing: Depending on the level, students can write in English or Spanish about the loved one. I like to use skull cutouts with lines for writing prompts students then color and we can display.
  6. Have students create a shoe box altar. They decorate a shoe box and place some items, flowers, and even a picture of their special person in/on it. The altars can be displayed on a table at school.
  7. Create skull masks. (great for the younger ones) or even better, consider dressing up in full calaca makeup and inviting your students to do the same! Vote on the best makeup, costume, or artistic representation! 
  8. Check out this virtual altar (with accompanying worksheets) by the Peabody Museum.
  9. Check out these resources from Rockalingua (music, crafts and short stories)
  10. If you can have food in your school, have students make any of the following traditional DOD recipes and bring in. Students not bringing in recipes, can bring in other altar type of decorations to hep create a classroom or school altar shared among the various Spanish classes. Celebrate with the food and class made altar with students from other Spanish classes, as well as educating students NOT in Spanish classes.

At the end of the celebration, don’t forget to reflect on what was learned. Reflection is a powerful assessment tool. What did they learn about their family member? Did they learn anything new they didn’t know before? Compare the 2 holidays (Holloween and DOD- great for AP cultural comparisons) on a specific class hour.

Please enjoy this week and remember those loved ones so they can live on in our memories forever. Stay safe everyone.

If you do do any of the above, I would love to hear some feedback.

If you are an educator, please be sure to join our FB community: Cultivating Curiosity for the WL Classroom. As always please like and subscribe if you want to keep informed of inquiry based learning in the language classroom.

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