I have these Day of the Dead books in my classroom and have seen how my students get motivated to look at them to read and look at the art. In the elementary Spanish program at the school where I teach, the Day of the Dead is one of the cultural explorations we do to help our students to understand what this celebration means to many communities in Mexico. We are not celebrating it, but we aim to show appreciation of a tradition that’s important to another culture. The Day of the Dead is not related to Halloween. The Day of the Dead is a two-day celebration to remember loved ones who have passed away. This is a happy and colorful celebration. Here are my five top book picks:
Uncle Monarch and the Day of the Dead has a beautiful story that shows the importance of Monarch butterflies in this celebration. In some places in Mexico, it is believed that these butterflies carry the souls of loved ones who have passed away.
I feel that these next two books need teachers to provide a little bit of background about this celebration before sharing them with the children.
Clatter Bash!: A Day of the Dead Celebration is a vivid book! There is not much text, but it’s great to use to describe the pictures. The illustrations will keep your students engaged. At the end of the book there is plentiful information about the Day of the Dead celebration.
Last, but not least! HERE is a banner to decorate your classroom!
If you explore my blog, you will find a few posts related to The Day of the Dead. This celebration takes many forms in Spanish speaking countries, and it also changes names and meanings in the different countries. In some countries, it’s just one more name on the calendar. In others, it is celebrated in some parts of the country, which is the case of Guatemala and Colombia. While in Mexico, it is an important celebration across the country that has been included by UNESCO on its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
While incorporating this tradition in your curriculum, it’s important to clarify with school administrators and parents that you are not celebrating this as a holiday in your class, you are just sharing about a cultural celebration that others celebrate (i.e. you’re exploring and honoring others’ traditions, not appropriating them as your own). You might like to read the following posts. Just click on the pictures to read them all!
El Día de los Muertos is celebrated in many countries around the world on November 1st and 2nd. This holiday is celebrated nationwide in Bolivia, mostly on November 2nd, and is known as “El Día de los Difuntos.” They celebrate the return of the souls of their ancestors. In preparation to receive them, people typically set up altars with pictures, candles, flowers, fruit, and a special bread called “Tantawawas” which in the Quechua language means babies made out of bread. They also have a bread called “Tantachachis” which means grandparents made out of bread. This tradition is also shared with Perú, Ecuador, Argentina, and a specific region of far south Colombia called “Nariño,” where this kind of bread is called “guaguas.” Bolivian Tantawawas have a specific characteristic in which the faces placed on the bread are made out of clay.
This video below explains how this beautiful holiday is celebrated in Bolivia. People go to the cemeteries to paint graves and decorate them. They also set their offering at home where it is important to have horses to help the souls arrive to the table. There are also stairs made out of bread to help the souls go back to the sky. The videos below have been helpful for me to educate myself about this holiday, as well as exploring Bolivia’s official website for tourism and culture. Please feel free to watch the videos to learn more.
Get inspired and create your own Tantawawas in class. I know time is limited, so I recommend you use modeling clay with your students, acknowledging that we need to be respectful of this tradition and share with your students why a different material is being used in class.
I was able to find white and brown clay. I mixed them up to produce a shade closer to the real bread. I drew the face of the Tantawawa on a piece of white paper and cut it out to place it on the Tantawawa shape. Here are the results:
A few years ago the science teacher at my school approached me with an exciting idea. It was September, and she started the year off teaching about the Monarch butterfly migration. She wanted to create a cross-curricular connection and shared with me the idea of joining a symbolic butterfly migration through an organization called “Journey North.” It was the best idea ever! She taught the butterfly life cycle in her science class, which included raising the butterflies in her classroom. She also taught the Monarch migration and why they are important connectors of ecosystems and landscapes.
In our Spanish class, we learned about the butterfly migration traveling from north to south because it was the fall. These are some of the questions we used and might help you start a conversation in class. Having a map and a paper butterfly helps a lot! ¿Dónde vivimos? ¿Vivimos en Colombia o en Estados Unidos?
¿Cuál es la estación? ¿Es el verano? ¿Es el otoño?
¿Qué animal es? ¿Es un perro? ¿Es un gato? ¿Es una mariposa? ¿Es un gato o una mariposa?
¿Qué clase de mariposa es?
¿Por qué van las monarcas al sur?
¿Adónde van las monarcas?
¿Adónde en México van las monarcas?
¿Cuándo van las monarcas a Michoacán?
¿Qué se celebra en México el 1 y 2 de noviembre?
¿Qué representan las monarcas para las personas en Michoacán? Each student decorated small paper butterflies and wrote basic information such as:
Yo me llamo _________.
Yo tengo ______ años.
Yo vivo en __________.
Mi color favorito es___________. We also decorated a bigger butterfly the size of a filing folder and added a picture of our class in the middle. We also needed to include a self-addressed, stamped envelope (10” X 13”) in order to get our butterflies in the spring. I uploaded a picture of a big butterfly to the Journey North website and shared it with parents. On the map, we were able to see the schools that were participating in the country, as well our big butterfly.
We also read a story called “Monarca va a Michoacán” to introduce and review high-frequency vocabulary.
We made a connection with the homeroom teachers. During their reading time, students had different books related to butterflies and also to “El Día de los Muertos.” It’s believed that Monarchs are the souls of the departed and loved ones, and they arrive in Michoacán to join the celebration. Students read “Uncle Monarch” in their classrooms, and that helped us make a connection to explore the Day of the Dead celebration.
We also got to say “adiós” to our real butterflies before they embarked on their journey south.
In Spanish class, we read a bilingual book called “El Día de los Muertos.” It led us to make a comparison between Halloween and this beautiful celebration for them to understand the meaning of the Day of the Dead and why it’s important to the Mexican people – and how it differs from Halloween.
This beautiful video is also great to support this unit!
When the spring came, we had an awesome surprise! We got mail from Journey North with beautiful paper butterflies made by children in Mexico and other parts of the United States. This was an amazing experience not only for the teachers who got to work together but also for the children who were excited about their paper butterflies. This is also an opportunity to raise awareness about Monarchs and what could happen if they go extinct. Thinking about joining the journey this year? Click here to visit the link to learn how to participate and download the “Teacher Packet” with all the steps to join the symbolic migration. The deadline to join is around the first week of October, so make sure you don’t miss the date. Last, but not least, I recorded this song with some friends in 2012 to use in my classes. I am not the best singer but had a lot of fun recording this song.
It’s always great to have all these videos in one place! Hopefully this will save you some time. I recommend you take the time to watch the videos before presenting them to your students to make sure they are appropriate not only for their developmental age and level of Spanish, but also to ensure they fit your school culture. Watching the video will also give you time to think of important questions of points you would like to discuss with your students.
Videos to introduce or talk about this celebration in class
Global Wonder Series – I stop the video after second 35, you will see why!
El Día de los Muertos vs Halloween Click here to find version in Spanish
La Calaverita de Azúcar
Las Calaveras Have fun sharing with your students about this important celebration! Carolina
I have to admit that I didn’t know anything about “El Día de los Muertos” until I moved from Colombia to the United States. In the first Spanish program in which I taught, cultural traditions and celebrations were not part of the curriculum. This was mainly due to the limited time we had with our students. Without the ability to engage deeply, we were afraid of passing down wrong information or stereotypes of other cultures to them. After a few years of teaching in this school district, I moved to another school district where the program was richly infused with cultural celebrations. “El Día de los Muertos” was an important feature, and the children were really engaged in various aspects of it in ways that made it a comprehensive cultural exploration for elementary level students. And yes, it took me a while to get comfortable with this celebration, but I still wasn’t 100% excited to be teaching this to my students.
And just as life changes and people move, I moved to a different neighborhood and changed schools again. This time, I was at a school where a big part of my job was to help create the K-3 Spanish curriculum , but still El Día de los Muertos wasn’t my top choice to include in it. I also felt that, being Colombian, I had an obligation to teach and share about my own culture. After about two years in this program, I heard conversations of students explaining El Día de los Muertos as simply the way Halloween is celebrated in Mexico. My heart sank, and then it jumped with adrenaline as I had a flashing thought that I was missing an awesome opportunity to share with students the real meaning of this celebration. Not to blame them, but everywhere they go, many of the icons such as calacas, catrinas and catrines are displayed in the Halloween aisles in many of the big stores. They are now part of Halloween costumes and even an excuse to have “Day of the Dead” fiestas. I am also guilty of buying the decorations and bringing them to my classroom, and of course, hiding the label that shows that they were made in China, not in Mexico.
The celebration deserves room in the curriculum of Spanish teachers. We, the community Spanish teachers, have a responsibility to educate our school community about the importance of this beautiful celebration, especially given the fact that it was just recently included in the “List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” by UNESCO.
We also have to remember that as world language teachers we should help our students (and each other) to understand other cultures are well prepared to be good citizens of the world!
As a good starting point, I put together a PowerPoint that I use to introduce the celebration to my 2nd and 3rd grade students. I am now sharing it, and you are welcome to download it and adapt it to your needs. Please note that I don’t own any of the pictures in the PowerPoint. If you share the resource, I would appreciate if you give credit to my blog.
Click here or on picture to download presentation!
¡Hola! I am Carolina, a Colombian elementary Spanish teacher based in Boston, MA. Fun for Spanish Teachers is the result of my passion for teaching Spanish to children and my desire to inspire collaboration and creativity in a vibrant teaching and learning community. It’s the perfect stop if you are looking for songs, games, teaching tips, stories, and fun for your classes.
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