Celebrating Day of the Dead in the ESL Classroom
As much as the littles (and even not-so-littles) love Halloween, it can get pretty tedious making the same old skele-pumpki-spiders every year.
Coming from Los Angeles, I’ve always been mesmerized by the colorful Día de los Muertos celebrations that are held all around the city and throughout SoCal. Brightly painted calaveras and the powdery sweetness of freshly baked pan de muerto. The fresh aroma of thousands of marigolds decorating elaborate altars dedicated to loved ones and the soundtrack of traditional rancheros.
The role of the Language Assistant in Spain (and in many foreign English teaching posts) defines us as cultural ambassadors. Coming from the southwest of the USA, I firmly believe that our culture is not made up of solely Halloween and Easter eggs, but more importantly the various textures of many backgrounds woven together that make our corner of the world so richly cultured and colorful. Especially when teaching in countries with less diversity, I think it’s imperative that we make an effort to showcase our rich cultural diversity.
Day of the Dead Activities
The goal is to introduce students to a new celebration and encourage curiosity and respect for a culture that they likely aren’t very familiar with.
Halloween or Day of the Dead?
You can’t really avoid doing Halloween, so I always aim for two back to back culture classes so that I can do one Halloween activity and another one for Day of the Dead.
I always use this incredible video (song by Voltaire, art by Ritxi Ostáriz). as a warm up. It’s a great way to give them a glimpse of the colorful celebrations and practice describing what they see using the present continuous (“They are playing trombone.” “He is wearing traditional Mexican hats.” etc.).
Primary (10 – 11 years)
I typically introduce Día de los Muertos at age 10 (5th of primary), at which point they already know a bit about Halloween and can understand that these are two separate holidays. With these guys, I do Halloween first and build off of that to introduce Day of the Dead.
Day One: Halloween
I’m a big fan of the old jointed skeleton puppets connected by brads, so I use these as the Halloween activity. (Click here for details and the rest of my Halloween goodies).
They should be able to complete the skeleton puppets in one class period and can display them in the classroom until the following day, when we’ll bring them back to life.
Day Two: Day of the Dead
As a warm up, I present Día de los Muertos with this awesome video (see above).
I ask them to pay special attention to the colors, clothes and designs used in the video, pointing out the bright, happy colors meant to celebrate of life, rather than sad or spooky Halloween colors.
For the remaining class period, the students decorate their skeleton puppets from the previous week, changing them from spooky bone-white skeletons to fun-loving Day of the Dead dancing machines, complete with colorful floral skulls.
Secondary (12-14 years)
I use the same awesome video to warm up with these guys (see above). What can I say, I’m a fan!
After talking about what they’ve seen in the video, I ask them to tell me anything they may know about the holiday, where it comes from, what they’re celebrating and to point out some key vocabulary.
While I normally preach against overusing PowerPoints to present holidays (culture should be fun!), I make an exception in cases such as this, where it’s likely to be the first time they’ve ever really heard anything about Día de los Muertos.
Still, I keep it short and sweet (about 15 minutes max), providing some brief background information, relevant vocabulary (colorful, skulls, pass away, etc.) and lots of images of the elaborate altars and infamous sugar skulls, which have gained popularity here in Spain over the last few years.
I pre-prepare copies of 5 or 6 different sugar skull coloring sheets and encourage participation by allowing people who participate more to choose their sugar skull first. The rest of the class is spent decorating the skulls while playing various Day of the Dead videos in the background.
They finish the skulls at home and cut them out to make masks for a quickie class selfie before hanging them up in the hallway or classroom.
Miscellaneous Day of the Dead Resources
TeacherVision.com is awesome and houses tons of resources, including some great videos.
Red Ted Art has adorable skeleton puppets and great examples to show your students.
The Book of Life is a 2014 animated film by Reel FX Creative movie that many of your students may have seen and has some great artwork to give them an idea of typical colors and designs.
Do You Teach About the Day of the Dead?
Have you ever taught Day of the Dead abroad? I’d love to hear about some of the activities you’ve done! Let me know in the comments, and don’t forget to check out this Halloween post if you’re looking for other ideas for autumn holidays.
Creep it real!
Special thanks to FreePik for the awesome background! Background vector created by Freepik
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