Day of the Dead Activities
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. Luckily, ever since Disney´s gorgeous film Coco topped the box office a few years ago, Día de los Muertos is becoming more and more known in pop culture, making students even more keen to learn about it.
Born and raised in 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 intoxicating aroma of thousands of marigolds decorating elaborate altars dedicated to loved ones and the soundtrack of traditional rancheros. It all brings back happy memories of blistery October nights at the annual festivals in Santa Ana and Olvera Street in the heart of DTLA, and it´s definitely something I enjoy sharing with the little Spanish señorit@s.
The role of the Language Assistant in Spain (and in many foreign English teaching posts) defines us as cultural ambassadors. Coming from the American southwest, I firmly believe that our culture is not made up of just candy corn 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. Introducing students to new and exciting celebrations encourages curiosity and respect for cultures that they likely aren’t very familiar with.
Halloween or Day of the Dead?
The kiddos will definitely be bummed if you skip out on the annual Halloween lesson, so instead of a swap, aim for two back to back culture classes, one focused on Halloween and the other on 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 a traditional Mexican hat.” etc). It sets the tone for the class and they can guess what cultural event you´re going to be talking about.
Day of the Dead Activities for Primary Students
(10 – 11 years)
I typically introduce Día de los Muertos at age 10 (5th of primary), at which point they´ve already done the Halloween thing time and again and can understand that these are two separate holidays. With these littler dudes, I do Halloween first and build off of that to introduce Day of the Dead.
Day One: Halloween
I’m a huge 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 as a celebration of life, rather than the sadness typically associated with death as in All Saint´s Day, or the spooky colors of Halloween.
We talk a bit about what it means to ¨celebrate life¨ of those that have passed on, and a bit about the origins of the holiday and how it´s celebrated. I like to use lots of pictures of Day of the Dead in Mexico and California, like the big celebrations at Olvera Street and the Hollywood Forever cemetary in Los Angeles.
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.
Day of the Dead Activities for Secondary Students
I used to use the same awesome video to warm up with these guys (what can I say, I’m a fan!), but as Coco has become such a hit, last year I switched to the Coco Trailer to get them in the mood.
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 lessons 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 of information input, max), providing some brief background information, relevant vocabulary (colourful, skulls, pass away, loved ones, 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.
This is a perfect opportunity to practice describing pictures (a biggie for schools aiming to prepare Cambridge, Trinity or other standardized English exams). Day of the Dead celebrations are vibrant and full of details from colorful flags to vivid clothes and ornate altars, giving them plenty to talk about.
Beforehand, I 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.
Day of the Dead for Older Teens
While the older teens maybe a bit too sk-cool-ll (see what I did there?? 😉💀) to get down with the arts and crafts aspect, there´s still plenty of opportunities to bring Day of the Dead into the classroom, for example:
- Picture descriptions (B1 level)
- Picture descriptions – comparing and contrasting Day of the Dead with Halloween or with All Saint´s Day (B2+ level)
- Class discussions (or debates) on their opinions of celebrating life as opposed to fearing or mourning death
- Using videos of Día de los Muertos celebrations as listening activities (gap fill, questions answer, etc). There are tons of resources on youtube and below!
- Here in the Canary Islands, we celebrate another festival called Finaos which is somewhat a mix between All Saint´s Day and Día de los Muertos. Last year I had them do a 3 way ven diagram comparing and contrasting the three holidays.
And all that being said, some of the older kids still get down on some good old fashioned arts & crafts. You know your students, so if you think they´d be down for some creative coloring, it never hurts to let them escape from the hard life of exams and test prep and get their creativity on for a day. Last year I brought the little guys´ sugar skull photocopies with me to a class of stressed and depressed seniors and they begged to let me color them. Wine not 🍷🤷?
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.
Coco is Disney´s 2017 animated tale of a boy who accidently crosses over to the land of the dead. The artwork is stunning and the storyline is fantastic (last year lots of my students went to see it in the cinema after learning about the holiday with me!)
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! For more autumn activities for your ESL classroom:
💀 Halloween Fun for the ESL Classroom
🍂 Native American History Month / Columbus Day Alternative
🦃 Thanksgiving Activities
Creep it real!
Special thanks to FreePik for the awesome background! Background vector created by Freepik