Tuesday, November 5, 2013

They return when we remember

at Two Writing Teachers!
I didn't grow up celebrating Day of the Dead. Learning about it in Spanish class didn't even make much of an impression on me, probably because I don't really recall my teachers doing much to actually help us experience the unique atmosphere of this special holiday.  Of course, I hadn't experienced the death of anyone close to me at that point either.

Even when I was teaching elementary Spanish, it wasn't a big deal. Sure, it was fun to have the kids make calavera crafts out of noodles and interesting to discuss how it's really different from Halloween, but it was just another one of those fun little holiday celebrations... much like the ones I remembered from middle and high school Spanish classes.

That all changed when the second year I taught middle school Spanish.  I decided that instead of a video or craft, I really wanted my students to experience the holiday.  To help students design their own altars, I built one in my classroom... and I fell in love with the holiday.  I gathered up objects that reminded me of my grandparents: their favorite foods, Marine logos for my grandpas, jewelry and coupons for my grandmas... I even called my parents to find out more about what my grandparents loved. We ended up laughing over the phone, recalling silly stories and fond memories.  It was almost as if Grandma, Grandpa, Nannie, and Granddaddy really had come back to visit.

Last year, I really missed that.  I missed buying pan de muerto from the Mexican market.  I missed the little moments of sharing memories that helped my students and I see each other more clearly as people. And I missed remembering my grandparents.

This year, I did a mini-unit about Halloween with my beginner ELLs.  As I planned it, I could feel Día de los Muertos tugging at my heart.  Why not?  Wouldn't our study of Halloween be so much richer if we compared it to Day of the Dead?  They're both related to All Souls' Day. We could practice comparing and contrasting.  Maybe we could even explore how different cultures view death.  Besides, the Mexican students might love to share their special traditions, in the same way that my Muslim students loved sharing about Eid Al-Adha.  After all, my beginner ELLs need a lot of the same supports as my Exploratory Spanish students used to... we could design altars and then write about them too!

So I converted my old design-an-altar-and-write-about-it worksheet from Spanish to English and made it a little more complex. I reserved some library books, found a short video clip, and dug out the pictures of my classroom altar.  (Unfortunately, I didn't have the time or space to make one in my classroom again... hopefully next year!)

After watching the video, reading aloud, and talking about my altar (and my grandparents), my students were ready to design their own altars and write about them.  I'm always careful to let them know that they can design it for anybody, dead or alive: pets, celebrities, themselves, and fictional characters all work great if they don't want to design it for a real friend or family member. But just like when I taught Spanish, almost every student chose to either honor a real deceased loved one or a former pet.

Colored pencils scratched and markers smeared. Students bent over their papers with faraway looks in their eyes. As they asked for help with their sentences, we chatted about their special memories.

"How nice of you to honor your grandfather!" I remarked to my Iraqi student, who was busily coloring with a dreamy half-smile on her face.

"He die... yesterday." As she looked up at me, her eyes turned into swirling pools.

"Oh, I'm so sorry!" My words, suddenly thick and heavy, got stuck somewhere in my throat.  Should I tell her she doesn't have to do the activity?  But she really seems to be enjoying it!

"I did not see him for seven years."  She's lived in Egypt for the past seven years.

"Oh, so he still lived in Iraq?"

"Yes. He... my best friend." She gulped and bent her head back down to write and draw some more. Each time she called me over to help her with a sentence, I got another glimpse of her life in Iraq: walking with her grandpa around his farm, playing chess with him, watching sports together on TV, playing with his pet bird.  "I put a bird because he have this bird.  I like to see him happy."

When she finished, she had written more than anyone else in the class.

"He must have been very special."


  1. Wow! This is amazing! I could feel the Iraqi student's voice--so like many of my students. I did not really know much about the Day of the Dead. I think I have to do a little research. In Finland, we used to celebrate (not really a right word) a day when we would remember loved ones who have passed away. My mother would light a candle in the window. Thank you teaching me something new today!

    1. Thanks, Jaana. I will tell my students about your Finnish holiday -- now I want to know more about it! I wonder how many other cultures have something similar?

  2. You just never know what the lives of our students are really like, right?! And hen one makes discoveries like this. How wonderful that you gave her just the activity she needed to heal her broken heart.

  3. The right time, the right activity - our kids need time and opportunity to share what's in their hearts!

  4. I helped the youngest students today with an activity in which they needed to draw a picture. One of the boys asked if he could add a tombstone because he is writing a 'book' about death. This is a six year old! I asked more, and he said because his uncle had just died, and he wanted to put something to remember him. When you start talking, important things happen, don't they? We used to celebrate Day of The Dead, too Jennifer. It reminds me of my childhood when we would all go to the cemetery to decorate the graves. I'm so glad you're teaching these kids!

  5. What a gift to your student that you made the space in the classroom for her to talk about the loss of her grandfather. And how fortunate for you that you got to understand what life was like in Iraq for her and her family.


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