Día de los Muertos Celebration Spans Grade Levels and Domains

img_7486 This week, Ross Lower School students explored Hispanic ancestral traditions by celebrating the Day of the Dead, a holiday in which the living honor the spirits of deceased loved ones.

Day of the Dead festivities are explored by the fourth grade students in conjunction with their their study of pre-Columbians and their burial traditions in their Cultural History units. Yet over the past three years, the learning experience has evolved from a Venn diagram highlighting the differences and similarities between the holiday and contemporary Halloween celebrations into a collaborative effort crossing many domains and all grade levels. “What started as a single fourth grade learning experience has morphed into an extravaganza,” said Barbara Gaias, Lower School Spanish teacher.


In Spanish, fourth grade students learned about the four levels of the Mexican outdoor altar system, representing the four elements, seasons, compass rose directions, and stages of life. Additionally, both fourth and fifth grade students studied the lives of influential Hispanic figures, such as Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Roberto Clemente, Celia Cruz, and José Martí. Students prepared a simulated cemetery lined with faux gravestones, with Spanish inscriptions, for their figures. They adorned the gravestones with symbols of life, which the Spanish traditionally did in hopes that spirits would recognize their grave, return to the real world, and share a meal. For example, at the faux tomb of Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, students left a paintbrush, his photo, and a mural. An orange marigold, salt, water, a candle, and other traditional elements were placed at each tomb to symbolize the stages of life.

The Visual Arts, Performing Arts, and Wellness domains supplemented the World Languages and Literature course through acts of creating, acting, dancing, and singing. For example, the third grade students taught Team K the Mexican Hat Dance, which allowed them to practice physical directions in Spanish. They learned to tell time in Spanish by singing the Costa Rican Skeleton Clock Song. The students also decorated skull masks and located their loved ones in the cemetery by following a path of handmade yellow and orange marigold petals crafted in their Visual Arts class.


The holiday also provided an interesting link to the fourth grade Science curriculum. In life science, students learn about the life cycle of the monarch butterfly. Up to one billion butterflies migrate annually to Michoacán, México from colder climates just in time for Día de los Muertos. In order to attempt to understand this sudden influx of butterflies to one region, the indigenous people believed that the butterflies symbolized the spirits of their returning ancestors. “Upon observing the milkweed and chrysalises in each classroom, I felt compelled to help the students make this connection between science, cultural history, and Spanish,” Barbara said.

Reflecting on this year’s activities, Barbara added, “It was so wonderful to watch the students who have participated for the past three years teach the words in Spanish and actions to the brand-new students. Students should gain an appreciation of ancestral culture other than their own.”