El Día de Muertos is just about a week away, and we have everything you need to teach about this meaningful celebration, in the target language, in Spanish Levels 1+.
Why teach about Día de Muertos?
There are thousands and thousands of celebrations that happen in Spanish speaking cultures, so why is it that so many Spanish teachers choose to teach about Día de Muertos? I’ve thought about this a lot, especially as I hear from more and more teachers each year that they have administrators and caretakers that are questioning their decision to include it (more about that further down!). I don’t have any definite answers, but I have some hypotheses:
- It’s common for teachers to do holiday-themed lessons. In the US, many people celebrate Halloween. As Spanish teachers consider the ‘Halloween season’, Día de Muertos seems like a natural cultural connection since the two celebrations fall during the same time period and do share some similarities. Now, many schools are intentionally moving toward seasonal themes instead of holiday-centric themes–with good reason, I would say!–and so this line of thought may not seem as obvious now.
- Día de Muertos is high interest. The captivating visuals, the seeming mysteriousness of it all… students are always intrigued to learn more. A challenge to teachers is to capture student interest without ‘othering’ the cultures and the people that celebrate these days; without communicating intentionally or unintentionally the idea that the traditions your students practice are normal and the traditions practiced by other cultures are exotic, weird, or abnormal. A goal is to find connections, similarities, and points of understanding, not an emotional response based in surface-level understandings. Día de Muertos has perhaps been used in the past for its entertainment value, and it is important that we are careful to move away from this.
- Students are often already curious about Día de Muertos because it has become highly commercialized in the United States. As more and more residents of the United States practice this tradition and social media has increased access to outsiders, businesses have swooped in to take advantage. From Día de Muertos aisles at your local Target to jewelry depicting the likeness of La Catrina in every store from Walgreens to Bloomingdales, your students are likely to have already seen and been curious about the iconography of Día de Muertos. Depending on the level of your classes, this commercialization of the holiday would be a valuable topic to explore together.
- Because that’s what the teacher did in their own Spanish classes as a student!
Personally, I fell into the first two categories. I saw Día de Muertos as something to study that felt seasonal and connected to what many of my students were celebrating, and they always thought that the imagery was so cool. I felt like it was an opportunity for me to capture their interest and their seasonal appetite for all things scary and combine it with accurate information about the practices and perspectives associated with the holiday to build a connection. I do continue to believe that this is worthwhile, although with a few caveats. Firstly, to what extent am I capable of limiting the transferal of my outsider perspective (as a teacher who does not practice Día de Muertos) to my students? In what ways can I let insider voices and perspectives take the lead, even as I use my own communicative tools to present them in such a way that my students can understand? Secondly, if some of my students would be opting out, do the benefits of including this celebration as a focus of my instruction outweigh the relational harm of choosing to move forward with a lesson that excludes them?
As much as our students can develop interculturality through the guided study of Día de Muertos, so can we as teachers.
What to teach about Día de Muertos?
Looking at authentic resources has been, for me, a great way to decide what aspects of the holiday to explore through the materials that I create for Spanish language learners. Authentic resources can gives students an insider’s view and can limit the native culture’s impact on conceptualization. News articles, Promotional videos, Short films, Infographics, and Storybooks allow us to see Día de Muertos from different vantage points within the target culture. For that reason, I let authentic resources take the lead when creating materials about this celebration.
Here are some examples:
Celebración de Día de Muertos en México promo video
This promotional video from ‘México extraordinario’ is an invitation to come and be part of the Día de Muertos celebration. With audio in Spanish, we can assume that the target audience is native speakers of Spanish that are not from the specific communities highlighted in these videos.
In the Día de Muertos Level 1 Flex Plans, we use this video as an introduction to the unit, and students are to describe what they see in the video. For Level 1 students, providing them with options or possibilities, in Spanish, for what they might see in the video is a good way to scaffold the language.
Las calaveras song
This song is a great way to consider the perspective that skeletons aren’t necessarily viewed as scary in other cultures. Why would the calaveras be portrayed as cute, fun, and personable? What does that tell us about the associated perspective? The song itself has lots of repetition for some vocabulary, which is valuable in terms of language acquisition. However, it also contains a LOT of structures that are only used once or twice and that I would not expect my students to understand or retain. Instead, I chose to use this song primarily as a very narrow listening activity in which students are training their ear to listen for different sounds and to put the lyrics in sequence as they do. (This activity is also part of the Level 1 Flex plans.)
Ofrenda de Muertos infographic
This infographic from our original Día de Muertos plans identifies the various elements that are most commonly seen on ofrendas and it explains the reasons for which they are included. I (the teacher) am not the one offering these explanations – they are shared by the author of the content of the infographic, who was a Mexican woman working for the Mexican organization that created it.
La leyenda de cempasúchil legend
The Legend of the Marigold is an Aztec legend that explains the origin of the marigold and allows students to understand the perspective of its connection to el Día de Muertos. While Level 1+ students would likely have a hard time understanding this legend as it is told to a target-culture audience, they can understand it when told with simplified language. In this resource, we provided a version that works well in many Level 2 classes and beyond.
Here Come the Dead Documentary
While this documentary is not an authentic resource (it is unclear whether the creator is a member of the target culture, but the target audience is English speaking), it features authentic voices that share their own perspectives on the Monarch butterflies. In our resource about el Día de Muertos y las Monarcas, I chose to pair the viewing of this video with a text that explains the concepts with simplified language.
Because Monarch butterflies are such extraordinary creatures to learn about even apart from their connection to Día de Muertos celebrations, I also chose to build our “Alternative/Opt-Out Work Packet” based on various text and resources about Monarch butterflies.
La calavera Catrina art
Looking at the way that various artists have represented the iconography associated with this celebration is another way to see it from an insider’s perspective and to begin to understand how it connects with other aspects of life in the target culture. In our Día de Muertos Level 2 Flex plans, Nelly Hughes created a reading about La Catrina and how she has been depicted by Mexican artists.
Día de Muertos Resources for Level 1-2 Spanish Students
This bundle includes all of our materials about Día de Muertos that were designed for classroom use, and it is the best value Día de Muertos resource that we offer!
Our most popular resource! This includes 3 readings with increasing levels of text complexity, infographic activities, ClipChat scripts for short films, and more! Perfect to provide materials to use in multiple levels or to work through layers of understanding in a single level.
Learn about Monarch butterflies and their symbolism in el Día de Muertos. These plans are a good fit for Levels 2+!
Share the Legend of the Marigold with your Level 2+ students. It includes multiple versions of the legend so that you can choose one that will be the most appropriate challenge for your students and activities to fill 90-120 minutes of class!
Published in 2021, these unique lesson plans provide materials and detailed lesson plans for classroom instruction, synchronous virtual instruction, and asynchronous virtual instruction. Designed for Level 1 students and examines 6 different aspects of the celebration.
Like the Level 1 Flex plans, these materials provide options for multiple formats of instruction– but with more advanced language. The Level 2 Flex plans also look at 6 aspects of Día de Muertos through authentic resources and level-appropriate texts.
Learn about the history of alebrijes and their display in Mexico City (CDMX) around the time of Día de Muertos each year. Created by Nelly Hughes, this resource includes both print and paperless formats.
Show your students the many connections that are shared between the US and Mexico with these texts about Las calaveras de chilacoyote and how the carved gourds are used in a practice that connects to trick-or-treating.
This resource is about Monarch butterflies and contains no information about Día de Muertos. Designed for students who have opted out of learning about the holiday, this packet is entirely self-paced, independent work.
What about kids who opt out?
It is not uncommon for students and/or their caretakers to “opt out” of learning about Día de Muertos. Sometimes, they may just need information to feel comfortable with their child participating in the lessons. Other times, you may need to provide their child with alternative work. Visit this post to read all my thoughts and ideas on opting out of Día de Muertos, including a link to a template letter that you can share with concerned parents.