Explorando el Día de Muertos en la clase de español
I love studying El Día de los Muertos each year with my students. I’m so glad that I teach in a school that welcomes this cultural exposure; I know that not all teachers are allowed to teach or even discuss this holiday, and I feel it’s truly an opportunity to bond with my students at the end of the very first quarter of the school year. I will never take it for granted, and I try to learn new things myself each and every year.
Below are some of my tried and true activities that have become my go-to lessons and stations activities for studying this important holiday. We are typically giving quarterly exams in my school around this time, and so I love to incorporate these activities as relaxing stations after the exam or even after independent review days. Students LOVE learning about this holiday, and it feels like a treat to spend time on culture after finishing our exams that are required by my school.
Some of these activities are specifically for an in-person setting (bookmarks, bulletin board, puzzle…) while other activities have been updated recently and can be adapted for a hybrid / digital setting. The task cards, for example, are ready for digital use with your students! You can print and use the task cards like normal, or use them through Google Classroom.
Prepping our students
I will say that regardless of ANY activities, clips, or discussions you plan to have, it is important to mention to your classes a few days in advance that you will be learning about the Day of the Dead. (Depending on your school’s expectations, you may need to let guardians know as well.)
If you choose the movie clip I have linked below, I think it is important that you let your students know ahead of time that you will be showing a short clip in class that references mourning the loss of a loved one. I always say to my students,
- “The opener tomorrow will be a short clip that will help us learn about the Day of the Dead. During this clip or during any of our discussion of this topic over the next few days, I want you to know that it’s ok to step out of class quietly for a few minutes. If for ANY reason you are uncomfortable during any of our discussion, please feel free to take a few minutes of space to yourself. I am letting you know today that if you choose to step out for a few minutes tomorrow, I will understand and I will take that as a sign that you are advocating for yourself to take a few minutes of space.”
Now, this is complete PERSONAL discretion and I’m not telling you to break any school rules or let your students run free through the halls. You know your students and their limits. I teach high school, and you may decide that for your students they need more structure (or a hall pass!) in order to leave your room. The reason I do it this way for this special circumstance is that I have found, sometimes, students don’t want to explain why they are uncomfortable watching a clip that has to do with death and mourning. And honestly – they don’t owe me any explanation. I don’t ever want my students to feel that they have to justify their feelings to me. Their feelings are valuable, and do not need explanation in order to exist.
In the various years I’ve shown the clip below, I’ve only ever had ONE student step out. So that’s at least 500 students…. and only ONE needed to take space for herself. And honestly – she was back as soon as the clip ended. I think she stood in the hallway, and waited for the classroom lights to come back on. She promptly came back in and returned to her seat, and furthermore she chose to participate in the remaining activities. For some reason, she was uncomfortable with sitting through the movie clip – and that’s just fine by me. She knew her limits and she did a great job of setting that boundary for herself in a respectful way. While only one student needed to leave the room; I am happy that ALL of my students knew they had that opportunity to set a boundary if they needed to.
Another way to approach this would be to find a classroom that is empty during your class block. With permission from that teacher, of course, you could allow students to sit with them for a few minutes, complete alternative assignments… etc. To be honest, I do not ever plan to offer alternative assignments during this time. If a student needs a few minutes out of class due to personal reasons, then I will ALWAYS allow them those minutes without trying to “get back” those minutes with another assignment. Because…. well… why!? (I could go on about this and compare it to “grind culture”, but that’s some rambling I’ll save for another post, ha!)
Activity 1. My Favorite Short Clip
NO prep — just play and discuss!
It is just 3 minutes! You will feel ALL the feelings during this clip: it warms my heart just thinking about it.
I absolutely love watching this clip with all of my classes each year. I look forward to it every year, and I don’t think I will ever get tired of it! The animation is beautiful, and it just feels much more *updated* compared to a lot of other clips I used to show in class.
Before the clip, I typically ask students what they know about El Día de Muertos. We have a discussion about ofrendas, about the significance of the holiday, the dates it takes place, the countries that celebrate, etc. We discuss what we do as Americans when we visit a grave (bring flowers, have quiet reflection and perhaps prayer, depending on religion.) We then compare those traditions to those of DDM: ofrendas, food, music, more of a celebration of life compared to quiet reflection. (I apologize if I am not very eloquent here!)
We talk about how neither culture is “right” or “correct” in their traditions. We remind ourselves that both cultures are remembering the dead in the way that brings the the most peace to those that are still living. Do you like to spend a lot of time with the cemetery, with your loved ones? That’s a wonderful way to honor them. Do you prefer a quick visit, quietly? Also wonderful. Both are respectful, both are valid. There is no “wrong.”
I often like to play the clip twice. During the first run-through, I let the clip play all the way through. Students love the animation, they smile and laugh at all of the “right” moments, and they’re always very pensive at the end. They tend to really appreciate the message, and honestly I feel they play closer attention during this clip than ANY other clip I show during the year.
During the second play-through, I pause the video at different times depending on the level of the class. For Spanish 1, we pause a lot and talk about colors, descriptions of the girl (and the spirit, that they now know is her mother) and describe what is happening. For upper levels, we go into more detail of what they see. Dancing, laughing, playing, and more. We talk about the food, decorations, flowers, and more! This is a great clip for circling, movie talk, etc. Again, my students really seem to enjoy it every year. I hope yours do too! 🙂
(Some of my activities below come with a vocabulary list. Sometimes, I distribute the list before we watch this clip, and students check off any of the items they see in the clip!)
Activity 2. Task Cards
LOW prep — READY FOR DIGITAL USE!!!! If printing — just one set needed (with answer sheets for each student). You could also print more sets for students to work while social distancing in small groups.
I love using these task cards as a station if we are dedicating a full class to DDM. Otherwise, if I am using our openers throughout the week to study the holiday with my students, I love to use this as more of a gallery walk throughout the room.
There are 24 task cards that range from true/false, fill-ins, open ended, and more. A student response sheet is included, as is an answer key.
For the gallery walk style activity, I hang the task cards around the room, (just need to print ONE set!) and I provide my students with the student answer sheet. They move around the room in groups and answer as many as they can in the time I have established. I often play a timer on the board, or a few songs, and cue them to be back in their seats when the timer/music ends.
Activity 3. Bulletin Board and Writing Prompts / Decor
Medium-high prep — cutting bulletin board letters, printing prompt and dedications for each student
I love this simple bulletin board, and each year my students and I complete the included writing prompts and dedications to personalize it ourselves!
We use the prompts to pay tribute to someone that has passed away.
I tell my students that their prompt does NOT have to be dedicated to someone they knew personally; I often have students choose celebrities (for example, many of them felt very saddened by the sudden and tragic passing of Kobe Bryant and his daughter.)
The open-ended style of the full writing prompt makes it easy to differentiate between levels. My Spanish level ones often create a list of words to describe the person and their interests. They might brainstorm what they would include on an ofrenda for this person. Meanwhile, my upper levels write more about what the person accomplished during their life, how they made them feel, what they’d like to say to them, and more. The possibilities are endless.
After completing the writing prompt, my students choose from the smaller dedications that are also included. They complete as many as they’d like, and write the name of the person (or pet!) they’d like to remember that day. I allow my students to keep these (many choose to) or hang them on our bulletin board with the message “Hoy celebramos y recordamos”. Of course, we clarify that the “celebration” part is to celebrate the lives and the memories we have of the ones we have lost. We are always clarifying the misconception that DDM “celebrates” death in any way.
Activity 4. Day of the Dead Bookmarks
Medium-High prep — cut one per student, or just a few for prizes!
I love giving these bookmarks as class prizes during October and early November. I mentioned we tend to have a testing season during this time of year; I love to print copies of the black and white bookmarks and allow students to color them after their work is complete.
This is a relaxing and low-pressure way for students to learn more about the holiday. Plus, I like to promote reading as much as humanly possible 😉
Activity 5. Posters and Coloring Pages
No prep — print and go!
I use these beautiful posters and coloring pages in a similar way to the bookmarks above — for a low pressure way to learn more about the holiday. Simply hang the colored copies around your room, on your bulletin board, OR print black and white copies for your students to help you decorate! Students could work on these during your discussion of the holiday, or you could offer them at the front of the room for fast finishers.
Activity 6. Calaca Mía Speaking Activity (Llama Mía but for DDM!)
**Medium prep — cut enough pieces for a class, and game boards for groups of 3-5 — but keep from class to class!
My students LOVE playing Llama Mía throughout the year. It’s one of my favorite activities to sneakily get them speaking in the target language! “Calaca Mía” is a special version of the activity I made just for Día de Muertos — each game space gives them the opportunity to discuss a vocabulary word related to the holiday. TWO game versions are included; one in English, and one in Spanish. Looking to differentiate? Require your students to use the word in a complete sentence before claiming the space on each turn!
This activity and game pieces were designed for in-person learning, however students could play via the annotate mode on zoom, or in breakout rooms. Just be sure to “print to PDF” to include ONLY the desired game board in the document you share with your students, otherwise they have the answer key 😉 (If you are up for a few tech hurdles, you could also insert the game board as the background image of a Google Slides document and have the students use shapes as game pieces — see my Taco Tuesday tutorial for how you can do that!)
This game is how I get even my quietest students participating! They love choosing their game pieces and competing against their peers.
This version includes the game boards, game pieces, and a vocabulary list!
Activity 7. Vocabulary Puzzle
Medium prep — cut one per pair of students, but keep from class to class!
This is one of the activities that is meant for in-person learning, and that takes more prep — BUT I make sure I save the puzzles from class to class and even from year to year, so that my prep time is worth it! My students love puzzles all year long, and this Day of the Dead vocabulary puzzle is no different.
Students race against one another (or in pairs) to match the Spanish Day of the Dead vocabulary word to the correct definition. My students love to race in pairs, and compete in a low-stress bracket style until we are left with just one winner!! Even doing that full competition takes only about 15-20 minutes, while completing the puzzle just once is quick enough for a class opener (<5 mins).
Activity 8. Calavera color by number (FREE download!)
No prep — print and go!
Activity 9. Digital Stickers
No prep! And instead of a resource for your students, this one is for YOU to provide feedback in a fun and thoughtful way.
Want access to free digital stickers and other digital resources?
Day of the Dead Resource BUNDLE
Thank you for reading!
I hope you are having a safe year, and I hope you’re leaving this post with some ideas to make your lesson planning easier over the next few weeks.
Collaborate with me on social media @theengagedspanishclassroom (IG and FB) and @engagedspanish (Twitter) !!
Talk to you soon, Profe!