Celebrations such as the Day of the Dead allow us, Spanish teachers, to reflect on the purpose of our classes. Do we teach Spanish so that our students learn to decode the language? Or is it also our responsibility to teach about culture? A language is not only its syntax, but also its semantics, and it is semantics combined with cultural expressions that allows us to find the ultimate meaning of each interaction.
The Day of the Dead is one of those celebrations that can cause problems for more than one Spanish teacher. In Western European culture, death is a dreary, sad and sometimes even forbidden topic.
Spanish teachers spend long hours thinking about how to include and present the theme of the Day of the Dead in our classes. From the altar dedicated to loved ones who are no longer there, we switch to the photo of the pet that has recently passed away and then decide on making and decorating small sugar skulls that we believe help us clear the morbid aspect of the celebration.
So how can we celebrate this tradition in our classes without scaring our students? I think it is important to talk about what this day means before doing any activity related to it. Students do not need to directly talk about those loved ones who have died. We can start by asking them about those things they think about when they remember a loved one who is no longer here. The teacher will give an example like the one I give below:
We ask students to think of a special person who is no longer there and to share orally or in writing one or two feelings or images that come to mind when they think of them. This way we are establishing a connection between how the Aztec and Anglo-Saxon cultures see death. Although we are talking about loved ones who are no longer with us, through this exercise we can remember them with joy, happiness and with much love.
For the Aztecs, death was an essential part of life because thanks to it we are able to appreciate every day, every person who has touched our lives. For the Aztecs, the memories, experiences and lessons of those who left were the oxygen that allows us to stay alive. Every time I remember my grandmother I feel more connected to life.
It is common for the Day of the Dead to be celebrated in the United States. It is also common for many of our students to believe that this celebration is the Mexican version of Halloween. What should teachers do when their students confuse these two celebrations? It is important that we share with them the following information:
The celebration of the Day of the Dead must first and foremost be a celebration of life.
Ask your students to share the favorite music of a loved one who is gone. Let that music play during a class activity. It is not necessary that it be in Spanish or that it be listened carefully by everyone.
Ask your students to bring an object that has the favorite color of a loved one. It can be flowers, it can be a notebook, or anything with that color. You can ask them to explain it or just to bring it and have it by their side during class.
Get a notebook where students who do not want to share in another way, write something about a lost loved one.
Another version of the written tributes is to ask students to write about a loved one and then collect those cards in a jar.