Spanish Language Learning
By Susanna Lara, Spanish Teacher and Atrium School Parent
Learning a language is much more than simply learning how to say one thing or another in a different way. Learning a language is about learning different cultures and about how people live in different places of the world. It is about expanding our horizons and opening our minds to differences and similarities, and about allowing ourselves to grow in our evermore interconnected world.
In Atrium's Spanish classes across all grades, this is our approach to Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead). Día de Muertos is a festivity with pre-Hispanic origins, celebrated in several countries in Latin America but with particular roots in Mexico. It commemorates the dead and, for people in Mexico, this is a source of much happiness and a reason to celebrate. Día de Muertos is far from being a mournful or scary day, but is, instead, quite a festive day. It is a very colorful celebration, full of symbolisms, and ironically, full of life.
Having grown up in Mexico City, I have a strong connection with the festivities, traditions, aesthetics, and symbolism attached to this celebration. As I share this with students, the first and perhaps most important step is to have classroom discussions about the history and meaning of the tradition, as well as of the symbolisms attached to it. It is crucial that children understand that this is a happy celebration of remembering, so we think about what our loved ones would like to find that day and we arrange these things in special ofrendas for them to find and share in the joy. It is through this thinking and remembering, that we connect with our past very much in a loving way.
Once more familiar with the tradition, the step that follows is to make a collective Atrium School ofrenda. To do this, each grade works on a different craft to make the ofrenda colorful and meaningful. Crafts include making papel picado, sugar skulls, cempasúchil flowers, and skeletons portraying everyday activities. The more advanced Spanish students might also venture to write a literary calavera. Children spend several classes working on their craft, and these days Spanish class is by immersion.
Also crucial to the altar, is the sharing of memorabilia of loved ones who have passed away. This is, of course, by choice, and the entire Atrium community is invited to participate. Last year, our first year doing this, we had staff and children of different grades bring beloved objects, pictures, or cards for the altar. One child brought a small wooden boat for his grandfather who loved to sail. Another child made a card for his grandmother and included a pack of bubble gum which she used to send him every birthday. Another one brought her grandmother’s shoe and jewelry. A teacher brought a photograph of her grandmother and herself sharing a smile and a hug.
Throughout this project, our students are learning about culture and tradition in a Spanish speaking country, and they are broadening their perspective. As we study Día de Muertos, we are remembering, as a community, together. And as we do this, our past becomes our collective present and our future.