Teaching kindergarteners how to honor death

Teaching young children about cultural traditions surrounding death can be difficult.

For Shelly Orchard’s kindergarten class, learning about Día de los Muertos — the traditional Mexican holiday that celebrates and remembers departed family members — it’s all about connecting it to things they already understand.

Orchard, a teacher at Mary Woodward Elementary School in Tigard, invited parents familiar with the fall holiday to talk about the cultural tradition with her students as part of a nationwide art literacy program.

“They learn about different artists and art medias,” Orchard explained of the art program. “Día de los Muertos is kind of a hard concept … so I enlisted two of my parents from Mexico who celebrate Día de los Muertos.”

Día de los Muertos, which translates to “Day of the Dead” in English, is a Mexican holiday that takes place Oct. 31 to Nov. 2. It’s a time for families to remember and honor departed loved ones, celebrating their lives. Some believe Día de los Muertos to be a brief period when spirits actually return to Earth.

Traditionally, families make altars in their homes for those who’ve passed on, using photographs, marigold flowers, and offerings of cookies or pan dulce, or Mexican sweet bread.

Learning about the holiday — which invokes colorful, symbolic art with images often depicting death — gets further complicated by the fact that it falls on Oct. 31, the same day as Halloween. Despite some of the overlap in imagery, the two holidays are intrinsically different.

“We use skeletons as a horror thing,” Orchard noted, “but, as one of the (visiting) moms said, we all have skeletons in us. One of them really went over the fact that it’s not a sad time, it’s a time to remember relatives.”

This Monday, Oct. 7, two different mothers visited the kindergarteners, using a Lego table to recreate a homemade altar using electronic tealight candles, photos, flowers, bread and sugar skulls.

The following day, kids made their own art projects using oil pastels to illustrate their own sugar-skull inspired skeletal depictions over silhouettes of cats. Students included monarch butterflies and marigold flowers, consistent with symbols and items often found in Day of the Dead celebrations and altars.

“The skulls are made out of sugar,” said 5-year-old Bella, whose mother visited the day prior to give the Día de los Muertos presentation. “It’s a very special recipe from Mexico.”

Bella explained that since both of her parents’ fathers had died, photographs of each of her grandfathers were placed in the altar her mother made.

The art literacy project proved a breath of fresh air for Orchard, who said over the course of ther 31-year teaching career, she’s noticed a shift away from activity-based learning in favor of direct instruction.

“This is drawing them in to something interesting, exposing them to art, and artists they might not have seen before, and teaching them to follow directions” Orchard noted.

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