Exploring traditions and Dia de Los Muertos

I’ve always seen the Quad Cities as an exquisite blend of culture. From the work done by various organizations, to the wonderful music that graces our town, and the multiple celebrations of culture, it makes me a proud Quad Cities native and local English Language Learner (ELL) teacher. The Dia de Los Muertos event at the Figge at the end of October proved to be a hit, as several of my students and friends commented on the wonderful program put together for the Latin-American celebration of life.

The 2017 Catrina exhibit took my breath away with its beautiful homage to the celebration of life. While I could neither attend nor take a group of students to the event since it was on the weekend, amidst the walls of my own classroom, a two-week long celebration of the tradition took place.

The key word there is tradition. What is a tradition? That’s the first step I took in teaching this celebration in the classroom. What does it mean? Do we all have traditions? That word stumps students from Kindergarten to 5th Grade; however, once defined a whole world of traditions comes alive — cultural, familial, or otherwise. My 65 students, with various backgrounds and over 8 languages, suddenly had a connection even if they did not celebrate the tradition. Something you do with people, in the same way, every time, at the same time. Whether it was spaghetti for lunch on Sundays with the family, the way they celebrate birthdays, or their own cultural experiences, the students came alive in their learning.

That’s the important part — they were engaged. They wanted to know more, and many had their own stories to tell when I started discussing that we would be learning about El Dia de Los Muertos (“The Day of the Dead”). The students wanted to tell me how they celebrated, what they put on the altars, the pictures of their loved ones that had passed, and what the tradition meant to them.

What I soon came to realize was that my own students were going to teach me a lot more about El Dia de Los Muertos than I could ever teach them. I made sure they knew this, because I wouldn’t be the expert here, nor should I be. To me, it was an important celebration that should be discussed to keep culture alive and engage students through their own upbringings. To them, it was tradition, a lifestyle, and multiple memories. As teachers, we always hope that students will be able to take charge of their own learning — for them to be the leaders, at some point. This was that moment.

During those two weeks, we read in Spanish and in English; we wrote about the importance of traditions; we listened and read passages aloud that focused on El Dia de Los Muertos; we learned inference skills while watching a silent video about the celebration of life; and we made our own Catrina skulls while reflecting on someone we loved in our lives that may no longer be apart of our lives.

Students brought in photos they would put on their own altars during the time of remembrance. It was a remarkable learning experience not only for the students, but also for myself. I’m proud of my students and the culturally competent classroom we’ve created.

To learn more about future El Dia de Los Muertos events at the Figge, keep an eye on both their calendar and the Visit Quad Cities website calendar next October.


About the author

Katy Williams Henderson A life-long Quad Cities resident, Katy is a Preschool through 4th Grade ESL Teacher at a local elementary school. She attended St. Ambrose University, graduating in May 2018 with a B.A. in Elementary Education with ESL and Reading concentrations and an English minor. She is working on a Master's in Early Childhood Education. She loves running, traveling, cooking, working with kids, spending time with her husband and her family and friends, education, and putting a pen to paper. Her writing credits include the Dispatch-Argus Newspaper, Radish Magazine, Midwest Writing Center and being a writing tutor at SAU and now for The Princeton Review's Tutor.com.

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