Continuing with this month’s theme of teaching about Día de los Muertos, in today’s En la Clase I’m going to share one of my favorite poetry writing activities from our Día de los Muertos teaching guide: Calaveras and Conjuring with Words. If you’re planning on having your students make a classroom ofrenda or individual mini-shrines this is the perfect activity to pair with that. This activity was produced by the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, and they very kindly let us reprint it in our guide. They have excellent K-6 and Middle/High School lesson plans available for free on their website. It’s definitely a site that I recommend you spend some time with.
As the background to this lesson writes, “The altar or ofrenda tradition of Día de los Muertos builds a bridge for the dead to travel between this world and the next. Family and friends place food, drink, objects, photographs and personal items of the deceased on the altar to entice them to return. The powerful smell of marigolds makes a kind of aromatic trail leading the departed back. This tradition is meant to be welcoming and fun, not frightening. It is done with love, respect and sometimes humor. What the altar does with physical items, we can do with words.”
That last sentence is the key to this writing exercise and what makes it such a special activity. Through the descriptions and memories shared in the poem, students will ‘conjure’ their departed back to life. It’s a powerful writing project, as teachers who’ve used it can attest to. I think this is in part due to the personal nature of the writing. In past posts we’ve talked about how important it is to build bridges between students’ home lives and school lives. Often times the two are quite separate, and students feel like so much of what makes them who they are isn’t recognized as relevant or important knowledge in the classroom. This activity is one way to create those bridges by welcoming their experiences outside the classroom into the curriculum. If students aren’t comfortable writing to someone they’ve lost, they can choose a writer, artist, musician, actor, etc that they admire.
After introducing the activity to the students and discussing the significance of the word conjure and why it’s used here, follow the writing instructions below.
- Select the person who has died to whom you want to address your poem
- Write down a smell or scent you associate with this person
- Name a food or drink or taste of something they loved to eat or drink
- Write down a sound you associate with them. This can be music or the
sound of them hammering or sweeping or chopping in
the kitchen, a car horn, a whistle, a laugh, a cough, anything
- Remember a favorite article of clothing, a sweater, a pair of shoes they always wore/ Write those down.
- Was there a favorite saying they had? Something you associate with them, a nick name, a way of teasing? How would they greet you?
- What would you say to them if they came back? What might they say to you?
- What activity might you do together? Who else, if anyone, would join you?
- You might think of this as an informal letter to this person. Address them by name for eg. Tio Manuel. Or a nickname or term of endearment like Grammy
- Some possible starts are “When you come back….” or a direct appeal, “Come back…”
- The memories and details from their lives are what you are offering as the lure to bring them back. Let them know what will happen if they return.
For you, Grammy, I put your false teeth in a glass of water
next to the jewelry box with the dancing ballerina on top,
and inside, those green glass earrings that I bought you at Uncle Tony’s church rummage
and which you wore on Christmas.
Underneath, I put our aprons, the matching ones with red rick rack trimmed pockets,
and all my Barbie doll dresses you sewed from Dad’s ties.
I sprinkled a little of that pink face powder you used
and added some vanilla and molasses.
I set out African violets, and dahlias big as lions’ heads, and Christmas wreaths made of
coat hangars and Kleenex.
For dinner we’ll have beef stew with celery and just a little flour to thicken the sauce.
Can you see them, Grammy?
The candles look pretty behind the orange carrot Jell-O molds.
And if you come,
I promise I’ll sit up straight,
just like you always told me to.
Angel, when you come back
I bet you’ll come back on your black cruiser
with a lit sweet swisher cigar in your mouth
you’ll be wearing a black buttoned up shirt with a
But only buttoned up half way
and baggy jeans
and your I pod will be playing Tupac loud enough so
everyone can hear-
When you come back, Angel
me you and Hans will skate together out at UCSB
and maybe the skate park.
We’ll just ride around
you’ll say “Whas up den?”
and I’ll tell you
we are good friends
like I meant to do
I guess I did
when you were here.
Students can make mini-ofrendas, altars or shrines for the person in their poem using a variety of materials such as shoe boxes, Altoid mint tins, cigar boxes, note card boxes, etc. Students decorate their ofrenda using various art materials, photographs or other objects that represent the deceased. Then, you can create a class display of the ofrendas and poetry.
We’d love to hear your thoughts or any ideas you have for teaching poetry writing activities like this! Everyone who comments by October ….. is entered in our giveaway for a copy of The Tequila Worm!