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A less than perfect journey to a more inclusive classroom: Día de los Muertos

A google search of “Día de los Muertos” picture books reveals a wide-ranging selection of texts to choose from. Being intentional about which to use as a window or mirror with ourstudents is an important aspect of our work as educators and a process worth sharing and evaluating.

It’s important to start by sharing clearly this post does NOT come from a place of authority or experience regarding Día de los Muertos or Latin American culture more broadly. Rather, it is an effort to be transparent about my journey toward stretching my own teaching to better acknowledge the diverse backgrounds and experiences of my students. The need to lean into exploring and understanding the unfamiliar with our students, particularly in majority-white communities like my own, is being recognized across the country for its importance in developing more globally-conscious citizens.

These are the steps I’ve been taking to create more space and opportunity to understand traditions and holidays across the globe in my classrooms. As you read I hope you’ll consider the following: How does this process mirror or contrast from your own? What elements of this process do you feel are strong and how does it fall short? What are your own aspirations when it comes to exploring global cultures and traditions? This is my process, specifically as it pertains to helping students make sense of the traditions surrounding Día de los Muertos this year.

#1: Understanding intention

While aspirational, it would be impossible to explore every holiday and still have time to meet the many other learning goals set out before our students. So I needed to ask myself, “Why Día de los Muertos?” and what would the focus of our investigation into Día de los Muertos be upon?

Massachusetts Kindergarten standards center on “Contrasting and comparing traditions and celebrations of people from diverse cultural backgrounds.” (T3.2) As a dual science-social studies specialist for my district I am aware that K students are investigate life cycles of living things, including death as a part of their science curriculum. Death is a sensitive topic for young students in its own right and one that educators understandably can approach with discomfort, never certain as to their students own experiences with death personally.

Cemetery Boys is a YA novel I read over the summer that increased my awareness of the significance and traditions associated with Día de los Muertos wrapped in a transgender romance-suspense thriller.

While reading the YA novel “Cemetery Boys” as a part of a summer reading challenge I came to more deeply appreciate how Día de los Muertos stands out in the way it honors and celebrates the life of the deceased. Friends and family come together in celebration, a spirit that contrasts sharply with more somber euro-centric periods of mourning. Celebrating with delicacies such as candies, tamales, and pan de muertos are the hallmarks of most celebrations involving large gatherings, a connection even our youngest learners would be sure to make.

#2: Listen to authentic voices

Finding the right book with the right amount of new vocabulary, text features, or eye-catching illustrations means nothing if the storyline and the culture it captures isn’t authentic. As an educator and father, I am deeply grateful for the contributors at – a resource that TBR readers have no doubt seen referenced on this blog and likely use themselves. When I first endeavored to investigate what titles might be available to enrich my student’s and my own understanding of Día de los Muertos I started here. 

Though not a book recommendation, the very first share on the top of their “Latinx and Latin American titles” was a must read blogpost from the Zinn Education Project titled, “Rethinking Cinco de Mayo” a cautionary tale laying out the traps and tropes anyone unwilling to learn about a culture and its traditions from its people might fall into.

A “Día de los Muertos” search across the greater website only brought forward one hit, Just a Minute: A Trickster Tale and Counting Book, featured in their podcast series “Freedom Reads” and also reviewed by their contributor Beverly Slapin. There is a lot to love about this book, but in my own review of the book I realized that the celebration taking place at Grandma Beetle’s house was for her birthday, and not Día de los Muertos specifically. I also took out some books for research and reference that I thought might support my understanding of the holiday and the art of Día de los Muertos

I used this book of photography by Stevie Mack and Kitty Williams to get a better grasp of the history and symbolism behind Día de los Muertos calaveras.

#3 Apply an anti-bias lens

I decided to dip into search and social media to see what it might have to offer, knowing full well that any recommendations would need to be evaluated carefully. Once again, and its marquee “Guide for Selecting Anti-Bias books” provides a solid foundation on which to work with. A number of books caught my attention, including a 2015 “Día de los Muertos” by Roseanne Greenfield Thong and illustrated by Carles Ballesteros.

While an accessible Kindergarten read-aloud, the monotone, light-skinned participants did not reflect the students in my district celebrating Día de los Muertos.

On first glance this book ticked several boxes, embedding more than 25 spanish words into a rhymed narration of the celebration from sunrise to sunrise. But the illustrations featured frustratingly light-skinned, monotone revelers that were not reflective of the students in our schools that celebrate!

#4 Be OK with less than perfect

Time constraints are an ever present pressure on educators. As the number of books I wanted to review grew and grew on my library hold list, the days ticked by and other priorities pulled me in different directions. I grew enamored with the Giant Kite Festival in Sumpango, Guatemala featured in Barrilete: A Kite for the Day of the Dead by Elisa Amado, Joya Hairs – an example of how holidays can be celebrated in a variety of ways and a nod to my district’s rapidly growing Guatemalan population.

A Kite for the Day of the Dead stands as a vibrant reminder that people around the world have unique traditions to their own communities that may be different from those in more visible communities and commonly shared in media.

Guatemalan staff in the district agreed that despite its location specific celebration, Guatemalans from all over the country would travel to Sumpango, sometimes with their own kites to fly. Whether or not Kindergarten students would be familiar with this tradition would of course need to be investigated on a student-by-student basis.

Ultimately, I elected to join Kindergarten classrooms with Just a Minute: A Trickster Tale and Counting Book, early next week using its illustrations of Señor Calavera as a connection to how Latin American art commonly represent passed ancestors while celebrating the beauty and necessity in death and the completion of a living being’s life cycle. The story will also introduce common foods celebrated with on Día de los Muertos, and offer opportunity for students in the classroom that celebrate to share their own family traditions and how they plan to celebrate locally.

Just a Minute: A Trickster Tale and Counting Book may not center on Día de los Muertos explicitly, but it introduces students to several foods and traditions associated with Día de los Muertos celebrations, introduces readers to the calavera as a deceased ancestor known and not feared, and counts in English and Spanish.

I look forward to revisiting these resources as I connect with families in our community through our district’s “EL Parent Advisory Council” and with other community members and educators that can speak more expertly regarding Día de los Muertos and other Latin American cultural events that may also be explored during our school year.

Sharing this process publicly is part of my own effort to lean into the discomfort of designing lessons and programs encompassing cultures I am less familiar with. Being public with this work invariably opens this work to criticism, but without such transparency our capacity to grow as educators in this work will be less than it can be. 

Turning back to the questions posed at the top of this blogpost: How does this process mirror or contrast from your own? What elements of this process do you feel are strong and how does it fall short? What are your own aspirations when it comes to exploring global cultures and traditions?

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