By Ernest McClees
I am the Spanish instructor at the Model Laboratory School in Richmond and I am the founder and sponsor of the Cordoba chapter of the Spanish National Honors Society at the school.
The Cordoba chapter at Model is active in local, state, national and international communities. Each year, I am amazed at the work the students put in above and beyond what is expected of them during the normal day at school.
One of my students’ favorite fall activities is the society’s annual participation in Day of the Dead festivities. As the fastest-growing holiday in the United States becomes more accepted in Kentucky, populations are realizing that this is an opportunity to reflect on their lineages and family history. Part of the Day of the Dead celebration is creating an altar that pays homage to those who came before them in a happy, positive context, which is slowly replacing the more traditional somber-only approach and mindset. This is taking place while allowing all to participate in the change happening in the intercultural dynamics of our state.
Every year, students of the Model Laboratory School have had the fortune of participating in the Lexington Living Arts and Science Center’s Day of the Dead celebration. They create an altar to add to the other altar displays at the Old Episcopal Cemetery and add to the social evolution our local community.
Students collaborate to conceptualize, create and construct a new theme every year. Their work is always different and grows in size, content, and visual stimulation. This has been key for gaining a firsthand insight into the process and meaning behind the tradition while connecting to communities beyond the classroom.
The creation and sharing of a product like an altar brings immediate word and context association with the target language that would not be possible any other way. Their impressive work always has received positive attention, including from the first teacher in residence at the Native American Indian Museum of the Smithsonian – Chris Robinson.
About three weeks before the Dia de los Muertos celebration this year on Nov. 1-2, Robinson emailed me and asked if we would be willing to be the first high school to create an ofrenda – or Day of the Dead altar – for the Smithsonian, which would be featured at the museum’s celebration. We eagerly accepted the task.
Speaking only in Spanish, the students and I began brainstorming ideas for the display. It was interesting to watch the older students help the newer members work through their use of Spanish and add to their vocabulary. The organic discussion and the topics that came to life was something that could not have occurred during a lecture or, perhaps, even a structured lesson.
We decided on bridging a contemporary altar with a pre-Columbus, Mesoamerican theme. This theme would pay tribute the holiday’s origins while still being a recognizable structure.
Each day, in addition to their regular school and extracurricular demands, students searched for, in Spanish, images, artifacts and historical events. The students were able to understand and express their findings outside of their normal cultural reach.
The use of another language allowed them to understand much of what they researched in its proper cultural context. It also allowed students to compare and contrast historical events to contemporary events; this added another dimension and depth beyond only the comparison of two cultures.
The entire process of dealing with a world language, historical events and artifacts, mathematics, and art was amazing to witness. The students’ dedication and perseverance allowed for this first-ever high school display to be at a professional level of anything curated by the museum.
This project helped put our students on a national stage, students that one might assume were not capable, since they come from a small town in a largely rural area. However, the results were breathtaking and the world language usage was alive.
Ernest McClees is the Spanish instructor at the Model Laboratory School in Richmond. He has taught at the school for five years.
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