Sauk Trail celebrates Day of the Dead

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With a grant from the MCPASD Education Foundation, two Sauk Trail teachers brought a colorful, Mexican culture lesson to the school to demonstrate how ancestors who have passed continue to be remembered and honored by their friends and families.
First-grade teachers Kristina Mendiola and Paige Bessick, instructors in the Two-Way Immersion program where students are taught in English for half a day and Spanish the other, presented a heritage demonstration on Oct. 31, Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebration.

The holiday focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember those who have died. Traditions connected with the holiday include building private altars, called ofrendas, which feature photos and favorite foods of the departed.

Mendiola used a portion of the $1,000 Education Foundation Inspiring Experiences teacher grant to purchase authentic Mexican decorations, clothing, and classroom books during a recent trip to Mexico.

“I brought back many things for the kids that you can’t get here or online, like traditional skull artwork, art pieces, instruments, and wooden whisks for making Mexican hot chocolate,” she said.

Added Bessick: “Some of the books she brought back are gorgeous. They’re not the typical translated books we see here, but real Spanish books, directly from the Mexican people. And our money goes so much further there.”

First-graders with a Mexican heritage were in awe with the celebration materials.

“You just can’t describe how our kids feel when they see these things,” Mendiola said. “Many kids have these artful things in their homes. They beam with pride as they show their classmates and talk about them and their families’ traditions with the other students. They become the teachers and the experts in the classroom. It’s an invaluable experience for them — and for us!”

Bessick says the Day of the Dead celebration coincided with Sauk Trail’s traditional Halloween parade open to parents and siblings. “We’re practicing singing Mexican songs, reading poems, making artwork and building an altar,” she said. “We’re also having Mexican bread and hot chocolate to add to the festivities.”

“The children excitedly talk about their ancestors who have died and we’re all hearing wonderful stories about grandparents, and even their pets, who are gone,” Mendiola added.  “It’s a happy day, celebrating peoples’ lives. It’s not scary like Halloween.”

Both agreed that the Two-Way Immersion project has become their best year ever working as educators.

“Beyond the curriculum, what we’re seeing is our Spanish kids taking leadership roles and co-teaching with us,” Bessick says. “They are so proud of their heritage and are excited to share it.”

Two-Way Immersion is a form of dual language education in which half of the students in each classroom come from Spanish-speaking homes and the other half come from English-speaking homes (or homes where another language is spoken). All students learn English and Spanish through academic content.

The program at Sauk Trail is a 50-50, two-teacher model. Students receive 50 percent of their academic instruction in Spanish and 50 percent of it in English. One teacher teaches in Spanish and the other in English. Students switch teachers partway through the day.

“The most rewarding aspect of Two-Way Immersion is seeing the children embrace their identities as bilingual individuals and expressing their excitement to learn a new language,” said Mandi Sersch-Morstad, Director of Bilingual Services. “They are growing in their confidence and making great progress.”

The District embraces the program, along with the families who have children in it, Sersch-Morstad said.

“There is a plethora of research about the cognitive benefits of being bilingual, which lead to positive academic outcomes for students and open many future doors,” Sersch-Morstad added. ”We also see the benefit of students (both those who are in the program and those who are not) experiencing an environment in which a language other than English is elevated and given value. This has an impact on how students view the world, and come to understand that there are multiple ways of communicating with one another that are all beautiful and valuable in their own way.”

-- By Tom Kobinsky