4th Grade – Día de los Muertos “Sugar” Skulls!

4th Grade – Día de los Muertos “Sugar” Skulls!

Description of the Unit – Students will celebrate Día de los Muertos by sculpting and designing their own “sugar” skulls (with clay) and setting them onto a colorful patterned background.

Mexican Day of the Dead sugar skulls
Sugar skulls, or “calaveritas” for Día de los Muertos

Activity statement – Día de los Muertos, (Day of the Dead) celebrated on November 2nd, is originally a Mesoamerican holiday observed in Mexico and Central America to honor those who have passed. Some who celebrate the holiday believe that the veil between the spirit world and the human world is lifted, and spirits can visit their earth-bound family members. Interestingly, this belief is all the more striking when you consider that it is a belief held by other cultures around the world: of a spirit world crossing into our own happening at about the same time of year as Día de los Muertos.

As part of the ritual in honor of the dead, people create ofrendas or offerings, placed either on the tombs of the dead or as altars in the home. Offerings might include flowers (most often marigolds), the deceased relatives’ favorite food and drink, photos, special trinkets, papel picado and sugar skulls. Sugar skulls are sometimes eaten, but their main function is to adorn the altars and tombs with a sweet treat for visiting spirits.

An example of an 'ofrenda' or altar of offerings for our deceased loved ones, with bread, fruit and candles
An example of a traditional ‘ofrenda’ or altar of offerings for our deceased loved ones
Another example of an altar, this one with calaveritas, or sugar skulls
Another example of an altar, this one with calaveritas, or sugar skulls
This is the altar my family and I put together in our home this year for Día de los Muertos, in honor of our deceased family members
This is the altar my family and I put together in our home this year (2020) for Día de los Muertos, in honor of our deceased family members.

It was not always a sugar skull that was part of the offering. Sugar skulls were once actual skulls, used by Mesoamericans in their own offerings to honor what they felt was the next stage of life: death. Pre-dating this, skulls were used in altars to honor the gods of the afterworld. The Spanish Colonizers took offense to what was deemed an anti-Catholic practice, forbidding it. So, rather than eliminate the practice altogether, Mesoamericans substituted it with sugar skulls, appropriating the delicacy of molded sugar treats from a practice brought to the Americas by Spanish nuns. How’s that for irony?

A sugar skull being freed from the mold
A sugar skull being freed from the mold
Artisans decorating the sugar skulls with icing
Artisans decorating the sugar skulls with icing
Some elaborately decorated, colorful little sugar skulls
Some elaborately decorated, colorful little sugar skulls

Students crafted their own skulls out of model magic. They were shown techniques for shaping the skull. Students then used sharpies to design the skull’s features, inspiring their designs from the icing designs on actual sugar skulls. To give the work a boost of color so prevalent in the celebrations for Día de los Muertos, students designed a patterned background to set the skull on, embellishing with glitter, because—why not?

Art teacher Anita Sagastegui modeling techniques to shape and pinch clay
Students learning basic pinching and shaping techniques
Art teacher Anita Sagastegui modeling techniques to shape and pinch clay
Art teacher Anita Sagastegui modeling techniques to shape and pinch clayArt teacher Anita Sagastegui modeling techniques to shape and pinch clayArt teacher Anita Sagastegui modeling techniques to shape and pinch clayModeling how to shape “horns” on the skull

Goals – Students should…

Understand:

  • The meaning of Día de los Muertos  and the customs practiced during this holiday

Know:

  • Where Día de los Muertos originates from
  • What a sugar skull is and why it is used

Be able to:

  • Use shaping techniques to shape a skull out of model magic
  • Draw whimsical features and designs onto the skull
  • Design a colorful background for the skull

Resources and materials –

  • White clay or Model Magic
  • Black Sharpies
  • Tablecloths or mats
  • 5 x 5 White Bristol Board
  • Rulers
  • Markers
  • Colored pencils
  • Glue
  • Glitter

Questions –

  • Does your family do anything special to remember loved ones that have passed? Describe.
  • If you could do something creative and personal to honor and remember a loved one that has died, what would you do and why?
  • Where does Día de los Muertos come from?
  • What sorts of things do people do when observing Día de los Muertos?
  • What do you think of the customs practiced during Día de los Muertos?
  • Are there other holidays that you know of that remind you of Día de los Muertos?

Evaluation – Did students:

  • Understand why and how Día de los Muertos is celebrated?
  • Effectively shape the clay to create the look of a skull?
  • Use their creativity to draw original features and designs onto the skull?
  • Use pattern and color to create a bold background?

Informal:

  • Student questions
  • Group discussions
  • Oral responses to essential questions
  • Elaboration and risk-taking
Competed 4th grade "sugar" skulls - now they are ready to add the colorful background
Competed 4th grade “sugar” skulls – now they are ready to add the colorful background
An example of a 4th grade student's clay skull, designed to imitate a Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) sugar skull, with a colorful and glittery patterned background
Calaverita, Día de los Muertos – 4th grade “sugar” skull
An example of a 4th grade student's clay skull, designed to imitate a Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) sugar skull, with a colorful and glittery patterned background
Calaverita, Día de los Muertos – 4th grade “sugar” skull
An example of a 4th grade student's clay skull, designed to imitate a Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) sugar skull, with a colorful and glittery patterned background
Calaverita, Día de los Muertos – 4th grade “sugar” skull
An example of a 4th grade student's clay skull, designed to imitate a Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) sugar skull, with a colorful and glittery patterned background
Calaverita, Día de los Muertos – 4th grade “sugar” skull
An example of a 4th grade student's clay skull, designed to imitate a Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) sugar skull, with a colorful and glittery patterned background
Calaverita, Día de los Muertos – 4th grade “sugar” skull

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