Honoring and Remembering: First Graders Celebrate the Day of the Dead

A glue stick in one hand, and a brightly-colored silk flower in the other, the dark-haired girl purses her lips in concentration and carefully applies glue to the flower bottom before placing it on the mask before her. The girl, a first grade student at Mount Madonna School, is working with her class on decorating skull masks as part of their Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) studies and celebration.

Leading up to this creative hands-on activity (coordinated by parent Barb Smith), the first graders and teacher Cassia Laffin discussed customs surrounding this Mexican tradition (celebrated on November 1 and 2), and hang brightly-colored banners known as Banderos de Muertos from the classroom ceiling.

In their classroom, students created an altar and adorned it with mementos of their loved ones who have passed. Small hands placed pictures of bunnies and dogs, and framed photos of grandmas and grandpas on the altar, alongside a harmonica to honor one student’s grandfather who used to play, children’s drawings, a book published by another student’s grandpa, and apples to remember a grandmother who enjoyed baking apple pies.

Students designed beautiful skull drawings using oil pastels on black construction paper. For a final touch, tempera paint was added for vibrant highlights.

“In our culture death can be a little taboo and I find Day of the Dead to be a really nice opportunity for students to share their personal experiences surrounding loss,” explains Laffin. “It seems to open up discussion between children and parents, as well as between classmates, and provides a safe place where students can share something of intimate importance with one another.”

Later, sitting together in a circle on their classroom carpet, students share stories – humorous and touching – of loved ones past.

One boy says how it is hard and that he feel’s sad because he used to go to grandma’s house every day for lunch.  

“Hard and sad,” agrees his classmate, “but it feels good to talk about it.”

A little more upbeat, another first grader speaks up: “It was fun listening to other peoples’ grandma and grandpa and pet stories.”

“Sharing these stories helps us to realize that grief and sadness are universal feelings,” Laffin notes. “We were able to listen and show compassion. It is important to teach children that their full range of emotions is healthy; and a huge part of our first grade curriculum is teaching students communication skills. Learning about Day of the Dead, teaches us that although death can be sad as we mourn the loss of those we love, it can also be a celebration that brings family together each year with the intent to honor the lives of family.”


Contact: Leigh Ann Clifton, Media & Public Relations,

Nestled among the redwoods on 355 mountaintop acres, Mount Madonna is a safe and nurturing college-preparatory school that supports students in becoming caring, self-aware and articulate critical thinkers, who are prepared to meet challenges with perseverance, creativity and integrity. The CAIS and WASC accredited program emphasizes academic excellence, creative self-expression and positive character development. Located on Summit Road between Gilroy and Watsonville.