The 2017 release of the animated film, Coco, thrust the Day of the Dead—or Dia de los Muertos—even more into the zeitgeist of popular culture. While this holiday may be new to many Americans, it has always been a favorite in art rooms across the country.
Dia de los Muertos is traditionally celebrated Nov. 1–2, but I always begin the school year by teaching my seventh-grade students about this festival. By the time November rolls around, they have completed beautiful artifacts to display throughout our halls.
This year, I really wanted to up the ante and give students the opportunity to create a culminating assignment that was personal to them. Additionally, I had so many odds and ends taking up space in my storage closet. I wanted a lesson that would put all those bulky materials to use.
The solution dawned on me during a recent trip to the artisan town of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. I was inspired by all the beautiful crafts I found there, but my personal favorites were the “Nichos.” These miniature shadow boxes touched on every possible theme, from religion to popular culture. While browsing a gift shop you might see a Nicho depicting Jesus right next to another one of a mariachi band or even Lucha Libre wrestlers. As I headed home to Chicago, I lugged an extremely heavy carry-on, packed with no less than a dozen of these treasures.
Nichos were perfect for our Dia de los Muertos unit. For this assignment, students had to decide to whom their Nicho would pay homage. Some chose a serious theme, and honored family or pets who had passed away. Others took a more playful approach and created Nichos inspired by pop culture.
After examining the Nichos I brought back from Mexico, and researching ideas online, students designed their Nichos in their sketchbooks. I provided students a list of all available materials so they knew exactly what details could be included in their sketch.
Sketching was an essential part of this open-ended assignment. Some students were not quite sure how to go about designing their piece. By beginning with a detailed sketch, students knew the direction they were heading. If we had started with just materials, students would have simply been lost.
The next step was to build the base of the shadow boxes. Students received a piece of cardboard and a template to create an 8″ x 5″ open-faced box. Because the sides of the box would be covered by the frame, students simply used masking tape to hold it together.
After the box was assembled, it was time to design a frame. I had created several templates, but many students chose to design their own. They received a second sheet of cardboard and were instructed to trace their box on this piece. They then designed a frame several inches wider than the perimeter of the box.
After a safety demonstration of the proper use of serrated Canary knives, students used them to carefully cut out the frame and then headed to a supervised hot-glue station to attach the frame to the front of their shadowboxes.
My favorite element in my Mexican Nichos is the glittered background. Although most art teachers dread the mess that glitter leaves behind, I knew that it was an essential ingredient. I set up a station in the back of my room with several aluminum pans filled with different colors of glitter. Alongside this, I placed bowls of glue and paintbrushes. Students came to the back in small groups and brushed the inside of their shadowboxes with glue. Next, they selected one color of glitter and filled their Nicho with it over the pans, dumping any extra back into the pan. Because the system was organized, it was relatively mess free.
It was time to craft the elements that would go inside our Nichos. For this, students used Crayola Model Magic. Some also chose to add some metallic elements using tooling foil. We spent two 75-minute lessons creating all these decorations. Between classes, students stored all their clay pieces in their Nichos, which were then stacked up after class. Once all clay elements were sculpted, it was time to paint. Students used tempera to paint their clay elements as well as the frame of their Nichos.
The final step was to assemble and decorate the Nicho. Students affixed all clay and foil elements with tacky glue, and they chose from a wide variety of ribbon, sequins and beads for embellishments.
Because there were so many materials, I had to come up with a way to stay organized. Once again, I set up my aluminum pans on a table in the back of the room. Each pan had a different embellishment item—about 10 in all.
In small groups, I invited students to come to the back of the room and go “shopping.” Students selected materials from up to five pans, and I was there to supervise and ensure that students took only as much as they needed. This was likely the students’ favorite part of the lesson. They went to town on their designs and created the ornate appearance that Mexican Nichos are known for.
This lesson was completed with my largest class—35 students. Because my art room is so cramped, it can be hard to maneuver around the tables, so it was important to have a good system for managing all the supplies. That said, the lesson could not have been more successful. Every single student completed an inspired Nicho.
All of my students were engaged and motivated, including my diverse learners. I have no doubt that I will continue to do this yearly, as it has become a student favorite.
Middle school students will …
• learn about Dia de los Muertos.
• experiment with mixed media.
• design an original shadowbox inspired by Mexican Nichos.
NATIONAL ART STANDARDS
• CREATING: Generalize and conceptualize artistic ideas and work.
• Organize and develop artistic ideas and work.
• RESPONDING: Apply criteria to evaluate artistic work.
• CONNECTING: Relate artistic ideas and works with societal, cultural and historical context, to deepen understanding.
• Is Dia de los Muertos a religious or cultural holiday?
• What role does art play in Dia de los Muertos?
• How is the depiction of death in Mexico different than in the United States?
• Scissors (or Canary knives)
• Tape, hot glue, tacky glue
• Air-dry clay (we used Model Magic)
• Tempera Paint
• Glitter, foil, assorted embellishment materials (yarn, feathers, beads, buttons, ribbon sequins, etc.)
Jeremie Lappe is a K–8 visual art teacher at Bernhard Moos Elementary School in Chicago, Illinois.
Want More Classroom Projects From This Issue?