Lori Langer de Ramirez
Teachers College, Columbia University

Edited by Elsie Szecsy
Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES)
of Nassau County, NY

Maria is a Spanish teacher at AppleTree School in Queens, New York. Every year she presents a special lesson on November 2, El Día de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead). Because some faculty members were unfamiliar with the holiday and seemed uncomfortable with, what appeared on the surface to be a morbid celebration, Maria made the following presentation to the faculty of AppleTree so that the holiday might be better understood in its cultural context:

The Day of the Dead is a holiday in which people come together to grieve for recently departed souls. The grieving process in Mexico, however, is unlike that which we are accustomed to in the United States. The grieving is more of a celebration in which the life of a human being is celebrated and remembered. It is a consummately social holiday when entire towns leave their homes, amidst a flurry of baskets of hot food, drink and music, to spend the night in the cemetery. Mexicans celebrating the Day of the Dead, not only commune with the souls of their living community, but with the ones that had once been members and have since passed on.

It was this sort of communion, both with the living and with the dead, that Maria felt her students could learn and grow from. She decided to set up a mock cemetery at school. The first step in setting her plan into motion was to start with the lowest level of the school's hierarchy, a bureaucratic requirement called a "Planning Sheet". After synopsizing her planned event, she proceeded to send out notices to all teachers that would be involved with the event. Since the faculty is inundated with information in paper form on a daily basis at AppleTree, Maria didn't expect that her colleagues would read the notices. Furthermore, they had been sent in early October, which almost guaranteed that they would be ignored until the event was closer at hand. She had only spoken informally to several colleagues about her plans before she realized that she would need to clarify her intentions for the day. She once again sensed discomfort with the topic of death and was questioned as to the appropriateness of the topic for the school setting. At the next faculty meeting, she explained her plans for the celebration rationally and as objectively as possible, dissecting the day into each individual lesson and activity until it seemed clear that no questions remained in the minds of her colleagues as to her intentions for the event.

Students were asked to begin preparing ofrendas (offerings) in their homeroom classes. In yet another meeting, this time of the homeroom advisors who were to be leading their groups in this activity, Maria was questioned again as to the appropriateness of the celebration. She was told that the emotions and expressions of grief that could potentially be released by the remembering of the dead could be damaging to some students. One teacher said that she would not want to be near other people if she were grieving. This all seemed all too emotional to many teachers.

Despite the reservations of some advisors, the homerooms created their offerings. Some groups chose a famous person to remember (Kurt Cobain, Nicole Brown Simpson, Jim Henson for the fifth graders) One boy created an offering to his brother who had died at the age of four months. He created this tribute with the help of his entire homeroom, each member contributing some artifact (a flower, a teddy bear, a drawing). When the students entered the mock-cemetery on November 2, all of the offerings were placed next to chairs, intended to invite people to sit and talk about their feelings and memories. She started the sharing by telling a story about her own grandmother who had died earlier in the year. Then the students began to share their stories. Some cried, and this was later used to fuel the fire of criticism that the event was too emotional for a school setting. Some just sat silently next to their offerings, but almost every student was eager to tell stories about their grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends and heroes who had died, but remained quite alive in their memories.

But several teachers who witnessed the scene in the mock-cemetery were incensed. While the event was still in full-swing and Maria was occupied with the activities, two teachers went to the Middle School Head. They complained that the activities were inappropriate for the students. They claimed that they were teachers and not psychologists and as such, should not be put into the position of having to provide "therapy" for those students who felt sad as a result of the event. They wanted the event stopped right then and there. Furthermore, later in the day, several parents called the school expressing concern about the celebration.

1. As Middle School Head, what would you say to the two complaining teachers? to the parents?
2. As Middle School Head, would you stop the event? Why or why not?
3. As Middle School Head, what conversion (if any) would you have with Maria with regard to her event?

The teachers who objected to the Day of the Dead lesson from its onset were experiencing discomfort with emotions associated with death and dying. A Middle School meeting was called in which the faculty could discuss some faculty member's anxieties surrounding the event and possible changes for future years. Among the suggestions for alternative forms of celebration were ideas which mandated that the subject of the offerings be famous people only, thus avoiding too much emotional attachment to the person. For this proposal, even the "stars" that were acceptable were regulated in that only certain "types" could be remembered. Jim Henson, of "Sesame Street" fame or actor John Candy were acceptable, while lead singers of bands such as the Grateful Dead (Jerry Garcia) or of Nirvana (Kurt Cobain) were deemed "unworthy of remembrance" due to their association with drug use.

Maria feels that nowhere in the curriculum of any of the disciplines taught at AppleTree is grieving addressed, yet almost all of her students have been faced with death in one form or another by the time they reach her homeroom advisory in the seventh grade. For example, when Kurt Cobain, lead singer of the popular band Nirvana, committed suicide several years ago, her students were devastated. Little effort to deal with the resulting emotions of the students was made on the part of AppleTree teachers. At best, some teachers set aside the planned lesson for the day and discussed the issue of suicide and drug abuse, but never really touching on the subject of sorrow, pain, or grief.

In the meeting, the faculty discussed their issues with the celebration of the Day of the Dead. Maria took notes and reviewed them with the Head of the Middle School. She did not feel comfortable dropping the holiday from her curriculum, but seemed to feel that this was the wish of some of the faculty. This November 2nd had passed, but what about next year?

1. Are topics such as grieving and death appropriate for the Middle School?
2. What are some possible ways to incorporate such issues into the general curriculum?
3. To what extent should the Middle School Head regulate Maria's event?

The purpose of this draft case is to prompt reflection and dialogue about the role of diversity in educational administration. This case is for discussion purposes only. Please direct requests for permission to reproduce this draft to Dr. Josué González.

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