With a grant from the district’s 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 the day and Spanish for the other half, presented a heritage demonstration on Mexico’s Day of the Dead on Oct. 31.

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 inspiration 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 says.

“Some of the books she brought back are gorgeous,” Bessick adds. “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 awed by the celebration materials. “You just can’t describe how our kids feel when they see these things,” Mendiola says. “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 coincides with Sauk Trail’s traditional Halloween parade open to parents and siblings. “We practiced singing Mexican songs, reading poems, making artwork and building an altar,” she said. “We also added Mexican bread and hot chocolate to the festivities.”

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

Both agreed that the Immersion project has been 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,” says Mandi Sersch-Morstad, Director of Bilingual Services. “They are growing in their confidence and making great progress.”

The District and parents embrace the program. “There is a plethora of research about the cognitive benefits of being bilingual, which leads to positive academic outcomes for students and open many future doors,” Sersch-Morstad adds. ”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.”

Reported by Tom Kobinsky