University School of Milwaukee- Ofrenda Project

The Ofrenda Project: Connecting to Mexican Culture Locally and Globally:

by Will Piper, 5th grade "World Cultural Geography" teacher, University School of Milwaukee

This fall, the fifth grade students at University School of Milwaukee, in Wisconsin participated in an integrated study of Mexican cultural and traditions engaging in what we called, “The Ofrenda Project.” This was a joint collaboration between students and teachers in art, music, World Cultural Geography, and Spanish classes. The seeds for this powerful project-based learning experience were sewn over the last two years.

After visiting the Latino Arts, Inc. Gallery, and creating an exhibit for the gallery last year, students and teachers were quite touched by the exhibits displayed, and the curator of the gallery, Zulay Febes-Cordero, extended an invitation to our school and fifth graders to be presenting artists at the gallery once more for their 2015 exhibit. Being invited to present at a gallery is a very special and unique experience, and this particular exhibition was a very distinguished honor as students would be displaying their art alongside the art of other local and regional artists in a display which averages over 5,000 or more viewers each year.

Along with my esteemed colleagues at University School, Miriam Altman (Middle School chorus teacher), Sarah Markwald (Middle School art teacher), Shannon Peters (Middle School Spanish teacher) and Todd Schlenker (Middle School Spanish teacher) we met in the summer and brainstormed ideas for the art installation. Under the creative direction of Sarah Markwald, the concept was created to make a memorial garden of ofrendas, with each student crafting his or her own "memory stick" to help memorialize a person they admired. Making our ofrenda display a cross of something traditional and modern, students recorded an artist's statement about why they honored the person that they did, and attached that to their memory stick via a QR code.

My colleagues and I introduced the project to the students as a whole group in early September, as the art portion of the project had an early deadline so that we could make sure it was displayed in the gallery. Students created their "memory sticks" in art class, and topped them off with a clay piece symbolizing something dear to the person they chose to memorialize. In Spanish and music, students learned songs about the Day of the Dead including, “The Skelleton Song.” Students created their original musical compositions, entitled "musical ofrendas" as well. Students also learned about the symbolism of marigolds and made paper marigolds in their Spanish classes to attach to the display.

Moreover, students had the chance to learn about some of the history and traditions of "el Día de los Muertos", not from a text book or website, but rather from like-minded peers from the Northridge School Mexico in Mexico City. Via a Skype call, students in Mexico City taught students in Milwaukee about a lot of the symbolism of Day of the Dead, including pan de muerto, incense, face painting, the inclusion of water in the ofrendas and more. The Milwaukee students were in awe of the Mexican students' detail in their ofrendas. The students were able to identify and discuss symbols of the holiday together including marigolds, calaveras, skeletons and even "La Catrina". The Mexican students in Pedro Aparicio’s class did a fantastic job explaining and showing “El Día de los Muertos,” to their fifth grade friends.

Sra. Peters, Sr. Schlenker, Ms. Altman, Mr. Piper, Mrs. Markwald aka "Team Ofrenda"

All 74 student "memory sticks" are set out awaiting installation.

Mrs. Markwald and three of her amazing young artists at the opening of the Ofrenda Exhibit at the Latino Arts, Inc. Gallery

Families share the memory sticks and check out the QR code videos.

The opening of the gallery was a great chance for friends to gather and share their art work with one another.

Students proudly share their art with parents.

Our Head of Middle School at University School, Mrs. Nosbusch, hears all about one of the memory sticks from one of our students.

Mariachi Jouvenil, the Latino Arts, Inc. string group were fabulous. This group features high school students from the Bruce Guadalupe School in Milwaukee, which is located right next to the Latino Arts, Inc. gallery.

The passionate fiddling of the Villa Lobos Brothers thrilled the sold-out crowd as the concert ended a fantastic evening of Latino arts, culture and fun!