Over the years I have done this activity with various groups of students and I have learned some things along the way, so I've decided to gather my thoughts and share them with you. In my opinion, there are a few crucial things to do if you are going to be successful.
1. Get Permission: First things first - before you even start planning to put up an ofrenda in your classroom or in a public display somewhere in your school, talk to your administrator and make sure that it will be okay. Let them know the cultural significance of the project, what it will look like, where it will be, and how long it will be on display.
2. Be Religiously Neutral: This is important, especially in this day and age where some people seem to be looking for any little thing at which they might take offense. My strong suggestion to you is that you avoid the word altar at all cost and consistently refer to the display as an ofrenda. Altar has very strong religious connotations in English and Spanish, and the idea is to educate students on the history and culture - not to upset them or their parents about religion. Talk to your classes about the culture, the history, and some of the Native American beliefs that are related to Día de los Muertos, but make it clear that you are simply studying these ideas to understand them - not to practice them or believe them personally.
3. Avoid Real Food: Ofrendas are traditionally covered up with tasty goodies like sugar skulls, bread, mole, and fresh fruit. This works great in a home or a small venue where it can be carefully monitored, but in a school where people are constantly coming and going there might be the temptation to sample something. (I had one kid tell me he thought it was a buffet one year!) You also don't want to invite pests like ants, fruit flies, and cockroaches to the table.
- Fruit - There are some very convincing fake fruits out there at local craft stores. You might be able to find some at discount stores too.
- Bread - Fake bread is for sale online, believe it or not. Here is an Etsy Store where you can find it. And it is also for sale at Amazon. If you actually have time in your schedule for such things, you might be able to make it yourself. Here is a website that shows you how, though I've never tried this myself so I don't know anything about it. Lastly, you might want to talk to the teachers in the Arts Department - I found that theater teachers often have fake bread they use as props and art teachers often have fake bread they use to set up still life scenes for their students to draw and paint.
- Candy Skulls - This year I bought some plastic skulls at the dollar store and spray painted them white. I then gave some artistic students the task to look up pictures of sugar skulls and recreate the look with acrylic paint. It worked out very well. (That is a real loaf of pan de muertos in the picture - not a fake one. A student made it for extra credit and we ate it. It was only on display for pictures.)
4. No Fire: This is surely a no-brainer, but you clearly cannot light real candles or incense at your school ofrenda. To do so would be to invite disaster. I really hate fake candles that look fake, but there are some pretty nice ones available nowadays that flicker and look real. If you do have fake candles on your display, make sure to give a particular student the job of turning them on in the morning and turning them off in the afternoon. Otherwise they might get left on over the weekend and exhaust your batteries.
5. Silk Flowers Last Longer: Everyone loves fresh flowers but they are very expensive and short lived. Silk flowers will endure so that you can use them year after year and they will keep their color and their fresh look. If you want to put some fresh flowers up too, that is a great idea because they actually work well together.
6. Organize Donations Digitally: You cannot buy all the supplies yourself, unless you have lots of time and money. Make a list well ahead of time of anything you feel you might need for the ofrenda. I used to make sign-up sheets, of course. But in this marvelous technical age in which we live, there are digital sign-ups that take away all the guess work and make life easy. I use Sign Up Genius and I highly recommend it. It is free, it is easy, it automatically sends reminders to students and parents, and it doesn't take too long to do. You can quickly look and see who signed up for what and use it as a management tool. I love technology!
7. Table Cloth: Real table cloths are spendy and you don't want to ruin one, so for my ofrenda I used a $5 bed sheet from Wal-Mart. You could also get a plastic tablecloth for a dollar from your local dollar store.
8. Empty Boxes for Levels: Ofrendas look better when they have two or three levels. You can create the look by using empty cardboard boxes. I recommend going to the copy room - all the boxes there will be sturdy and of a uniform size.
9. Papel Picado: In my opinion, papel picado is a must for the ofrenda. It gives color, it looks festive, and it is very traditional. You can have your students make the papel picado themselves or you can buy some very inexpensively. I got mine for less than $6 at Teachers' Discovery.
10. Students Pick Honoree: Ofendas honor the spirits of the departed, so it makes sense to choose someone to honor. I usually nudge my students in the direction of a famous Hispanic person. We've done Frida Kahlo and Salvador Dalí in the past, but this year they wanted to honor Robin Williams and, since that was someone meaningful to them, it made the project much more personal. (If there was a recent death in your school community, students might want to honor that person. I recommend that you talk to your administration before you decide to do something like that. Emotions can run high and you don't want any misunderstandings or hurt feelings.)
11. Put Up a Sign: Explain what the ofrenda is all about - In English so everyone can read and understand. You don't want people thinking it's a shrine or a religious altar. You don't want people mixing it up with Halloween or any other manner of ridiculous interpretations you can't even imagine. Have the students make a poster to explain the holiday and it's significance, then display it right next to your ofrenda.
12. Rein In Your Perfectionism: If you have perfectionistic tendencies and can be a bit of a control freak, force yourself to let go and stand back while the students put the ofrenda together themselves. This project is about learning and having fun - not about how neat the flowers are, how the candles are spaced, or whether the papel picado is hanging straight. I don't know if other people struggle with these things or if it is just me. But I have to remind myself that this is a project for the students to do, not for me to get obsessive about. Let them put it up and praise them for it - don't micromanage.
And, of course, have fun. The holiday is about being joyful so be sure to do some of that too. I hope this advice has been of some use to you. May you have a feliz Día de los Muertos!
One last bit of advice, if you want to get a head start on next year's ofrenda, go to the craft store between Halloween and Thanksgiving and you can rack up on cheap decorations. They want to get stuff off the shelves and get ready for Christmas so you will find skulls and flowers at 50% even 75% or 80% off. ¡Viva la ganga!