PUERTO RICO: Students were so fascinated by the tiny size and loud voice of the Coquí frog (native to Puerto Rico), that they wanted to create a whole unit out of it. Diving into history, they learned that a long time ago, the Taíno people carved petroglyphs into rocks and caves, including a special symbol for the Coquí frog. To apply what they had learned, some students gathered natural materials outside and then drew the coquí symbol on the leaves and bark; others created a diorama with real dirt, sticks, and leaves (but fake frogs!); and others opted for the tree frog coloring page. Many were enchanted by The Legend of the Golden Coquí, and listened to the story repeatedly. THIS is also a fun story/description for kids about the idea that it “rains coquís“.
“In El Yunque National Rainforest, people claim that it rains coquís. This is somewhat true, but not technically accurate. The frogs are actually jumping out of the tree for reasons of survival. At certain times of the year, when the humidity is high, coquís climb up the tall trees of the forest.
As with many journeys, there are perils, and for the coquí the main danger is the tarantulas who lie in wait to eat them. They are smart little creatures, so to avoid the spiders, they jump from the trees instead of climbing back down, because they are so light that they just float to the ground. So if you are under a tree when they decide to descend, you could get caught in a coquí shower.” (Source)
PUERTO RICO: Bioluminescence is a natural phenomenon where “living organisms emit light”, oftentimes when disturbed. You have probably seen this on land–fireflies lighting up the night–but it can also occur in the water. Mosquito Bay in Vieques Puerto Rico is the brightest glowing bioluminescent bay in the world.
If you scribble on your hands with yellow florescent markers and put them under a blacklight, it produces a similar effect. Note: This made my hands itchy, so be sure to wash up immediately afterwards. There are also Bioluminescent Kayaking Tours available in some parts of the country to see it IRL.
GUATEMALA: Thousands of Catholics in Antigua, Guatemala join together during Lent each year to make colored sawdust carpets in preparation for Semana Santa, or Holy Week. In 2014, they broke the Guinness Book of World Records and made the longest sawdust carpet ever, at an astounding 6,600 feet.
In class, the art teacher drew stencils in pencil on colored bulletin board paper, and then students filled in the designs with colored sand. For more images of the real thing, see HERE. Student work from home (Continued Learning) is below.
COSTA RICA: Costa Rica is known for its biodiversity–flora and fauna abound. 18% of the world’s butterflies, for example, are found there. Multiple Lower School classes helped to create their own rainforest in my classroom closet last week, printing out photos of realistic wildlife, hanging green streamer vines, artificial flowers, and relevant stuffed animals (no giraffes!) in unexpected places, and planting cucumber and petunia seeds in flower pots (currently in the greenhouse); hopefully, there will be REAL plants in the rainforest in a few weeks. I added Christmas lights and a howler monkey soundtrack to enhance the general ambiance and magic of it all. Did you know that howler monkeys are among the loudest animals on Earth?
As a final touch, several fifth graders mixed blue food coloring and water in a bowl to replicate the famous Río Celeste (Blue River), a definite must-see if you travel there! Note that nearly all Lower School classes have been exploring and sightseeing in the rainforest this week. Some even bring their iPads to take Insta-worthy nature pics. If you would like to extend this project at home, HERE is one idea.
MEXICO: The Yucatan in Mexico is known for its hammock culture. Here, 2/3 of children sleep in hammocks instead of beds, and there are even hammocks in hospitals! For this challenge, string up your own DIY hammock with a sheet and twine/rope. Attach it to your bedpost, a chair, or even a tree outside. Be sure to ask your parents first so that you choose a safe place.
The Giant Crystal Cave is a cave connected to the Naica Mine in Mexico with massive crystals. The average person can only stay inside for ten minutes because there is 99% humidity, whoa!
For this challenge, grow your own crystals at home with Epsom salts, food coloring, and a bowl. Turn off the air conditioning if you want to enhance the cave simulation, haha! Skip to 5:23 in the video below to learn more.
MEXICO: Making natural chewing gum is a fascinating, time-consuming, and dangerous job that dates back to the Mayas in the Yucatan. Chicleros climb high up to slash zig-zag patterns in the sapodilla trees with a machete, let the sap drain out, and then boil it until it turns into a thick paste, stirring all the while. They must be careful to avoid jaguars in the forest and falling machetes. Watch the videos below to learn more about this process.
NICARAGUA: Do you know what snowboarding is? Well, volcano boarding is just like that… except that you slide down the side of a volcano. Really! This is an extreme sport that began in Nicaragua fairly recently (2005). It is considered extreme due to the 40% gradient of the volcano–you are going straight down–but also because of the poisonous gases and the fact that the ash can cut your skin (you usually wear an orange suit to protect yourself).
Check out the video to see what it is like–and let me know if you find any VR apps to simulate the experience. This video at 0:25 is also awesome, but the background music is a little weird (FYI). Note that Cerro Negro is the only active volcano in the world where you can do this. Eeek!
The Kuna Indians of the San Blas Islands off of Panama are famous for a specific type of art, called mola. Mola means ‘blouse’ (or clothing) in the Kuna language. While women used to paint geometric designs on their bodies, nowadays the patterns come from nature—or, plants and animals—and are created with layers of fabric.
Students opted to trace the mola patterns instead. This in itself took time, and gave them a glimpse into the detail-oriented, intricate work involved in the process. In a word, paciencia.
“Defy gravity in Barahona! In the southwestern part of the Dominican Republic, there is a town called Polo. There you can go challenge gravity at the Magnetic Pole (El Polo Magnético). If you stop your car in neutral gear downhill, your car will roll up! As cool as it sounds, this is what’s called a gravity hill. This is caused by an optical illusion that has to do with the shape of the road and the landscape. Still, pretty cool to experience in person!” (Source)
Students made tostones or patacones (plantain chips) to taste in class, which are a very popular snack in Spanish-speaking countries. If you would like to make this delicious snack at home, HERE is a recipe. Another way to prepare them is for breakfast, as mangú (eaten especially in the Dominican Republic)–recipe HERE. See below for the etymological origin of this word and a fun story.
“The origin of mangú started back in 1916 when the Americans invaded the Dominican Republic; afterwards, the soldiers would go into town. Then one day, one of the soldiers wanted to taste some of the mashed plantains he saw the locals eat. When he tasted it, he said ‘Man, this is good’ and pointing at it, he said in short ‘man good!’. The locals thought that the name of the mashed plantains in English was mangú.” (Source)
CUBA/SPAIN: It is the year 1715–King Felipe V wants his treasure, and he wants it now. As a result, he demands that his Spanish fleet (of 12 ships) makes its way back from Cuba to Spain, even though it is hurricane season in the Caribbean. The 1715 fleet gets caught in a terrible storm and sinks, with 1500 sailors aboard–and the treasure is lost. Modern treasure hunters have discovered some of this lost treasure–one family made $4.5 million dollars in 2017!–but much still remains somewhere on the ocean floor. Students acted out this story as a class, and then made artifacts for a faux museum display. After painting the Spanish crest and flag on them, students broke a few of the plates intentionally to make it seem more realistic!
For treasure artifacts, try this repoussévideo for coins; painting actual plates and dishware with the Spanish crest; stringing together gold and silver beads for necklaces; painting those cardboard stuffers you find inside boxes a silvery-gold-rose quartz hue; and finally, drawing old navigation maps on paper soaked in coffee (to give it an ‘old’ look). These can be as artistic as is possible for the age group you teach. Good luck!
In 1715, a fleet of Spanish ships sank off the coast of Florida, en route to Spain and loaded with treasure from the New World.
MEXICO: In 2005, someone noticed that tourists, anchors, snorkelers, and divers were damaging the coral reefs in Mexico–in particular, the Manchones Reef. By 2013, an underwater museum (MUSA/Museo Subacuático de Arte) had been created around the reef, in order to help protect it. Currently, there are about 500 sculptures that have been placed in the ocean. In class, students took an old fish tank and made their own waterproof sculptures to place underwater. This was fantastic, until the tank started leaking! Beyond the physical representation, it would be easy to extend this project into a discussion about how observant and considerate we are of others and the world in which we live, particularly because the exhibit:
“shows how humans can live with nature and make a workable future between the two, but also how humans have damaged nature, specifically the coral reefs, and show no sympathy. The statues in The Silent Evolution show how some humans see their surrounding and embrace [it] while others hide their faces. Each statue was made to resemble members of a local fishing community where Taylor lives. Each statue has its own personality and features. Taylor made sure every detail from the hair to the clothes of the statues was perfect. They include a little girl with a faint smile on her face looking up to the surface; six businessmen with their heads in the sand, not paying attention to their surroundings; and even a man behind a desk with his dog lying him, but looking tired and uninvolved in the environment.“
MEXICO: This pyramid is called “El Castillo” in Chichen Itza (2:19-2:36). It was built hundreds of years ago by the Maya civilization, but the amazing part here is that twice a year, exactly on the Spring and Fall equinoxes, a shadow appears that aligns perfectly with a serpent’s head. How did the Maya figure this out?
For project ideas, one year Lower School students created almost 400 miniature cubes to literally build “El Castillo”. This year, third graders are using LED lights to create a shadow of the serpent’s tail inside a diorama. Aside: The video below is subtitled in Chinese, but narrated in English.
MEXICO: Alebrijes are mythical-type creatures and spirit animals. You may remember the alebrije Dante if you have seen the movie Coco. The origin of this art had an interesting beginning (read below). Fifth graders created their own alebrije out of papier-mâché.
“In 1936, when he was 30 years old, [Pedro] Linares fell ill with a high fever, which caused him to hallucinate. In his fever dreams, he was in a forest with rocks and clouds, many of which turned into wild, unnaturally colored creatures, frequently featuring wings, horns, tails, fierce teeth and bulging eyes. He heard a crowd of voices repeating the nonsense word “alebrije.” After he recovered, he began to re-create the creatures he’d seen, using papier-mâché and cardboard” (Source).
GUATEMALA: These tiny Worry Dolls are from Guatemala. Children make them and put them under their pillows at night to take away their worries (e.g., monsters, nightmares). Students were fascinated by these. They took a day to glue small pieces of fabric to mini Popsicle sticks, added a face, and soon afterwards, had their very own Worry Dolls. This Silly Billy video story below is a great introduction. Aside: Adults make Worry Dolls, too!
MEXICO:El Día de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead) is a day to honor family members who have passed away. This tradition dates back to the Aztecs. People believe that spirits come back to visit us from Oct. 31-Nov. 2nd. The skeletons you see are very happy to be reunited with their loved ones. People make ofrendas, or altars, in their homes to remember and honor their dearly departed. The movie Cocois a great introduction to this Mexican holiday, as well as the cortometraje/short film below. Keep scrolling to see an infographic contrasting Halloween and the Day of the Dead–they are not the same!