El Mercado: Día de Muertos In Living Color

Alia handled the tiny white skull delicately. “They are skulls for Day of the Dead,” she said. “You would make your own skull and you would give it to a friend or a family.”

The skulls, molded from sugar and glue, “are kind of like a Valentine,” Alia said. “They have something to remember their family. They would put it out for them.”

The Mexican tradition often involves a culinary version (sugar minus the glue). “There are ones that you can eat, but these kind stay longer,” Alia said. She painted her skull with colorful flowers.

Avery said the skulls are usually decorated in bright colors instead of dark and scary colors. Hers was festooned in feathers. “I chose feathers because I really like feathers and I’m making hair out them and glitter to make them shiny,” she said.

Millie’s skull featured long orange and yellow yarn hair plus a bit of bling. “I just tried to make it sparkly, so there is lots of glitter,” she said.

The name “Hagen” was written on the forehead of her sugar skull. “I made it for my teacher,” Millie said.

Theo said that instead of being scary, like Halloween, Dia de Muertos is a time to honor those who have died. “The skulls can be brought to a family of someone who died,” he said. “They put up pictures of them and their favorite food. They put the skulls around for decoration.”

Landon added: “They do things to turn the day into fun,” instead of being sad.

Landon was excited to share another craft with us. His rainbow painted hedgehog (or spikey porcupine) is an example of Oaxacan folk art wood carvings.

“It’s an alebrijes,” Landon said. “It’s a spiritual animal. If you die, he always saves your life.”

Landon said the carvings have the power to gain a special ability. “I don’t know what it is yet, but I hope they turn into propellers.” He pointed to the brightly colored spiky toothpicks sticking out of the back of his hedgehog.

To further the students’ Spanish language acquisition as well as introduce them to Latin cultures, the class is reading a book called La Pinata de Renata.

“This girl Renata gets a pinata…and she flies to different Spanish countries to explore them,” recounted Eden. (I missed the part about how getting the pinata results in travel, but maybe there was some magic involved?)

One thing she learned from the book is that the people in some Spanish-speaking countries eat octopus. “It’s very popular,” she said. “I really want to try it. It probably tastes like chicken.”

Eden was cutting out an image of a skeleton wearing an oversized flowery hat, another decoration for Day of the Dead. “I made it of my grandma and it’s for my grandma,” Eden said. She assures me that grandma is very much alive.

It’s Greek to Me: And you thought your family was chaotic

Noe introduced us to the very complicated family tree of the Greek Gods created by the students in It’s Greek to Me. “Chaos is at the top,” Noe said. She pointed to a drawing of a god holding a bunch of grapes and a wine glass. “I made Dionysus, the God of Wine, and Pan, the God of Nature. Pan is normally overlooked by humans because he’s a minor god,” she said.

Leo and Jordan knew a lot about Chaos and why he headed the family tree. “We made a pennant on Chaos,” said Jordan. “He controls the chaotic forces of the universe.”

“Chaos created the universe,” said Leo. “He’s really powerful.”

“He was the origin of everything, the first god,” Jordan added. It seems the Greeks were responsible for a lot of “firsts.”

Today students created fresco art hangings. “On Crete with the Minoans – the first Greek civilization – there were many different forms of art, and fresco was one of the them,” said Noe. Fresco is a painting done rapidly in watercolor on wet plaster on a wall or ceiling, so that the colors penetrate the plaster and become fixed as it dries.

Logan explained the process. “We pick out our mold, pour the plaster in, and poke a string into the wet plaster,” he said.

Logan gently pounded his mold on the table top to remove air bubbles in the plaster while it dried. He and his tablemates filled a plastic frisbee with blobs of paint in preparation. Logan planned to paint an abstract design that represented the symbol of Hades. Hades, he said, is the God of the Underworld, God of the Dead.

Noe planned to paint her fresco with a spider symbolizing Arachne. “Arachne shamed the gods so Athena turned her into a spider. The very first spider!”

Joanna decided to go beyond Greek mythology in her projects. Her fresco would feature an eye. “The eye of Horus in Egyptian mythology is a very popular protection symbol,” she said. A bit of Norse mythology might be thrown in as well, with images that represent the saying an eye for an eye, talons for hooks.

Kachi painted blue shapes onto his soft plaster. The picture was not related to mythology, he said, “just whatever I want.”

Joryn also went with a more personal image. “I’m doing a softball theme, but first I’m making little sprinkles of color.” She held her paint brush horizontally and tapped on it to splatter paint drops onto the fresco.

“Fresco was very popular,” with the Greeks, Elise said. “Artists wanted to go bigger for decorations. They painted on the walls to show off to their friends, ‘Look at my new frescoes!'” she teased.

Popping Rockets: Inventions & Engineering

Ellie was perplexed. “Mine still isn’t blowing up!”

She stared at the small white film canister on the ground in front of her, waiting and waiting for it to “pop”. Teacher Tracy Pluim picked up the canister and flipped open the cap.

“That one was ready, but just didn’t go,” he assured Ellie.

Ellie refilled her canister with water and broke an Alka-Seltzer tablet into quarters. “I’m adding a tablet, one quarter of it, and it’s going to blow,” she said, confidently.

“I think it’s a carbon dioxide solution,” said Teacher’s Assistant Britta.

Ellie placed the canister upside down in front of her and waited. “It makes the water fizz,” she said about the tablet. “It has a reaction and it blows!”

A canister nearby gave a slight “ppppfffttt” and fell over. “It didn’t even go very good!” said a disappointed A.J. But he wasn’t deterred by his anti-climactic result. Try and try again.

Rhys sat on the ground, waiting patiently. “It takes a while,” he said. He leaned in to check the canister. “Yeah, it’s still fizzing.”

Suddenly, “POP!” “Oh, my gosh!” Rhys exclaimed, falling back onto the concrete, his eyes big.

Ellie’s third attempt was not looking good several minutes in. “I hope it works,” she said. Getting impatient, she bent down, about to pick it up, when it suddenly POPPED and she jumped back in surprise. “So one-quarter works better!” she concluded.

Luke said they were instructed to try different amounts of the tablets to determine which would work best for the actual launch of their paper rockets. “That’s what we were testing,” he said. “We tried one half, and then three quarters. One just sat there and the other, the three quarter piece, exploded, but didn’t go very high.” Like Ellie, he also found that the one-quarter piece worked the best.

When it was time to launch the rockets, students lined up against a wall, slipped the uncapped canisters into the rocket tube and waited for the countdown. At “One”, they quickly capped the canister, set it upside down and ran to the “observation deck”. A couple of rockets exploded right away, and others took their time.

Luke’s didn’t pop until he picked it up. “Mine exploded in my hand!” he laughed.

Finding Common Ground: How Minnesota Eats

“Oooh, it looks so good,” said Ella. She peeled back the rough skin on the grape-shaped orb to reveal a clear fleshy fruit with a dark pit.

She placed the fruit in her mouth and chewed thoughtfully. “Yummm! It tastes like a kiwi!” Longan, we were told, grows on tropical trees and are commonly called cat’s eye fruit because of the pupil-like pit that seems to float in the clear flesh.

Tropical fruits weren’t the only new foods students from the Common Ground class experienced today at the Hmong Village in St. Paul. The premise of the class is to research and then cook foods brought to Minnesota by immigrants from all over the world. Today’s visit was to learn not only about Southeast Asian foods, but about culture, as well.

The girls in the class wandered the aisles of the Hmong market searching for items on their BINGO scavenger hunt sheets. Marlee crossed off a square for jewelry. “We saw necklaces,” she said, pointing to the elaborate traditional silver jewelry hanging from the necks of mannequins. “Really pretty necklaces. I know that I haven’t found that unique of a thing before.”

“I just want to look at everything!” she said.

Ella tried on a hat festooned with pompoms and others joined in for a photograph.

“We were right when we said there would be snacks,” said Sophia viewing a display of colorful imported treats at a small store. “But…underwear, too?”

Luciana liked the clothing, including hundreds of dresses hanging along the tops of the aisles. “The dresses are very pretty, especially the traditional coin dresses,” she said. “It was interesting looking at them.”

According to an internet source, the silver coins sewn onto Hmong clothing represent a family’s wealth. The dresses also feature beautiful embroidery in complicated and sometimes historical patterns.

The fresh fruit and vegetable market was a bonanza of colorful sights and smells. Students ran their fingers gently over an enormous jackfruit, describing the rough spikey surface as “really pokey.”

A kind gentleman shopping at the Hmong Village market shared stories about the importance of spicy peppers in Hmong and Thai food. “The hotter you eat, the wiser you are,” he quoted. In addition to peppers, he pointed out and recommended certain variations of mango and other fruits.

Laura looked for something spicy in order to cross off a square on her scavenger hunt sheet. “Is ginger spicy?” she asked as she stood in front of a display of large twists of ginger root. Someone directed her attention to a bag of thin hot peppers in greens and reds. “Ahh, those are spicy,” she said.

And, we hear they make you wiser – the hotter, the better.

The Hmong Village is located at 1001 Johnson Parkway in St. Paul. Check it out!

For the Birds: Predators of the Sea and Sky

Rohan leaned back against the diagram and spread his arms as far as he could. The backdrop featured a visual comparison of the wingspans of raptors. Rohan’s fingertips just reached into the painted wing of one of the featured raptors. “I think I’m an osprey!” he said. “A baby osprey!”

With a slightly shorter reach, George found himself with the “wingspan” of a red-tailed hawk.

None of the kids could reach the span of a bald eagle, which averages 7 feet, or the next largest raptor – the turkey vulture, at 6 feet.

Students of the class Predators of the Sea and Sky visited the Gabbert Raptor Center on the U of M East Campus today to learn more about predators of the sky. They started in a classroom at the center where they were introduced to several bird species.

Giggles of delight rang out in the classroom as the volunteer demonstrated how a kestrel can maintain focus on her prey while moving her body. “It looks like she’s dancing!” one student yelled out.

“She’s just bobbing her head!” Several young boys bobbed their heads in imitation of the bird.

The squeamish in the crowd weren’t crazy about the raw body parts being fed to the raptors. “Oh, no! Don’t give her any more mouse!” someone cried as the volunteer poked at a bloody container with long, surgical tweezers. “Just close your eyes,” she suggested.

Mason wasn’t bothered by the raw meat lunch. “She’s a female harrier and she’s eating organs,” he said as he watched her gulp down the bit of liver.

As the group walked outside to the mews (the wire enclosures housing rescued birds), we heard a terrifying screech from Maxime, the bald eagle. Henley said she thought Maxime “was talking to the smaller eagle” across the walkway.

Crosby found the screeching fascinating. “I think it was cool how she communicated with the other male,” he said. “I think it sounded really interesting.”

Maxime also treated the children to another special moment. She opened her enormous, curved yellow beak and gagged several times before spitting an object onto the enclosure floor. This coughing up of a “pellet” was something the volunteer said she had only seen twice in the six years she had been working for the center.

“The pellet holds all the bones and other stuff,” explained Tristen.

“They spit up the bones and that’s called the pellet,” added Mason. “But some raptors digest the bones and just spit out the fur.”

At the turkey vulture enclosure, Truman shared his knowledge with the class. “When there is a predator next to them, they throw up,” he said. “It makes them lighter so they can fly away faster.”

I learn something new everyday at Summer Academy.

Big Words, Small Sculptures: Art Cycle

Liam picked up his colorful art piece, turned it upside down and shook it gently. “Oh, Liam is doing the shake test,” teacher Gabrielle Engler pointed out to the other students.

“It’s where you put it upside down and shake it to see if any parts fall off,” Liam explained. “If nothing falls off it shows you it’s secure.”

Liam said his sculpture was “a playground, but not a playground.” That makes sense if you understand the art terms students learned that day: abstract and non-representational.

Abstract is usually made up of a bunch of different things,” Lucas explained. “It’s not representative of anything. You can add random shapes to create a picture that could be based off something, or absolutely nothing!” Lucas chose to create a representational sculpture, however, depicting a penguin village with a petrel’s nest (a large sea bird that harasses penguins and eats their eggs).

Art Cycle students created their abstract sculptures from cardboard egg cartons. As with other projects in Art Cycle, the materials were recycled. “We painted and then cut up egg cartoons and now we’re gluing them to make sculptures,” said Giatta.

Audrey splattered glue over the top of her sculpture. “I’m dipping the brush in glue and rolling it in my hand to make ice,” she explained. Her structure was non-representational, but, “it reminds me of mountains, with crystals.”

As the class transitioned to a new project, teacher Gabrielle pulled the students to a table to demonstrate how to create fairy or gnome houses. The base of the fairy/gnome gardens used recycled pint milk cartons glued to paper plates and spray painted silver. She stressed the concept of “craftmanship” with the students. “We go above and beyond,” she reminded them.

Violet started her fairy garden by attaching an arched door shape to the outside of the milk carton “house”. “This is just the shadow of the door opening,” she explained as she glued the black silhouette. The actual door will swing outward. Violet’s occupant is a “good fairy” who is artistic and likes gardening.

Ellie’s fairy is also a girl “and she probably has a pet turtle,” she said. “She could ride her turtle if she wants.”

“But she won’t be getting places very fast!” Violet laughed.

Sabela arranged colorful paper around on her work surface. “Basically, what I plan to do is a sunset theme with pinks and purples and other colors,” she said. “I really think gnomes would like those colors. They would be scared of dark colors.”

Sabela herself prefers the pastels. “Gnomes like lighter colors, and fairies like dark,” she said. “I’m more into warm, light colors than dark.”

Elizabeth described gnomes as “tiny little things with pointy hats and big noses. They’re good, but they’re scaredy cats. And, they speak in an accent,” she said.