Celebrate Cinco de Mayo in your classroom! Hold the margaritas, obviously, but otherwise it’s fiesta time!
The first thing is to be sure not to call May 5 “Mexican Independence Day.” Mexico has an Independence Day in September. Cinco de Mayo is a day to celebrate the victory of a poorly-equipped and badly-outnumbered Mexican battalion over French troops at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. It is a great day to celebrate personal victories, a day to remember that it is not only the biggest historical events that are important, and a day to celebrate Mexican heritage. Any of these topics could be a good writing assignment.
With a theme in place, you can quickly get your classroom ready for the celebration.
BXawi has a snappy mini-bulletin board for Cinco de Mayo . It gives you just enough to get in the mood, for a small investment. There is a matching border, if you want to do a quick bulletin board.
- Play some mariachi music, dance the Mexican Hat Dance (click the link for music and directions), and try out a few of the activities below.
- Enchanted Learning’s map of Mexico, with links to lots more printable pages, including many different maps and flags.
- Directions for making Mexican paper flowers. These will help establish that fiesta air in your classroom, while also giving practice at following directions. Send them home with the kids for Mother’s Day.
- Directions for making a traditional pinata. Mexconnect has further information about the custom.
- Printable Cinco de Mayo bingo cards. These bingo cards include words related to the story of the Battle of Puebla and Cinco de Mayo celebrations.
Ready to get serious? Here are three fresh new lesson plans for Cinco de Mayo which you can use with little preparation:
History and Stories
Miss Margaret of Fayetteville’s New School told me the story of Cinco de Mayo as she likes to tell it to her kindergartners: Mexico owed money to the French, but Mexico’s President Benito Juarez told the French that he couldn’t pay it back right now because he needed the money to feed his people. The French invaded, and a small band of stalwart Mexican peasants armed only with farm tools and stampeding cattle defeated them.
It’s a good story. In fact, there were about 6,000 French troops and the home team had a well-equipped regular army of 4,500 plus the volunteers with their machetes. The cattle’s role in the battle is not substantiated. However, three days later, Puebla was taken by the French and Napoleon soon put Emperor Maximilian into power as the ruler in Mexico.
The reason for the conflict is also not completely clear. Emperor Napoleon III might have been concerned about the future of the New World as the Americans spread across the country, and the Civil War kept the United States out of the fight when Mexico might otherwise have been able to count on Texas for support — or the Battle of Puebla might have kept the French out of the Civil War when they otherwise might have supported Louisiana.
It’s natural for history, which is untidy and often lacks a good plot, to be remembered in the form of a good story instead. Novelist Josephine Tey calls it “Tonypandy.” High school students can work in small groups to determine how much of the popular story of Cinco de Mayo is accurate and how much is Tonypandy.
Have students cite sources and evidence on both sides and create a bulletin board display, a PowerPoint presentation, or a video presenting their conclusions.
Cinco de Mayo is not a federal holiday in Mexico, but it is a national holiday, a holiday celebrating historical events or characteristics of a nation. National holidays in the United States include Memorial Day, Thanksgiving, and Presidents Day.
Give students our simple Holiday Traditions Worksheet and have them identify and research other national holidays from any country or specifically from Mexico or other nations you’ve been studying. Work with Cinco de Mayo as a class to hone research skills, and then have students choose another holiday and complete their individual worksheets individually.
Once the worksheets have been completed and students have their holidays clearly in mind, create graphic organizers to sort, compare, and group the other holidays with Cinco de Mayo. There will probably be many ways to group the holidays: some will have connections with war, some will be connected with specific places or individuals and others will not, some will commemorate a specific event, the holidays will be at different times of year, and so forth. Let students explore the possibilities till they come up with the organization that best captures the information they’ve found — great practice for future writing assignments!
The graphic organizer students settle on can be created as a bulletin board or wall display.
Mexican History Timeline
We hope you have a classroom timeline already. If not, this is a great time to make one. You can use string and index cards, adding machine paper rolls, or the Timeline paper. Decide what time period to cover and how large the divisions should be (years? decades? centuries?). Calculate the number of points you’ll need. Measure the space available for your timeline and divide that space by the number of points. Then measure and add the points with the correct spacing. You can see that this will involve good amounts of practical math.
With the timeline in place and some events in your local or state history added to help students anchor the ideas in their minds, add the Battle of Puebla (May 5, 1862). Then do some research on Mexican history to provide an outline of Mexican history. Add the most important or interesting events to the class timeline and see how the history of Mexico and that of your region line up.
Make individual timelines of Mexican history with simple file folders. Here’s how:
- Staple bulletin board border across the folder twice to make pockets.
- Use Kraft sticks to make event markers. Write the event on one side and the date on the other.
- Challenge students to put the events in order — and then check the back of the sticks for the dates to check their work.
Cinco de Mayo is celebrated in Mexico with parades honoring the heroes of all wars, so this could be a good time for a Heroes Unit, too.
Any of these lessons will give context to your fiesta!