Latin rhythms echoed in the Meadow Hill Middle School courtyard as Kim Olson’s eighth-grade Spanish class students worked with piles of colorful sawdust Wednesday.
Inspired by Easter traditions in Guatemala and Honduras, the students spent the morning creating beautiful sawdust rugs called alfombras de aserrin.
“This is a Good Friday tradition in Guatemala and Honduras,” Olson explained, adding that she experienced the artwork firsthand while traveling in the countries years ago.
“These rugs are made by families who live along the procession route as they re-enact the 12 stations of the cross,” she said. “The families line the street with the rugs, and the procession walks right over them.”
Colored with dye, the sawdust rugs created for Central American celebrations during Semana Santa, or Holy Week, are elaborately designed works of art made with all the love and passion of the Easter holiday, Olson said.
It is ephemeral art, and therefore temporary and meant to exist for the short period in which the procession honoring Jesus Christ’s resurrection passes over the alfombras.
“This is one of the funnest events I’ve done in Spanish so far this year,” said Justin Brown, who was helping to create a 4-by-10-foot rug with a sun and moon design. “You get to spend time with your friends, be active, and do something educational, too.
“And I think it’s cool how Easter is celebrated in a different way in other countries.”
Before the mass creation on Wednesday, the Meadow Hill students spent class time learning about the tradition, coloring sawdust with food dye, drawing out designs on paper, and creating stencils from cardboard boxes.
Geometric shapes were popular design elements for the rugs, in part because making the stencils was uncomplicated, but some of the students pushed their creative talents and incorporated more challenging images such as stars, musical notes, and a grizzly pawprint.
“Because this is for Easter, I was kind of thinking of the sun, and how it represents Jesus rising, his resurrection,” said Isabelle Weida as she patiently worked piles of orange-colored sawdust into long, pointed sunrays.
As she carefully tamped down the material, watering it occasionally so that it stuck together, Weida said she didn’t mind the morning’s brief snow squall – she was just glad the wind didn’t kick up.
“It’s not very difficult,” said Haley Burckhard. “But it takes a lot of time to get everything perfect – or close to perfect.”
“It’s fun to have something to work together on and to have the experience of what people are doing in Guatemala – but to do it in Missoula,” said Cherayla Bishop.
Olson said she was thrilled to see her students so engaged in the learning process.
One of the challenges of a language teacher is creating tangible lessons that build on knowledge, she said.
“I think this helps make Guatemala and Honduras part of their mental maps,” Olson said of the day’s unusual classroom activity. “As a student, you can read about these places, but there’s nothing like doing something that connects you to those places.”
“I think this makes them so much more aware of the diversity of Spanish-speaking cultures, and the concept that religion is the same, but the traditions are different.”
The project, Olson said, was made possible by a $100 grant from the school’s parent-teacher organization.
Like their Central American counterparts, the Meadow Hill rugs will exist for just a short while.
“We had an amazing time doing it,” R.T. Glennon said of the rug making. “And we will always have pictures to remember the experience by.”