Learning About Guatemala Through Its Kites: The Giant Kites of Guatemala

Level: Intermediate (3-5/6) Middle (6-8)
Grade from: 4
Grade to: 9
Length: 3-5 sessions: an introduction to Guatemala (optional); an introduction to the tradition of giant kites; decorating the kite sail; constructing the kite; flying the kite (can be combined with construction). Extend the process of decorating the sail by teaching about shape, rhythm, and color and/or about radial balance in the giant kites of Guatemala. Extend the introduction to the tradition of giant kites by teaching older students (grades 6 and up) about cultural values messages in the medium of kites (English or Spanish).
Cultural Studies Integration:


These readings and activities introduce Guatemala and its tradition of making giant kites, an element of Day of the Dead observances in two highland villages north of Antigua. Students will learn about the cultural significance of this Mayan tradition and can make a small version of the kite (requires purchase of a kite kit).

Curriculum Integration: 

Mathematics: understands the concept of area; understands properties of angles and polygons.

Social Studies: locates physical features on a map; groups events by broadly defined historical eras; identifies possible causal factors contributing to given historical events; describes ways in which the arts serve as expressions of culture; explains how some forms of cultural communication contribute to societal cohesion and/or division; compares and contrasts elements of Meso-American culture in the context of medieval world history.

Visual Arts: identifies and uses geometric forms and texture in 2D art forms; identifies and demonstrates symmetrical (formal) and radial balance in a 2D artwork; identifies techniques from various cultures; develops work using a creative process with instructor direction or assistance; describes how aesthetic choices are influenced by historical context; identifies general attributes of artworks from a specific culture.

Language Arts: reading to learn new information; analyzing, interpreting and synthesizing information and ideas in informational text; reading to perform a task.

Cultural Studies Integration: Central America


Student activity: What Do You Know About Guatemala? (grades 4-5) (PDF file)
Student reading: Introducing Guatemala (grades 6-9) (PDF file)
Student reading: Remembering the Ancestors (grades 4-5 and ELL) (PDF file in English or Spanish)

Student reading: Introducing the Giant Kites of Guatemala (grades 6-9) (PDF file)

Student reading: Historia y origen de los barriletes (grades 6-9) (PDF file)

Purchase Kite Kits:Guatemalan Kite Kit, per student (at DF Online Store)

Materials You Supply: White glue, glue cup, cotton swabs, scissors, toothpick or paper clip, ruler, and pen, per student

Session One: Introducing Guatemala (30 – 50 minutes; optional)

With intermediate-level students, use the map in What Do You Know About Guatemala? to situate Guatemala among its Central American neighbors. Point out the locations of the two highland villages, geographically close to major cities but isolated from them by mountains. Use the questions (or generate your own “kwl” chart) to discuss basic geographic and demographic facts about Guatemala, especially its majority American Indian population.

To extend this session, read My Pig Amarillo by Satomi Ichikawa (2002) with the class to expand knowledge about Guatemala. Discuss the visual cues (clothing; backstrap loom; food; setting; means of transport) that indicate the Guatemalan setting. For additional picture books about Guatemala, see Resources section. Students can also write about how they commemorated the loss of a pet.

With older students, use the reading Introducing Guatemala to teach basic geographical and demographic concepts about Guatemala. Discuss the preservation of localized traditions in a setting where villages are isolated from each other. Are students familiar with other places where this kind of cultural preservation occurs? What factors work against cultural isolation and uniqueness in the USA? For additional materials about Guatemala , see Resources section.

Session Two: Giant Kites of Guatemala (30 - 50 minutes)

With intermediate-level or ELL students, introduce the tradition of giant kites by reading Remembering the Ancestors (shared reading if appropriate) in English or Spanish.

To extend this session, students can write about their families’ practices for remembering their ancestors. Depending on the student population, it may be more feasible to discuss the challenges of honoring ancestors when family members live at great distances from each other and/or move frequently.

With older students, introduce the tradition of giant kites by reading Introducing the Giant Kites of Guatemala. Are students familiar with other forms of cultural expression that serve similar functions? Do any participate in similarly team-focused activities? Compare the creation of giant kites with accounts of the ephemeral art works devised for the annual Burning Man event in the USA .

Spanish-speaking students, or Spanish language students, can read about the tradition of giant kites and learn some kite vocabulary in Spanish through the reading Historia y origen de los barriletes.

To extend this session, teach students about Cultural Values Messages in the Giant Kites of Guatemala.

Optional: Show The Drachen Foundation’s six-minute video "Barriletes Gigantes." It includes images of Day of the Dead observances in Sumpango, the process of designing and assembling giant kites, and the community feria (fair) at which the kites are displayed and, sometimes, flown. Available on YouTube.

Session Three: Attaching and Decorating the Kite Sail (30 minutes or more)

Follow instructions in the kite kit or in this video for attaching the kite sail to the frame and decorating the sail. Kites for flying should be as light as possible: use the tissue provided in the kite kit, and a light hand with the glue. Kites for display only can accommodate heavier design elements.

To integrate this kite making project with visual arts instruction, see Visual Elements in the Giant Kites of Guatemala: Shape, Rhythm, and Color and/or Radial Balance in the Giant Kites of Guatemala. Each lesson prompt includes images from the kites for free download.

Session Four - Five: Constructing and Flying the Kite (50 minutes or more)

Follow instructions in the kite kit or in this video for constructing the kite. Depending on students’ age and manual adeptness, constructing and a little flying could be consolidated in one session or broken into two sessions. Younger students will probably need adult assistance to bridle the kite and attach the flying line.

Additional Resources: 

A good book for all ages, Barrilete: A Kite for the Day of the Dead by Elisa Amado and Joya Hairs (1999), has wonderful photographs not just of the giant kite tradition but also of Mayan life in Guatemala . The photographs were taken in the 1970s, before the civil war that targeted many Maya. Nonetheless, the Maya—and this tradition—survive. Check your library, as this title is out of print and difficult to find used. The Spanish translation, Un Barrilete para el Dia de los Muertos, is readily available in paperback.

Additional picture books useful for learning more about life in Guatemala:

Abuela’s Weave by Omar Castañeda (1995), about young Esperanza who learns traditional weaving, and values, from her grandmother (download a classroom guide at www.leeandlow.com/teachers/guide3.html)

Mama & Papa Have a Store by Amelia Lau Carling (1998), about an immigrant Chinese family running a store in Guatemala City, which sells threads for weaving; also available in Spanish, La Tienda de Mamá y Papá . A second book, Sawdust Carpets (2005) highlights Easter Week preparations in Antigua and is useful for discussing the value of ephemeral art.

The Most Beautiful Place in the World by Ann Cameron (1993), a beginning chapter book or read-aloud about the challenges seven-year-old Juan faces, finding his place in a highland village with his grandmother, after his mother abandons him for a new husband.

For folktales, see People of Corn: A Mayan Story retold by Mary-Joan Gerson (1995), a creation story that also explains how textile designs come from the gods, and The Race of Toad and Deer, retold by Pat Mora (2001), who heard this Maya version of the tortoise and the hare from Don Fernando Tesucún, a restorer at Tikal.

Many social studies series include titles on Guatemala. Marshall Cavendish’s Cultures of the World series is always reliable: its volume on Guatemala, by Sean Sheehan, was published in 1998. Lerner Publishing Group’s Guatemala in Pictures by Rita J. Markel, in its Visual Geography series, has been updated more recently (2004) and is supported by a website, www.vgsbooks.com, with updated links to websites about Guatemala. A Family from Guatemala by Julia Waterlow (1998), in the Families Around the World series, uses images from Menzel’s Material World (see below) but is intended for intermediate-level readers. For older students the In Focus series includes Guatemala : A Guide to the People, Politics and Culture by Trish O’Kane, published in 1999. Travel handbooks (for example, Moon Handbooks’ Guatemala by Wayne Bernhardson, 2001) can also be good sources for detailed cultural information.

Older students can read more about Guatemala in both Material World: A Global Family Portrait by Peter Menzel (1994) and Women in the Material World by Faith D’Aluisio and Peter Menzel (1996), both with striking photographs. Omar Castañeda, author of Abuela’s Weave, above (and teacher at Western Washington University before his death in 1997), wrote two young-adult novels set in Guatemala, Among the Volcanoes and Imagining Isabel.

To learn more about the giant kite tradition, read the article about the Drachen Foundation’s 2001 field research, in the Drachen Foundation Kite Journal, issue 9.

Online, Terra Experience (www.terraexperience.com) specializes in ethnic doll clothes but also carries an extensive selection of children’s books in both English and Spanish on Mayan culture and Guatemala (also includes bibliography). Among its offerings is a series on each of twenty-one Mayan groups in Guatemala, published by Unicef and the Universidad Rafael Landivar in Guatemala. In Spanish and aimed at Guatemalan elementary and middle-school students, each volume (with color photographs) introduces the culture, history, community life of each of these groups (Kaqchikel is the Mayan group in Sumpango and Sacatapéquez).

Many online sites focus primarily on Guatemala’s social/human rights situation. See “Guatemala: A Brief History” at Global Exchange (www.globalexchange.org/countries/americas/guatemala/history.html.pf) for a sample. If the Mango Tree Could Speak: A Documentary About Children and War in Central America was made by Patricia Goudvis in 1994: the 58-minute video comes with study materials in English or Spanish and is recommended for ages twelve and older. Younger students can learn from the biography of Guatemala’s Nobel Prize winner, in Journey for Peace: The Story of Rigoberta Menchú by Marlene Targ Brill (1996); the author also wrote the book on Guatemala in the Enchantment of the World series.

Related Past Projects: 
Guatemala Project 2005
Related Past Projects: 
Kite Curriculum Project