What do your students know about Mardi Gras?
How many of them just associate it with partying it up in the Big Easy?
And do they know the why behind the purple, green and gold?
It’s time to find out, and then to give them a clearer picture.
Help your students understand the full scope of Mardi Gras—from its rich history to colorful global celebrations—with fun, interactive activities!
From Fat Tuesday-specific vocabulary to awesome art projects, the activities below will grab their attention and broaden their global perspective, all while teaching French language skills at the same time.
Why Your French Students Should Learn More About Mardi Gras
Here’s a closer look at what your students will gain from learning about Mardi Gras:
- Increased awareness of global, intercultural connections. There is so much to learn about Mardi Gras and its many incarnations around the world. This vibrant, lively holiday reflects the beautiful intersection of religious and ethnic cultures throughout six of the seven continents. By exploring how these different communities and cultures celebrate, your students will get to step in the shoes of another, and walk on the path towards global citizenship
- Enhanced vocabulary. While learning about the history and culture of Mardi Gras, your students will have the opportunity to learn a whole new set of enriched vocabulary—words that they otherwise might not encounter in the required curriculum. This also gives them the opportunity to push beyond vocab lists and make insightful connections between language and culture.
- Reason to celebrate. Well, of course! Why not jump on the chance to have a party with your students right in the classroom? Don’t worry—we’ll help you make it fun and educational.
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Mardi Gras Topics to Explore with Your French Students
Cultural and religious meaning
As we know, Mardi Gras is a holiday grounded in many Christian religious traditions. On the surface, Mardi Gras may be known for its purple-, green- and gold-dusted king cakes and New Orleans-flavored second-line parades in all of their handkerchief-twirling glory. Fun times, for sure.
However, there are deep histories associated with this multifaceted holiday, born from Carnival festivities, which your students can easily soak up in fun, engaging ways.
First teach students that Mardi Gras literally means “Fat Tuesday” in French, which marks the final day of post-Epiphany (or Three Kings’ Day) celebrations before the arrival of Lent on Ash Wednesday, also known as le mercredi des Cendres in French. Make sure they know Mardi Gras is the last day of overindulging before the 40-day Lenten period of fasting, which ends on Easter.
They might find it interesting that Mardi Gras is also known as “Shrove Tuesday” or “Pancake Day” in some countries. And for the latter, folks gorge out on—yep, you guessed it—pancakes to mark the occasion.
But back to Mardi Gras. Although its roots are in primarily Catholic and Anglican denominations of Christianity, these days Mardi Gras has spread throughout the world as a time to throw on those shiny beads and par-tay, regardless of religion!
Traditions and celebratory practices around the world
Mardi Gras is celebrated in many corners of the globe, taking shape according to the local cultures and customs of the area. In most countries, the period of celebration before Ash Wednesday is known as Carnival, which comes from the Latin term carne vale, meaning “farewell to the meat.” This refers to notions around the upcoming fast for Lent and also celebrating the “flesh” with over-the-top consumption of foods and fun.
From Dakar to Sydney, folks all over the world celebrate Fat Tuesday in many colorful ways with masks, beads, costumes and laissez-faire attitude. Explore these celebrations with your students! For example, you might teach about the following countries’ celebrations:
- Trinidad and Tobago — Folks go all out during Carnival by donning their most flamboyant costumes while moving to the sounds of soca, a type of music that emerged from marginalized communities during the 1970s.
- France — People in Nice are especially big on celebrating Mardi Gras, or Carnaval de Nice. Each year, a theme is chosen and masked revelers will dine on les beignets, or a type of light donut.
- Sweden — Folks celebrate Mardi Gras by eating fettisdagsbullar, or literally, “Fat Tuesday buns,” which is made from white flour. In Swedish, Mardi Gras is known as Fettisdaggen.
- Brazil — It’s common for locals to refer to Mardi Gras as Carnival as well, the country’s most celebrated holiday, and the largest Mardi Gras celebration in the world. Typically, samba music and dance—a West African-derived cultural art form—will erupt in the streets of Rio and Salvador. It’s a fun time for all!
- United States — Mardi Gras is not typically celebrated on a national level, but most folks in this country look to New Orleans, Louisiana as the main hub for celebrating Mardi Gras festivities along St. Charles Avenue. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch une babiole (a “throw”) or any airborne object—usually a set of plastic beads—coming off a float in the parade, which is typically organized by a krewe. Mobile, Alabama and St. Louis, Missouri are known for hosting large-scale Mardi Gras celebrations, as well.
- Belgium — Thousands of Gilles—male-identified patrons in wax masks—fill the streets in the city of Binche, dancing in clogs and jingling their belled belts until the wee hours of the morning and into the evening. Sometimes, they wear oversized, feathered headdresses and carry baskets of oranges while carrying ramons, or bundled sticks that resist menacing spirits.
- Australia — They go rainbow in Sydney by celebrating Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. The celebration was born from people-powered resistance against police brutality of LGBTQ+ communities during the 1970s.
- Senegal — Mardi Gras is typically celebrated in the capital, Dakar, and is geared toward children. Just like everyone else the world over, they’ll don fun, flashy outfits throughout the day. Sometimes, teens and adults like to join in on the fun, too.
You can build your activities off of whichever celebrations might be most interesting to your students—or better yet, let them dive into the culture(s) they’re drawn to.
As you plan and prepare, try framing Mardi Gras activities as fun, cultural, learning exercises. Create circular settings so that everyone in class feels “heard.” You could also customize the classroom in an all-inclusive way that would best fit your students’ needs. For example, if a student notes that they don’t identify with a religion represented during Mardi Gras, encourage them to engage with an activity or help them create a project or costume that reflects their own cultural or religious identity.
And while you’re at it, ensure that your students can relax and also take part in less educationally-rigorous activities, such as making and bringing foods that reflect the myriad of cultures around Mardi Gras. And of course, de la musique, whenever possible. Immerse your students in Carnival culture!
So what types of activities might you use to celebrate Mardi Gras in class? Here are five ideas to get you started.
5 Lively Mardi Gras Activities for French Class
1. Mardi Gras Map Swat
After learning about the variety of celebrations, have your students match a country (or city) with its appropriate Mardi Gras/Carnival celebration in this fun game. This is a great way for students to retain the socio-geographical component of what they’ve learned.
If you have a large world map available (or a projector), display it on a wall. Otherwise, you can write various country and city names on the board, spread out and in no particular order.
Divide the class into two teams, and have one student from each team come up to the board. Give each student a fly swatter and have them face their backs to the map/board.
Then, call out a context clue, such as “Ces fêtards portent les masques cirés” (These revelers wear wax masks) or “Juste les enfants costumés” (Costumed kids only). Once you’ve finished reading the clue, competing students turn around and try to swat the corresponding country or city before their opponent. Students get just one swat per round, which will prevent them from quickly hitting every possible answer.
You can keep track of team points for an added competitive element.
2. Get Masked!
Allow your students to get creative with mask-making, while enhancing their vocabulary. Just let their creative juices flow.
First, you’ll want to gather and provide your students with lots of feathers, beads, glitter, colorful paper, markers, paint and any other creative mixed media you have available.
If possible, put on some good old fashioned Mardi Gras-related music while your students get blissfully lost in art-making, such as the classic, jazzy sounds of The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, or something a bit more modern, such as Astral Project.
After students have finished making their mask, have them describe, en français, the materials they used. Encourage your students to use Mardi Gras-friendly vocabulary—les bijoux (gems), les plumes (feathers), les paillettes (sequins)—the list goes on.
If you want to up the ante here, hold a contest for the “Most Flamboyant Mask,” “Biggest Mask,” or “Most Tri-Colored (Purple/Green/Gold) Mask,” where your students can vote on the masks that best fit these descriptions. The winners could receive des pièces de monnaie en chocolat (chocolate gold coins) or extra points—whatever small reward best fits your class setup.
3. Guess That Gras
Pick and choose fun Mardi Gras-related French words for your students to guess through charades. You’ll need some type of receptacle, like a small basket or a hat, and small strips of paper.
Write at least 20 vocabulary words—like un collier (necklace), un char (parade float) or un roi (king)—on each piece of paper. Mix them up well and throw them in the basket.
Have each student stand up, draw the word from the basket, and then act out the chosen vocabulary word—the more animated the better!
By raising their hand, each student will then try to guess the vocabulary word. Consider tacking extra credit onto an upcoming quiz or assignment as an incentive for your students to get pumped for this Mardi Gras activity. You could also have students play in smaller groups to make shyer students more comfortable, and to involve more students at once.
4. Galette de Classe
Now this is a fun one. Transform your classroom into a life-size king cake! Why? Because it’s Mardi Gras! This is a simple activity to encourage your students to move about the classroom, practice positive reinforcement, get creative and again, to enrich their vocabulary.
You’ll just need to provide tissue paper, streamers and fabric to create a tri-colored dome. You may need to provide lots and lots of strong-adhesive tape, sticky tack and possibly a heavy-duty stapler if your class decides to use fabric.
And don’t forget to hide the baby! And by “baby,” this could be a stuffed king’s head, teddy bear decked out in fleurs-de-lis… you name it! Whichever student locates the baby or stuffed toy wins the opportunity to have other students say a well-wish to them in French, to the best of their ability—such as “Meilleurs vœux de bonheur” (Best of happiness to you).
5. Colorwheel Carnival
This is a captivating Mardi Gras activity that’ll get your students to learn different ways to say “purple,” “green” and “gold” en français. First, if they don’t already, they should learn the meaning behind those infamous colors, specifically chosen by the Rex Carnival Krewe in New Orleans, Louisiana, back in the 1890s:
- Justice — La Justice: purple (violet, lavande, mauve)
- Faith — La Foi: green (vert, émeraude, pistache)
- Power — Le Pouvoir: gold (or, doré, lamé)
Here, your students can co-create a mural of gorgeous Mardi Gras-flavored color! You’ll just need to provide a long sheet of butcher paper and paint, glitter, feathers and beads in various shades of purple, green and gold.
Have them label each color shade in French exactly as it appears on the mural. This is a laid-back, fun, collaborative activity to broaden your students’ color vocabulary knowledge beyond the familiar basics.
It can also be easily adapted based on your students’ levels. Will they master these colors in minutes? Have groups research a specific tradition or symbol, and design a mural to share their findings.
Well, there you have it, five Mardi Gras activities that will engage your students as they learn significant cultural and linguistic information involving this holiday.
Will you and your students be ready for Mardi Gras this year? I sure will—in all my purple, green and gold glory!
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