Danse Macabre: Shadow Puppet Show

This project-based unit for 3rd – 5th graders is based on the classic 1867 version of the piece, Danse Macbre. This is the perfect spooky, but not too scary, lesson for your students during Halloween. The unit culminates in a shadow puppet performance, but along the way students are actively listening to music for instruments and themes. Perfect for the music room, the art room, (both) or even the general classroom – this fun and engaging lesson has enough freedom and structure that all your learners can find something they love in it. 


Here is the music for Danse Macbre

Download here

Download Full Materials HERE: https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Danse-Macbre-A-Halloween-Shadow-Puppet-Project-5035044

Teacher’s Guide:

When planning this lesson you need to think about how long you want the project to take, as the materials can be easily shortened or extended as needed. Typically it takes me about a week (5×30 minute classes) and that includes introducing the topic, students creating their puppets, and putting on the show. I’ve also taught it where students made their puppets in art class and then brought them into mine. There are many iterations and the trick (or treat) is finding the one that works for you.

When starting, it’s important to explain that the piece is old! Like so old it was before YouTube or movies! So this song is the musical equivalent of someone’s scary movie. I use some of the examples to explore how different music can make us feel different ways. Another important part is explaining that different instruments in the piece represent different characters – when you hear the violin it signifies that the Grim Reaper is doing something. It gives students something to focus on, and you can even consider using the listening map worksheet, but I’d recommend saving that for a secondary viewing. All guides and materials can be found HERE

Setting up the Show

Once students are familiar with the song and story, you can begin the transition into the shadow puppet show. It’s important to review the different characters, setting, and plot of the story. Depending on how the lesson is structured, I make group packets that have copies of the different puppet options, script, jobs list, and URL to this website to access the music. Typically I let students self-select their groups (4-6 people) and then make their very first assignment assigning group job.

Tip: Only give each group a Jobs List and then give them the rest of the packet once they turn it in to you. Then I use construction paper to make a folder to hold that group’s puppets and glue the jobs sheet to the front of it, returning it to the group. This helps keep their supplies organized while making it clear what each person is supposed to be doing. 

Once you know noticed groups start to finish up their puppets, I will frequently schedule a practice day. If you’re lucky enough to have access to tech, I just let the groups play the music off their Chromebook while they practice (see video). Using the script students should know both what are the events happening as well as which puppets they need. This is an extremely abridged version of the piece clocking in at just around 5:00 (see top of page). After spending a “practice period” I let student perform. Every group performs in-class and depending on how many groups you have it can be done in several ways:


First, and probably most typical, is that one group comes to the front of the room and runs through their show while everyone else watches. However, this isn’t you’re only option: you can have a partner share, where multiple groups perform at once, maybe 4 (one in each corner). Partner A performs while partner B watches, and then they flip flop. This is an easy way to bang out performances when you’re lacking on time. Additionally if you have tech, you can just have your students video tape their performances and turn those into you. What is important that it does have a tangible, performance based end product.

Probably my students favorite part was the extension. This took place well after the project was over and done with, and we waited until actual Halloween. I made a note of the groups which were best prepared for their in-class performance and then compiled those into a Google Sheet. I sent it to the K-2nd teachers at my school, and they could sign-up for a time slot at the end of the day where a group would come and perform a spooky shadow puppet show on Halloween for their kids. This was a huge hit! The 3rd/4th graders loved showing off their work, and K-2 loved having someone come in to their rooms on a hectic Halloween afternoon. I love this because it made the entire performance real and extending the learning beyond their classroom. Students felt empowered, but also became experts on the material, a memorable (and meaningful) experience to be sure.


Find materials and more here: https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Danse-Macbre-A-Halloween-Shadow-Puppet-Project-5035044

danse macbrehalloween lessonsPBLproject based learningpuppet showsshadow puppets

Frank Cademartori • October 7, 2019

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