California Mission Report Assignment

My mission was San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, and I’ll never forget it.

I was 10 years old when I wrote my report on that 18th-century Central Coast mission. But for me and other California elementary school-age kids before and since, my mission assignment was the first real school report of my life. The facts remain embedded in my brain: Mission San Luis Obispo was the fifth mission, founded in 1772, and the first to serve the Chumash Indians. It had a creek with delicious water. And there were so many grizzlies nearby that the mission’s valley was named “La Cañada de los Osos,” the Valley of the Bears.

The mission report is still a staple of California elementary schools. And, though it’s not mandated by law (and is not affected by the new Common Core standards, which focus on English and math, not history), the report remains one of the precious few traditions that connect Californians across the generations and vast distances. It’s also a memorable tradition; in my own informal survey of colleagues and friends who grew up here, about half remembered the specific mission they reported upon.

But, now that I’m middle-aged and my memory is diminishing, I’m wondering if it’s a good thing that my most memorable school assignment involved California missions that had their heyday two centuries ago. While the missions are vital to understanding state history — particularly the collisions between natives and outsiders that shaped this mixed-up place — the missions have relatively little everyday relevance to the economic, educational, and cultural life of today’s California.

So is it time to get rid of the mission report? Not if it means losing an exercise that so many California kids — and only California kids — have in common. No, what’s needed is a thoughtful replacement. Which is why I propose preserving the tradition of an elementary-school report for all California kids — but changing the subject to a far more relevant statewide network: our public universities.

Instead of assigning each fourth-grader a mission, assign each a different public university campus. The university report would fill kids’ heads with history worth remembering. Understanding how universities came to be — and how they work now — is vital to understanding the economies, culture, and government of today’s California. And while today’s elementary students are never going to be Indians at a Spanish mission, they very well might attend these campuses one day as students. Plus, our kids will eventually be voters who decide how we fund these universities.

Another benefit: The histories of our public universities are far longer, richer, and more varied than those of the missions, and touch on virtually every subject — from sports to science, pediatrics to politics — that could interest young minds.

A young student who gets assigned UC Berkeley for her report would learn about discoveries from vitamin E to the flu virus, about the 1960s Free Speech Movement, and about how California’s 20th-century success flowed in no small part from the fact that Berkeley was the world’s largest public university as early as 1912. Several California State University system campuses offer treasure troves of stories about the stunning post-World War II growth of California. How did Cal State Long Beach go from 160 students in an apartment building in 1949 to “The Beach,” today’s campus of more than 35,000 students?

The shift from a mission report to a university report is not just timely. With the average number of students in a fourth-grade class now above 26, the number of universities — 33 between the UC and Cal State systems versus 21 missions — makes a university report more practical.

I also have a suggestion for dealing with rebellious students who balk at doing their assigned university reports: Teachers could look to another statewide system — and assign the rebels to report on a state prison.

The history of San Quentin should scare them straight.

Joe Mathews wrote this column for Zocalo Public Square.

For decades, fourth-grade students in California have had one project that has taken over dining room tables, required piles of popsicle sticks and kept parents and kids up at night completing it: building a model of one of the 18th- and 19th-century Spanish missions in the state.

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But under a new educational framework the state Department of Education is rolling out, the annual project may  become history.

Why? Two reasons: it doesn’t effectively teach students about the mission period and, worse, it might be offensive, according to the state.

“Attention should focus on the daily experience of missions rather than the building structures themselves. Building missions from sugar cubes or popsicle sticks does not help students understand the period and is offensive to many,” the new History-Social Science Framework adopted last year says. “Missions were sites of conflict, conquest, and forced labor. Students should consider cultural differences, such as gender roles and religious beliefs, in order to better understand the dynamics of Native and Spanish interaction.”

The framework, adopted by the state’s Department of Education, has tapped the attention of districts, parents and students across California.

The Los Angeles Unified School District – the second largest district in the nation – will be adopting the new guidelines. Part of the change is a move away from one big project and toward “skills that students need for the future,” said Nathan MacAinsh, history/social sciences coordinator for the district.

“Projects in the past, like the mission project, were showy, kind of like the old days of the science fair, where everyone did the volcano project,” he said. That didn’t mean students were learning how to analyze or interpret events and information, instead of only learning names and dates.

California fourth-graders learn about the history of the state, from before Europeans arrived to the modern era. Over time, the assignment of having students build a model of one of the 21 Spanish missions in California has become somewhat of a tradition. Adults remember making their models of the San Fernando, Santa Barbara or other missions out of cardboard, sugar cubes, popsicle sticks or other materials around the house – or helping their children work on the big project.

Though some teachers assigned the model building in class, state guidelines haven’t specifically required it. And it seems teachers have been easing it out anyhow, or allowing students to choose a different format to show their understanding of the period.

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Scott Schugel, fourth-grade teacher at Woodland Hills Elementary Charter for Enriched Studies, said he tries to give his students a “whole picture” of the California missions, including the negative consequences for Native Americans who lived at them.

“I try to present all the sides,” he said. Abuse and disease were part of the picture, but so were the Spanish and Mediterranean architecture, food and culture that are part of California today.

Together, his students each year “refurbish” a dog house-sized model a previous class built out of adobe bricks they made. (The highlight for the kids is the chance to play with mud, he said.) But they also do their own projects on the missions, something they choose, like making a cookbook or writing a song or poetry. As for building a model, he said, “I encourage my kids not to do them because I don’t want my classroom littered with missions!”

Some can’t wait to see the mission project go. But others aren’t so ready.

Judging by social media responses to a Southern California News Group survey question on the topic, several readers feel pretty strongly about the project. Replies ranged from “an extremely useless exercise (reader Yama Rahyar)” to fond memories, like from reader Melissa Nicole Taylor: “My father ‘helped.’ … “I can still smell the cork, hot glue, and acrylic paint.”

Becky Ramirez in Alta Loma admitted to being a bit biased about the project, as a former Catholic school student. When her son Sean, 9, made a model of the Mission San Francisco de Asis – the San Francisco Bay structure founded in 1776 – he was excited to learn about the missions, she said.

“He really got a lot out of it,” she said. She helped him, though he led the work. “It was something we actually enjoyed working on together. … And I feel like my son will never forget that.”

But for others, the missions represent a darker history, and present.

Rudy Ortega, tribal president of the Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians – which has a history at the Mission San Fernando – said the project sows confusion.

“At home, they’re taught here’s our heritage and culture,” said Ortega, the father of three children who built mission models. “We teach our children in the community that the tribes’ community is still in existence” and not a thing of the past. Moreover, the mission system was responsible for much of the loss of native music, song and culture, he said.

“The school (teaches) that here’s this Catholic mission system, and that’s the start of California,” he said. Ortega said his children had their skepticism. When they visited the missions, they wanted to see for themselves how evident the Native American culture of the time was. There were few artifacts on display, Ortega said. His kids asked him, “’Why don’t they identify that we’re still here?’”

It appears area school districts are tuning in to that concern. Bibi Alvarado, the director of elementary education in the Montebello Unified School District, said although the mission project was never an official requirement, it did become a common assignment at district schools.

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Regardless, the district has been moving away from the projects out of its commitment to “make our students aware of all people in regards to their ethnic, racial, gender, and cultural diversity,” she said. The district is in its second year of its mandatory Ethnic Studies curriculum in ninth grade, and is developing similar curriculum for the third- and sixth-grade levels, she said.

Students in Riverside Unified and Murrieta Valley Unified school districts can do a variety of projects on the missions unit, spokespeople there said. In southwest Riverside County, the spokeswoman for the Temecula Valley Unified School District said teachers could still assign a mission model project, but with additional curriculum components. “The intent behind the curriculum is to teach the culture of the missions, not just build one,” Laura Boss said. “It’s embedded in the the new framework.”

Derrick Chau, in charge of early childhood to high school curriculum for the Los Angeles Unified School District, remembers making his own mission model as a kid, out of popsicle sticks. But times, and educational methods, change.

“We want to make this really rooted in good instructional practices districtwide,” he said of the implementation of the new framework. “Traditions can be hard to break sometimes.”

What is the California mission project?

In fourth grade in California, students learn about the history of our state, from before Europeans arrived to the modern era. Over time, the assignment of having students build a model of one of the 21 Spanish missions in California has become somewhat of a tradition, though it hasn’t been required by the state. Adults remember making their models of the San Fernando, Santa Barbara or other missions out of cardboard, sugar cubes, popsicle sticks or other materials around the house – or helping their kids work on the big project.

Staff writers Hayley Munguia and  Aaron Claverie contributed to this story.

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