Fourth-grade teachers rethink California missions curriculum

Courtesy of Los Altos School District
Fourth-graders at Covington and Santa Rita schools create missions in Minecraft as part of the unit on the Spanish colonial period of California.

Teachers throughout the state, and in Los Altos, are revisiting California’s history and reconsidering how to tell the thorny story of the missions.

The missions, religious settlements built by Spanish colonizers at the end of the 18th century, are both a central part of the state’s history and a human-rights violation, as indigenous people were forced to abandon their ways and embrace the Spanish Catholic way of life.

Fourth-grade curriculum focuses on California history, so teachers must navigate the murky waters of how to educate students about the past and encourage them to think critically about the decisions their ancestors made.

“The real reason we learn history is to know not to repeat history,” said Libby English, fourth-grade teacher at Santa Rita School.

For decades, 9- and 10-year-old Californians created models of the missions out of sugar cubes or popsicle sticks. But like many craft projects, students’ parents ended up taking over, either by employing their own building techniques or buying expensive supplies. sells a model mission kit for $34.99; one five-star review says, “My daughter got an A with this.”

Natalie Axley, a fourth-grade teacher at Gardner Bullis, said she was happy to move away from the model building that she had to do in fourth grade.

“I don’t really want to test their parents on how well they can glue things,” she said.

Plus, building a model of a mission doesn’t necessarily encourage students to think critically about the missions.

“Missions were sites of conflict, conquest and forced labor,” according to the state’s 2016 history and social science framework. “Students should consider cultural differences, such as gender roles and religious beliefs, in order to better understand the dynamics of Native and Spanish interaction.”

Axley’s students begin the unit by looking at primary resources like letters the Spanish colonizers wrote to describe how things were going at the missions. Then they discuss bias – do they trust the Spanish to tell the story correctly? Students learn more about missions and mission life, and then they have a debate. Students are divided into pro-mission system or anti-mission system regardless of how they feel about missions. Axley said she has many students who hate the missions, and some who feel like they did some good and some bad.

“In the end, they skew toward the Native Americans’ view and say, ‘Why wasn’t there anyone to stand up for them?’” Axley said.

The students do a quick design challenge where they think about how the missions could be improved, but there’s no building involved. Finally, the kids read articles about the old mission project and write persuasive essays for or against it.

Minecraft mission

At Covington and Santa Rita schools, the teachers developed a new take on a model mission: Minecraft. In addition to learning the history of the missions, students form groups to build missions on Minecraft, a world-building computer game. The missions they build, though, can be different from the actual missions.

“If you could go back in time and build a mission, how would you do it differently from how the padres did things?” English said she asks her students.

Some students make the living quarters for the Spanish and the Native Americans equally nice, some create a Native American village around the mission and some build secret rooms within the mission for Native Americans to practice their own religion.

At Bullis Charter School, fourth-graders were building a model 22nd mission until about three years ago. Fourth-grade teacher Jeri Chi said now students read books and articles about the missions, and then they write about some part of missions that they’re interested in, like Father Junipero Serra or the Native American experience.

Axley said students at Gardner Bullis often say they’re happy with their version of the project because they feel like it’s respectful to the Native American experience, but they do wish they could build something. She said maybe someday they’ll tweak the project to include a building aspect, or something else.

“It’s this living, breathing thing,” Axley said. “We’re open to new possibilities.”

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