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Why the famous Mission-building project may be on its way out of California classrooms

The new History-Social Science framework suggests replacing the Mission-building project with assignments that provide more context to the Spanish missions. David Lofink/Flickr Creative Commons

A new framework for teaching history and social science is encouraging California teachers to ditch the long-time tradition of building miniature missions in fourth grade.

Instead, the state's new framework is encouraging teachers to move their lessons towards a more contextual understanding of the missions' place in California history and effects on Native Americans.

“Building missions from sugar cubes or popsicle sticks does not help students understand the period and is offensive to many,” reads the framework, which state officials adopted last year and is being rolled out into classrooms this year.

Those who find the project offensive think that it glorifies or celebrates the colonization of Indigenous people, without discussing the effects on them and their environment. It also can be expensive to execute well, and some parents complain they end up doing more of the project than their children do.

“Instead, students should have access to multiple sources that identify and help children understand the lives of different groups of people who lived in and around missions, so that students can place them in a comparative context,” the framework reads.

One of those groups? Native Americans.

"For example, we might not have students build a plantation or a internment camp," says Lisa Hutton, director of the California State University - Dominguez Hills site of the California History-Social Science Project, which helped develop the curriculum framework. "In the same way, I think building the mission for some students is not respectful of their past."

Angela Castelli has taught fourth grade for three years. When she gets to the section about the missions, she chooses to not assign mission building projects for her students.

Not only does the project make her uncomfortable personally, she says, she was also concerned about the cost to her students and their families.

"To ask my students who can barely afford to bring a pencil or even their lunch every single day ... to go to Michael's or to another craft store and create something that really is just going to go in the trash the week after it's graded – it seems pretty unfortunate to ask something like that," she said. 

But just because she isn't doing the project doesn't mean she's not teaching about the missions at all. Instead, she introduces the missions, and let students' curiosity guide the conversation.

"They ask a lot of questions like, 'Oh, the California Indians were enslaved, what does that mean?' and, 'what does "indigenous peoples" mean?'" Castelli explained.

The students use their research and questions to create "lapbooks," little books collecting their discoveries and reflections.

Hutton, from the California History-Social Science Project, says that's the goal of the new framework as a whole: inquiry-based learning and – in the case of the missions – challenging teachers to come up with other interactive projects that students and families can do.

"We want students who are able to think. We want them to be able to read multiple perspectives and think about, Where did that source come from? Who wrote it? What's the perspective of that source, and hold it up against other sources and think about how they are the same and different," Hutton said.

And the mission project alone just wasn't accomplishing that.

"We don't want the only thing they remember about history is building that mission," Hutton said.

Tongvan educator Craig Torres said he’s glad to see the changes to how the history of the missions and how they affected indigenous people including the Tongva are taught, even if they obviously won’t undo the effects of colonization on his ancestors and on him.

“At least it'll give people a perspective, and it'll start to open up their eyes to how this is really affected us to this day,” he said.