Fourth grade is the first and last time most people learn anything about the mission period in California. In case you don’t know, the state social studies curriculum mandates that all fourth graders be able to “describe the social, political, cultural, and economic life and interactions among people of California from the pre-Columbian societies to the Spanish mission and Mexican rancho periods.” A tall order, isn’t it?
But if you ask most Californians what they know about the mission era they will tell that you all they remember is their fourth grade project, which usually involved building a model of a mission church.
So it is crucial that kids get good information to help them understand this complex and fascinating time in history.
As a college professor I’ve spent a lot of time talking to young adults about the mission era. But I don’t often have a chance to speak to elementary school children (other than my own). So when I was invited to give a talk about the California missions to a fourth grade class near my home I jumped at the opportunity.
Since I was dealing with elementary schoolers, this visit required a different type of preparation than I would do for a college class. In my own classes I have students read original Spanish language sources — I’m a Spanish professor, after all — but that wouldn’t have been appropriate in this case. Thankfully I’m married to an elementary school teacher, so I was able to get some pointers on how to prepare for fourth graders.
In the end I had a blast — the kids were lively and full of energy and their teacher had prepared them well. I’m sure there are things I’ll do different next time, but I thought I’d jot down some of my takeaways about talking to kids about the California mission era.
1. Tell a good story.
Everybody loves a good story, especially children. But social studies textbooks tend to focus on broad categories like “trade,” “exploration,” “economic activities,” “modification of the physical environment,” etc. Fortunately the California mission period is full of great stories that can help illustrate these concepts. A close look at one person’s life can show how many different factors intersect and also can help illustrate how each person is unique and complex.
The story of native leader Estanislao — who started a rebel movement but eventually returned to life on the mission — can be a great way to show the complex relationships between indigenous people, the missions and the Spanish/Mexican military. Or the story of Colonel Juan Bautista de Anza and the families he brought to Alta California in 1776 who became California’s first settlers and eventually established the territory’s ranchos.
Telling stories also helps avoiding falling into what archaeologist David Hurst Thomas calls the Grand Narrative, which says that Hispanic people had a monopoly on power and the native people were just passive objects of that power.
Which brings me to another point: avoiding jargon. When I hear children repeat the notion that the Franciscans wanted to “Christianize” the native peoples I cringe. Children don’t normally use words that end in -ize. Textbooks and academic articles do, and we adults easily fall into jargonizing everything (see, I did it). And there is another problem. Whether you are talking about utilizing a tool or Christianizing a native person, you are referring to the manipulating passive objects, which the Indians weren’t. It is more accurate to say that the missionaries wanted to convince the Indians to adopt Christianity. It is a concept that is easier to understand, and reflects the fact that the native peoples were acting subjects, not objects.
By the way, if you want to talk about religion, you need to be somewhat fluent about it. Otherwise you risk making a caricature of either pre-contact native beliefs or Catholicism.
2. Use visuals.
One of the things the mission era lends itself to is images. I brought examples of photos of the missions (both inside and out), maps, images of California indigenous people, soldiers, settlers and friars, as well as Junipero Serra himself. And while I usually project images in the university courses I teach, I decided to bring 8 1/2 by 11 inch color reproductions, which I had printed and laminated. That way I was able to pass them around the classroom for the children to examine individually.
As a parent who is concerned about how much “screen time” children get these days, I figured this was a way to have the kids interact with the images as they passed them around the classroom.
3. Use objects.
Another thing I did was to bring several objects that could be passed around the classroom. It gave a tactile dimension to the presentation and the students really loved it.
Items like acorns, clam or oyster shells and animal fur help introduce a discussion of the California landscape and how these items were used by
the Native peoples.
A handful of wheat can give students an idea of the types of agricultural products introduced by Spanish missionaries and settlers. I wasn’t able to find unmilled wheat on short notice, but I did find pearl barley, which seemed to work quite well.
I also have some of the beautiful bronze bells that used to be sold at the Santa Barbara Mission. When you ring them, they make a lovely sound and it sure gets the kids’ attention. A rosary and a replica of the cross Serra wore to represent the religious aspect of the missions rounded out the collection.
Just keep in mind that these objects are meant to be handled and touched, so don’t use things that are fragile or irreplaceable.
4. Questions are key.
Don’t give a speech. Instead, focus on questions. I like to ask the children to make guesses about the images and objects I bring. Everybody has an idea, some more accurate than others. And if the kids are enthusiastic, they will also have lots of questions for you.
I’ll admit, one of my mistakes on this last trip was not leaving enough time for the students to ask me questions. I got so wrapped up in the conversation with them about the items I brought that I had to stop myself at the end of the session. When I did ask them if they had any questions, lots of hands went up and I only had time to answer a few before the recess bell rang.
5. Show your enthusiasm.
If you are not a teacher, remember, you are dealing with children — bring your energy and enthusiasm. Project your voice so that everyone in the room can hear you and feel your passion for what you are talking about. Walk around. Ask them their names.
There is an old Spanish maxim, enseñar deleitando. Loosely translated it means “teach through enjoyment.” Teaching about something that interests you will be enjoyable for you and for those you teach. Follow that rule and it will be a win-win situation.