Please stop making 4th graders build models of the California missions

If you attended fourth grade in the state of California, chances are good that you built a model of one of the 21 Spanish missions stretching from San Diego to Sonoma. Chances are also good that you remember almost nothing important about the missions’ critical role in California history nor the painful and fascinating story they tell.

San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo
Model of San Carlos Borromeo, posted by dlofink on Flickr – See the full gallery of his students’ models. Please note that even if this post calls for eliminating the mission model project, these models are still pretty awesome.

Knowing how the missions were built is, indeed, the least interesting thing about them – who build them and why is the story that is really worth learning. For example, when I was a docent at the San Francisco de Solano Mission in my hometown, Sonoma, I could have casually mentioned that the original chapel stood on western side of the four-sided complex. The more interesting tidbit that it was burned down by Native Americans revolting against Father Altimira’s tyrannical rule (yes, the man for whom one of Sonoma’s middle schools is named). My favorite thing about history is that it’s surprising – shocking even. You would think that historians would really have this pinned down by now, that we would know definitively everything that every happened and why. The reality is that the past is as expansive as the future. If you ask the question: “What really happened?” you can spend a lifetime chasing the answer.

I love California history because it is practically a telenovela – full of unexpected twists and turns and lots of crazy characters. To that end, I’d like to take all of you back to fourth grade and share some of the things you should have learned when you were instead gluing together sugar cubes and spray-painting macaroni. (If you were wondering what you were supposed to learn, please refer to History and Social Science Standard 4.2 on Page 13. Note that “Students must be able to build a scale model of a mission” is not indeed a standard. If anyone has insight into the origins of this tradition, please let me know!)

California was not empty.
It’s hard to say exactly, but there it has been estimated there were more than 200,000 Native Americans speaking more than 100 languages living in California when colonizers started showing up. You think our state is diverse today?!
Back then, everyone wanted a piece of California. The first explorers to land in California hailed from various world powers – England, Spain, Russia…Those countries’ rulers were doing anything they could to get a foothold and get control of California’s abundant resources. Spain’s approach was to found missions, with military outposts alongside them, which were supposed to become fully functioning towns.

The mission fathers were benevolent AND cruel.
It’s hard to make a broad generalization about an entire group of people. First and foremost, remember that these priests were political operatives, tasked with turning Native Americans into Spanish-speaking, Catholic citizens of the crown. They grew so powerful that the Spanish crown eventually expelled all the Jesuits from the new world, secularizing the church’s assets.
That said, they were on the front lines and anyone well knows that things look different from the frontier than they do from headquarters. I won’t discount the good works that individual priests did in their mission communities or the advocacy of those like Spanish priest Bartolome de las Casas, who was one of the few people at the time who chronicled and protested the mistreatment of Native Americans. But the priests were also spreading and perpetuating a system that did tremendous harm to California native peoples and that, too, cannot be discounted.

The Native Americans got the raw end of pretty much every deal.
If you think that slaves in the south liked having a master, then maybe you also like to imagine that the missions were happy-go-lucky places and the Native Americans were always thrilled to be there. The treatment of Native Americans is one element of mission history that is probably most disputed and I would encourage you to read different perspectives, but if the only one you’ve heard is “Spanish priests were doing God’s work to save the souls of the Natives and give them food and shelter,” please dig deeper.
Yes, many Native Americans signed up at the missions by choice. However, once baptized, they did not have the choice of leaving and were forcefully kept there and even hunted down if they ran away.
There were a lot of different factors at play – this was a period of huge change. One factor that drove Native Americans into the mission system was that the Spanish introduced livestock to California, which had a huge impact on the environment that Native Americans relied upon for their traditional hunting and gathering. There was also the devastating impact of disease, made worse by the concentration of the population at the missions, which helped disease spread more quickly. The Native American population dropped by an estimated 90 percent during this period. Please try to imagine 90 percent of the people you know dying.
Apart from life under the mission system, the period that followed was possibly worse (refer to the novel, Ramona, which is California’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin). Once most Native Americans were fully dependent on the mission economies they had build up through their labor, the Mexican government decided to secularize the missions. There was talk of splitting the land among the neophytes, but ultimately most of it went to powerful and wealthy men and the Native Americans were thrown out with nothing and ended up having to work on the new ranchos.

If you thought the Spanish and Mexicans were bad…
The Americans soon proved to be just as bad, if not worse, in their treatment of the Native Americans. Spain at least had the stated goal of preparing Native Americans to be citizens with full rights. The United States had no such intention. With the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ending the Mexican-American War, the United States took over many of the former mission properties, generally didn’t recognize the land titles held by Native Americans and put the reservation system in place.

This is far from a definitive account of the history of the California missions, but I hope it spurs you to visit a mission near you and find out more. And when your child’s fourth grade teacher demands you spend your weekend building a model of a mission, I suggest you take your cue from the mission Indians and revolt.



Filed under California history, I heart Cali, Los Angeles, Mexico

13 responses to “Please stop making 4th graders build models of the California missions

  1. angela

    And here I thought I was going to get the chance to sign a petition! Now I’ve learned stuff…thanks a lot! 😉 I’m definitely plan on checking out ‘Ramona.’ My knowledge (remembrance) of CA history is woeful. But I can make a mean mission!

    • I read Ramona about a year ago and really enjoyed it, although it is such a tragedy. That was a time of such incredible change in California – the Mexican-American War ending, California becoming an American state, massive land transfers, the secularization of the missions, the Gold Rush. Daughter of Fortune is another good book that looks at this period, although from a totally different perspective -that of a Chilean woman and a Chinese man who lived in post-Gold-Rush California.

  2. Julian

    I don’t necessarily think it is the mission building that is the problem here, it is the way that the history is being taught in the classroom, as you are pointing out, it is very biased and the hard facts most often neglected. Every year at the Presidio we have a Mission Possible exhibit where kids from different schools around San Francisco display their works and people can look at them. It is interesting to me that while some teachers use the missions the way that you are describing, many teachers use it as a way to have the students research the particular mission they are building and learn all about the impacts that mission had on the Native Americans local to that area, how the Spanish treated them and why the Spanish came, etc. Some of the missions provided had very realistic interpretations of what these students thought life would have been like for the Spanish and the Indians at their missions. So, in my opinion, it is not necessarily the activity that is the problem here, because it can be a opportunity to teach the real history, but it is the content that many teachers are putting in this activity that is the real problem. Anyway just my opinion, but great article, Sierra!!

    • I completely agree with you. With the mission models, sometimes I feel the project itself has taken on a momentum of its own and we’ve forgotten what it was supposed to teach in the first place. I feel like I’ve even heard of some teachers assigning some students to build missions and others to reconstruct how traditional Native American villages were laid out, which is great for illustrating different ways of life and values. In looking at the physical buildings of the mission, looking at something like the space set aside to keep young women apart from the men in the area sparks a much broader conversation. When I worked at a historic site in Oregon, we used the names of common beans eaten at the time to look at different elements of life in the 1800s. For instance, one of the beans was called the “Trail of Tears bean,” supposedly because the Cherokee carried it with them when they were forced from their homelands. It’s less where you start and more where you go with a lesson. It’s all about those awesome teachers who really inspire the kids to ask questions and dig deeper.

    • Carla


      You’re response waas so eloquent. My little one will be going into the 4th grade this school year and I felt this would be a great summer project for our family. I will definitley make sure I include all of what happened, the good and the bad. So that way, when she reaches high school and she reads “lies my teacher told me” she won’t feel duped.

      • So glad the article and Julian’s thoughtful comment sparked some thought! Hope the project ends up being a fun learning experience for the whole family. Hope you have a chance to visit one of the missions – California has such an incredible and fascinating past! And if you’re in the LA area, the new museum La Plaza near Olvera Street does a great job covering this era of California history.

  3. Thanks for this post. My 4th grade class somehow avoided building a mission model. I didn’t learn the painful history of the missions until I was an adult, when I taught an after-school writing class that wove in the history of the California missions. I couldn’t believe that I’d never been taught about the cruelty inflicted upon the Native Americans by the Spanish missionaries; it made me see the beautiful missions in a new light. It’s important that children learn the complex realities of California history — and any kind of history, for that matter. They can usually handle more than we give them credit for.

    • I feel like I grew up on the cusp of changes in the way history is taught in school. In first grade, we had a completely uncritical celebration of Columbus and plenty of learning about the brave pioneers who settled the frontier. By the time I got to high school, “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” was our required summer reading, which certainly caused me to question everything that teachers told me from that point on! I’m all for introducing complexity early on – you are right that kids can handle a lot. I’m also all for revisiting the things we learned in elementary, middle and high school, the way that you’ve been doing with Reschool Yourself – there is always so much more to explore. I’ve been wanting to get back into colonial times…maybe I’ll start checking out Felicity books 🙂 (and don’t any of you ladies pretend that you don’t remember the American Girl dolls!).

  4. History Fan

    We have yet to explore the intricacies of the actual docent tour. Are adults partially responsible for hiding the truth?….and giving a false history to all the adults that never built a model of a mission…

    • Short answer – yes! Sometimes docents get things wrong because there wasn’t a great training in place to support them, sometimes they get it wrong because they have their own agenda…it’s hard work being a docent. I hope my blog post would inspire people to not only be docents, but take the job really seriously – you may be someone’s only guide to California history!

  5. Robin Shultz

    When learning history, one needs to know the mindset of the people of the era that is being studied. Using today’s standards and thoughts to judge actions of others in another era is one of today’s greatest downfalls. One should not take their level of education and experiences to judge how people lived and what decisions they made in the past.

  6. It’s very challenging to relay the manipulation, abuse, enslavement, rape, genocide, and complete annihilation of the Native Peoples culture to 4th graders.

    That’s why they build missions.

    It’s the only decent thing any instructor can scrape out of the full history… the amazing architecture. The rest of the story is not even PG-13, but a strict R. The architecture and the completed chain of missions, are the only G rated part of the story.

    This account is much closer to the truth and does not resemble the history we were taught in grade school. However, this wouldn’t be appropriate for younger than seniors in HS. What of this could be relayed to a 9 yr. old?

    Why do the educational standards include the California Missions in a 4th grade curriculum?
    That should be the real question.

    The best instructors, do teach a PG version of the R rated story, while their students are distracted building their missions being sheltered in the psychological safety of the design and architecture.

    Students need hands-on and interactive lesson plans. They can not absorb much of any part of the history, if it’s taught by lecture only.

    That said, I haven’t found the age appropriate method that is hands-on and engaging to relay the horrors of the California Missions yet. So, I’ll have my students build Missions while I tell a severely edited version of history, then will act out scenes from plays, afterwards discussing the hidden truths and motivations of the key players.

    Anyone have better ideas? Please post for future educators.

    • Why this is part of 4th grade curriculum is a GREAT question…I certainly don’t have answers. Pretty much all of history is rated R if you ask me. Maybe the best a teacher can do is to keep kids curious and asking lots and lots of questions – helping them to become true life-long learners who are excited to keep exploring history many years after they are past state-mandated curriculum.

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