No more sugar cubes and Popsicle sticks? State urges teachers to scrap 4th-grade mission project

The garden is filled with roses at Mission San Juan Bautista, which was founded in 1797.
The garden is filled with roses at Mission San Juan Bautista, which was founded in 1797. TPN

Put away the Popsicle sticks, glue and sugar cubes. The fourth-grade mission project, a rite of passage for elementary students for decades, may be on its way out.

California’s new history and social science framework, passed by the state Board of Education last year, recommends against the longtime tradition of building miniature replicas of the state’s Spanish colonial missions, calling it insensitive. Thousands of Native Americans died from introduced diseases and were forced to labor at the missions, it notes.

“Building missions from sugar cubes or popsicle sticks does not help students understand the period and is offensive to many,” the framework says. “Missions were sites of conflict, conquest and forced labor.”

Instead, it recommends that educators spend time teaching students about the impacts of the missions on the state’s people and its natural environment.

Since the recommendation, the California History-Social Science Project has held training sessions throughout the state familiarizing teachers with the new framework and encouraging them to eschew the mission project.

The framework, which is optional, isn’t meant to tell teachers they’re doing bad things or to take away a revered family tradition, said Nancy McTygue, executive director of the project and one of the lead authors of the framework.

“The mission project has outlived its usefulness,” she said. “I feel we can do better. We can do it in a way that is respectful and accurate.”

The California History-Social Science Project is a network of history educators, funded by public and private funds, that is headquartered at UC Davis.

The annual mission project varies from classroom to classroom, but generally includes a visit to a mission, a written report on the mission and either the building of a miniature mission, a video report, a PowerPoint presentation or a poster depicting a mission.

Lori Rushford’s fourth-grade students have built hundreds of missions over the last 20 years, but they won’t make them any longer. Rushford decided to forgo the annual rite last school year after a discussion with a parent.

The mother, who is Native American, was among the parents who attended a back-to-school night at Albert Schweitzer Elementary School in Carmichael when Rushford announced the mission project.

“She approached me a few days later and asked me why I do it,” Rushford said. “It made me stop and think. My answer was ‘Because we’ve always done it.’ 

Rushford re-evaluated the mission project and decided to scrap it. Beginning last school year, her students selected a California plant or animal and did a presentation about it, complete with a diorama.

Rushford understands the sentimental attachment parents have to the project. She remembers building a cardboard mission in the garage with her father when she was in fourth grade in the 1970s. “It was a great family project,” she said.

Reaction from parents has been mixed, Rushford said. Some parents were happy not to have to deal with the often arduous mission project, while others questioned ending the tradition.

“I personally wasn’t a fan of it,” said Julie Castle, an Elk Grove parent whose children all attended Elliott Ranch Elementary in fourth grade. “The kids got excited about it.”

Her children were given about a dozen options to choose from to fulfill their mission requirement and all opted to produce a news-style video of their visit to a mission instead of building a mission from sugar cubes or papier-mache.

Castle, who let her children work on their mission project alone, said parents sometimes take too big a role. “I think sometimes parents get so involved with the project that kids who have done their own projects feel they are not as good,” she said.

Parents also have started to turn to the wide array of prefabricated mission kits, paper models, visitor’s guides and picture books that are readily available in retail stores and online to help their children with the project.

“Things have changed,” Rushford said. “Nowadays they buy a kit and put it together, then complain about the cost of the kit.”

Nicole Kukral, a program specialist for the San Juan Unified School District, also remembers building a model mission 30 years ago, although her daughter did not do it in fourth grade. Now she is in charge of preparing the district’s teachers to teach the new history and social studies framework.

“We began this conversation because we had members of our community from a Native American group that expressed concern about the building of the missions,” Kukral said. She said that they were concerned about the project romanticizing the state’s Spanish mission era, which stretched from the late 1700s to the early 1800s.

The district contacted the UC Davis History Project, one of five sites run by the California History-Social Science Project, and asked them to acquaint their teachers with the new state framework. The project is teaching workshops across the state and has held trainings for most of the large school districts in the Sacramento region, McTygue said.

The K-12 history-social science framework also calls for lessons that include the historical contributions and struggles of the LGBT community and of minority groups.

The new framework is the result of eight years of effort, McTygue said. Emotional meetings on the topic drew so many people that the board room and overflow rooms at the state Department of Education were filled, she said. More than 11,000 public comments were submitted.

The new framework increases the emphasis on inquiry and literacy in history and social science classrooms, McTygue said. Teachers will ask students questions such as “What caused the Civil War?” and have them investigate, she said. Students will use historical documents, such as Lincoln’s inaugural address, and statistical data or eyewitness accounts to come up with answers.

Teacher reaction to the new K-12 history-social science framework has been generally positive, she said. It has put a renewed emphasis on history and social science, she said.

“It’s an acknowledgment of what good teachers have been doing for years,” she said. “Students investigate the past and make arguments. Teachers like that it energizes them.”

Diana Lambert: 916-321-1090, @dianalambert