The Learning Curve: Why Mission Dioramas Are (Mostly) History

Education

The Learning Curve: Why Mission Dioramas Are (Mostly) History

For many Californians, putting together a diorama of a mission is one of the most memorable parts of their education. Now, mission-making has nearly gone the way of venerable school traditions like smoking areas and spankings.

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Craft stores used to make a killing out of California’s fourth-grade state history curriculum. Every child, myself included, had to make a diorama of a state mission – and they needed supplies like hot glue, corrugated paper and Styrofoam, not to mention milk cartons and clay. Parents could even buy a whole pre-fab mission-making kit in case their kid happened to mention after dinner that the project is due tomorrow.

For many Californians, putting together a diorama is one of the most memorable parts of their education. Now, mission-making has nearly gone the way of venerable school traditions like smoking areas and spankings. Some students still make them (watch out for ants if you use sugar cubes!), but most fourth-graders no longer need to ask Mom for a ride to the nearest Michaels or Hobby Lobby.

The change is linked to a changing understanding about our state’s early history. The Spanish colonialization of California is no longer romanticized, and we now recognize the brutal treatment of Native Americans by European invaders.

“The mission projects often overshadow the complexity of the time period,” said Wendy Rank-Buhr, who oversees curriculum for San Diego Unified schools and helped her own kids make dioramas. “It becomes about the architecture of the building rather than the lived experience of the people of the time.”

Meanwhile, the founder of the mission system, Father Junipero Serra, has also lost his historic halo. Earlier this year, officials changed the name of Junipero Serra High in the Tierrasanta neighborhood after students objected to honoring Serra.

The diorama blowback isn’t new, nor is the glorification of Serra. The state Legislature ordered schools to teach about California history way back in 1925, according to a history journal, and the Spanish colonialists were depicted as heroic “pioneers.” But beginning in the 1960s, the journal says, Native American and Latino activists sought to kill off “the Anglo myth of paternalistic Catholic priests and happy Indians.”

More recently, state education officials tried to pound a stake in the dioramas when they updated curriculum guidelines in 2016: “Building missions from sugar cubes or popsicle sticks does not help students understand the period and is offensive to many. … Missions were sites of conflict, conquest, and forced labor.”

So how do you teach kids about a brutal time in California history? “You can’t give a fourth-grader a 400-page book called ‘Murder State’,” a state curriculum adviser told Atlas Obscura.

What you can do, Rank-Buhr told me, is help children to gain a general understanding of what happened. “Certainly a fourth-grader is aware that things live and die,” she said, and they know what conflict is. “That’s when the skills of teachers really come into play.”

For example, she said, a teacher could urge students to look at the mission era from the different perspectives of those who lived then and talk about how they had competing goals. As she explained, any kid with a sibling who wants to control the TV understands how two people can passionately want different things.

So what happens now? Serra’s name is unlikely to return to the former Serra High, even though Tierrasanta residents have launched a long-shot lawsuit seeking just that. And there’s been talk of removing the statue of Serra in the U.S. Capitol building, where it’s one of two placed there by the state California, and not replacing one on the Capitol grounds in Sacramento.

Meanwhile, some teachers still require kids to make dioramas. The state won’t stop them, but these educators may regret it. A few years ago, a Native American fourth-grader and her daughter built a diorama of the San Diego Mission in flames after the Kumeyaay tribe set it on fire.

No word on whether the kid got an A for ashes. But she sure knows how to bring history alive.

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