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

Building dioramas of Spanish missions used to be a rite of passage for California’s schoolkids, but growing awareness of colonial brutality is making the dioramas obsolete.

By Randy Doting at the Voice of San Diego:

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.

Instead, educators advocate teaching the actual, complex history. Kids know that things live and die, they know what conflict is. Teachers can teach the history from the different perspectives of those who lived then and their competing goals.

Also: In 2017, a San Diego fourth-grader built a Mission diorama, burning as a result of the Kumeyaay Native American revolt. My kind of kid.

After all these years in the state, I consider myself a full-blooded Californian. But this part of the experience, and the veneration of California’s Mission history, is alien to me. In the New York schools where I was taught, Mission history barely got a mention. It’s a big country, and everybody’s local history is different.

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