At the start of my first year as a principal in California, I heard a lot about the fourth grade California mission projects. It lasted a full nine weeks, and there were plenty of stories about staying up past midnight to finish the California mission dioramas. When presentation day rolled around, boy were they beautiful, and the hours poured into them were obvious. Unfortunately, just as clear was that students had learned very little about the history, culture or impact of the missions. By the end of the presentations, the biggest takeaway for students and parents was a sigh of relief that the mission ordeal was finally over.
I thought of this yesterday during Summit fourth graders’ “Here Today Gone Tomorrow” Culminating Event, and the thought was: this is the exact opposite of the California mission project!
The massive difference was between doing a project just for doing a project, and using a project to teach the content, develop critical skills, blend academic subjects, and kindle student interest. “Here Today…” made students history detectives, excited to dig up the history of their ghost towns. They needed to read and synthesize complex texts, write narratives, and other learning tasks, to answer their research questions.
This was hard work, fourth grader Lila Foley explained, and in the end she understood why it was important and saw her writing skills improving. Although it was challenging, “I was excited to learn about it, and it was fun because there were so many parts to the project.” Lila went on to mention that the western migration video students made, the music they studied, and the field trip to Tombstone “showed us what a ghost town is really like and brought learning to life.”
Learning with real-world connections, while using different lenses to study complex problems, are central to Summit’s mission. In addition to the ghost town studies, integrating lessons on economics and financial literacy from JA Biztown in the fall, studying contemporary artists works on abandoned places in art, analyzing Copland’s “Billy the Kid” and Grofe’s “Grand Canyon Suite” in music, come together for energizing experiences that are a celebration rather than a chore.
I love the California missions, but I still cringe when I think of those mission projects. It’s the promise of Summit’s mission, and the teachers and students living it, that fill me with hope for the future.