Discovering California History

Colleen McGee’s morning message to her 4th grade class set the stage for the day’s social studies lesson: “Good morning, Rancheros!”  Today, Colleen, along with associate teacher Carolyn Peralta, will lead their 4th graders through a persuasive writing exercise set in early 19th Century California- Mexican California, that is.  Their students will be writing letters to the Mexican Governor of Alta California, so that he may grant them a rancho, a tract of land on which to raise cattle, crops and a family.

Colleen McGee and her students generate ideas before writing

To get them started, McGee generates some guidelines along with her students for their written petitions.  Students agree that, in order to get their rancho, they need to explain to the Governor where their desired land is located, along with why they feel that they deserve the land. “And finally,” McGee tells her students, “don’t forget to flatter the Governor.” Fourth grader Jude M. raises her hand and asks, “Does that mean we should butter him up?”  “Exactly,” says McGee.

Mission mosaic

For 4th graders across the state, studying California history is a right of passage.  Likewise, Wildwood 4th graders investigate state history from the arrival of the first aboriginal settlers, through the Spanish conquest and mission period, up to the Gold Rush and Chinese immigration. At Wildwood, however, the study of California history is lively, insightful, and inter-disciplinary.  For example, Colleen’s students enhance their artistic skills by designing and constructing mosaics to portray the various Spanish missions.

Christian B. and Chloe S. craft their petitions

What’s more, all Wildwood students hone their writing skills while studying state history.  “Most of our social studies curriculum is writing-based,” says McGee.  In addition to persuasive writing, Wildwood 4th graders infuse their California history studies with short story writing, poetry, and journalism.  All of this culminates in the “Voices of the West” project, where students create a portfolio of their best work set against the backdrop of California’s past. 

Jude M. contemplates her rancho

As McGee’s students settle into their writing, I check on their progress. Some of the students tell me the names of their ranchos. “Mine’s called Rancho Garcia Dominguez,” says Ryan B. “I’ve called mine Rancho Santa Margarita,” says Christian B., “because I know that there actually was one.”

The other students also work intently, crafting their arguments and imagining their lives in old California, all the while, perfecting their writing skills. If I were governor, I’d be greatly impressed and persuaded. And I’m sure that I’d grant them all their ranchos.

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