Education / Schools

SJB State Historic Park turns to virtual lessons for elementary schools

Fourth graders learn about the crafts and skills of 19th-century California.

While tourists are slowly returning to San Juan Bautista as businesses and restaurants reopen, one thing has been missing: the legions of students coming to the city to tour the mission and the state historic park.

With Mission-era history a required part of the fourth grade curriculum, San Juan has become accustomed to a parade of yellow school buses bringing in as many as 500 students a day to tour the historic areas of the town. 

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, park interpreters have switched gears to live, online history talks and demonstrations of the crafts and skills of 19th-century California. The programs were made available starting on Nov. 11 on Zoom and are broadcast live from the park.

“We are doing a program called ‘Days of Alta California,’ said park interpreter Marcos Vizcaino. “It lasts 40 minutes or so and tells the story of General Jose Castro, commandant general of Alta California, and his family and the culture here in those early times of the 1820s through the 1840s.”

The program covers various aspects of their lives, Vizcaino said. “For example, we show how the very rich would have demonstrated their wealth at the time by having flour tortillas. That was very luxurious for that period because there was not a lot of land to grow wheat. They also did not have a lot of labor to process the wheat or the mills. So we do an entire demo on how the wheat turns to dough and then we make and cook the tortillas.”

The programs are about 45 minutes long, down from the usual hour it would take at the state park with students present. Each class will be offered live, one school per class, with a capacity of 100 students. The program is free for the schools.

“We also show what various people of the time looked like through cutout figures,” Vizcaino said. “We have a wealthy Californio, Mrs. Castro, the workers like the vaqueros, the Ohlone people, a tortilla-making cook. We show them what the roles, the culture, and the class structure was at the time.”

The biggest industry in the area at the time was ranching, and the presentation goes into how local ranches raised cattle and what they were able to do with the cows including producing meat, rendering fat for candles, and making leather.

“That was how the rich gained their wealth,” Vizcaino said. “That allowed them to acquire the huge ranchos, which leads back to their ability to grow wheat.”

State park staff spent a month and a half rehearsing the program prior to launching it this week, trying to keep some of the spirit of the live presentations intact.

“It’s hard because, in-person, we work to get all the senses triggered,” Vizcaino said. “[Students] can visit the buildings, they can touch the cow skins, they can help us make the dough for the tortillas, they can feel the heat from the fires, and they get to eat the tortillas they make. So there is a lot they won’t get from the experience.”

While students are still able to visit the park virtually through the new distance learning approach, not having the students in person has dealt a financial blow to the park and local businesses which depend on the money those students bring with them.

“It is a part of our income,” Vizcaino said. “I remember getting the call the day they shut the park down and Margot Tankersley from Margot’s Ice Cream was here asking how many students would be coming that week so she could plan. I had to tell her ‘none’ and you could see she was not happy.”

Tankersley said the whole town is impacted by the loss of the student field trips.

“The students come here and get a chance to see the park and the mission, then walk down Third Street,” she said. “They go home and tell their parents and then they bring the whole family back for a visit to see everything, too.”

The programs are being offered through the state park website, as part of the Park Online Resources for Teachers and Students (PORT). There is access through that portal to different programs at other parks including Point Lobos and Mission La Purisima.

While park staff have found a way to continue educating the youth, Vizcaino hopes the virtual courses don’t become permanent.

“I hope we can use PORT to reach an even larger number of people, but the experience of being in the park just can’t be replaced,” he said. “It is nice to reach a worldwide audience, but it is much more enriching to be able to visit the park, visit the mission, and visit the town. But for the times we are in right now, we are happy to still be able to share the park with everyone this way.”

And being able to share the park means that students who would never be able to travel to San Juan Bautista can now enjoy this historic resource. Recently, a fourth grade distance learning class from Fontana Unified School District, approximately 365 miles from the park, attended one of the lessons.

“I was looking for something the students could relate to,“ teacher Robert Trujillo said, “and this program is awesome. And the website provides a lot of pictures and information to go with the lesson.”

The students were very excited about what they saw, said Trujillo.

“The way they did the presentation was unexpected. For the students, probably the tortilla making process was the most interesting. They were very excited about it and they are still talking about it in our online discussions. It is great to see students so involved in what they are learning.”


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Robert Eliason

I got my start as a photographer when my dad stuck a camera in my hand on the evening of my First Grade Open House. He taught me to observe, empathize, then finally compose the shot.  The editors at BenitoLink first approached me as a photographer. They were the ones to encourage me to write stories about things that interest me, turning me into a reporter as well.  BenitoLink is a great creative family that cares deeply about the San Benito community and I have been pleased to be a part of it.