Learning with Laughter

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By Amy Orr, Special to the Independent

Fourth-grader Arianna Cunningham mimics rowing as a native Chumash in the Walk Through California history lesson at Top of the World School this week. Photos by Amy Orr.

Philip Black hooks his audience with humor as soon as they enter the room.

“What’s the best part of today?” Black asks. “Is it history? Is it geography? No, it’s getting out of class for two and a half hours, am I right?

Maryann Thomas’s fourth-grade class cheers in agreement. As the students look around the room, they see an array of brightly colored flags and a large map of California, surrounded by lollipops.

“I see you’ve noticed my map,” Black says, acknowledging their interest. “Those colorful things around the edges aren’t just candy, they’re a way to earn points for your team. If you pick one that has gold on the tip of the stick, your team will get 50 points. We call it ‘going for the gold’. But you only get to ‘go for the gold’ if I catch you displaying extraordinary behavior.”

The students immediately sit up straight and make angelic faces. For the rest of the afternoon, they hang on Black’s every word.

Black is a professional history presenter. His job is to make California history fun and memorable. This past Tuesday, he led the “Walk Through California” at Top of the World Elementary (TOW).

Student Archibald Mignosa winces in pain to impersonate the explorer Cabrillo, injured in a fall.
Student Archibald Mignosa winces in pain to impersonate the explorer Cabrillo, injured in a fall.

His employer, California Weekly Explorer, has been visiting TOW for nearly two decades. Teachers and parents rave about the impact the playful program has on students.

“It really makes learning fun,” says Dominic Pitz, father of a fourth grader. “My two older daughters did it when they were this age. The kids all get very excited about it.”

Football fan Gage Lee slips into a different uniform, the robe of Father Junipero Serra, founder of the California missions.
Football fan Gage Lee slips into a different uniform, the robe of Father Junipero Serra, founder of the California missions.

Pitz’s daughter Karina agrees. “It’s great! I really like traveling back through time. I didn’t know that was going to happen.”

“Time travel” is one of the vehicles Black uses to connect students to the past. He explains that his time machine is a little unreliable, so everyone needs to cover their heads and eyes in order to keep their brains and eyeballs from popping out. The students cooperate enthusiastically.

Presenter Philip Black re-enacts the Bear Flag Revolt in a fourth-grade TOW class.
Presenter Philip Black re-enacts the Bear Flag Revolt in a fourth-grade TOW class.

Their first itinerary takes them to a Chumash village. They grin when they emerge from their protective positions and see classmate Arianna Cunningham rowing a tomol, a plank-built boat.

Another journey transports the class to the Channel Islands. Students watch explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo fall and break his arm while navigating the California coast. Fourth grader Archibald Mignosa throws himself into the role, holding his arm and grimacing in dramatic fashion.

Next, Black casts Gage Lee as Father Junipero Serra, the priest who founded nine of 21 Spanish missions in California from San Diego to San Francisco in the 1700s. Gage smiles when Black covers his Chargers football jersey with a hooded priest’s robe. Under Serra’s watchful eye, the whole class stacks imaginary adobe bricks as they build mission walls.

“I love seeing my friends acting like fun characters,” Olivia Brenes says.

Selma Blunk is delighted to share the Walk Through experience with her daughter Michelle. “Because the structure is so interactive, the kids learn a lot,” she comments. “And I do, too!”

Prior to the presentation, each child memorizes an assigned term. During the course of the program, everyone gets a chance to recite their term and earn points for their team. Complete memorization earns the most points, but Black awards some points even when students stumble.

“The points are a little bit of pressure and I like that,” says Brady Biddinger. “I also like the lollipops and the humorous stories. They’re really funny.”

Thomas says she loves the Walk Through program because it “brings history to life in a compelling and meaningful way. There is not a lot of extra preparation needed and it complements our core social studies curriculum wonderfully.  All the kids really have to do to prepare is memorize a definition of a term related to California history, look up the answer to a question, and then dress up as something related to California.”

 

 

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