By Amy Orr, Special to the Independent
“Ready positions…heads down, eyes closed. Time travel is about to begin.”
As the robotic voice begins its countdown, students lower their heads with curiosity and anticipation, eager to leap into the past and “Walk Through California”. Funded by the PTA, California Weekly Explorer’s interactive performance is an annual event on the campus of El Morro Elementary School.
“It’s amazing,” says student Marlie Barron. “We get to learn history and have fun.”
All of El Morro’s fourth grade classes participate in this immersive historical adventure, which is presented four different times at the end of the school year. Due to the statewide popularity of the program, performance dates must be reserved a year in advance.
The children journey through time with personal encounters ranging from Native Americans to explorers, Spanish missionaries to Russian fur traders. Each role is played by a fourth grader, selected spontaneously by the presenter and clothed in a simple costume.
Students chuckle when a caped classmate carries a sword and starts exploring the coast as conquistador Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo. The laughter gets louder as they watch Cabrillo’s accidental death, re-enacted in dramatic fourth-grade fashion.
Humor is an integral part of the Walk Through’s success. Comedic moments hold students’ attention and turn historic events into fun memories.
While the rest of the fourth graders “time travel,” presenter Mary Holley selects Ryan Cheng to play Father Junipero Serra, the Spanish priest responsible for the first nine missions in California. Ryan steps into a brown, hooded cloak and grins when the presenter tells him to answer every question with a Spanish “yes.”
After telling students to raise their heads, Holley addresses Ryan. “Father Serra, is it true that you built your first mission in San Diego?”
“Si,” the priest responds.
“And Father, is the road between the California missions called El Camino Real?”
“Si,” Serra answers again.
“Thank you, Father. Now, can you tell us which vitamin is your favorite?”
“Si,” the pint-sized priest replies, giggling at the play on words.
“I like seeing my friends acting like important people in history,” says student Santino Rossi. “It teaches you in a fun way.”
El Morro Principal Chris Duddy enjoys the yearly presentations and appreciates how the program draws youngsters into the experience.
“The participation aspect is very meaningful. Students really seem to enjoy dressing up and acting out the history they learn during the year,” Duddy says.
To prepare for the Walk Through, each child memorizes a key term and researches a historical question. Throughout the event, students respond to impromptu questions and recite their assigned pieces. The constant interaction boosts public speaking skills.
After molding adobe bricks and feeling the trembling of an earthquake, fourth graders gather around an enormous topographical map. The presenter asks the youngsters to identify various regions and landmarks.
Students wave their hands, eager to provide answers. With guidance from the presenter, they move around the map, physically connecting with facts as they place symbolic objects on geographic locations around the state.
Parents are invited to watch the annual performance. Many of them stay for the entire two and a half hours, happy to share this unique experience with their children.
“I’m impressed by the way the students stay engaged,” says parent Jennifer Cheng. “And there’s so much history…the parents end up learning too!”
After seeing the program, parent Valerie Schaffer agrees. “Teaching kids like this makes history come alive for them.”
“It’s a really neat way for kids to show everything they have learned throughout the year,” says parent Allison Corradini-Thomas.
El Morro’s fourth grade teachers agree. Teacher Denise Grey describes the Walk Through as a culmination, a program that ties the year of history together in a fun way.
“It is definitely a highlight,” says Grey. “Who else can take a field trip to the school’s multipurpose room and feel as if they have left school?”