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An Intro To LA History In Middle School — Without ‘Sugarcoating’ The Difficult Moments

Three students in a public school classroom sit facing away from the camera, their eyes pointed to their teacher, wearing a floral-print button down shirt at the front of the classroom. The teacher points at a projection on her classroom's white board of a black-and-white archival photo, depicting a man in a tuxedo and two women in dresses.
Anna Soffer, a sixth grade teacher at Thomas Starr King Middle School, shows students a black-and-white photograph from the 1950s as part of her class on the history of Los Angeles.
(Kyle Stokes
/
LAist)
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In history class in elementary school, Tuva Wilson got an inkling that she wasn’t learning the complete, complicated, sometimes-ugly story of the past.

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An Intro To L.A. History In Middle School — Without ‘Sugarcoating’ The Difficult Moments

“I feel like they kinda showed us what we wanted to see a little bit,” said Tuva, who’s now in sixth grade. “I know that we were little, but I feel like we could handle at least a little bit more.”

Then came middle school — and sixth grade teacher Anna Soffer’s L.A. History class.

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For the last two years at Thomas Starr King Middle School in Silver Lake, Soffer has taught a 10-week elective course on the history of Los Angeles. She designed the course herself, relying heavily on the series Lost L.A. from public television station KCET.

The version of history she teaches is anything but glossy. Her students learn about the subjugation of Native people, Wild West lynch mobs, redlining, eminent domain, civil rights abuses (and protests) and other defining stories that shape race relations in L.A. to this day.

“It became clear as I was developing [the course],” Soffer said, “that you can’t ignore that — that this city was built the way it was because of race and if you ignore that you’re not telling the truth.”

A woman stands facing a white board in a classroom. A projection on the white board mirrors the screen of a laptop she's holding in her hands as she stands.
Thomas Starr King Middle School teacher Anna Soffer pulls up a clip from Lost L.A., the series from public television station KCET around which she designed her 10-week course for sixth graders on local history.
(Kyle Stokes
/
LAist)
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‘I Thought Dodger Stadium Was Always There’

Soffer’s taught the course eight times, and each time she teaches a slightly different mix of stories, shifting topics depending on the students’ backgrounds and interests. She frequently covers stories like the 1871 anti-Chinese massacre, the Zoot Suit uprising, the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. In just half a semester, there’s barely time to touch on the 1965 Watts uprising, and not enough time to cover citywide unrest in 1992.

On the day I visited the class, Soffer was teaching about the city’s best-known case of eminent domain: the razing of Chavez Ravine — a scrappy, tight-knit, mostly Mexican American community in the hills north of downtown.

“That community that used to be there,” Soffer explained to her two-dozen sixth graders, “is now the site of Dodger Stadium.”

5bbcd664d217300008df6d94-eight.jpg
May 8, 1959: "Several Chavez Ravine residents fought eviction, including Aurora Vargas, who vowed that, 'they'll have to carry me [out].' L.A. County Sheriffs forcibly remove Vargas from her home. Bulldozers then knocked over the few remaining dwellings. Four months later, ground-breaking for Dodger Stadium began." (Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library HERALD-EXAMINER COLLECTION)
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Many readers of this website know this story — in fact, Soffer showed the class an LAist piece with archival photos of the former Chavez Ravine neighborhood — but to many students in the class, this was brand-new, mind-blowing information.

“I think it’s crazy,” sixth grader Syncere Vines said. “The one time I went to Dodger Stadium, I just thought it was always there.” She says she even attended the elementary school near the ballpark, but never learned the history.

“I thought [before] Dodger Stadium, there was just an open place,” classmate Josue Palacios added.

‘It Made Me Feel Mad’

Soffer walked students through the story, explaining how in the early 1950s — well before a baseball team set its sights on L.A. — city officials pressured Chavez Ravine residents to leave, promising to replace their houses with new, gleaming public housing.

“My guess is they lied,” student Bryn Carmichael volunteered, “because if they were doing public housing, then public housing would be there right now.”

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“Well, that was the promise,” Soffer told Bryn — at least at first.

But a new mayor took office in 1953. He saw public housing as “un-American,” and the housing plan fell apart. However, by 1957, many Chavez Ravine residents — the vast majority of them Mexican American — had already left or been forced out. The following year, voters approved a deal to build Dodger Stadium.

Soffer showed the class more photos of what happened next: L.A. County sheriff’s deputies dragged the final Chavez Ravine holdouts from their homes to make way for construction to begin.

Those photos moved student Josue Palacios: “It made me feel kinda mad, because people take advantage of other people.”

In Soffer’s class, Josue added, “I’ve learned a lot. Back in the day, they were really racist.”

A woman and her daughter survey the wreckage of a bulldozed home: split boards, girders, plywood and tiles.
May 14, 1959: "Mrs. Abrana Arechiga (left) and her daughter, Mrs. Vicki Augustain, look at the ruins of one of their Chavez Ravine homes, which were destroyed by bulldozers during the controversial eviction last Friday, an action which now has erupted into a sensational city-wide furor. After eviction day, the Arechiga family lived in a tent and, later, in a loaned trailer. Now it is revealed they own 11 homes in the Los Angeles area."
((Herald-Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public Library Collection))

'She Always Told Us Things Straight And Not Some Cutesy Version Of It’

Soffer’s L.A. History class at King Middle School is not an ethnic studies class, and she didn’t set out to teach one; she’s a lifelong Angeleno with a passion for local history. (The rest of the day, she teaches math and science.)

She’s also teaching the course at a time of intense debate over how to teach social studies.

Under state law, by 2025 — when Soffer’s current sixth graders are sophomores — all high schools in California will have to offer an ethnic studies course. Some districts already offer these classes, but state officials, scholars and activists don't agree on what a typical ethnic studies course in California should include.

Meanwhile, conservatives are pushing back against race-centered history curricula in K-12 schools, and specifically targeting the legal framework of critical race theory. One Orange County school board has already enacted such a ban.

A sixth grader taps the screen of a tablet computer which is currently displaying a keyboard and a Google Form.
A student in Anna Soffer's L.A. History course at Thomas Starr King Middle School taps a response into a tablet computer during class on April 28, 2022.
(Kyle Stokes
/
LAist)

In a phrase, the debate boils down to: how blunt should teachers be about our society’s history of racism?

At least in L.A. history class, Tuva Wilson appreciated that Soffer let her ponder uncomfortable truths about the city’s past.

“She never sugarcoated it,” Tuva said. “She always told us things straight and not some cutesy version of it.”

‘These Kids — They’re Going To Make A Difference’

Soffer has noticed that in her class, many of the students tend to dwell on the darker side of history — but she tries to offer less-depressing takeaways, too: stories of protest and resistance, and inspiring or heroic figures. She’s taught the story of Toypurina, a Tongva healer who led a failed uprising at Mission San Gabriel in 1785.

Another example: Soffer expanded her lessons on the 1968 East L.A. student walkouts because her class was so enthralled.

Sixth grader Lindsay Rosales had never heard the story behind those walkouts, which some scholars say marked the beginning of the urban Chicano rights movement. In March 1968, thousands of students — most of them Mexican American — rose up to decry racism and decrepit conditions at five East L.A. high schools.

A student speaks into a microphone in front of a crowd, facing the camera as faces stare at him from behind, transfixed at his speech.
Wilson High School student Peter Rodriguez speaks during a meeting of the L.A. Unified School Board on March 12, 1968. During his speech, he waved his intact draft card to prove his participation in a student protest was not communist-inspired.
(L.A. Public Library)

As Lindsay learned about this, she realized, Wait. I’m Hispanic. I live in East L.A.

“I felt like I had a connection with that,” she said, “especially seeing how different it was back then than it is now — how so many racists lived in East L.A.”

Soffer says she doesn’t strive to instill guilt in her students about the past.

“White guilt is such a thing, where white people feel so guilty about all these past injustices,” she said. “But I had a professor tell me that guilt is such a useless emotion — but if you take that guilt and shift it to responsibility … to these groups of people, then you’re going to make change in your community.

“These kids — they’re going to make a difference,” Soffer added, “and hopefully make sure these themes in our history don’t repeat themselves.”

What questions do you have about K-12 education in Southern California?
Kyle Stokes reports on the public education system — and the societal forces, parental choices and political decisions that determine which students get access to a “good” school (and how we define a “good school”).