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