When the students at the Tri-C school in Silverlake learned about historical incidents of mass displacement – like the Trail of Tears, Japanese internment, and the relocation of the Chavez Ravine community – they didn't write essays and read texts.
Instead, they – with the guidance of a teaching artist and the arts organization artworxLA – applied what they learned and felt into making collages out of photos and words.
One of the students, 18-year-old Alexis Guerra, said she preferred the project to learning the more traditional way.
"I was happy we didn't have to do that," she said, with a laugh.
The collages combine photos and words. Guerra's has an orange and red border. Inside, she placed photos representing the Trail of Tears and Japanese internment among words like "power," "home," and "speak up."
"It was just so wrong in many ways," she said of the stories of displacement. "And it's so crazy how something so wrong could make us make something so beautiful," she said.
The students will present their work, and what they learned, at an event at the Japanese American National Museum. There, they will wear copies of the collages printed on t-shirts, and they will place laminated versions on the ground, forming a path through and around exhibits like the museum's replica of a barrack.
"They're looking at these beautiful collages, and they ... understand the story while actually having to walk through it," she explained.
In addition to making the collages, the students also participated in theater and roleplaying activities, geared towards putting them in the mindset of the people displaced. When studying the floods in Texas, the students imagined what it'd be like to wade through waist-high water. Or, when discussing internment, they made lists of what they would bring with them if they could only bring a suitcase.
The "Tri-C" in the school's name stands for Community Centered Classrooms. It's a continuation school, which means many of the students left the traditional school system for a variety of reasons and have now returned.
"Most of these kids are turned off to school in general, so the fact that they participate and engage with the artist is really encouraging," said teacher Brick Baker.
Guerra admits she didn't like art when she was in traditional school, but she said she enjoyed learning about history though this assignment.
"I loved this assignment," she said. "I didn't even think of it as an assignment at the end of the day. I was so happy to do it."
Guerra said she hopes the students' art will teach other students about what happens when communities are displaced.
Jose Sanchez coordinates workshops like this one for artworxLA. He said that while there are stereotypes that high school students–particularly continuation high school students–don't care about what's happening around them, he thinks the students' work challenges that mentality.
"In reality, they have a lot of care inside of them," Sanchez said. "This project kind of shows that level of empathy that the kids have."