Conversations around race and racial justice

At two Mankato high schools, new course aims to tie history of social justice to movements today

Three students stand in a school hallway
Anna Hartmann (left), 17, Brinley Ketter, 16, and Miranda Kubek, 17, have enrolled in the Mankato public schools' new social justice course, set to begin next semester.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Brinley Ketter has spent most of his high school career navigating an uncertain world.

He started as a freshman at Mankato East High School in the fall of 2019, and since then, he and his classmates have been trying to find ways to process crisis after crisis, from pandemic to racism to rising hate crimes and the relentlessness of headlines about Black people being killed by police.

"I remember that, in ninth grade, we were all full of life, and we were all hopeful. And then COVID hits, then George Floyd, Mr. [Daunte] Wright,” Ketter, 16 said. 

It’s been overwhelming at times to find ways to talk about what’s happening in Minnesota or around the country, he said — while at the same time trying to connect with fellow students who are also navigating the very personal challenges of this moment.

“I think the teachers are now seeing that seeing all this anger and hate is affecting our students," he said.

That might be changing. When Ketter signed up for his junior year classes, there was a new social studies elective in the mix: It’s called “Race, Ethnicity and Civil Rights.” He signed up immediately. 

One student wears a facemask.
Brinley Ketter, 16, a sophomore at Mankato East, listens as a fellow student talks about the new elective class offering that will begin in the district in response to current events and student interest.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Starting next fall, students at Mankato East and Mankato West high schools will be able to take the brand-new course — developed as a way to help them explore topics of race, civil rights and social justice. It’s intended to serve as a place where students can learn about history, and connect it to the social movements of today.

Teachers say they hope it will equip them to engage in difficult dialogue, and participate in social change. 

Ketter said he also hopes the new elective will be a chance for some of his classmates to better understand what it’s been like for him, as a Black teenager, to witness the deaths of George Floyd and Daunte Wright, so close to home.

Anna Hartmann, 17, hopes for much of the same. The Mankato West junior is  Asian American, and the mass shooting last month in Atlanta that killed eight people, including six Asian women, hit close to home, as she and other classmates grappled with their own experiences with racism. 

“Personally, with all the Asian hate going around, I feel more targeted,” Hartmann said. “Not at school, but just in society. And just all those Asian women or Asian men just walking down the street, and they just get attacked. I’m more aware of my surroundings now.”

Hartmann said that, at first, there weren’t many opportunities at school to talk about the tragedy upon tragedy that have been happening around the country — and right here in Minnesota — since she began high school. 

"Teachers don’t have that conversation with students. I’ve had one, maybe two teachers talk about Asian hate and the Chauvin trial and Daunte Wright case, and everything," she said.

A student stands in front of a microphone.
Anna Hartmann (center), 17, a junior at Mankato West, talks about her experience as an Asian American and about the new class that she has enrolled in for the fall of 2021.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Travis Olson, director of teaching and learning at Mankato Area Public Schools, said that the new course was developed to help students learn the history, but also to envision their own role in the social justice movements of their own time.

“We certainly wanted to give our students every opportunity to develop their understanding of the world around them, where they fit into that and the impact that race, ethnicity, gender play in the world in which they grew up,” Olson said.

“It’s really an opportunity for our kids to continue to engage in that dialogue, [and] to deepen their understanding of the world in which they live.”

The new course comes at a time when other Minnesota districts are adding cultural studies classes to their mix of course offerings. Minneapolis Public Schools last November made ethnic studies a graduation requirement for students. In St. Paul, the public school district is in the process of doing the same.

Minnesota’s own academic standards on the state level are reviewed and revised on a ten-year cycle. The Minnesota Department of Education is in the process of reviewing the state’s social studies standards for students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Statewide academic standards establish what students are expected to know and be able to do within a subject area. Districts are able to decide on specific curricula they will use to teach those standards. The first draft of statewide standards was released in December, and a second draft is scheduled to be published later this spring. The final proposal isn’t expected till fall,  and wouldn’t go into effect until at least the beginning of the 2025 academic year. 

Teacher Matt Moore, who co-chairs Mankato West’s social studies department, said that offering opportunities for students to draw inspiration can be empowering. He said he hopes the new course will help fill gaps in students’ understanding of history by drawing on a variety of perspectives on various movements such as Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate, while also touching on women’s and LGTBQ rights. 

"Every year we talk about our elective offerings, and I think for the last few years, we've been noticing the rise of Black Lives Matter movement, and a lot of increased attention and focus on race issues in this country," he said.

A man in a face mask talks in front of a microphone.
Matt Moore, a social studies teacher at Mankato West High School, speaks about the new elective class Race, Ethnicity and Diversity Studies.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Moore said he hopes the in-class learning spills over to students’ lives, and the way they see their role in the world.

“One other major goal, I think, [of] a class like this is that it can inspire students that they can make a difference,” Moore said. “They’re capable of leading movements, bringing about change.”

That’s why Mankato West junior Miranda Kubek, 17, enrolled in the new course for next year. She hopes that beginning conversations in a classroom setting will be the first step needed to bring people together — and better navigate their world.

“I’m hoping that this class will give people a foundation to understand that the events that we’ve been seeing aren’t anomalies, and that there are systems in place and that there are patterns in place that will take time and effort to reckon with,” Kubek said. “That it is possible for our generation to be a part of that movement and to take these kinds of first steps to address these issues.”

Mankato West principal Shelli Blasing says the curriculum is meant to be flexible, and responsive to what’s happening in real-time. 

"We have a group of very active students who are interested in activism, and in bringing people together to make positive change," she said.

She hopes this course will help students find their voice and prepare them to be leaders in their communities.

A woman in a face mask talks in front of a microphone.
Sherri Blasing, principal at Mankato West High School, speaks about the new elective class.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

"They're going to be going out into the world, where they are going to be greeted with all these different perspectives,” she said. “And what a better place to learn how to navigate through that in a positive way than within your school? We owe it to our kids to give them some safe spaces to talk about these issues that are so important."

Plenty of Blasing’s students — and their counterparts at Mankato East — agree. The class, at both schools, is already full for next fall.

Correction (April 29, 2021): Miranda Kubek's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.

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