Amy Lyga’s iPad blared James Brown’s “Say It Loud” as nearly two dozen students filled her Roseville Area High School classroom and formed a circle.
Then she turned the music down and the teens took turns reciting their homework, quoting famous Black figures from American history: Aretha Franklin. Toni Morrison. Tupac Shakur.
“I’ve never felt seen in a class the way I do here,” junior Jaevion Curtis, who is Black, said later.
The junior-level class called U.S. History Through an African-American Lens celebrates the accomplishments of the country’s Black citizens as much as it covers the horrors of slavery and the fight for civil rights.
It’s the kind of curricular offering at the center of the debate over the state of Minnesota’s once-a-decade social studies standards revision, which echoes the larger national conversation over how history is taught in schools.
Members of the committee who drafted the new standards, now under legal review by the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE), want to require a broad array of perspectives in public school lessons about history, government, economics, geography — and for the first time, ethnic studies.
But critics of the proposed standards say adding ethnic studies may run afoul of state law and argue that the standards could be interpreted as too broad and subjective.
State Rep. Sondra Erickson of Princeton was among about two dozen Republican legislators who wrote to a judge examining the standards to urge Education Commissioner Heather Mueller to “make significant revisions to improve both the academic value and rigor” of the proposed standards.
“We’re not demanding anything,” Erickson said. “We are just asking these questions to make sure that the new standards comply with state statute.”
She said that because the statute that requires social studies to be part of Minnesota’s K-12 education explicitly mentions citizenship and government, geography, history and economics, those are the only four strands any new standards should include.
In the letter, the legislators point to the standard calling for students to “apply lessons from the past in order to eliminate historical and contemporary injustices” and say “these calls to action will lead to conflict between students and teachers in promoting a leftist activism rather than academics.”
Rep. Ruth Richardson, DFL-Mendota Heights, says the debate over “contemporary” issues glosses over the fact that people of color face discrimination even today. Richardson said she was 5 years old the first time she heard a racist slur directed at her.
“That wasn’t 100 years ago,” she said, adding, “When we talk about some of those historical traumas, and when we talk about systemic racism, we’re not always necessarily talking about this from a historical perspective.”
Students see themselves
Members of the committee that drafted the proposed standards say Minnesota students’ history lessons currently lean too much on the writings and observations of white Europeans and, later, colonists and explorers.
Adding ethnic studies and requiring educators to teach history from various perspectives, they say, allows more of the state’s students to see themselves reflected positively in the curriculum — like Curtis did in Lyga’s Roseville class.
In other history classes, Curtis said he rarely saw Black Americans depicted as anything other than slaves or men and women fighting for equal rights.
“I feel like I can do more,” he said, after studying the successes of Black Americans.
Curtis Johnson, chair of the Roseville school board and a member of the committee that wrote the proposed standards, wants Minnesota’s growing population of students of color to experience that empowerment.
When the state last revised its social studies standards in 2011, about 74% of Minnesota’s public K-12 students were white, according to state education department data. During the 2020-21 school year, the most recent data available, a little less than 64% of the state’s public school students identified as white.
Over the same time period, the state’s Asian student population increased by 11%. Minnesota schools enroll about 21% more Black students than they did in 2011. And there are about 52% more Latino students enrolled in the state’s public schools than 10 years ago.
“Everybody should see themselves in the curriculum,” Johnson said. “And that isn’t happening right now.”
Erickson said she would encourage teachers to supply students with texts that offer various perspectives of the country’s history, but not require it because, in addition to her concerns about state law violations, it restricts the way they can build their curriculum.
“I believe in critical thinking, discussion, exploration of academic rigor,” Erickson said. “The proposed standards deviate from legitimate academic content and inquiry as far as I’m concerned.”
Johnson contends that the purpose of considering various perspectives, particularly in history classes, is that he doesn’t think lessons should deify historical figures, but show their human complexity.
“That’s what makes them interesting, to be honest,” he said. “Telling their actual stories allows us to actually relate to all of these people and all of these characters.”
Not heroes or villains
Seth Bobrow, who teaches sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade history at New Century School, a public charter in St. Paul, said he already does a lot of that.
He recently asked his sixth-grade history class to examine George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama. Half of the class focused on finding the most positive, redeeming stories about them. The other half had to find the not-so-good stuff.
Then, the class discussed and rated them as either heroes or villains. The result, Bobrow said, was a complicated discussion to help students understand that famous historical figures don’t exist on a binary of good or evil.
He takes this approach to all of his history lessons. When discussing Richard Nixon, for example, they cover both Watergate and the fact that he signed the law establishing the Environmental Protection Agency.
“The idea is not to deify or villainize these people,” he said.
In Roseville, teens lobbied for and helped develop the U.S. History Through an African-American Lens class after a series of student protests following the fatal police shooting of Philando Castile.
Marlee Mfalingundi, who teaches the course during first period and co-developed the curriculum, often reflects on her time as a Black high schooler in St. Paul. She had one Black teacher and rarely saw people who looked like her in history books.
“If I had a class like this — or teachers who looked like me — I would be different today. I don’t know how, but I would,” Mfalingundi said. “These kids are going to have what I didn’t have.”