In classroom, teens talk through summer of pain
ROSEVILLE — Wayne Felton didn't plan to teach a class about police shootings and racial tension this summer.
The Roseville behavioral specialist was asked to teach a summer school class on current events at the district middle school. Felton figured he'd talk about the presidential election.
But then police shot a black man in Baton Rouge, La. The next day an officer shot Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, just a few miles from the middle school.
"I realized right after that happened and kids started talking about, you know, 'They're killing us,' that we're going to have to really focus on the conversation," he said.
The shooting of officers in Dallas followed. Now, Felton talks about violence and race with his students nearly every day. On a recent day near the end of the summer term, they rehashed the Dallas events.
So is it about white cops and black people, one student asked.
"That's kind of the narrative that's being painted," said Felton.
Eighth-grader Shemiyah Ashford sat up, attentive.
"But don't some of the — like if it is a black shooter don't some of them want to shoot some of the black cops because they think they're a traitor?" she asked.
"Possibly," Felton responded. "I didn't think of it that way."
Felton said his aim is to add context to these discussions. When students use polarizing words, like "racist" or "terrorist," Felton asks questions to make sure the students really know what their words mean.
"'So are you saying this.' 'Well no I'm not saying that.' 'OK, well then are you saying,' I'll try to help them get to the point where they say, 'No, that's exactly what I'm saying,' so then they can continue the conversation," he said.
The class is different from the way school usually treats current events, Shemiyah said. "Most schools don't even talk about it, only the history and one side of the history. But in this class you get both sides, and you get the full story."
Roseville Middle School Principal Tyrone Brookins said most of his other teachers talked about the violence in some form, too, during summer school. The district also held out-of-class discussions for students.
The conversations brought up issues, like racial bias and violence, that affect students daily, but don't typically come up in the classroom.
"The majority of the time we are in a state of mind and a state of hope where everything is going so well that we don't have to talk about it," Brookins said. "And so we get dismissive as it relates to conversations around race and situations like this."
Those discussions probably should happen more often but they have to be done carefully, he added.
The quality of a conversation depends a lot on the teacher, noted University of Minnesota Professor Tabitha Grier-Reed.
"Classrooms are often teacher-centered," she said. "So then it becomes even more important for where the teacher is in terms of the teacher's understanding of race, the teacher's ability to deal with conflict, and the teacher's ability to manage group dynamics and emotion."
If teachers aren't able to lead a discussion, they might need to turn to other ways of helping students process events, like poetry or drawing, Grier-Reed added.
Roseville seventh-grader Nabin Khadka met with a group of students in a school leadership program as the summer school term wrapped up and said he'd like to see more classes take on the challenge of a conversation.
"People say that if we don't learn about the past we're doomed to repeat it, but it's already happening right now so what can we do to change it?" Nabin said. "That's the thing we should be talking about in school instead of, like, what already happened in the past."
The other students nodded. They looked ready to take the lead on those talks in the new school year.