Minnesota studies teacher Paul Sommers recently led his sixth-graders in an exercise called Root Cause. They placed digital sticky notes on an image of a tree, identifying roots and leaves of racism.
"Black people are being killed for crimes they did not commit," one student wrote on a leaf. Another student mentioned stereotypes such as "Black people are dangerous."
For the roots: "Some people think just because of race they are better than others," one wrote. Another added: "Some people were just taught to hate."
Sommers wanted his 12- and 13-year-old Justice Page Middle School students to think big and ask critical questions as the murder trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin proceeded just a few miles from their school, with protests and security popping up throughout the city. More than half of his students live in and around George Floyd Square, where Chauvin was filmed kneeling on Floyd's neck for more than nine minutes.
"It's so much bigger than this one trial. In our work in sixth grade, what we say is 'if this isn't the world we created, what is the world we want to live in?' Or 'what's the hope we want to bring to [an issue],' " Sommers said.
Educators around the state are grappling with how to handle the trial, the protests and, most recently, the Brooklyn Center police shooting of Daunte Wright as teachable moments, noting that it can be especially challenging in ideologically divided communities.
After Wright was killed on Sunday, Sommers pivoted to a lesson on Chicago's Red Summer of 1919, when racial tensions began to boil over just after a pandemic.
"I say if we're not connecting this timely event of the Derek Chauvin trial, or George Floyd's murder, or Daunte Wright's murder, if we're not connecting those [to history], then why are we teaching social studies?" Sommers asked.
On the edge of the metro area, the Farmington High School diversity club is serving as a neutral place to talk about the events. It's also a place where instructors often let students take the lead.
"We have some students that can't and don't have these conversations at home. They come into our diversity club, and they just really feel safe," said adviser Michael Klein, who helps facilitate club meetings. "They open up and just talk about things that they don't always get to talk about, and maybe that they wouldn't feel as comfortable talking about online."
The Chauvin trial sparked a club discussion about the meaning of Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter, and what it means when some people say cops are bad. Some students said not all cops, and others said that police work in a system that was not meant to benefit people of color, Klein explained.
"There's parents that would have a lot of pushback in our district, I think, and a lot of parents that have been very supportive," said Klein, whose district on the southern outskirts of the metro area is 80% white. "It's just kind of navigating that fine line, as hard as it is, being an impartial and unbiased teacher in this moment."
Some teachers have been considering how to talk about Floyd's death ever since the viral video of it surfaced last May. The state Department of Education released a learning and mental health tip sheet for educators, noting that many people will be directly and indirectly affected by the trial. They also provide guidance for responding to trauma and tragedy for schools, families and students. Education Minnesota, the state teachers' union, also compiled a list of resources for educators and parents to help young people process the trial.
Still, some educators have found themselves the subject of ire.
In recent months, a suburban Minnesota schoolteacher was criticized by the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association over a bestselling book read to fourth-graders about racial injustice involving police. Though it had been recommended by both the state Health and Education departments, police said the book demonized officers.
In Texas, a teacher was fired last fall for wearing a Black Lives Matter mask to school. In Ohio, a theology teacher at a Catholic high school was fired after saying in an online class that it was "disputed" whether Floyd could breathe.
Voluntary club settings can offer both teachers and students an easier place to discuss such subjects.
Buffalo High School teacher Jess Nickelsen leads a conversation group called the Unity Project with students and families in Wright County, which is 95% white. People in the community are used to staying silent on issues that do not affect the majority, Nickelsen said.
"It's really tough for teachers to figure out how to bring these issues into our classroom without people thinking that we're trying to indoctrinate their kids," Nickelsen said.
As difficult as it is to have uncomfortable conversations in rural Minnesota, the absence of them isn't making anything better, said Nickelsen, who also co-founded the Wright County Coalition Against Racism after Floyd's death.
Minnesota 2020 Social Studies Teacher of the Year Kara Cisco curates which moments of the trial integrate with what her students at St. Louis Park High School are learning in civics and ethnic studies classes. Her students have been working on policy, and they are looking at the Minneapolis Police Department's use-of-force policies.
"That segued into a conversation about who gets to be at the table to write policies and how the authors impact both the language of the policy itself and the efficacy in terms of how it's carried out," Cisco said.
She encourages other teachers to have a discussion protocol ready to go during low-stakes times so they will be prepared for high-stakes moments in the classroom.
"I think one thing I tell teachers that are a little bit nervous or scared is the best thing you could do instead of worrying about it is just to prepare for it," Cisco said.
In Farmington, Klein encouraged other teachers not to wait until there's a trial or traumatic event in the community to have tough conversations.
"Just like laying out classroom norms, it should be part of that — getting students comfortable to talk about uncomfortable things right off the bat," Klein said. "Because then when they do happen, or if they do happen, then it's a part of the normal routine."
Zoë Jackson covers young and new voters at the Star Tribune through the Report For America program, supported by the Minneapolis Foundation. 612-673-7112 • @zoemjack