Natalia Benjamin checks in with a student about her project during ethnic studies class. The students had chosen different problems in their school to research—from harassment of women to vandalism in the parking lot. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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On a Thursday morning in early May, Natalia Benjamin began her first-hour English language class with a brief meditation. Her students closed their eyes as a calming voice from a YouTube video instructed them to focus on the sensation of their breath. Then the students opened their eyes and got to work. 

Their assignment: identify attitudes toward different languages throughout the school.

The students powered up their school-issued laptops and looked at photos they had taken around the school the day before: many welcome signs in English, with a few in multiple languages. On the wall behind them, a hand-printed poster provided instructions on how to greet each other in Arabic, Bosnian, Chinese, Dinka, English, Ethiopian, Indonesian, Spanish, Swahili, Vietnamese, Khmer, Laotian, and Somali.

“Where in the school do you hear other languages?” Benjamin asked them.

Joud Haj Sakor, a 17-year-old volunteer teaching assistant, offered an answer: upstairs in “language house”—the corridor where foreign language classes are held. “Languages from all over the world,” she added: French, German, Spanish, Latin.

“Is that the entire world?” Benjamin asked. 

Those are common languages, another student said.

“Why is that a common language?” Benjamin pressed. “What languages are you missing? You don’t know? Let’s look at a map.”

Joud, who’s originally from Syria, thought on the question. “A lot of people who speak Spanish, teach Spanish,” she said after a while. “But there are a lot of people who speak Arabic. Why don’t we teach Arabic?”

“Good question,” Benjamin replied with an approving smile.

For Benjamin, who uses ethnic studies principles to teach both her English language learners and her ethnic studies class, it’s the kind of learning moment she hopes to spark in all of her students. 

I first spoke with Benjamin nearly two years ago, in the fall of 2020, when many schools reopened virtually. Then, in August 2021, she received the Minnesota Teacher of the Year Award. As her year of honor concluded, I visited her classroom to see her award-winning teaching methods in action.

Benjamin, who attended a French school growing up in Guatemala, now lives in Rochester, Minnesota, where she is completing her seventh year teaching at Century High School. In her classroom, she challenges students to think critically about issues that shape their lives, and helps them develop the tools to change them.

Rochester is a politically divided city, where protesters outraged over mask mandates and “critical race theory” often disrupt school board meetings. Benjamin guides her diverse students to take a different approach to social change: researching the world around them, determining how school decisions affect different populations, and advocating for the change they want to see based on what they’ve learned.

Over the past two years, “ethnic studies” has become a polarizing catchphrase, weaponized by politicians and cable news pundits. But what does it actually mean? Under the new social studies standards proposed by the Minnesota Department of Education, it has three main principles: students learn about the social identities and histories of different ethnic groups that often get left out of textbooks. They learn how these populations have resisted oppression. And they learn to apply these historical lessons to eliminate present-day injustices.

Minneapolis and St. Paul school districts have recently added ethnic studies as a graduation requirement, beginning with the Class of 2025. Some other districts around the state, including Rochester, offer elective courses in ethnic studies. Yet some conservatives have labeled ethnic studies an “extremist ideology.” 

What does ethnic studies class look like in practice? When I visited Benjamin’s classroom, it looked like students identifying problems they wanted to solve, deciding how to collect data about those issues, and figuring out how to navigate the school’s rules around their projects. 

To Benjamin and her students, these are foundational skills of citizenship.

Natalia Benjamin jokes with her English learners as she asks them to think about where in the school their native language is seen as a resource, and where it is seen as a problem. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Joud helps out in Benjamin’s English learner class out of a sense of duty. “I was one of them one day,” she explained. She came to the United States six years ago without knowing English. Now she is heading to the University of Minnesota–Rochester as a pre-med student. As a fellow immigrant, Joud said, Benjamin can relate to her students. “She knows what we go through,” she said.

More than 60 percent of Century High School’s 1,600 students are white; about 100 pupils are English learners. Benjamin acknowledges the problems multilingual students experience at school—like bullying or rude behavior toward their native language, Joud said. She helps them develop tools to face those problems, Joud said. And she helps them value their emerging multilingual identities, instead of encouraging them to forget their native language.

Joud told me her mom used to teach Arabic back in Syria. She appreciated Benjamin pushing her to think about why the school doesn’t teach Arabic. 

“I think that’s a very good point, and we should actually do something about it,” Joud said.

‘A difficult conversation doesn’t mean it’s an unsafe conversation’

Bills to require ethnic studies classes have failed at the state legislature in recent years. But last year, a Minnesota Department of Education committee proposed adding ethnic studies to the state’s social studies standards as a new core discipline. That would require traditional K–12 social studies classes to include ethnic studies principles.

The new proposed standards are currently caught up in a bureaucratic rulemaking process, which the Minnesota Department of Education says can take up to two years. If an administrative law judge approves them, they will go into effect for the 2026–2027 school year. In the meantime, “critical race theory” and ethnic studies have become election issues in the Minnesota governor’s race. Critics worry that ethnic studies will divide students along racial lines, or replace the history topics—say, the Roman Empire and World War II—that have traditionally been taught. 

“Students in public school should not learn to hate one another because of critical race theory,” reads the website of Scott Jensen, the Republican-endorsed candidate for Minnesota governor. “If I’m governor, schools will focus entirely on better educational outcomes—NOT political indoctrination.”

Matt Birk, Jensen’s running mate and a former Minnesota Viking, took aim directly at ethnic studies in a recent news conference.

“I’m very alarmed, like a lot of parents, at the ideology when it comes to some of this, ethnic studies, if you will, some of the gender ideology that’s being taught in schools,” Birk told reporters.

For 18-year-old Cameron Johnson, who will attend American University after graduating from Rochester’s Century High School, alarmism about ethnic studies from adults misses the point. “It’s a hard world,” he said. “You’re going to have difficult conversations about difficult things.”

Cameron, who is white, comes from an immigrant background too: His mom’s family immigrated from Scotland. He met Benjamin through the school’s Gender Sexuality Alliance, where he is president. In the midst of the racial reckoning sparked by George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, Cameron wanted to make sure the predominantly white GSA was having conversations about race. He invited Benjamin to visit the club. 

This year, he’s a student in her ethnic studies class. He wasn’t surprised to learn that Benjamin had been named Minnesota Teacher of the Year. “I was like, duh,” he said.

For the first week and a half in ethnic studies class, Benjamin guided the class in learning about how to have difficult conversations while accounting for different communication styles—passive Midwestern conflict avoidance and active opinion assertion. She taught them that “a difficult conversation doesn’t mean it’s an unsafe conversation,” Cameron said.

Cameron Johnson, a graduating senior, has sometimes had more success discussing complicated issues with his little sister than with adults at school board meetings. He says learning ethnic studies in school can help students prepare for constructive uncomfortable conversations. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Constructive uncomfortable conversations don’t always happen easily in Rochester. At one school board meeting last summer, a group of white parents protesting masks and “critical race theory” interrupted the meeting to loudly recite the Lord’s Prayer, a central expression of Christian faith. 

Cameron spoke at a recent school board meeting about LGBTQ safety in school restrooms. But he did not feel safe at the meeting. Adults were wearing “Purge-type masks” (from the horror movie) and streaming the proceedings to Facebook Live. “I’m a confrontational person,” he added. “I can’t even imagine how a non-confrontational person would feel during that moment.”

He knows many of those adults have strong feelings about what kids should be learning in school. But he thinks it’s helpful to discuss these issues at a young age—and he’s sometimes had more success discussing difficult topics with his little sister than with the adults at the school board meeting.

“The earlier she learned what being trans was, the better,” he said. “She was just like, Oh, you’re my brother instead of my sister now. Her biggest issue is that her sandwich is cut in triangles, not squares.”

One day, his sister came home with questions about racism. Cameron explained America’s history of discrimination. “If someone continues to hurt you, you’re not going to feel safe around them,” he recalled telling her. “Even though you’re a very kind and gentle person, people who looked like us weren’t, so we have to keep that in mind.” His sister’s response: “Oh, okay. So I just have to be a really good friend.”

Learning ethnic studies and preparing for difficult conversations in school can help facilitate these moments—without instilling white guilt, Cameron said.

The nuts and bolts of making change

Down the corridor, past Vincent van Gogh murals on the walls, I caught up with Benjamin as she monitored a study hall. I asked her about the project her students had been working on that morning.

For students’ end-of-year project, they are looking at different attitudes and cues about English and other languages they encounter in their homes, schools, and community, she explained. After they collect information about what they’ve found in their school, they develop recommendations for how to make improvements.

It’s similar to the final project in her ethnic studies class, she said. In that class, students are conducting research projects on issues that affect them. Their research will then inform their proposals for change.

The bell sounded, and I followed Benjamin upstairs to her third classroom of the day for ethnic studies class.

After a warm-up activity, in which the students interviewed each other about their favorite celebrities, they divided into research teams to draft survey questions.

Amaliya Benjamin, Natalia’s daughter, and Miske Yusuf draft survey questions for their ethnic studies project. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

In one corner of the classroom, seniors Amaliya Benjamin—Natalia’s daughter—and Miske Yusuf were writing questions about harassment of women at school.

“You don’t want to worry about being harassed in the library,” said Miske. “That’s like a regular thing.”

“I had one math teacher that would always say, ‘Oh, girls are always holding up your time,’” Amaliya said. “It’s so casual, it just seems like it’s part of his daily vocabulary.”

Amaliya and Miske planned to survey female students about their experiences, they said. They’ll also ask male students whether they had witnessed, participated in, or ignored these behaviors.

Amaliya, a senior heading to the University of Wisconsin–Madison to study nursing, chose to enroll in ethnic studies as an elective.

What’s it like having your mom as a teacher? I asked Amaliya.

It’s been fun because the two are so close, Amaliya said. She appreciates her mother’s attention to individualized learning styles, and how she pushes students to direct their own learning. “It’s more of a community instead of you sitting at your desk and being lectured at,” she said.

(No less remarkable for a teenager, Amaliya seemed untroubled about mixing school and home: “A lot of my friends are Ms. Benjamin superfans,” she said.)

Sam Paulson, a long-term substitute teacher, has spent the year in Benjamin’s classroom so she can easily fill in when Benjamin misses class to fulfill her Minnesota Teacher of the Year duties—for example, when she’s receiving honors at the White House. Paulson explained that in this latest project, students were applying what they had learned about ethnic studies, with the goal of benefiting the school community. “It’s their choices in what they see as problems, and what they see as wanting to be fixed,” Paulson said.

One particularly passionate group is researching problems in the school parking lot, from vandalism to trash to traffic congestion, Paulson said. One student had seen her car damaged, and felt like no one was held accountable. 

Another group is focusing on the school’s new attendance policy. Beginning in the fourth quarter, students now need passes to use the bathroom, and school staff conduct random hallway sweeps. Many students feel that the policy is demeaning, Paulson said. But their surveys will also examine whether the policy may actually be helping reduce tardiness and improve grades.

Shaping young citizens

After class, I debriefed with Benjamin in the hallway. It’s her second year teaching the ethnic studies class, she said. Since it’s an elective class, students chose to be there; parents have been supportive.

“It’s actually been a very fun experience to guide students through conversations: how different people, different ethnicities experience life,” she said. “I think a lot of people have the misconception that it’s about creating division and shame. But we really focus on finding who we are as people. And I think as we do that, as students develop positive self-identities, then we can value each other.”

The participatory research project is a key aspect of ethnic studies, she said—which means students get to decide which issues are important to them.

“I think people tend to assume that we’re always going to go straight to a controversial topic,” she said. “And really, it’s student-led. That’s a big part of ethnic studies: just being student-responsive and community-responsive.”

Though the parking lot and attendance policies are not directly about race, students still look at them through an ethnic studies lens, she said. “Who’s being affected the most? How does it affect people differently? And asking those other questions to make our environments more inclusive and more accepting of everybody.”

While critics have decried ethnic studies as subversive “indoctrination,” Benjamin’s students will tell you they’re learning something else: how to be better citizens.

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.