Ethan Vue, a student at Spring Lake Park High School, came to the state Capitol earlier this year in support of ethnic studies. Ethan did not learn about Hmong history in school, and hopes that will change for future generations. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

What should kids learn in social studies class?

It’s a question that has animated adults across Minnesota over the past three years, as the state’s education department has churned through a bureaucratic process of updating its K–12 social studies standards. Standards are the major concepts and skills all Minnesota public schools are expected to teach; each subject area gets an update every 10 years. 

One flashpoint has been whether Minnesota should add ethnic studies to the social studies standards. It’s a question that could have big implications for how the state’s increasingly diverse student population learn about the different histories and cultures of Minnesota’s communities.

Under the proposed ethnic studies standards, students would learn about the social identities and histories of different ethnic groups, which often get left out of textbooks. And they would learn how these populations have resisted oppression. 

But the central players in the debate have mostly been adults. Over the past three years, I’ve watched adults present countering definitions of ethnic studies. I’ve seen them argue about whether these concepts are appropriate for K–12 students. Once, I even read through 17,000 comments submitted about a draft version of the standards. More than 96 percent of those comments followed a template from a conservative think tank, the Center of the American Experiment. Again, most commenters were adults.

Now, the process is nearing the end. On November 8 and 9, Administrative Law Judge Eric Lipman held public hearings, as part of the final stage of the process. 

Lipman’s decision-making process will focus on whether the Minnesota Department of Education followed the proper process in adopting the new social studies standards, and on whether the agency has shown that the new rules are necessary and reasonable. He will either approve the new set of rules altogether; approve them with some recommended or required changes; or reject them outright, and leave the social studies standards the same as they are now. 

Altogether, the hearing process lasted more than five hours. Most of the speakers were adults—many of whom I’ve quoted in previous Sahan coverage of this topic.

So this time, I was most interested to hear from students, who represented a range of ages, backgrounds, and school districts. One top-level observation: Every student who spoke expressed support for adding ethnic studies to the social studies standards. They said they wanted to learn the whole truth about history, and didn’t want any community to be ignored.

Of course, students who voluntarily show up to an online hearing about academic standards before an administrative law judge may not be representative of all Minnesota kids. But those who attended had a lot to say about what they’ve learned—and what they wish they learned—in social studies class. 

And the judge was eager to hear from them. Participating in the hearing, Lipman said, was “one of the better pieces of civic education that any of us could have.”

Here’s what some of the students had to say.

Javier: ‘It is difficult for me to figure out where and how I belong’

Javier Solis, a student at Eden Prairie High School, praised the effects of his school’s Advanced Placement African American History class. The benefits, he said, were “evident.” Black students felt they could express themselves better at school, sometimes even donning cultural clothing they did not feel comfortable wearing before taking the class. And white students grew more comfortable talking about difficult parts of American history.

However, Javier noted, he hadn’t yet found a course to help him get in touch with his own culture.

“As a Latin student who doesn’t have a class to support me in finding my identity, it is difficult for me to figure out where and how I belong,” he said. “If more students had the opportunity to take an ethnic studies course, I truly believe it would help them set foot in a brighter path of education, one that helps us students, no matter their identity or background, to find a sense of community and belonging at their school.”

Before moving on to the next speaker, Judge Lipman took a moment to assure Javier.

“I did want to tell you, Mr. Solis, you certainly belong with us,” Lipman said. “We consider you an important Minnesotan, and we appreciate that you took time out of your evening to share your perspective with us.”

Amberlin: ‘It doesn’t feel good for anybody to be ignored’

The first high school student to testify on the second day of the hearing was Amberlin Heywood, who did not specify what school she attends. She told the judge she had recently read An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. 

From this book, Amberlin explained that she had learned that there was more than one Trail of Tears—in which the U.S. government forced Indigenous people to march thousands of miles from their homelands in the dead of winter. She also learned that colonial governments had paid settlers to kill and scalp Indigenous people—including children.

Amberlin Heywood, a Minnesota high school student, told the judge she had recently read An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. “If I had to be honest with you, this book made me mad,” Amberlin said. “I didn’t get to know any of this information in my previous history classes.”

That’s why she supports the new social studies standards, Amberlin explained.

“I feel like the Indigenous people have been ignored, and it doesn’t feel good for anybody to be ignored,” she said. “As a student, I would rather like a full, true history of Indigenous people, not just what I’ve learned.”

Liam: ‘I’ve never put much thought into my identity before’

Liam Hefferan, a junior at Highland Park High School, was part of the first cohort to take an ethnic studies class, fulfilling a new graduation requirement in St. Paul Public Schools. He explained that the class helped him reflect on his own identity for the first time.

“As a white, middle-class man, I’ve never put much thought into my identity before,” Liam said. But in ethnic studies class, he said, he learned to think about how his identity affects his everyday life and how he interacts with others. Anyone, regardless of age, could learn something from an ethnic studies class, he added.

“I believe ethnic studies is beneficial to all students, and is a great place not only to learn about the histories of all communities and understand history from multiple different perspectives, but also to learn about oneself,” he said.

Finn: ‘I want to know what actually happened’

The youngest speaker was Finn, a third-grader who attends Dowling Elementary School in Minneapolis. Finn explained that he wants to be a historian when he grows up.

“I really like history because I like to find connections, and I like to be taught the whole truth about things,” he said. “I want to know what actually happened.”

Finn said that he was the grandson of a Mexican immigrant, and the great-grandson of Irish and Italian immigrants. His classmates’ families come from all over the world, he said: local Native Tribes, Poland, Mexico, Somalia, and more. He wanted to learn about all of their cultures and histories, he said.

“I need to have the skills to learn different possibilities and recognize truth from fiction,” he said. “I don’t care if it’s hard. I think we deserve a chance to try. I want to help my community be a better place so I can grow up in a good and welcoming community.”

“Thank you, Finn,” said Judge Lipman. “I think you’d make a fabulous historian, and I hope you stick with it.”

Adonai: ‘I decided to learn the histories for myself’

Adonai Yidnekachew, a student at Chaska High School, testified that she did not have the opportunity to take ethnic studies classes. She said she learned about the cultural backgrounds of her classmates in rare moments during history class.

“This small percent of our curriculum only talks about the violent acts of war and the struggles that we have, instead of talking about cultural empowerment,” Adonai said.

Adonai, whose parents come from Ethiopia, recounted a middle-school experience in which her teacher told the class that Ethiopia was colonized by Italy. In fact, under the rule of Benito Mussolini, Italy briefly occupied Ethiopia, but did not colonize it.

“As you may or may not know, Ethiopia is proudly one of the only African countries that has never been colonized by European powers,” Adonai said. When she told the teacher of his error, he told her he was just teaching what the curriculum had taught him. That made her question what she was learning in school, she said.

“I decided to learn the histories for myself,” Adonai said. “But it shouldn’t be that way. Why should students be teaching themselves history, because schools can’t?”

Ethnic studies was not an enhancement of the social studies lessons students were already learning, Adonai said; it was necessary to fix broken and inaccurate representations.

Shamyra: ‘Why didn’t I get to learn about the music and the poets?’

Shamyra Melton, a student at Patrick Henry High School in north Minneapolis, said she wanted to challenge the idea that ethnic studies would teach hate, as some adult commenters had suggested during the years-long review process. 

Before she took her African American studies class, Shamyra said she had learned about difficult and traumatic aspects of African American history. But she knew there was a deeper story, beyond enslavement and oppression. “I always saw strength in my community,” she said. “There has to be history behind this.”

She had previously learned about the Harlem Renaissance in her U.S. history class. But she did not study it in depth until she took her African American studies class.

“It’s important to learn about that type of resistance, that beauty of a community,” she said. “I don’t want to always learn about the war and the death. Why didn’t I get to learn about the music and the poets?”

Ethnic studies, she said, “definitely needs to be passed.”

Submit comments before pumpkin pie

Lipman, the administrative law judge, encouraged students who testified to tell their classmates about an ongoing public-comment period. Students, and any other Minnesotans, who missed the hearings can still submit written comments here until Wednesday, November 29 at 4:30 p.m.

Lipman will make a decision by early January, unless Minnesota’s chief administrative law judge orders an extension. If he approves the standards, they will go into effect for the 2026–2027 school year.

Lipman stressed that any comments received after 4:30 p.m. on November 29 would not be considered. He advised Minnesotans not to wait until the last minute to submit their comments—and suggested that people could set personal goals to complete their comments before Thanksgiving.

“You can sit back and enjoy pumpkin pie, knowing that you are part of our process,” he said.

Becky Z. Dernbach is the education reporter for Sahan Journal. Becky graduated from Carleton College in 2008, just in time for the economy to crash. She worked many jobs before going into journalism, including...