Ryan Cole wanted a way to share his life with the world.
Growing up by North Commons Park on Minneapolis’ North Side, he has heard gunshots echo across his neighborhood, especially during humid, summer days. He faces the aftereffects of it, too, with police officers stopping him once or twice a week just for walking around the area, he said.
So when Courtney Bell, his sociology teacher at Minneapolis North High School, assigned research presentations on social issues of their choosing, he knew he wanted to look into the unequal treatment of black people by police. Earlier this month, he joined a dozen of his classmates in presenting his findings at a University of Minnesota symposium, a rare opportunity for the students — mostly freshman — to make their work for an audience rather than just for a grade.
“I’ve been doing research on this for a long time,” said Cole, 17, during the symposium earlier this month. “I actually finally got to do” a presentation on it.
“Now everybody can see where I’m coming from,” he said.
North High nearly closed in 2010 after years of declining enrollment and dismal academic performance. But the community used the threat as a rallying point, cheering its sports teams to championships and seeing a dramatic increase in the number of new students. It’s a work in progress — standardized test scores are low and failure rates in freshman courses are high — but the school is considered to be in comeback mode.
For Bell, a finalist for the Minnesota Teacher of the Year Award this year, the presentations were a way to introduce students to academic research and to develop their personal interests and views. They examined topics including domestic abuse, poverty, the mistreatment of immigrants and gang violence.
“I am an emancipatory educator,” Bell, 29, said. “I believe my scholars deserve to be truly educated, and to understand that who they are is not what society told them they are.”
Breaking stereotypes is a theme that has defined Bell’s experience at North High.
She graduated from the predominantly black school in 2007 and has worked there for the past six years, seeing its “scholars,” as she calls them, continue to defy expectations. It’s something she’s tried to do since her childhood in north Minneapolis — an area others saw plagued by shootings, poverty and riots, while she remained focused on her education and comforting personal relationships.
“I always made it a point to do everything with the mind-set of proving society wrong,” said Bell, who is pursuing a doctoral degree from the U’s College of Education and Human Development.
This was her first year teaching the work of W.E.B. Du Bois, a pioneering black scholar and sociologist who studied race. But her students were younger than those she taught in the past, and Bell was looking for a more hands-on approach to sociology.
She pitched the idea of a research symposium on social issues to Associate Dean Naim Madyun at the U’s College of Education, who approved it and got the college to sponsor the projects.
For seven weeks, Bell’s scholars worked on assembling their presentations. They picked their topics and read articles about them. They drafted surveys and sent them out to friends, relatives or their peers at school. They then put it all together, writing introductions and bibliographies, analyzing survey results and, finally, coming up with solutions to their social ill.
The day before the symposium, Bell — tall and commanding, wearing a striking red jacket — gave them a few final pointers: Project your voice. Look up, not at your notecards. Be ready to answer follow-up questions.
“It’s a conversation,” she said. “There’s nothing to be nervous about because guess what: You’re the expert on your topic. You did this research.”
Maryama Yusuf, a junior who researched inequalities in the medical care of black women, was having difficulty adhering to Bell’s words.
“I don’t really like to talk in front of people,” the 17-year-old said quietly.
Yet the words flowed with power and gravitas the moment Yusuf got up in front of the classroom. She sped through her poster, speaking on how black women had greater maternal mortality rates than white women, and how racial sensitivity should be taught in all medical schools. She spoke of her own mother, who she said is frightened of hospitals because of past negative experiences.
The students applauded her after she finished. “You were scared to come up?” one asked.
“You need to understand this work is powerful,” Bell told the class. “It’s something that most youth at this time do not do, because you are told that your voices don’t matter.
“What you are proving to the world is [that] that’s not true,” she said.
‘This is their work’
On the day of the symposium, Bell and the presenters wore matching black shirts. “More Than A Student. I Am A SCHOLAR,” they read.
Family members, North High teachers, U students and others walked around the room inside Coffman Memorial Union, listening to presentations and chatting with the student researchers. Pam Olson, who taught Bell while she was at North High, was impressed by what she called “college-level work.”
“Some of the students, they never envisioned themselves doing work like this,” she said. “Courtney pushes them to be more than they think they can be.”
Bell, during a brief moment of peace, expressed pride in the majority of her students for seeing their projects through to the very end.
“This is their work. They did this work,” she said.
Cole, standing near the front of the room, said Bell was his favorite teacher and that he hoped to stay in touch with her after graduating. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without her,” the junior said.
He stood proudly beside his research poster, titled “Brutal Truths of Police Brutality,” which listed the black men who have died at the hands of police, including Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Jamar Clark. Cole also shared a step he felt could lead to progress: Requiring that officers’ body cameras be on at all times to document daily interactions.
Asked whether he was nervous about presenting on such a sensitive topic, Cole didn’t hesitate: “Why would I be nervous about something I want to talk about?”