When news of George Floyd's death broke in May, New Bedford High School English teacher Takeru Nagayoshi wasn't sure how he could help his students process their anger and grief. School closures were making it hard for them to connect. So he created a virtual space.
In a series of optional Zoom meetings, Nagayoshi invited the students to openly discuss their thoughts about race and inequality. The only requirement: come with an open mind and be respectful.
"When adults walk away from an opportunity to discuss a controversial topic like race, we implicitly send the notion that this is something that we don't talk about because it's taboo," Nagayoshi said.
He prepared meticulously with a set of talking points and a powerpoint presentation. But his students never saw or heard them.
"My students led the entire discussion," he said. "Making points about what it means to be an ally, what it means to hold our leaders accountable. All I did there was stand back in silence ... and I had goose bumps the whole time."
WBUR spoke with Nagayoshi and three of those students to hear directly from them what they think about how schools should approach lessons on race and racism. Below are highlights from that conversation.
I felt as though this was my great opportunity to finally speak upon all of this stuff that I thought was unjust in the world that I just bottled down down inside me. That I was like: no one will listen.; no one will be able to relate to what I'm saying. And instead, hearing other people and hearing that I'm not the only one in who thinks like this, who has these opinions.
When COVID-19 first started, I felt like I couldn't speak up for anything. I felt like I should just go with the flow. I shouldn't say anything. But with the Black Lives Matter movement, I was able to say, 'No. I'm going to say what I want. I'm going to say what needs to be said.' And I was able to go to many protests and voice my true opinion about what's happening in this world.
When everything with George Floyd happened, nobody really wanted to talk about it. It was easy to get brushed under the rug. But we needed to have those uncomfortable conversations to recognize that there was a problem. And now that we see across the country that people are rallying behind that to try to see the systematic change needs to occur. Maybe it's just me being an optimist, but in having those little conversations, I'm being part of a bigger movement.
I felt so empowered by all of it. I felt like I was heard for once. I have been told: I'm just a child. I don't know what I'm talking about. I should stay out of politics.
But this is going to be my world that I'm going to be living in. I'm almost an adult and I'm going to have to get into politics and vote.
These conversations can't be limited to an English class, whenever we're going to read a book about something, or it can't just be limited to our history classes. It has to be involved in all of our classes because it's important everywhere. This is a big part of our education. We are soon going to be adults that will be in society soon. And we need to know what is going on and we need to know how to stay informed and have these uncomfortable conversations.
My students, you know, the future generation, are the ones who are going to lead this change. And really, my role is to just create that space and then to cheerlead them on.
As an adult, I want [my students] to hold me accountable, what it means to be a person who develops another person has really been flipped on its head. The support, the love, the guidance and the learning that has been happening during school closures have not been through me to students always. But the other way around.
This segment aired on June 29, 2020.