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In the 4th quarter at Malcolm Shabazz City High, several students enrolled in the class History of Mass Incarceration in the United States.The class was designed to take students through several issues around mass incarceration, for example, its history, Wisconsin’s connection to it, how mass incarceration impacts communities, and its connections to race and class.  While these topics were all explored in the class, the students were so engrossed by watching the new documentary, 13th by Ava Duvarney, that they asked that the class focus on holding a screening of the film rather than continue with the teacher’s original plans.

“I had a plan, but the students felt a duty to bring their new understandings to others,” said Aaron Kaio, first year teacher at Shabazz.   Rather than continue the planned curriculum, the students began planning out a screening of the movie to be held at Shabazz. They broke the work between several committees, including groups to go into the community to promote the screening, groups to go to other high schools in the district to invite them to come to the screening, a group to promote it at Shabazz, and a group to hold the screening.

Students gave many reasons for shifting the class’s focus to the screening, but two of the more prominent reasons were that students felt like the issues of mass incarceration isn't being discussed prominently. Also, the movie presents a new way to understand US history, a perspective that they had not been taught in their previous history classes. Both reasons compelled the students to do what they could to bring the ideas from the movie to the local community.

The groups prepared further by studying recent articles, academic studies, and books. They then built presentations, displays, and flyers to advertise. They also took care of planning the logistics for the screening, such as, getting permissions from the high schools, getting an event permit from the school, and bringing food to the screening. “The students kinda took over the class, pushing me aside to hold the event. When I was planning the quarter two prominent local mass incarceration activists, Pat Dillon and Jerry Hancock, told me I had to show the documentary as early as possible to get the kids passionate about the topic, I’m glad I asked them because they were right.”

On the night of the event, around 30 people from the school, the community, and from other schools attended. Blue Campbell, a student, introduced the film and explained what the class was hoping the audience would get out of the screening. After the screening, student Noelle Livingston led the discussion with the audience to help process the power of the film.  “I think the students learned a lot more holding the screening than they would have if we had followed a traditional class format. They learned a lot academically, but also a lot of the soft skills of being an activist, the connecting to people and organizing an event.  Also, I was able to see students who have struggled with academics in the past become all stars in the classroom, where previously they avoided doing work, they devoured the work and then prodded others to work harder.”