For this West Philadelphia teacher, racial justice is at the core of her work

A teacher smiles, standing in front of a whiteboard wearing a black turtleneck.
Abigail Henry teaches ninth grade African-American History at Mastery Charter Schools — Shoemaker Campus in West Philadelphia. (Courtesy of Abigail Henry)
How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs.

Last year the country was rocked by mass protests sparked by fatal police encounters with unarmed Black people, most notably, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. 

This week, two court cases involving race and racial profiling lead the news. In Georgia, three white men are on trial for killing a Black man, Ahmaud Arbery, as he was jogging in his neighborhood. And closing arguments are underway in the case of Kyle Rittenhouse, a white teenager who killed two people and wounded another amid racial unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

For Abigail Henry, a ninth grade African American History teacher at Mastery Charter School — Shoemaker Campus in West Philadelphia, discussions about racial justice — about these and other incidents, historical and contemporary — are central to her work.

Henry, who was born in London, has an undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia, and master’s from University College London, recently received a Pulitzer Center grant to incorporate into her lessons The New York Times’ 1619 Project, developed by journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones.

An expansion of Hannah-Jones’ work will be featured in new books, titled “The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story” and “The 1619 Project: Born on the Water.” (Some conservative lawmakers have sought to ban the teaching of the 1619 Project in schools.)

“I am more than excited to discuss the book release and the conversation around [“The 1619 Project; A New Origin Story”] and how it should be taught in classrooms because, in the United States, we should not ban books,” Henry said.

She noted that what happened in 1619, when a ship carrying enslaved people arrived in North America, is history and that to ban any book about that history “feels unconstitutional.”

Henry spoke recently to Chalkbeat about her favorite days in the classroom, the challenges of returning to in-person learning, and the power of simply showing up. 

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What makes your teaching experience unique?
My teaching experience is unique because of the content I teach and the racial population of my students. I teach African-American History to predominantly all-Black classes. My No. 1 goal is to develop positive racial identities in my students.

What’s most gratifying about your work?  
In my classroom, we do frequent mock trials. On these days, I always drive home smiling. Students are lawyers and witnesses. I play “Law & Order” music, and they argue and get so into it, they cheer when the jury makes their decision. I love these days because it allows students of all levels to participate. I can have a student with an IEP who rarely talks in class take the stand and surprise everyone with a creative and amazing ceremony. On these days, I am more of a facilitator than a teacher. Students hold each other accountable.

Why is it important to discuss racial justice issues in your class?
Well, I’m teaching [overwhelmingly] Black students. The first thing I do is ask them to write me a letter if they’ve experienced racism. It depends on the year, but literally, 30% to 40% of kids say they’ve never experienced it, which is crazy to me because they have experienced systematic racism, given them being at an urban school with little funding. Part of my job is to educate them that racism exists because they live in an all-Black community and to prepare them for life outside high school because some of our students just move on to go to [disproportionately white] colleges and don’t succeed.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching? 
I didn’t realize in the beginning how long it takes to truly be the content expert required for a rigorous and engaging lesson.

What has been your biggest hurdle returning to in-person learning?
The biggest hurdle is that expectations for teachers have not changed despite the pandemic and the trauma that has been experienced across all members of the school’s community. I currently teach ninth grade, but the students I have, have not been in school since seventh grade. During that time, they have lost friends and family members, experienced loneliness, depression, and worse. When students returned, they were more than excited to see each other. Yet, the challenges of managing a classroom after such a global event have been extensive. The day-to-day operations of a teacher’s life are more demanding than prior to the pandemic, and we are exhausted. 

How have you helped your students adjust?
I give them frequent reminders on the purpose of their learning. Students need to be reminded daily not only about the lesson’s content but also the skills they are developing.  In my class, we take notes almost every day. After a year of being on a computer, it took a lot of coaching, explanation, and positive praise to get students into the importance of daily notes. 

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
The beauty of teaching for more than 10 years is that you get to know entire families. This year, I have a student who is the younger sister of a student I taught three years ago. This student was so incredibly withdrawn that I grew concerned about her mental health. Because I taught her older brother, I felt comfortable sharing with Mom my concerns. We had a productive conversation, and I found out that during the pandemic, her best friend moved away. This student has been struggling for social belonging due to the pandemic and loss of someone close to her. Without that conversation with Mom, I would not have known this.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?
From the school social worker: Just by showing up every day, we, [teachers], are doing our jobs. I feel this more now than ever. There have been so many reports in the news lately about teacher shortages, substitute teacher qualifications being lowered, and more — just because so many teachers are not returning to the classroom. Even if every single lesson is not perfect, I know just by showing up and being a consistent teacher for my students, I am positively contributing to their experience at school.

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