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Brittni Jennings helps her students connect their own lives to history

She makes use of the Harkness discussion method, which requires students to take the lead.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

“Students would benefit more if they had figures like them representing black history now … because black history is a continuum. It’s not [just] the story of oppression.”

Those were the words of Brittni Jennings talking about the creation of the Black History Expo at Constitution High School in Center City. Jennings, who teaches African American history and Contemporary Issues at the school, is one of 60 recipients in Philadelphia schools this year of the Lindback Award for distinguished teaching.

Jennings majored in English education at West Chester University, but spent five years working in banking before committing to a teaching career. A turning point for her was her volunteer work at an afterschool program called New Directions, which served elementary school students in the West Chester area, while she worked at TD Bank and PNC.

“There was a sense of urgency there,” she said. “The kids weren’t living in ideal conditions, and they chose the community center as a safe space. Interacting with them and the volunteers made me seriously think about being an educator.”

Before becoming an educator, however, Jennings thought about what kind of educator she wanted to be. She thought of her art teacher, Ms. Robb, the only black teacher she had growing up in the Upper Darby School District. The way that Ms. Robb carried herself left a significant impression on her, and Jennings viewed her as the embodiment of the ideal teacher. When Jennings moved full-time into a career in education, she sought out a similar type of district and community that would enable her to replicate her role model.

Black History Expo

Jennings strives to serve that role today. At Constitution High School, she developed the Black History Expo, bringing in African American figures from multiple industries to come and engage with the students. Before, students would hold a Black History Talent Show that would involve presenting historical characters and present issues. But, as Jennings notes, the idea of having role models has its own unique value.

“I don’t want kids to be only in front of athletes and rappers and think black people entertain, I want them to see folks in varying fields so they can see their possibilities,” she said. “I don’t want them to limit their goals or expectations based on these particular career paths.”

The first year, she introduced people from local businesses and other professions. These professionals would spend time in classes all day, and the students would network and engage with them. This year, she decided to draw on the school’s partnership with the National Constitution Center and use the connection to bring in people from the Philadelphia Tribune and the Philadelphia Police Department.

Notable people from this year’s Black History Expo were Lori Tharps, an author and associate professor at Temple University; Hassani Graves, who works in finance; Adara L. Combs and Shuaiyb Newton from the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office; and Robin Stevens, a University of Pennsylvania Faculty Fellow involved in nursing. Each of these people served as different types of representation for the students and offered different forms of inspiration and support.

Tharps exchanged business cards with the students, many of whom were interested in writing, and even inspired a student to write her own poem after talking with her. Graves spoke to the students about how to be financially stable now, a concern that many of the students have as they want to know how the material they learn in class is relevant for future jobs and would help them get out of debt from college. Combs and Newton offered opportunities for the students to sit in on courtroom cases, which was helpful for many of the law-focused students. Stevens hosted multiple workshops and other forms of support for Jennings’ students, including safe sex practices workshops.

Going beyond the textbook

Jennings, however, does more than offer networks and role models for her students. She believes firmly in helping them navigate the outside world in general. Whether that means discussing issues such as race with them or developing character, she believes education is more than just teaching textbook material.

“[Education] is about cultivating a wealth of knowledge, but also a wealth of character,” she added, citing how many of her opportunities came from her character, not her knowledge.

“I’m here to help you learn how to navigate outside the four walls of a classroom,” she said.

Jennings also uses social media as a current event news page and will often post her homework on social media for the students who connect with her there to access. Social media is one of the many ways she can engage with students who are struggling, along with home visits, going to their extracurricular activities, and having friends contact them, among other ways.

“By any means necessary, I’m doing what it takes to make sure they’re on the right path,” she said.

The purpose of this direct engagement is to make sure that students are comfortable talking to her. Jennings notes how students spend more time at school than at home, and therefore they need to be able to talk to whoever is around when they struggle.

Harkness discussions

In the classroom, Jennings uses thematic dialogues called Harkness discussions, a method for addressing topics in-depth without the teachers driving the discussion. Harkness discussions are student-led and based on history. Two students with complementary characteristics are paired together – someone who is outgoing with someone who is quieter, for example. They choose a topic, then provide research materials to students: a one-pager and a visual source such as a photo for additional sensory input. They then come up with 8-10 discussion questions and allow the discussion to flow organically.

A core tenet of Constitution High School is democratic deliberation, and the Harkness method for discussions supports that value well. Jennings believes that part of civic discussion involves talking about topics that hit close to home. Through the Harkness method, students can connect personal experiences with the class and have room to question the systems around them.

Jennings said that students sometimes cry, get upset, or share personal stories for the first time.

“When students can share their own opinions, they get more comfortable,” Jennings said. On occasion, something will happen in the school, the city, or the world, and “they’ll want to have a Harkness, which is amazing because that means they want to read, they want to research, and they want to have their own conversations.”

One of the effects of the Harkness discussion was made clear during the “Policing in a More Perfect Union” program, which her students attended. Police recruits from Philadelphia and New Jersey, among other places, came together at the National Constitution Center to learn about policing history in Philadelphia. Then they spoke to students from various schools about what better policing in their neighborhoods would look like.

According to Jennings, the students at Constitution High School were able to be heavily involved in the discussions and practice the core tenets of transparent democratic deliberation. They were able to articulate what they saw in the news, having practiced similar skills during Harkness discussions.

“I appreciate the fact that they learn to assert their opinions without forcing it on someone else,” Jennings said.

The social skills that the students practice in a Harkness are noteworthy. In a discussion about behavior patterns of children in single-parent households, students shared a lot of personal stories, related to single-parent households and two-parent households. Together, they challenged each other’s stereotypes and shared stories of what it means to be a family, including “misfit” families and non-nuclear families.

However, what was most impressive, Jennings said, was the students’ responses to each others’ emotional reactions. When a student broke down, the leaders of the discussion would give them time, as well as tissues or anything else they needed, before moving on to the next person. They would then loop back to the original person to see whether they would like to speak.

Another Harkness discussion involved sexual assault, specifically rape and rape culture. The student discussion leader approached Jennings about doing this topic but also wanted to present it to all the class periods, not just her own. That meant discussing a heavy topic with different audiences and different environments. Jennings agreed to let the student do it.

As the student presented, it turned out she was a rape victim herself. Two aspects of her project stood out to Jennings – the student’s willingness to talk about her experiences in different environments and the support that she offered post-discussion. Students came up to talk to her about the discussion topic post-Harkness, and she would support all of them.

“The results student facilitators got [in these two Harkness discussions] were most impressive,” Jennings said. “The skills you exercise during a Harkness are what’s going to navigate you through the world.”

Stories about the influence of outstanding teachers are made possible by a grant from the Lindback Foundation.

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