Alan Hennagir stands outside Northside College Prep High School, 5501 N. Kedzie Ave., on March 3, 2022. Credit: Alex V. Hernandez/Block Club Chicago

NORTH PARK — A North Side teacher who used the “1619 Project” to help students question and understand the history and impact of systemic racism is a finalist for a major national award.

Alan Hennagir, an English teacher at Northside College Prep, is one of 13 Chicago Public Schools teachers who are finalists for an excellence in teaching award from the Golden Apple Foundation. Winners will be announced in the spring.

Hennagir said he was inspired to change his curriculum in 2020, as his students struggled with the switch to virtual learning while facing high-profile examples of police violence against Black people, particularly when Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd.

Student-led discussions to help process and cope with their emotions often would take up the entire virtual class period, Hennagir said.

As Chauvin’s trial continued, Hennagir incorporated portions of Pulitzer Prize-winner Nikole Hannah-Jones’1619 Project” into his curriculum, along with readings like “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” an 1861 autobiography from Harriet Jacobs.

The “1619 Project,” launched in 2019, is an award-winning New York Times Magazine feature that centers slavery in the United States as the foundation of the nation’s formation, past, present and future. It uses a variety of essays, poems and other writings to argue 1619 — the year the first enslaved people arrived from Africa — should be considered the origin of the United States rather than 1776, the year of the country’s independence from Great Britain.

The project includes educational resources and teaching materials so instructors can use it in their classrooms, as Hennagir did.

“It made sense to tackle not just historical poems but these more contemporary poems dealing with both our nation’s history in terms of systemic racism,” he said.

In “The Idea of America,” Hannah-Jones’ introduction to the “1619 Project,” she writes about the cognitive dissonance she experienced as a child watching her father raise an American flag in their front yard because of how the country has historically mistreated Black people.

“She was always embarrassed that he flew the flag and that he was so proud to be an American. It was only later in life that she got the kind of pride that he was talking about,” Hennagir said. “Recognizing all the hope that African Americans have in our country and that they lead the way in fighting for freedoms for lots of people of color and other oppressed groups.”

Hennagir had students read Hannah-Jones’ introduction because it weaves concepts like redlining into her first-person essay, which shows how as she gets older she understands her father believed in the promise of what America should be and not what it’s been for centuries, the teacher said.

“She makes the past seem very present,” Hennagir said.

Jacobs’ autobiography resonates with students much more strongly after they’ve read Hannah-Jones’ essay, Hennagir said.

“I believe good English teachers are always asking students to connect questions and ideas from novels or non-fiction texts to attitudes, beliefs and behaviors today,” said Hennagir, who has taught for 19 years. 

Sophomore Pierson Strandquist is one of Hennagir’s students and had learned about the United States’ history with slavery in other classes, but those teachers took a more broad approach to the topic, he said.

Reading Jacobs’s autobiography in Hennagir’s class after Hannah-Jones’ introduction was an “eye-opening,” visceral experience, Strandquist said.

“It was something that definitely was valuable to learn,” Strandquist said.

Junior Meron Tegegne, another of Hennagir’s students, appreciates his classroom’s thoughtful discussions about race, gender and current events within the framework of class readings, she said. Tegene also appreciates that class books range from “classic” American literature from writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Flannery O’Connor to poems from writers like Clint Smith about enslaved people trafficked across the Middle Passage, also featured in the “1619 Project.”

“Being a BIPOC student, I have a lot of perspectives on English curriculums,” Tegegne said. “… I see the point and necessary value of classical books. But at the same time, these books have a limitation because they aren’t as diverse as our society is today.”

The readings and discussions allowed Tegegne to think critically about perspectives she disagrees with while helping her to better understand how she arrived at her own opinions, she said.

While Hennagir is being praised by students and nonprofits for his curriculum, at least 36 states are trying to enact polices to ban teachers from teaching students how systemic racism isn’t restricted to history books and is entrenched in day-to-day life. 

But good literature makes people uncomfortable because it allows readers to reflect upon themselves and build empathy for someone they disagree with, Hennagir said. 

“You can teach about racism, systemic racism, and you can always point a finger somewhere else,” he said. “But good literature doesn’t do that. It forces you to look at yourself, look at the subtle ways that maybe you go along with stereotypes, ways you take white privilege for granted.”

Hennagir is hopeful frank discussions about systemic racism can lead to a greater appreciation for the contributions Black Americans have made, he said.

“My students understand this and point to this message when asked what they would tell people who are protesting and banning the teaching of the ‘1619 Project’ in schools,” Hennagir said.

Golden Apple winners will get $5,000 and a sabbatical at Northwestern University.

“These last two years have truly taken a toll on teachers, staff, families and students,” said Golden Apple President Alan Mather. “While great teachers have always been impactful, this is particularly true during this past year, where these finalists have demonstrated the commitment to providing ongoing support and high-quality instruction to their students and we are proud to honor them.” 

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