Danielle Saint Hilaire
Frankie Zelnick

The importance of student voices is clear in Danielle Saint Hilaire’s Religions and Revolutions class, where rows of desks are set facing one another to encourage peer discussion, rather than pointed forward towards the teacher’s desk. Today, the students are asked to work in pairs, though they naturally form larger groups, until the entire class is seamlessly working as a team. They are exploring the database of slave ship manifestos during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, searching for numerical data points to support their theses of whys and hows and whos. Their faces light up as they make each connection, and they excitedly share their findings with the rest of the class. 

Danielle, a lifelong learner, teacher, and current student in a Masters program, joined the FCS Upper School history department in 2017. After graduating from Community College, she went on to Bryn Mawr College, where she received her undergraduate degree in sociology and Africana studies. Following that, Danielle went to the University of Pennsylvania, where she was in a PhD program in sociology. She left after four years to raise her two daughters - now Lower School students at FCS - and currently, she is back to school in a Masters program for high school teachers run by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, which will soon be partnered with Gettysburg College.

This year, Danielle was the recipient of the Frederick Douglas Fellowship, awarded to only one teacher of color throughout the nation. Danielle describes the focus of the fellowship as “let’s teach high school students the constitution in order to save the democracy.” It’s no small feat, but with her determination, warmth, knowledge, and encouragement, Danielle’s students are well on their way to help transform the world and our place in history.

We caught up with Danielle in between her teaching and studying to find out a little bit more about what makes education such an integral part of her life.

What initially drew you to teaching? 

I feel like I’ve been an educator throughout all of my jobs. I’ve worked with kids forever – I was an extended day person, a preschool teacher, and then I wanted to go back to school myself, so loving learning is a big part of it. I always thought I was going to be a professor, and then, when I got to that level through adjunct-teaching, I realized college students weren’t my ideal age group. As part of my adjuncting, I got to teach at a high school, and they were wonderful, and I really felt as though I had more of a connection with them. So then I started teaching at St. Joe’s Preparatory School, and then I came here.

Another piece of why I love teaching and learning is that I was a non-traditional student. I didn’t start going to college until my late twenties and I started at Community College, which I’m very proud of. I’m happy to say, I was both a student and faculty member there, so that was an amazing experience and trajectory to continue my journey as a simultaneous teacher and student.

What drew you to Friends’ Central?

Well, Philadelphia became home, even though I’m originally a New Yorker. So I wanted to stay in Philly. I knew Friends’ Central was a great community for my kids, which was a top priority for me. I love that we can share this experience. When I interviewed here, the students were just incredible. I was coming from a very different kind of high school that had a much stricter culture. The students here were just so delightful, and I knew I wanted to be able to teach here. They were ultimately the reason I chose FCS for my kids and myself.

As someone who teaches a wide range of Upper School courses and is also a parent of two Lower School students, what do you see as some defining characteristics of an FCS student?

Definitely compassion and empathy. Those are things that I try to cultivate in my students, but at the same time, I can see them being cultivated in my kids, which I love. I also love that FCS students have a unique awareness of differences in terms of both big and small things. An example is what they learn in Al [Vernacchio]’s program, which I’m so thankful for. Students here understand shared struggles so well. It helps them advocate for themselves and others.

Do you think there is something unique about the culture at FCS that influences the way that you teach?

I would say that, in my first year, I was really used to policing my students to make sure they had done the readings and homework, but I learned pretty quickly that isn’t necessary at FCS. And I think that’s the great thing about the culture here. I don’t have to worry about them doing the reading, because they do it. We’re both putting in the work and it’s a true sense of collaboration. I still give kids stickers when they complete things, which they surprisingly love, but allowing them to have that intellectual curiosity is my number one goal, so when they’re excited and they generate it themselves, I never have to police it. It’s rewarding.

You were recently awarded the Frederick Douglass-James Madison Fellowship. Can you share more about that process and what comes next?

The pandemic made me realize I needed to go back to what I love, which is studying, and reading, and writing papers, and deep thinking. So I started a Masters Program last summer, and began looking around for funding. The James Madison Memorial Fellowship Foundation came up as one of the places I could apply. I wasn’t expecting to get the Frederick Douglas award. The James Madison award is one award for a teacher in every state of the nation. Then there are some select awards outside of that that are publicly funded, like the Frederick Douglass award. It’s just one award given throughout the nation for a teacher of color. I’m thrilled and honored to be the awardee for this year and to be recognized for my work as a scholar as well as a teacher, but in a way that will help make my teaching become even better. 

Have there been any opportunities at FCS that you don’t think you would have found teaching elsewhere?

[Enthusiastically] Oh yeah! To start, my colleagues are wonderful. All of them, but particularly the history department. The collaboration that we do here is incredible. At Friends’ Central, we collaborate and brainstorm our curriculum and classes. We talk about students who are excelling and those who need additional support and do a lot of thinking and work together to help make everyone successful. Allowing me to change the curriculum and encouraging communication about documents/units that are and aren’t working within the department is wonderful, as is the flexibility. 

Also, the support I received from the School to pursue this fellowship and continue my educational and professional development I think is really unique and important.

Do you have a favorite topic/unit to teach? What makes it your favorite?

I’m Haitian American, and so I might be biased, but we’ve just finished studying the Haitian Revolution, and this is a unit that I got to create and add to, using my own knowledge of history and identity. And something that I love about being a student and teacher at the same time is that I can add the material I’m learning right into my class so I was able to incorporate some of the ideas I just took in a historiography course.

Two of the major gaps in American history are the history of Indigenous people and Asian American history, which need to be addressed in school curriculums. So I make sure to incorporate Indigenous people’s history as much as possible. There are so many layers, and it’s fun to teach and watch students add their layers of thinking about revolutions and analyze what it means to have rights. They are able to really think about these bigger concepts and ideas, and that’s what makes it so fun and rewarding to teach.

In addition to the required 9th and 10th Grade courses - Religions and Revolutions and Contemporary Global History, respectively - you also teach a 12th Grade Sociology course called The Sociological Imagination. What does this course focus on?

I studied sociology for most of my academic career, so history was a shift for me, which has been amazing, but I consider myself a sociologist. I’ve always thought sociology asks the best questions like “why are things arranged this way?” and “why does that person look at me that way?” and all of the kinds of things that I would just think walking around. Sociological thought provides a really cool perspective. Inequality is a big feature for me. I’ve always felt different. I went to a predominantly white elementary, middle, and high school. I recognized class differences. In New York City, when I was in my twenties, I was a direct care worker. I worked in a group home for folks with cerebral palsy. It was interesting because the boss would come in and would give us these big lectures telling us not to be jealous of your consumers (meaning the folks we were caring for). And it was so confusing to me that people would be jealous of people just because they were receiving care. A lot of things were confusing to me. So I wanted to learn to understand through studying.

Sociological Imagination is about basically that. So all of the things that we think, all of the questions that we have like “What does that do that? Why are people like this?” We can apply sociological theory to those questions to develop an answer. And because it’s generated within ourselves, it’s often more interesting to us. … This class [The Sociological Imagination] looks at the three dimensions of inequality - race, class, and gender - and tries to get students to begin thinking about how they fit in in our society in those dimensions, and how other people fit in. 

They’ve definitely had some light bulb moments, sometimes pushing back. I think a big one was social norms and thinking about why we believe and know the things we do and don’t believe and know and what that means for them. How we can violate norms and not even realize it because we’re from a different class or gender or culture. Learning about those constraints that are present in our lives will hopefully allow for them to better navigate situations more deftly in the future. 

By Frankie Zelnick