When Ms. Judy Hensley starts talking classroom projects, she doesn’t need to suggest topics. Her students come up with the ideas themselves. Then, she just stands back and watches the students’ excitement spill over. It often spills over into their local community–and sometimes even farther.
Judy has faith in her pupils at Wallins Middle/Elementary School in eastern Kentucky, enough to move mountains, or, rather, to keep mountains from being moved. To explain, it’s been over a decade ago that her class of seventh and eighth-graders in the Harlan County school got fired up about nearby Black Mountain, the tallest in Kentucky. The top of the mountain was scheduled to be “scalped” by what is called mountain-top removal (MTR). With MTR, coal companies blow off the top of a mountain with explosives, then gather the coal.
Though there are people in Appalachia who are for MTR, Judy’s class took a stand against it, at least in regard to Black Mountain. The students first heard about the news from a classmate. “A little girl who was very shy had me read her letter to the class,” she said, “and the words basically said: ‘Don’t blow it up!’ It made the other kids wonder why the coal company didn’t want to save the highest mountain in the state.”
Students were excited and wanted to do something to “save” the well-known mountain. Their teacher gave them the freedom to do the project. Judy is skilled in watching projects grow from the interests of the students because she’s trained in the noted Foxfire Method of teaching. Using the Foxfire Method, she coaches but relies mainly on decisions made by students—having them decide what and how they will study and present their topic. Her answer to the question, “What will your class do this year?” usually gets a simple answer from Judy: “Whatever they come up with…I’m not really sure yet.”
The Black Mountain project became one of the most exciting in her teaching career. “The class started doing research and then traveled on buses to deliver letters to the Office of Surface Mining,” said Judy. “It was a field trip to practice freedom of speech.”
People around the community were showing signs of concern about what was happening with Black Mountain. “There were others already meeting and talking about it, but it had not made it into the media,” said Judy. “When the students delivered those letters, a newspaper reporter covered it. The Associated Press picked it up. Then bam, bam, bam. The story made it to Ted Koppel’s Nightline and even was featured in a book called Hope & Heroes.”
After her class delivered the letters, they teamed with students from Rosenwald Dunbar Elementary School, in Jessamine County, to travel to Frankfort, the state capital, to speak to a legislative committee. “That school, with teachers Sandy Adams and Barb Greenleaf, got the ball rolling in central Kentucky,” she said.
No doubt with some credit going to Judy’s class, hearings were held concerning the Black Mountain MTR issue, and it was resolved the way her class wished.
“It came to a good resolution, so about 20,000 acres at the top of Black Mountain were preserved,” Judy said. “There were endangered species there such as Indiana bats, salamanders and indigenous plants. Black Mountain wasn’t only significant because it was the state’s highest mountain, but also because there were indigenous plants and animals not found anywhere else.”
During classroom lessons, she made sure that the students understood the need to listen to different sides of discussions. People who worked in the mining industry were invited to present their perspective on mountain-top removal. Interestingly, one class member was a grandson of a mining engineer.
The project that was started by Judy’s class ended with a memorable event. The Wallins and Dunbar students held hands around the base of Black Mountain in a huge ceremony of celebration and unity!
Another of her classes helped in protection of eastern Kentucky’s Blanton Forest, the largest “old growth” woods in Kentucky. A noted quilter worked with one of Judy’s classes to craft “angel quilts.” Her students have often made pen pal relationships an important part of their learning activities, and another of her classes worked with some Berea College students in an “Aging in Appalachia” project. Together, they talked to senior citizens in Harlan County and made a DVD of the experience.
Her sixth-grade classes have published an on-going book series called Mountain Mysteries. Judy is a published writer, also. She writes short stories and has authored two elementary level books, Terrible Tina and Sir Thomas the Eggslayer. She dreams of becoming a full-time writer in the future.
Besides teaching at Wallins Creek, she previously was a part-time instructor at Southeast Community College. She often sings solos at her church and is a talented photographer.
Her greatest joy comes when she helps a young person grow to be their best self. She works extra hard and won’t easily give up on students who are acting difficult or causing trouble. She puts it this way: “It’s sometimes difficult to uncover the jewel inside a child, but kids are so much worth the effort. They’re just full of surprises.”
Judy has an interesting way of explaining the importance of a teacher.
“Teaching is one of those rare careers where you get to be an artist, a singer, a philosopher and a psychologist,” said Judy, who has an open and friendly style that helps create a good student-teacher relationship. “Every person deserves a positive stroke each day and I do just the best I can.”
Judy Hensley is the kind of teacher each of us always wanted to have in our own classroom. She’s one who has a quiet but confident manner; she prefers to listen rather than do all the talking. Being fair and serving a larger purpose are guiding principles she lives every day. By doing so, she inspires others to do likewise.
Steve Flairty is a life-long Kentuckian, a teacher, public speaker and an author of three books, a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and two “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes,” collections of stories about ordinary people who do extraordinary things. Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes for Kids is available now at many bookstores around the state or from the author.. This piece is an excerpt from that book. Steve is a correspondent for Kentucky Monthly. His column for KyForward appears weekly. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.