Monthly Archives: September 2016

From The White Lady At The Front Of The Classroom: Five Tips For Leaning Into The Discomfort


I can’t stop thinking about  Terence.


Honesty at a rally in Allentown, PA in July 2016.  I went to listen.


And Trayvon

And Sandra.

And Philando.

I have to talk about this with my students.

WE have to talk about it with our students.

Just like 87% of public school teachers, I am The White Person At The Front Of The Classroom. In my district,  68%  of our students are Hispanic and 16% are Black. In the era of Black Lives Matter (yes, please click on the link and learn about the movement), it is crucial I work to hard to be a strong white ally for my students, their families, our community.  Being a white ally makes MY life better, it will make all of our lives better.

Fellow teachers, if you are ready to lean into the discomfort, how should you proceed?

Here are a few things I recommend doing, from my own experience:

  1. Listen.  Just listen to what others are saying around you, especially your colleagues and friends of color, and, of course, your students.  Also, what aren’t they saying?

2.  Start recognizing your privilege.  Listen, I grew up in the poorest town in my school district.  There wasn’t much economic privilege in Edwardsville, PA, but this article proves just how much privilege my white skin gets me.

3. Follow these organizations on Facebook to gain new perspectives and perhaps affirm current practices:

4.  Recognize you can support BLM and law enforcement:

Screen Shot 2016-09-21 at 9.06.29 PM.png

5. Dare. Dare to call someone out when they victim-shame the latest unarmed man of color is shot by the police.  Dare to post an article that addresses social inequality.  Dare to like a Black Lives Matter post.  Dare to be uncomfortable and angry, along with me and millions of others. Dare to question the canon of your school’s literature list – where ARE the writers of color? Dare to shift your mindset.

These are turbulent times, teacher friends, and we have to help light the way for the students who walk beside us, the colleagues across the hall, and the world around us.


Heather Harlen is in her 18th year of teaching and finds something to smile about each period. She has degrees in English, education, and creative writing.  Heather has taught in Russia, Northern Virginia, and currently teaches English in an urban high school in Eastern Pennsylvania.  She has served all types of communities of learners, from elementary school through college, to fellow teachers. She is proud to be a National Writing Project Fellow and is also a professional writer.














Can We Please Please Please End The Pencil Debate, Fellow Teachers?


To give or not to give a pencil? That is the question.

And it makes me want to stab myself in the forehead with a sharp #2.

For those of you not in the classroom, here’s the debate: when a student asks for something to write with, should you always give a pencil or pen to the student?


The struggle shouldn’t be this real.

This Google search will make your head spin.  So. Many. Articles.  Considering we have so many  important things to talk about like the school-to prison-pipleline and the high-stakes testing debacle, it’s astonishing pencils get this much air time.   And as much as I adore Teaching Tolerance and consider them to be one of my best teaching resources, I think it’s totally understandable to tell a student to ask friends first. It doesn’t make you a jerk at all.

Here’s my evolution on the “Yo, Miss, you got a pencil?” saga:

  1. The Oprah Effect


I used to give all of my students a pen or pencil. Gladly.  No questions asked. It kept them on-task and working.  And then I ran out constantly.  And I was constantly buying more. And then I was resentful that my students weren’t coming prepared  and that I was spending so much money on stupid pencils. I wondered if I was enabling them. So then…

2.  The  Hammer Factor


I put a moratorium on giving out writing implements. There’s something to be said for offering opportunities to be responsible.  I told my students to ask a friend, saying that when I forgot a pen at a staff meeting, I didn’t raise my hand and ask the principal; I asked a colleague.  It worked, for the most part.  Students almost always ended up with one somehow; if not, I would let them sweat it out a little bit and then slip them a Bic.  It was fine, but sometimes a little distracting when a student, the one who always forgot a pen, had to ask six people in a row because the first five were totally over giving her another one.  It was also uncomfortable when a co-teacher or a paraprofessional didn’t think along the same lines as me. So…

3. The Most Interesting Idea In The World


I work in an urban school district where about 90% of our students live at or below poverty.  I also serve students of color and am working really hard to be a  strong white ally. Learning about trauma-informed teaching really made me think about making how making one thing go easier in the day for a student  could make a difference.  So, I came up with Borrowing Boxes.  I went to The Dollar Tree and bought plastic containers for each table to hold pencils, erasers, paperclips, etc. so student could ideally borrow and return at the end of  class.Students has access to pencils, I didn’t have to stop class, or spend much more money on supplies. Win, win, win!  It worked well, but when I transitioned from middle school to high school, I discovered 9th graders aren’t as careful with the Borrowing Boxes as 8th graders.  My containers were scribbled on and picked apart.  They used pencils and pens but forgot to return them.  The boxes were often empty and we were back to Square 1.  So now.

4. My Current Solution


One Borrowing Box.  Just one, at the entrance to our classroom in a place where students can easily access it.  We’re entering Week 3 and the box is just as full as  Day 1, thanks to responsible students who return the pencils, a few stray pencils and pens found on the floor, and classmates naturally sharing their supplies with each other.

No drama.  No fuss.  Super-easy.  Students solve their own problems. I spent a total of $2.  Everybody wins.

Ultimately, it’s up to you.  Do what you think is best for your students. You’re a professional.  I trust you. Let me repeat. I trust you.  We don’t hear that enough in our profession, do we? And don’t agonize over it like I did.  Spend more of your time thinking about fun lesson ideas and how much awesome sauce you have to offer your students.

Heather Harlen is in her 18th year of teaching and finds something to smile about each period. She has degrees in English, education, and creative writing.  Heather has taught in Russia, Northern Virginia, and currently teaches in an urban district in Eastern Pennsylvania.  She has served all types of communities of learners, from elementary school through college, to fellow teachers. She is proud to be a National Writing Project Fellow and is also a professional writer.




If Your 9/11 Loved One’s Death Wasn’t On 9/11


Although I lived two miles from the Pentagon on September 11, 2001 and while standing at the end of my block, could smell the jet fuel and other chemicals that were burning at the crash site, I felt lucky.  I knew no one dead or injured.  My cousin, Harvey, an Arlington County (Virginia) police officer, was a first responder.  He had been fishing on the Potomac River, heard the crash, and worked the scene for days, recovering body parts and evidence.  My tribe was physically safe and I was so proud of my cousin.

Fast-forward fifteen years and my cousin, Corporal Harvey Snook III, is now buried at St.


Harvey and Russ

Mary’s Cemetery in Hanover Township, PA.  An aggressive lymphoma that started as a lump in his side soon grew into a garden of invasive, choking vines that strangled his kidneys and other internal organs until he was a husk of the 6’6 smart-ass, strong, stubborn, generous and loving man we loved so, so much. His cancer is assumed to have been caused by chemical exposure on 9/11.

In January of this year, he received a hero’s goodbye as his hearse rode past his house and past the police station in Arlington, where officers saluted his funeral procession.  On a snowy Saturday the following week, we said a final goodbye as he was interred,  the ashes of his K-9 companion, Russ, set on top of his own.

9/11 is always hard for me, having lived in Arlington.  But on this anniversary, it’s that much worse.  My cousin is gone.  I am not alone in my grief.   There are others grieving the loss of their loved ones on that day. There is a legion of people mourning the loss of their loved due to 9/11-related illnesses and an army of people themselves dealing with a host of diseases like cancers and COPD, caused  by chemical exposure from all of the destruction.


Harvey is the tall man in the white hard hat.  This is him and other responders at the Pentagon. Notice the absence of masks, respirators, and other protective gear.  He told me his boot soles melted from the chemicals.

If you are among this  club you never wanted to belong to, I have your heart in mine.   I have no comforting words, no solutions, no answers.  Just give yourself time to think, to grieve, to be angry, to be scared.  I found some solace in writing this article and maybe it provide can you with some tender support, too.

But writing an article doesn’t keep my breath from getting caught in my chest when I think about how Harvey was supposed to have retired in Pennsylvania, how he was going to buy land in the country, how my husband and I were supposed to bullshit around a fire pit with him, roasting marshmallows and drinking beers as we moved through middle and old age together. That is all gone.  As Bruce Springsteen sings in his song Into The Fire, “Love and duty called you someplace higher.”

So, if your pain and grief is as present as mine today, I’ve got you.  You’re not alone. This post by Rebel Thriver has ushered me through some dark nights, and I want to share it with you:


And these two Bruce Springsteen songs always get me through:



Sending you so much love.

You’re not alone.


5:13 pm: Please enjoy this tribute by Mary Hanula about my cousin.  Thank you, Mary! I’m glad that big galoot connected us 🙂