Category Archives: National Writing Project

A Challenge: An Open Letter To Fellow Teachers


Dear Fellow Teachers,

Fired up about the latest mass murder in an American school?  Great.  Me, too.  And if I see one more well-meaning teacher on a social media post ask for advice while trying not to be “political”,  I’m going to snap my very favorite purple pen in half.   And you know that means business when a teacher vows to destroy a favorite pen. So, fellow teachers…




Everything we do is legislated by the state or federal government or decided upon by a school board.  From the backless, toeless shoes we’re not supposed to wear in my district to the funding we receive as a Title 1 school, EVERYTHING IS POLITICAL.

Saying you’re not political is political. 

It places you firmly in your privilege, siding with the status quo.

Your non-voice, your silence, emboldens others to tell you what to teach, how to teach it, and how much you’ll be paid to shut up and fake-it-to-make it.

I’m not saying your classroom is the place to indoctrinate your students with your views on abortion or 2nd Amendment rights. As a professional, your job is to helps students explore all points of view. What I’m saying is that you need to educate yourself and take a social media stand on issues that impact the four walls you teach in every single day.

For example:

If you can’t talk about these topics with a modicum of insight, it’s time to stop grading and read about them.

You can still use social media to ask for advice and share your favorite activities, but please get out of your Pinterest stupor and GET INFORMED.  What can you do?

  1. Find your local school district’s social media accounts  and follow them.
  2. Find your town’s social media accounts and follow them.
  3. Find your county’s social media accounts and follow them.
  4. Find your governor’s social media accounts and follow them.
  5. Find your STATE legislators’ social media accounts and follow them.
  6. Find your CONGRESSIONAL legislators’ social media accounts and follow them.


7) “Like” what you agree with a write a comment telling them why.

8) If you disagree with what your elected official posted, tell them why.

9) Do both professionally and diplomatically. No name calling, no sweeping generalizations. Keep it positive.

10) And when someone in your social circle posts something  you know is factually dubious (because you’re informed), TELL THEM ABOUT IT and add a credible link. Do not engage with a back and forth and be ridiculous.  Use your teacher voice.  Then get on with your life.

“But Heather, it’s JUST social media!”

It’s never JUST anything when it concerns our students.

Quick story:

In the mid 2000’s I was at a National Writing Project Annual Meeting and chose a session about supporting LBGTQ students, back when it was still precarious professionally to do so openly.  The hotel conference room was packed with teachers from all over the country, wanting to make a difference without losing their jobs.  One man said, “Listen. Even if all you can do is tell a student ‘That’s so gay is not OK in this classroom,’ you have done something. You have made your classroom safer for the closeted student in the back row or for another student whose uncle just came out.”

Those two sentences changed me.  Since that November afternoon  years ago, my classroom has never been the same.  Some people might consider it a political act that I stand up so openly for my LGBTQ students. I long to live in a culture where treating everyone with dignity and respect is a norm, not a political leaning. So until then, the rainbow  drawing on my classroom door is political. I can live with that.

I believe that every student has the right to feel safe in every classroom across our great, complicated, bruised country.   And they will never feel totally safe until we, as teachers, stop being afraid of being called “political.”


With love,



An Invitation To Listen: A New Podcast


episode-one-coverbThe Penn State Lehigh Valley Writing Project has been my happy place as a teacher since 2004.  It’s provided me opportunities to learn, lead, write, make mistakes, develop friendships, and more. Because life is about the sweet and the bitter, he horrific events in Charlottesville this summer were the catalyst for an LVWP bucket list initiative: our own podcast.

Thanks to the our fearless site director, Doug Antonioli, I am now part of Open Mic, a monthly podcast exploring the intersections of education and social justice.  Enjoy our first episode: Teaching In The Wake of Charlottesville.

Our next episode is about supporting transgender students. Stay tuned.




Reclaiming Our Teacher Voice: How Staff Writing Can Combat Demoralization

Reclaiming Our Teacher Voice: How Staff Writing Can Combat Demoralization

My identity web from the Paint Chip Identity activity.

According to recent research from the University of Pennsylvania, 40-50% of teachers will leave the classroom within the first five years of teaching.   It’s estimated teacher turnover can cost upward of $7 billion dollars.  This is serious, folks.  Unfortunately, most of our legislators care about standardized testing mandates more than quality teaching.  Many of our community members think that we care more about June, July and August (HA HA HA – I WISH) than we do Jose, Brianna and Jacob.


My paint chip brainstorming from the Paint Chip Identity activity.

Since our true allies are currently limited, we need to support ourselves. This is what led me to my inquiry project through the Penn State Lehigh Valley Writing Project’s literacy and leadership fellowship.  If you attended my session on Saturday at the Best Practices, thank you!  It was a joy to share my experience with creating fellowship through writing with a room full of motivated teachers and administrators.  If you weren’t at the conference, please take a look at my PowerPoint and resources.  I bet you can find 20 minutes twice a month to help combat demoralization in your school.

If you are interested in creating a staff writing community and would like some support or a sounding board, please email me at heather harlen at gmail dot com.  If you’ve implemented something like this in your school or have questions for the community,  please post in the comments!


Harlen Leadership Inquiry

Links to Create Into The Morning Activities:

(All activities included time to share in pairs or as a group)

Paint Chip Identities (Make a web of your different identities; pass out paint chips and have participants find one or two that match an identity; tape onto paper and jot down words that relate to the color and identity; rename the color to fit identity.)

A Pep Talk From Kid President To You (We watched this and then wrote pep talks.)

The Testing Camera (We watched this and then drew snapshots of what our classroom looks like when they’re at their best.)


Do Not Touch from Room To Write by Bonni Goldberg.

Room to Write by Bonni Goldberg (We did the Do Not Touch activity. I made sure to personally invite science teachers since their observation skills would add something special to this particular session.)

The Observation Deck by Naomi Epel (We picked random cards and used them as springboards for writing.  Easy!)

Archetype Cards by Caroline Myss  (Again, we picked random cards and used them as springboards for writing.  So easy an the artwork on each card is beautiful. You can also read about how I use them in my fiction writing here.)

Finally, don’t forget to acknowledge participants’ involvement.  Make ’em feel special for writing with you, for taking this chance, for being a risk-taker, for being a teacher who writes.  A little note in a mailbox goes a long way.


I use these to compliment colleagues who attend our faculty writing activities.