From The White Lady At The Front Of The Classroom: Election Fallout


My heart pounded in my chest as the electoral college number creeped toward Donald Trump’s column.  It was 3 a.m., my cat curled against my side as I looked to Facebook for solace and CNN for information. When John Podesta told us to go to bed, I knew it was over.  I trudged upstairs, hoping a miracle would happen overnight, like when you find $20 in your jeans pocket.  I cried to my husband, my mind whirring about how I would talk about this with my high school students.  How would I, as a white woman, explain how white America voted against them, my beautiful, intelligent, compassionate, students of color? The LGBTQ+ students I advise in our gay/straight alliance?

After asking for help on Facebook, I came to these conclusions:

  1.  It was a day to listen.  During the riots in Ferguson, when I felt just as helpless, a wise, African-American colleague told me to just listen. That advice has never failed me since.
  2.  Art heals, so I’d give my high schoolers space to create.
  3. We would  do a lesson in communication skills, practicing “I feel” statements.


    This student wrote a message to her nephews who are autistic.  She is upset our next president mocked a reporter with a disability.

I arranged my tables in a rectangle and covered the surfaces with long strips of butcher block paper.  I put out markers and a talking piece for the circle we would have.  It was a small, orange pumpkin. Orange, the color of the solar plexus chakra, of creativity.  Seemed fitting.

I invited each student to sit where they were comfortable and to do their warm up in Google Classroom: How are you today? What’s on your mind?   Answers ranged from tired, hungry, and fine, to expressions of sadness and fear over the election of Donald Trump as their president.

Then I talked to them about how their feelings are never, ever wrong, despite the messages they might get from other people.  I told them about times people were successful in calling me a troublemaker when I was expressing concerns over a loved one and how I have learned to ignore that and speak my truth.  Then I added how no matter how we feel, we have to do our best to treat people with respect.

I asked for a “tough” student volunteer.  I  was clear what I was going to say wasn’t true, but to go with it.

Me: I am going to say two sentences to you.  What is the effect of each one?  Jose, you are annoying.  Jose, I feel that you are annoying.

Typical Student Answer:  When you say I’m annoying, it makes it sound like the whole world thinks I’m annoying, that it’s true. But when you say you feel that I’m annoying, I know it’s your opinion only.


So we passed the orange pumpkin around the circle, each person having the opportunity to say what was on their minds using “I feel” statements.  Some shared, some passed, all listened.

Comments included:

Is this a real pumpkin?  (because ninth graders)

I feel angry.

I feel that it’s not right for the president to think it’s OK to touch women without their consent.

I think  Trump might do good things, but I’m nervous because my brother is a Marine.

We have to come together.

I feel unsafe.

I feel unsafe.  That was the word that, by 7th period, had me in tears.

We have an awesome responsibility to do our best to offer safety to each other.  An ear to listen, open eyes, open hearts.  We are responsible for standing up for each other, even when it makes someone else uncomfortable.

And …

….it’s OK to tell people their vote makes you sad, makes you uncomfortable.  That you feel disappointed.  That they have to accept responsibility for their vote.  That their  vote for Trump was a vote for bigotry.

Just remember those “I feel” statements.

I’ll leave you with some of my students’ artwork.  I hope I served them well today.

Onward in hope.


From The White Lady At The Front Of The Classroom: The Black Lives Matter Syllabus



If you are looking for more information about Black Lives Matter, to dive deeper, to lean into the discomfort, to  open your eyes and heart a little more, here is a comprehensive list of movies, videos, books, articles, poems and more for you.

I wish I could take this course in person, but geography makes it impossible.   Luckily, the age of social media makes information like this easy to disseminate: I share with you The Black Lives Matter Syllabus, Fall 2016.

Much respect and admiration to Frank Leon Roberts for sharing this so freely with fellow educators and the world.

I’ll post more as I dive into these resources myself.




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:

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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 🙂









An Anthem For Adulting


Welcome to my twice-monthly feature about anthems, the songs that inspire us.  You can listen to the songs on my Spotify playlist, Carry A Watermelon Anthems. New Anthems will be posted here the 1st and 15th of each month (usually…this post is a day late because Summer Brain).

Please welcome Suzie Bichovsky to our playlist.  Suzie and I have been friends for over ten years.   I’m agonizing over how to describe her, so I’m going to say the first thing that came to mind: she is like a piece of baklava – layer upon layer of goodness, a little nutty, very sweet, and always comforting.


“What we think, we become.” ~ Buddha

Music permeates and seeps into the mind, body, and soul. If we are what we eat, then we must also be what we hear. I use meditation music to get my day started and to get grounded.

BUT…Screen Shot 2016-08-15 at 6.21.31 PM

If meditation music slows me down, then my anthem speeds me up. When cleaning, paying bills, jotting quick writes, I turn to Express Yourself  by Diplo featuring Nicky da B. For real.

I was first drawn to this for its beat and a misheard lyric on my part. “Express yourself…release your goal.” (The real lyric is “Release the glow.”) A real lyric I love is “Put your back in it.” This is what I do. I use my voice to express myself and support others in doing so. I step fully into choices that make my goals a reality instead of dreams. I give my all to what I am committed to and passionate about.

When the words drop out and the musical frenzy kicks in, my inner hip hop goddess emerges. My dance moves are epic and private: I’m all head, shoulders, hand movements at the chest level, resting think face. That’s right- Resting. Think. Face. I zone out and get pumped.

I can take on the world!

Or…my to do list.

While it might be expected to have more moments of clarity when tuned into stillness, lively and vibrant beats often reveal inspiration to me.

“In the midst of movement and chaos, keep stillness inside of you.” ~ Deepak Chopra

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Suzie Bichovsky is a burnout prevention coach, an urban educator, and a professional development provider. She also likes cats. You can find Suzie online at or follow her on Twitter and LinkedIn.




Don’t forget to follow Carry A Watermelon Anthems on Spotify for  a playlist of additional inspiring songs!

Anthem: Float The River, Forget The Paddles


Welcome to my twice-monthly feature about anthems, the songs that inspire us.  You can listen to most of the songs on my Spotify playlist, Carry A Watermelon Anthems.  Today’s Anthem isn’t available on Spotify, so please enjoy it by clicking on the links below. New Anthems will be posted here the 1st and 15th of each month. 

Please welcome Kristin Weller to our playlist.  Kristin and I met over a decade ago through the Penn State Lehigh Valley Writing Project. We wrote together in a writing group and the rest is friendship history.  Her writing is full of grace, rhythm, and beautiful details. Enjoy!


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Photo: Flickr Commons

As a writer and a teacher, I often find myself stuck upstream without a paddle. The washer leaks all over the place, the telemarketers just can’t get enough, one of the dogs pukes on the carpet – again, and my work-in-progress lays open like a wound ignored. My mind spins and leaks just like my wonky washer. It is times like these when I call upon music to set me back to rights.

I had my first Brother encounter as Musikfest more than a decade ago. That first time, I entered the crowd that was building like a heatwave beneath a white tent. During soundcheck, one of the kilt-clad brothers grabbed his bagpipes and twiddled a partial reel. A pack of red-headed girls let out a riff of shrieks and whoops, a mic squealed. And when the concert really started, we were awash in a wall of sound – beefy bass beating, a vibrating blast from a didg, a halo of harmonic voices unifying.Their sound and artistic energy made a complete circuit with us, their undulating fans.

A few years later, Brother released River. It personifies the struggle with resistance we all encounter at one time or another when we choose to jump into our  passions. Its chorus begins:

When I’ve been asleep so long…so long/I woke up cold…and I… I woke up.

To me it means that even when things go wrong, it only takes a small act, to wake up — to reignite passion and possibility. The chorus concludes with:

If we’re a river, let it flow… and don’t climb out the window, when I’m at your door

which is  a love-note to the self to be brave when opportunity knocks, to trust-fall with intent into passion’s currents.

The paddles are not required.

Just, float.

And, I do.

Special Note: Since Brother is a self-publishing indie band, River is only available through their artist’s website. You can sample River and purchase it here.

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Kristin Weller is a  writer, poet, essayist, and English teacher in the Lehigh Valley area. She facilitates Write Nights,  a community-based writing group for adults which meets every first and third Monday at the Nazareth Center for the Arts from 7-9 PM.


Don’t forget to follow Carry A Watermelon Anthems on Spotify for  a playlist of additional inspiring songs!