Podcast: Overcoming Trauma in Parkland, FL with Sarah Lerner for Teachers in America

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Photo: Sarah Lerner and Noelle Morris at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

June is all about gun violence awareness, and on the podcast, we have a new episode of our Teachers in America series, featuring Sarah Lerner, editor of Parkland Speaks. Sarah is a journalism teacher and yearbook advisor at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

On February 14, 2018, 17 individuals at the school lost their lives to gun violence. Sarah shares with us how she has adapted her curriculum to meet student' social emotional needs, and how her yearbook staff honored the victims in what became an award-winning yearbook. Follow Sarah on Twitter @mrs_lerner.

This episode was recorded on site at Marjory Stoneman Douglas in February 2020, prior to school closures and the COVID-19 outbreak in the US.

A full transcript of the episode appears below; it has been edited for clarity.

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The views expressed in this podcast are those of the guest and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.

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Alicia Mitchell: Welcome to HMH Learning Moments, a production of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. I'm Lish Mitchell, and I work at HMH. Today's episode is a new installment of our Teachers in America series hosted by HMH’s Director of Content and Programming, Noelle Morris.

June is gun violence awareness month, and student safety is always top of mind for us wherever students are learning. When we planned our episode lineup for the year, we knew we’d like to talk to Sarah Lerner. Sarah is an advisor for the yearbook and an English and journalism teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. On February 14, 2018, 17 individuals at the school lost their lives to gun violence.

In the aftermath of this tragedy, Sarah and her students wrote and published an award-winning yearbook in the space of a few months honoring the victims. Sarah is passionate about mental health and advocating for gun reform. She was a finalist for the Florida Scholastic Press Association teacher of the year, and a recipient of both the CSPA 2019 Gold Key Award and CSPA 2020 Special Distinction Adviser Award. She also oversaw the publication of the student written anthology Parkland Speaks: Survivors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas Share Their Stories.

This episode was recorded in Sarah’s classroom before school closures took place for COVID-19. Now, here's Sarah and Noelle.

Noelle Morris: We are here at Marjory Stoneman Douglas. You have been a teacher here for a while, but before we get into your here and now, I always like our listeners to know the history and how you as an individual came into the teaching profession and made your way to this classroom.

Sarah Lerner: Well, thank you for having me. I started my teaching career in 2002, which seems like forever ago. My first two years of teaching were in middle school. I did seventh grade, and my first year was language arts and social studies, and I was the world's worst geography teacher. And then from there, I went to teach at another high school in Broward County. I was there for 10 years, and then 6 years ago I came to Stoneman Douglas. So this is my 18th year of teaching.

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Noelle Morris: I'm laughing because you're like, “I was the worst geography teacher.” It's year one and would you have imagined 18 years would go this fast?

Sarah Lerner: You know, it feels like I've been teaching forever, but it also feels like I just started. This is my third school. I've had hundreds and hundreds of students. It seems like time has gone by quickly. I'm going to be 40 in May. I was talking to my mom, and I reminded her of how long I've been teaching, and she just looked at me, she's like, “Eighteen years already?” I said, “Yeah, I know.”

I've been teaching as long as my seniors have been alive. And to put it in that context is just absurd, but it's been a really long time.

Noelle Morris: How did you approach getting up in the morning and you're young, you're . . . I don't want to say younger, but in the beginning of your career versus how you find yourself now?

Sarah Lerner: I had a lot of energy 18 years ago. My first year of teaching, I wasn't married yet. I had no children. Now I have two children, and I've been married for 15 and a half years, and my alarm goes off at five-thirty and I get very angry, and I usually hit snooze and get up at six. So it's a very slow crawl. I used to get up with a lot more energy. When I was at my last high school, I would get to work incredibly early so that I could be really prepared for the day. Now I kind of walk in at like 7:15 when our contract time starts like, I'll figure it out. I used to care about certain things a lot more. Now I just kind of let certain things go. There are certain things, of course, I still care about as far as discipline is concerned, but the way that I teach and the way that I am with my students is the way that I've always been. Even before I had children, I was always very maternal and caring and understanding and funny and sarcastic, and that's how I am now, which I think is what makes me relatable to my students. I don't think I'm out of touch with the things that they're interested in. They may, you know, beg to differ on that, but I think I'm cool.

Noelle Morris: I know. Cool. I do too. I always say you don't even know how cool we are. You mentioned your sense of humor. Is that something you find important, especially in thinking of not teaching English? I mean that comes naturally. But in the world of journalism and getting students into your book, do you find using humor is a way to connect to them more and let them see life?

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Sarah Lerner: Yeah, I think so. I think it's important for them to know who I am, and part of who I am is being funny. We're not supposed to bring our politics into the classroom, but I do to a certain degree because I'm a journalism teacher, and you know, we need to talk about politics and things like that.

I have political mugs and funny posters. I was talking with a student this morning . . . I'm here in my classroom more than I'm at home, especially when it's yearbook deadline season. I have things in my classroom that make me happy. The fact that they entertain other people is just an added bonus. But when I'm here for 11–12 hours a day, I need to feel comfortable in my space. This is all for my amusement and my benefit.

Noelle Morris: That was the other thing that drew my attention. I was like, “There is a coffee center in a high school classroom.” It does say for yearbook only or journalism. So similar to in a workplace, would you be able to listen in and watch students interacting at the water cooler or having their coffee break? Is that part of the culture and you see them now as 15-year-olds, 16-year-olds, but can you almost see them in their career or what they're going to be doing and influencing when they're 25, 30?

Sarah Lerner: Yeah, I hope that the skills that they learn here with me and in their journalistic practice carry them through college and into adulthood. I have students on staff who will not be pursuing journalism, but the skills they learn will make them leaders and give them structure and they'll be able to handle deadlines and pressure. I like to give them the freedom to make this their space too, so we've got the Keurig, I've got the mugs, which are mine, and I really don't let them use them, but they're here.

Noelle Morris: Oh, they’re just decoration!

Sarah Lerner: Well, they're mine. Yeah. My husband says I have an addiction. I think it's really more like a collection. So there's probably 30 mugs in the classroom.

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Noelle Morris: I like the one that says, “Sorry, Not Sorry.” Is that one you use the most often?

Sarah Lerner: No, actually that's a gift. That was a gift from a student. The one I use the most often is probably “Greatest Teacher in the Universe,” and I got that when I was in Des Moines, Iowa. I also like my “American Needs Journalists” mug. But we've got the coffee maker. I've got a fridge in the room because they're in here working so many hours too, so it should feel, not like an office, but like they have those amenities available to them. I don't want it to feel like a cold, stark classroom because it's so much of a team and collaborative thing that we're doing with yearbook. They need to be able to sit and talk and snack, not near the computers of course, and you know, be able to eat and work at the same time. That's what makes them more productive.

Noelle Morris: Thinking of conversations that are happening, what hot topics are you hearing them curious about or wanting to investigate more or place their voice in contributing to their generation?

Sarah Lerner: I mean, for us here, a big thing of course is gun control. The impeachment is certainly a very hot topic right now. And then there's just the normal teenage stuff. Like we're doing something in the yearbook on TikTok cause they're all TikToking everywhere. And you know, they're kids, but at the same time they live in a community that is under the microscope all the time.

Things that quote unquote normal teenagers might be thinking about in the middle of the country, we’re not. We're thinking about that plus 50,000 other things just because of who we are and where we live and what happened here.

Noelle Morris: What’s your advice for a teacher who is teaching yearbook, teaching journalism?

Because as you say, journalism matters. It needs to be real. You have these conversations. How do you approach leadership on sensitive conversations?

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Sarah Lerner: When we decide what stories to cover in the yearbook, I really leave that to my two editors in chief and the editorial board at large, because it is a student publication.

I supervise and I have oversight, but I should not be the one making the decisions. We cover sensitive topics. We're doing a whole spread on LGBT because we have a large population here, and we're doing two spreads like we did last year on the anniversary of 2/14, and we have a whole mental health spread.

These are the things that matter to the students. And I think that's what’s the most important. As long as they're covered appropriately, and I don't mean in like appropriate or inappropriate, but with the respect and the dignity that the topic deserves, I think the students can cover whatever they want.

We're doing a spread on vaping. That's an issue here. People don't want to talk about it, but it's happening, and I support them in their reporting and in their coverage of these things. And I will go to the office if I'm called to the office, just like I've done as a newspaper advisor for stories that went to print in our school newspaper at my last school. That's my job as the advisor. If I don't approve it to go to print, that's one thing, but if I'm giving them the okay, then I should be able to stand behind what they're doing and support it if questioned.

Noelle Morris: I now want us to talk about being an English teacher, and we know that in high school English we have curriculum that has Greek tragedies, Shakespearian tragedies. I think of Othello, and then I think of Macbeth.

Sarah Lerner: We're actually reading Macbeth right now.

Noelle Morris: Tell me, how has your perception or your approach to the canon been impacted by the experience that you had?

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Sarah Lerner: On February 14th I was giving a quiz to my seniors on book one of 1984 and then everything happened. We were out for two weeks. We came back, and curriculum was really suspended. And I had a yearbook to finish an overhaul in six weeks, so I didn't teach anything for the remainder of the school year.

So last year, I was teaching Macbeth, and right before spring break, they took a quiz on act three, so I was more than halfway done with the play. And then over spring break we had two suicides. And it just felt wrong to continue the play when we got back, when it was so soon after the first anniversary, and then we were hit with this additional tragedy.

I don't want to ruin anything for your listeners, but you know, everybody in Macbeth dies, and I'm like, how can I do this play when everyone dies either by their own hand or someone else's? I kind of abandoned Macbeth and I didn't do 1984 last year, which I really wanted to, but I, I don't know, it felt weird to do it when I wasn't able to get through the whole thing the year before.

This year I'm teaching Macbeth. They have a quiz on act two on Tuesday. And then when we're done, I'm going to do 1984. I'm trying to get back to normal with things, but I'm also sensitive to what the students can handle and what they're up for. And I realize as the teacher, it's up to me. It's not up to the kids, but it kind of is at this point, because if I can't get their buy-in, I'm talking to myself for 90 minutes at a pop.

Noelle Morris: As English teachers, we know the text. But every time we read it and we teach it, we're part of the life that we're living right now, and what is embedded in the words and what is meant when Shakespeare was writing it, how relative it is today.

I mean, can I ask you how you prepare your heart, or how are you preparing yourself for questions and emotions that may arise?

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Sarah Lerner: I don't see emotion coming up with the book. I think they're into the action. I already told them since it's a tragedy that the main character is going to die. Thankfully in the story, it's not by gunshots. I think we're all kind of okay with that. The language is so confusing that just reading it on the page doesn't make a ton of sense, but then when I break it down for them, then it makes sense. Act one bored them to tears. Act two they kind of got into it once they realized what could be and will be happening in the remainder of the play. I think that got them hooked.

We did Beowulf earlier in the year, and there's a lot of violence in that, but again, it's not gun violence. So I think, yes, violence is violence, but I think for us, when there's that distinction between this is a story and it's swords and monsters and fire versus real life and gunshots, I think there is that distinction and we all kind of compartmentalize.

At some point we have to get back to normal curriculum. We did it slowly last year and we're into it this year, and if a student's having a moment and they aren't down for the reading that day, fine. All they have to do is tell me. If I'm not really feeling it, that's a different story. I've got to do my job, but I picked the things within the curriculum that I enjoy doing, you know? And then I think the kids see how much you like it and then they want to do it too.

Noelle Morris: You’ll have possible conversations about why is Lady Macbeth written the way she is?

Sarah Lerner: Right.

Noelle Morris: How current could these conversations be? How can we take this and look at how headlines are written or how characters are set up based on other people's interpretations? So there's a lot there. I am curious though, as an English teacher today and everything that's happening in the space of disrupt text. Where do you sit in that? What else could be out there to make sure we have representation of the students that we're teaching today?

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Sarah Lerner: I think diversity is huge. The fact that so much of the literature that I grew up reading was mostly dead, white men really is not representative of the student body at large. Even if you're teaching in a predominantly white school, all students should be exposed to a large array of writers. I think diversifying the canon, the curriculum—like senior English used to be just British literature and stuffy old, dead, white men, and it's not like that anymore. I think that's a good thing.

Noelle Morris: Do you find yourself having these conversations at home with your family?

Sarah Lerner: About literature?

Noelle Morris: Literature, life, your journalism. Do you leave that [at school] or . . .?

Sarah Lerner: Oh, no, no, no.

Noelle Morris: You're helping your children start to have a voice?

Sarah Lerner: Absolutely. Who I am at home is who I am at work and vice versa. My husband has told me on any number of occasions to stop talking to him like he's one of my students. I told him to stop acting like one. My son is 14. He'll be a freshman next year. My daughter is almost 11, and she'll be going into middle school.

Literature is a huge part of what we talk about at home. I mean, we don't have book club every night, but my son is reading Flowers for Algernon and I love that story, so I was talking to him about that. He's going to be on the newspaper staff here next year, and he wants to be a sports writer. And this was nothing that I pushed, but he just told me one day a few years ago, and my heart sang, because I was on my high school newspaper staff and I wrote for my college newspaper. And clearly this is what I teach every other day. So of course I'm like score, I won. My daughter says she wants to be on my yearbook staff. I told her that I yell a lot and she's like, I've heard it before, so I think we'll be okay.

Noelle Morris: So they got some of your humor.

How do you stay connected with your colleagues, and would you say that you have a teacher BFF here on campus?

Sarah Lerner: Yeah, I think so. I have two teachers in my little hallway, and we're all friends. I have a lot of friends around campus. We have a little English teacher group chat. There's like five of us in it. My friend who worked with me at my last high school is here this year as a guidance counselor, and I'm super excited that she gets to work with me. I think it's important to stay connected because sometimes you feel like you're an island unto yourself as a publication advisor. Because no one else on campus does what you do.

But at the same time, you're within a department full of people. I stay in my room a lot, because I have work to do. But it's nice to know that there are colleagues who share your same professional interests, but also your personal and your outside-of-school interests. So, I don't get out of my room as much as I would like to, but I do have a really good, solid group of friends. And we've all been incredibly supportive of each other. Before the incident and since, we've really been able to lean on each other a lot, which is incredibly helpful.

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Noelle Morris: So Sarah. One of the things that every teacher faces is we have drills, we have lockdowns, we have the drills to prepare. What would be your advice to a new teacher, or any teacher, who feels that moment of insecurity or not feeling secure in this space and preparing and just getting a little bit past that?

Sarah Lerner: I was prepared for that day in the sense that we had training, but I didn't go to school to learn how to do code drills, and I didn't go to school to be a security person. I think when the moment happens, your natural instincts just kick in. I knew to get the kids in. I knew to put them in a safe place in my classroom, and common sense kind of takes over any kind of fear that you may have.

I remember being in the room and not being nervous and not being afraid. And I thought to myself, this is so weird that you are so calm, but you have to be, because I had 15 kids in the room, and if I freaked out, they would freak out.

I spoke in October at a conference for teacher candidates in the state of Florida, and you know, it was to talk to them about school safety, and what happened here, and all of that. I don't know that there's a way to be prepared, because you never think that anything like this is going to happen. But it doesn't just happen at schools. It happens at concerts, at churches and synagogues. It happens in a newsroom. It happens anywhere and everywhere.

But gun violence isn't just school violence or large-crowd violence. Suicide is gun violence. Domestic violence is gun violence. It's everything. In a school setting, you follow the protocols; you follow the procedures; you follow the directives you're given. But you also have to be on your toes and know that you have to have the latitude to do what is going to keep you and your students safe. And that's what we all did and tried to do that day.

Noelle Morris: Tell me a little bit about how you leverage some of your activism, your platform to give students that voice. Since February 14th, tell me how you took something that's so tragic—that we can only understand because of the hurt we felt outside—that you've had since then, to see some of the students who have rallied and got a voice. What have you done? What is happening? Tell me a little bit about that.

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Sarah Lerner: It's a multifaceted answer. I'll start with yearbook. On the day that it happened, after I got back up to my classroom, I remember sitting and thinking, not knowing at that point what was even going on yet. But thinking, how am I going to cover whatever is happening that has us on lockdown? And then of course, as the news unfolded and we found out what had happened, I knew that it was something that we had to cover, not as sensational journalism, but as responsible reporting because it's our story.

This happened to us and it needs to be covered in the book. I met with my editors the Saturday after. We had a loose plan of what we wanted to do. At that point we didn't know how long we would be out of school, what would be going on during that unknown amount of time, what would happen when we got back.

We had just a very loose plan. Once we came back to school, we decided that we were going to do a profile for each of the victims, and we wanted to cover all of the things that had happened during the two weeks that we were off and things that happened when we came back to school.

In the yearbook world, we’re a spring delivery book. We're really done with our coverage in March. When the fire alarm went off, I had a spread up and I was returning it to go to print. And when we came back, we added 18 pages for the victim profiles because you can't print an odd number. There were 17, so we had to add a page, and then we did seven spreads of coverage for the two weeks and the return to school, but then we added in an additional opening spread.

Everything shifted because we added and changed. We really made a book in six weeks because everything that had been sent up until the 14th before the fire alarm went off, the numbering had to change. My students really drove the decisions for what we would cover in the book. It is a student publication.

I wrote a piece about that day because I didn't want them to have to do it. They were already writing profiles for the friends they lost and the teachers they lost. And to have them write one more thing just didn't seem right, and they designed the memorials for their friends, and it was really, really hard to watch them do it.

But I was also very much on autopilot at that point because I was here between 10 and 12 hours a day for six weeks because we had to get this book finished. Our publisher forgave all of our deadlines, and we increased our number of copies written. Normally I would have ordered a thousand copies, but then after everything happened, I was talking to my yearbook rep and the kids and I'm like, “Okay, well what if nobody else buys a book?” This is not a priority for anyone. Well, on the 15th, online sales were still coming through, so we knew we had something special and something important. And a yearbook is always a time capsule, but this was something we've never done, and there's never been a school who had done it before. Columbine happened after the book would have been done. Sandy Hook was an elementary school, so we figured this all out as we went, and the end result was this unbelievable book.

Every year, and you can ask any yearbook advisor, every year you hate the book you are working on because you look at it so many times, and if I have to look at this spread again, I'm going to scream. I don't hate that book. And I have never hated that book. And it went on to win a bunch of awards, including a Gold Crown from the Columbia Scholastic Press Association out of Columbia University. And that's the highest honor that they give.

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Noelle Morris: Well, that's an accomplishment, right?

The book that you have done to also amplify stories, tell our listeners a little bit about that, and how did you work your way through it—being able to do that again and edit and hear the rawness?

Sarah Lerner: While I was scrambling somehow to make the yearbook in March or April of 2018 I was approached by the senior editor at Random House, and she contacted me to see if I would like to be a part of a project for this anthology they wanted to put out of student work related to the incident. And I've always wanted to write a book, certainly not under these circumstances, but I think before she even finished her question, I was like, yep, I'm in. Tell me what I need to do.

I talked to my students, and I would say just about everybody I asked was onboard and the book, all of that work became Parkland Speaks, and we have writing and journal entries, poetry. We have congressional testimony, a little piece of Emma's what we call “BS speech” that she gave the day that I was meeting with my yearbook staff that Saturday, so I wasn't able to go hear her say it. There's photography and artwork, and it was more of an anthology of their experiences. It was important to me to give them that voice and that opportunity. I knew that nothing like this existed, and it needed to be heard, and it needed to be shared, and as flattered and honored as I was that Random House came to me, I was even more so that the students trusted me with something so intimate of theirs, and I worked all summer on it. I wrote two pieces, and it really became something I'm incredibly proud of. We just passed the year anniversary since the book was released, and I'm so proud of what we were all able to accomplish.

Noelle Morris: Emma before. I mean, was she always like . . .

Sarah Lerner: Yes.

Noelle Morris: “I need to know why, I need to disrupt the system or think about . . .”

Sarah Lerner: I had Emma when she was in 11th grade. She was in my journalism class, and she would pop in that first half of the year. Not every day, but you know, a couple of times a week just to say hi. She had the teacher next door to me, and we grew really close, and I just adored her. The Emma you see is the Emma she's always been. You all just get to see what we've always known, and she's awesome, and she's a fighter, and she calls BS, and she tells it like it is, and I admire her for that. I admire all of the kids for that.

That's the way I've always been also. Very outspoken and that's who I am and who I've always been. I was raised to be a strong woman, and I'm raising my own children, my daughter especially, to be the same way. I hope that I've served as an inspiration for my students in that respect. I don't want to take credit for any of it. Emma was Emma before she knew me, but . . .

Noelle Morris: You're part of her. I mean, you're part of the path, right? I want to circle back onto the yearbook that year. What was the total number of yearbooks that you sold? Did you meet that number?

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Sarah Lerner: In December, I have to give the publisher our page count and our book count because at that point they start printing the cover and printing the pages as they come in. I didn't really know what to do because I had no frame of reference for anything like this. At first we were going to do 1,500 books, and then I was talking with my rep and it just didn't seem like that would be enough.

We ultimately ended up ordering 2,000 books and I sold about 1,950. These things went like we were giving them away for free and everybody, almost everybody, wanted a yearbook. In a normal school year in a normal school, to sell a book to a third of your students is normal, but we were well over half.

We were probably . . . I mean, I'm not a math teacher, but I would imagine we were close to two thirds of the school and it was just unbelievable. Our numbers were really high last year. Our numbers are high this year. I imagine they will be next year, because all of those freshmen will be seniors.

Beyond that, I don't know. Of course, I want everyone to buy our yearbook because it's award-winning and it's dope, but not everybody wants to, and that's okay too.

Noelle Morris: It's a tangible time capsule.

Sarah Lerner: Absolutely.

Noelle Morris: In the world of social, yes, I can go back online if my phone backs up, which mine does not half the time, but my daughter's does. I've tried to help her understand that's a digital imprint. But there is this importance having something tangible and something that you don't have to flip through. You just need to sometimes hold it, look, absorb, and remember who you are, where you came from. I did learn, because I'm a Florida State alumni, I learned that we almost had you coming to Florida State . . .

Sarah Lerner: Almost.

Noelle Morris: . . . but your father offered you a car. Is that true?

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Sarah Lerner: Well, sort of. He didn't offer me the car to not go to Florida State. My parents told me that I could go away or stay home, live at home and save money, and I could have a car. I really thought that was a big win for me. I had to pay for the car, which I found out later, but whatever. So I decided to stay local and I went to Florida Atlantic University.

Noelle Morris: I think there's always a reason why; we are always meant to be where we're supposed to be. I think by your staying in this area, you just continued to absorb and be part of the community and grow. We thank you for your voice, your platform, your no fear, right? You can't do this with fear, but you are in it and you are a gift, and thank you for letting me come in your classroom and see this phenomenal environment. I have so enjoyed this conversation.

I know you're a mom. I know your son is waiting for you. My daughter is waiting for me, but at the end of the day, I have just admired getting to see and hear your voice, see your personality, and your humor. Your students are very lucky. Community is very lucky and I know that many voices will be amplified because they have Mrs. Learner as a teacher.

Sarah Lerner: Very sweet to say thank you. Thank you.

Noelle Morris: This episode was Sarah Lerner created a flood of emotions as you can imagine. Both during the interview and when I got into my car, I remembered where I was in my school the day of the Columbine shootings, where I was the day of Sandy Hook as the parent of a second grader. And finally the moment I learned of the active shooting happening at a Florida high school in my home state. In each moment, I wanted to move into action.

Now with COVID-19, we are all trying to figure it out and can't do so in the same room or in the same building. So ultimately, what am I taking away from this episode and hope that you will reflect on and take away as well? Sarah's humor. Her determination to solve the problems that she can control—such as finalizing and moving forward with that yearbook—and the importance of being a model for her students and her own children. Together we can, whatever that need is.

Thank you all for listening. Until the next episode of Teachers in America, your friend, Noelle.

Alicia Mitchell: If you'd like to be a guest on the Learning Moments: Teachers in America podcast, please email us at Be the first to hear new episodes of Learning Moments by subscribing on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

We hope you enjoy today's show. Please rate and review and share with your network. You can find Teachers in America on the HMH YouTube channel and read more on our Shaped blog by visiting for the transcript and key takeaways. The links are in the show notes.

During this time, HMH is supporting educators and parents with free learning resources for students. You can visit for more information. Learning Moments is produced by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, The Learning Company. Thanks again for listening.

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