Strayer teacher SPARKs important student talks

Shawn Storm has provided a forum for current and former students to share what’s on their mind.
Posted on 05/13/2020
Shawn Storm selfie with his students.By Gary Weckselblatt

One by one as they spoke of the challenges they are dealing with or have overcome, those listening on the Google Meet knew they were hearing something special.

The speakers were either current or former Quakertown Community High School students, and they were discussing their lives, the peaks and valleys, breaking down and surviving. They were opening up to both strangers and to those they’ve shared a classroom with. And they did it hoping their words would help another person, in addition to lifting a burden from themselves.

Each individual had one thing in common - they were former students of Strayer Middle School teacher Shawn Storm.

During the Pennsylvania-ordered closure of all school buildings, Quakertown Community School District teachers have embraced the demands of online learning. Besides his regular classes, Mr. Storm has created a bi-weekly evening program titled SPARK, an acronym for Stories of Passion, the Arts, Reflection, and Knowledge. It’s based on a Cornell University series of talks for their graduate students. Each speaker is given five minutes to share their thoughts on a specific theme, followed up by a question-and-answer period.

“I am trying to give people who have been affected by what's going on a voice during this time,” said Mr. Storm, who has taught in the district for 23 years. “So many great people have come through Quakertown. We lose sight of them. I taught them as 12-, 13-year-olds. It’s cool to see them grow up.”

And each had the strength to share the turbulent times.

Samantha Barkholz, a soon-to-be 2020 graduate, told an emotionally riveting story of her senior year at Quakertown Community High School. An academic and athletic standout as captain of the Girls Soccer Team, Samantha always seemed to have it together as a member of Key Club, Student Council, National Honor Society, Class Council, Quakertown Student Leadership Team, Yearbook Editor, Prom Committee head (and junior prom princess), Spanish Club, and a tutor at the Sixth Grade Center.

But last fall was a “giant mess” as she dealt with “life issues.” Many included serious illnesses to her “aunts, pop pop, and other family.” Normally upbeat and bubbly, Samantha said she broke down in art class. Fortunately, Ms. Migliore took her into the courtyard “where they talked and cried for an hour. That was such a relief, to let someone know what I was going through,” she said. Samantha also praised Mrs. Roth, her counselor. “She was very kind. I met with her a lot,” Samantha said

Her lesson to others: “It’s okay to not be okay,” she said. “When I started talking I felt so much better.”

Ivan Traczuk “fondly” recalled his time in Mr. Storm’s sixth-grade class. Today, he is an executive assistant at a literary agency in Los Angeles. He moved from Quakertown to Ocean City, NJ in 2010 where he graduated high school in 2013. Ivan majored in Motion Pictures at the University of Miami for undergrad, studied TV, Radio and Film at Syracuse University for graduate school, and worked at the MLB Network in New York City. Last August Ivan left New York and moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in screenwriting.

He spoke about being diagnosed with cancer in college and learning to “roll with the punches.”
He experienced “some rough times” with chemotherapy, and said “it’s okay to not always have a smile on your face.”

As for today’s COVID-19 lifestyle, Ivan said “it’s a little blip. Something that brought us closer and something to grow from.”

Meghan Klee, a 2016 QCHS graduate and future teacher, and social studies teacher and baseball coach Jonathan Pallone also spoke. Meghan, scheduled to graduate from Shippensburg University with a degree in Early Childhood Education this December, is the daughter of Neidig third-grade teacher JoAnn Klee. A standout member of Shippensburg’s softball team, she missed her senior season because of the pandemic.

She said the pandemic is only temporary, “a roadblock, an obstacle.” Mr. Pallone echoed that theme, explaining that when people overcome obstacles “they become stronger for it.”

He’s been telling his students and players to “focus on what you can control. Do what you can to make the best of a situation with things you can control.”

Another significant point Mr. Pallone made, is that whenever he’s in a trying time he tries to find happiness in others. “If I can help somebody else out, I take joy in what they are doing,” he said. “Control the controllable.”

The previous week, speakers included University of Pennsylvania bound QCHS senior Melissa Nong, a National Merit Scholarship winner, and Taylor Onulack, a 2009 grad and Registered Nurse in the Lehigh Valley. Also speaking were the Schnitzler brothers, Christian, class of 2013, and Aidan, class of 2020.

“It’s so cool to hear your stories,” Strayer Assistant Principal Kim Finnerty said. “They’re so courageous, what you’ve been through. Thank you for sharing.”

“I’m completely humbled to have known all of you,” Mr. Storm said. “It’s awesome to see what this community has to offer.”

Gary Weckselblatt, QCSD Director of Communications, writes about the people and the programs that impact the Quakertown Community School District. He can be reached at 215-529-2028 or gweckselblatt@qcsd.org.
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