In Defense of (Excellent) Public Education:
An Open Letter to My Teachers
by Glenalyn Hunt, Pleasanton
I grew up in Pleasanton, the daughter of parents who had watched it grow from a “cow-town” (their words) to the bustling suburban city it was while I was in the school system. I am a product of public education and involved parents. I moved to Memphis, TN a few years ago and have been struck at the difference an excellent public school system makes in fostering individuals, communities, and cities.
I did not realize how fortunate I was growing up to go to the public schools I did, how early lessons would pave my way for future opportunities. How the sheer ability to read critically and with confidence would determine so much of my success. How little nuggets of wisdom gleaned throughout my 13 years in the Pleasanton Unified School District would inform my abilities and success for years to come.
As I study for the GRE, after graduating from a Top 25 university and living many adventures, I am reminded of many essential lessons I learned from my teachers.
So, in honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, here are the six lessons I learned in 13 years of Pleasanton schools (and no, the Pythagorean theorem isn’t one of them):
#1: Read the directions. In 5th grade, I failed a spelling test (one of two tests I have ever failed. The other was my driving test at the Pleasanton DMV. Thanks, Scary Larry.) I didn’t even fail because I spelled the words all wrong. In fact, I spelled the words perfectly. I failed because there was an activity on the second page of the test and I had not read the directions and therefore didn’t complete it. Even though my spelling had been impeccable, the test was 50% incomplete and therefore I earned a 50%. I will never forget the blush on my face as I walked to Mr. Smith’s desk to whisper “10 out of 20.” It was a hard lesson but one that served me well, as I read the directions with attention to detail on all future tests, including the SATs.
#2: Nail the prompt. In 11th grade, Mrs. Smith (no relation), my AP English teacher, taught us this essential lesson. In life, you will be asked many questions. Answer the question that is being asked in that moment. Understand the question FIRST and then answer. If you do not understand the question, figure out a way to understand it, because you cannot nail the prompt if you do not understand what it is asking. Always answer the question AT HAND.
#3: Use your voice. In 12th grade, Mr. Ladd threatened to cut me from the Comp Civics team. It wasn’t because I wasn’t smart enough or doing enough work. It was because I had ideas and thoughts and wouldn’t share them. It is funny because this is feedback I continue to receive. No one sees the world exactly as you do, or processes information in quite the same way. We need your insight and your voice, otherwise the information available is incomplete.
#4: Be kind. In 6th grade, it was time for desk rearranging and I desperately did not want a certain individual to be in my group. I was a little too vocal about it, and my teacher, Mrs. Heller, asked me to step outside. She called me out on this lack of kindness, and I cried. From then on, I did try to be more kind, not to talk about people poorly, and slowly, to learn to see the best in people, even when they are different from me.
#5: Try something new. In 4th grade, I had one of my favorite teachers, Mrs. Gatehouse. It was one of the only years she taught elementary school, and I was grateful to have had her as a teacher. She valued creativity and art, and we did lots of fun projects. One project was doing a play-The Rosa Parks Story. While I loved theater and wanted to be an actress when I grew up, Mrs. Gatehouse saw a different possibility for me. She let me be the director, and I got to work on multiple elements of the production instead of just acting. While I was initially disappointed to not be the star, I realized I actually liked directing (telling people what to do has always been a passion of mine…). I would probably have never tried it for myself, because I had one idea of what success looked like and what I thought I wanted, but forcing me to try on something different gave me an opportunity for seeing myself in a new way, and prepared me for other creative endeavors later.
#6: Embrace the Challenge: In 10th grade, I submitted myself to the experience that was Mr. Murphy’s AP World History class. It was fairly legendary, back in the day. On the very first day of class, he wrote on the board-05/05/04. No, it wasn’t for Cinco de Mayo—it was our test date. Underneath that, he wrote, “Embrace the Challenge.” On the first day of class, he was setting the goal and the expectation. AP World History requires reading a college level text book, analyzing the information, and writing succinct, detailed essays about world history spanning from ancient civilizations through present day. It required a new way of thinking about information—comparing and contrasting seemingly disparate countries, histories, and cultures and finding the spaces where they interacted or evolved. It was one of the most challenging courses I ever took, including my college classes. I remember being terrified. I was so afraid of being wrong when I was called on that I rarely let myself be right. I learned and continue to learn it is better to try. I had to embrace the challenge, even if I might be wrong, and move forward.
This refrain of embracing the challenge has carried me through many adventures, challenges and opportunities. It is easy in our microwavable culture to want to be able to succeed at something immediately, and when it doesn’t work, to quit because it is too hard. I propose instead we embrace the challenges set before us, and look on them as opportunities to succeed rather than chances to fail. And to paraphrase the words of Teddy Roosevelt, if we do fail, at least we shall fail while daring greatly.
While I may not have learned everything I needed to know in kindergarten, as Robert Fulghum once wrote, I did learn the vast majority of life’s great lessons in my thirteen years of public school in Pleasanton, and continue to grow into these lessons and the life they foster today. Thank you to all my teachers throughout my education-you encouraged me, challenged me, and showed me what was possible if I would simply: Read the directions. Nail the prompt. Use my voice. Be kind. Try something new. And, always, EMBRACE THE CHALLENGE.
Cuts that eliminated special summer school programs for gifted students weren't enough to stop Lynn Gatehouse, a teacher at Harvest Park Middle School.
Gatehouse, on her own, created a 501(c)(3) charity and put together her own program, holding two two-week sessions and bringing in more than 160 students from Pleasanton, San Ramon, Dublin and Livermore with some coming from as far away as Fremont, Santa Clara and Cupertino.
"I knew there was a need and I knew there was an interest," Gatehouse said. "Usually in summer school programs the focus is on mastering skills."
She said programs for gifted students were cut in the Pleasanton school district two years ago.
'It took about a year of planning and finding out what paperwork needed to be filed," she said, adding that finding insurance was a particular challenge.
"Anything dealing with childcare is a problem," she said.
Gatehouse also recruited some of her colleagues to teach everything from art to robotics.
Kevin Kiyoi taught Introduction to Digital Imaging and Web Page Development.
"I made a website using HTML code," said 10-year-old Liam O'Flynn, who's entering fifth grade this fall. "He gave us these subjects and we had to make a website."
O'Flynn's site featured Bigfoot being spotted at a Starbucks.
Neil Bello taught Brain Fitness Through Art, inspiring students to think and solve problems with clay and offering them the chance to use a potters' wheel.
Kevin O'Dea taught Intro to Music Production, where the students created electronic musical compositions using GarageBand software and MIDI keyboards.
Randy Lomas taught Creative Problem Solving, incorporating logic puzzles and Math Olympiad and MathCounts challenges.
One popular program was put together by Gary Mansfield, a semi-retired scientist from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
Mansfield taught robotics using LEGO Mindstorms NXT, which included simulations and the Mars Laboratory Challenge. Students demonstrated their robots on the final day, as they made their way through a series of steps to rescue a trapped astronaut. Intern Scott Miller, an incoming freshman at UC Berkeley, helped Mansfield out.
Young volunteers were integral to Gatehouse's program. She brought in 12, students who this fall will be either eighth-graders at Harvest Park or freshmen at Amador Valley High, some of them the siblings of students taking the classes.
"They volunteered to be here," she said.
The programs were such a success that Gatehouse is already making plans for next year.
"This year we offered classes for incoming fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders. We plan to add classes for incoming seventh-graders and possibly incoming eight-graders next summer," she said.
Pleasanton Weekly - July 23, 2012