Parent group seeks to uplift Latino MVLA students

STORY BY RODRIGO SEPULVEDA SAGASETA, PHOTO BY ARYA NASIKKAR

This story was originally reported in Spanish. All quotes are translations.

In a school district with a prominent Latino composition of 25.8%, the Latino Parent Outreach group aims to provide support to a disproportionate number of struggling students and their parents. 

Through sharing experience and working with the district to improve resources, LPO’s parent volunteers hope to make opportunities for higher education more attainable for Latino students.

LPO was founded four years ago with the mission of finding and addressing the causes of widespread low GPAs, low math grades and trends of chronic absence among Latino students. 

Although they mostly work in the Mountain View area, they are also willing to help any parents and students in the Mountain View–Los Altos Union High School District. 

Parents involved meet monthly in what they call “Cafecitos” or “Coffees” to discuss topics of focus and exchange knowledge, ensuring that parents with questions are able to talk with more experienced parents. The group is also able to help parents who have difficulties understanding English.

The organization has hosted events “celebrating the different cultures and countries that make up the Hispanic community,” said Marilu Cuesta, an involved LPO volunteer. These events include major celebrations in Mexican culture like Dia de Los Muertos and La Posada. 

“The goal of our group as parents is to open up new opportunities for Latino students and make sure they are going to school feeling happy and comfortable, knowing they can succeed by taking advantage of all the resources that the school and their teachers provide them,” Cuesta said.

In March, the group sent a letter to the district proposing 16 key action items in an effort to counter the continued academic underperformance among Latino students.

“The district has always known about these problems, but in reality, enough has never been done to close this unjust gap,” said Semi Gurbiel, the soon-to-be president of LPO. “We hope that they can help us with the ideas that we have given them, and that they accept and can work with us to increase graduation rates and help set up Latino students who work hard for success.”

These points include ensuring reliable internet service for students at home, clarifying resources to increase Latino student participation in academic programs, and expanding mental health support. The petition also suggests actionable, cost-free plans like instituting tutoring programs between model upper-classmen and newer students to help them achieve their goals.

This 16-point letter is the product of LPO parents’ collaboration and comprehensive analysis of the problems Latino students face. It also suggests resources like scholarships and internships with tech companies that could help combat the disparities. 

The district’s most recent renewal of its Local Control Accountability Plan calls to implement better internet access, academic counseling, mental health services and “culturally relevant education,” which all the sentiments of LPO’s 16-point petition.

“We face many challenges, mainly socioeconomic problems and a language barrier,” Gubriel said. “We have parents that have to work two or three jobs and are unable to keep their children on the right academic track like other parents can. And looking at the academic statistics of Latino students in our district is provocative and makes us want to give better opportunities to our children and our community.”

Local non-profit Mentor Tutor Connection continues to serve Mountain View and Los Altos students through pandemic

STORY BY GIL RUBINSTEIN AND RODRIGO SEPULVEDA SAGASETA, PHOTO COURTESY MENTOR TUTOR CONNECTION

A wedding or baby shower guest list typically includes parents, neighbors and long-time friends. For some former Mentor Tutor Connection students, their mentors — thanks to their patience, kindness and advice — also make the guest list.

Mentor Tutor Connection is a nonprofit that seeks to “enhance academic and life skills for students” by offering tutoring for kindergarten through eighth grade students in Los Altos and Mountain View school districts and one-on-one mentoring for students in the Mountain View–Los Altos Union High School District. 

Tutors either work one-on-one with students in math and language arts in their classrooms, or, through the Reading Fellows program, a more individualized program where they meet with students many times throughout six weeks to help them with their reading ability.

The organization’s mentors work for years to build personal relationships with high school students, many of whom are first generation college bound students.

“The mentoring program pairs a caring adult from the community, an adult who is non-judgemental, who will be there for the student,” said Carol Olson, executive director at Mentor Tutor Connection. “Our mentor program is focused on whatever the student needs or wants.”

Mentors are usually brought in by other people in the organization, but can be just about any experienced adult with a little extra time, a desire to help others and a lot of patience. Mentors go through a careful training and preparation process before being matched with the right student 

Once paired, mentors help their students with school work, time management, college applications and generally are able to guide and share their experience with students.

“Over time, the students trust [the mentors] more and more, open up more and more, and eventually you’re having this huge impact on them because you show up,” said Sally Chaves, president of Mentor Tutor Connection. “You didn’t raise [the student], but they’re just a special person that becomes like family.”

While at first glance it might seem that the organization only serves students, the mentors also benefit mostly by virtue of them being around students, and being able to give back to the community. 

“It’s nice to know I’m helping [my student],” mentor Leslie Micetich said. “She just wants to talk to someone else beside her family. Me too.” 

Micetich has been a mentor since April 2020. Despite having endured the pandemic with her mentee, she still found ways to support her student. She mailed a birthday card, made fudge on a video call and even set up a meeting with a special education teacher, which is her student’s dream job. 

Not all transitions to the pandemic were smooth, as some mentors struggled to figure out how to meet with their mentees online, and everyone was facing some hard times. 

“[The teen’s] lives were turned upside down, they’re feeling isolated, they’re often hit by economic hardships, or they have to take care of their younger siblings who are in class,” Olson said. “They are struggling [to] engage with school, whether it’s tech or having a private place, there are pretty significant stressors.”

It is only now that vaccinations are occurring and restrictions have been lifted in California that mentors will once again be able to meet with and support their students properly. 

“I find it very rewarding,” Jeff Purnell, a mentor said. “[I get to] use my privilege to help others who haven’t had nearly as much privilege as I have had.”

To contact Mentor Tutor Connections, click here.

Palo Alto Bell’s Books continues decades-long mission to match the “right books with the right people”

STORY BY MELODY XU, PHOTOS BY ARYA NASIKKAR

Browsing through the ceiling-length shelves of Bell’s Books feels like opening a box of historical treasures; the variety of books a customer encounters might include first edition Steinbeck or Twain novels, an early grimoire (book of spells) once considered effective in summoning angels or a collection of Pablo Picasso artwork signed by the renowned 20th-century artist. 

Throughout 86 years of operation, Bell’s Books has evolved from its beginnings as a college textbook shop to the new, used and rare bookstore it is today. Today, Faith Bell is Bell’s Books’ second generation owner. 

Faith Bell is pictured in front of a Bell’s Books display.

While the store orders new books from publishers in response to consumer demand, Bell said that she has always specialized in stocking used and rare collectibles.

“Our love is really with the antiquarian books,” she said. “We always like to find unusual or unique or rare material in unusual topics. The joy is in finding things that people haven’t seen before.”

Bell defines truly rare books as “ones that you simply find, almost never,” using the word “rare” sparingly and opting for “scarce” a majority of the time. Books can be truly rare, she said, for factors like their beauty or limited number.

Bell’s Books is also sometimes interested in provenance — the identity of a book’s previous owner — whether this is a notable individual or an interesting, anecdotal one; one example is the subject of English folk song “Bobby Shafto’s Gone to Sea.” 

“I have a book that belonged to the real Bobby Shafto with his bookplate in it,” Bell said. “I came across his bookplate and went ‘Oh my gosh! It is, it’s the real one!’ Because it has his manor house, and where it was and the time period’s right. So it’s funny, the little things like that.”

Two bookcases — where certain titles are kept for fragility or value — are pictured. 

The process of collecting and selling used books starts with a phone call, in which a Bell’s Books staff member questions the potential seller about their collection’s genres, size and condition. With this relative understanding, Bell’s Books staff arrive wherever the books are stored, curate a selection and make an offer.

“I have to figure out which [books] are likely to go quickly, in which case I can pay well for them, or which of them are still going to be sitting in my warehouse years from now,” Bell said. 

Many staff members are knowledgeable in their unique intellectual fields — whether something like philosophy or true crime — which assists Bell in book-buying. At any given time, thousands of boxed-up books in the employees-only back of the store are in the process of being cleaned, researched and priced after purchase. 

“One of the things that makes this area interesting is that there are more people per capita with multiple advanced degrees in this county than there are anywhere else in the world,” Bell said. “So, it means that people with very specialized interests have fascinating libraries and we’re able to access those.”

Despite the growing digitalization of books, Bell is firm in the opinion that print books hold great value to their readers. However, she noted that libraries of Stanford professors she used to visit were much more vast before the popularization of digital books.

“Call me a Luddite, but I think having access to information that doesn’t require electronic devices is important,” Bell said.

For Bell, her family and staff, the feeling of looking up at walls of books and knowing they are all “waiting for you whenever you want,” simply can’t be replaced by e-books.

“I very much enjoy the physical book,” Bell said. “The aspect of paper and binding, typography, ink. And that’s something I really love to share with people. Putting together … the right books with the right people, is a lifelong goal and joy, and I’d say that all my staff share that as the dominant force in their lives.”

Bell’s Books is open in downtown Palo Alto every day from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., at 536 Emerson Street.

From records to books, Linden Tree’s 40-year legacy of creating memories for children across the Bay Area

STORY BY MIA BASSETT AND CEDRIC CHAN, PHOTO BY EMILY MCNALLY

Linden Tree Children’s Books has transported children to a world of storytelling for generations, almost becoming a bona fide rite of passage in Los Altos. But few remember its origins as a record store 40 years ago.

Founded by Dennis and Linda Ronberg in 1981, Linden Tree fulfilled their vision of a children’s music store, operating out of their home in Seattle. When the couple moved back to Ms. Ronberg’s hometown, Los Altos, they decided to take the next step and open a storefront on State St.

Now, a new location and two sets of owners later, the records are gone from the shelves, but the store has maintained its original vision as a resource for Los Altos families.

COMMUNITY

Most Los Altos children grow up browsing the shelves of Linden Tree for new books or sitting in its large, cozy chairs and reading for hours. But the community that Linden Tree has created around a love for sharing stories stretches beyond the borders of its home city.

“People from 20 or 30 miles away will come to our store because that’s the only resource,” Mr. Ronberg said.

Linden Tree has seen generations of children grow up — some have even returned to become employees, said Lisa Blanchette, who has worked at the store since the Ronbergs first opened shop. It’s a testament to the dedication that Linden Tree has inspired in its community, extending beyond just a place to buy books.

Part of the Linden Tree experience, customers and employees said, is having conversations with employees who can tailor suggestions individually.

The exterior of Linden Tree in Downtown Los Altos.

And these recommendations have become friendships too, said Linda Parish, who has been taking her daughter to Linden Tree “since she was chewing on books.” Over her years of visiting the bookstore, Parish said she has gotten to know several of the employees, even texting some on a regular basis.

“I think [the kids] just adore knowing someone in the store, who knows their name and knows their interests and can make recommendations for books,” she said.

“I think that’s really what sets a store like Linden Tree apart, … not just from other bookstores and other retail stores, but it also sets us apart from online shopping,” Saccheri said. “I’ll confess I’ve used Amazon for 20 years and the recommendations are just as bad now as they were 20 years ago.” 

These interactions aren’t just limited to shopping, either. Part of what has kept customers coming back to Linden Tree time and again has been the events — from movie nights to author visits to writing workshops — that the store regularly hosts. 

IMPORTANCE OF BOOKS

Almost three decades after Linden Tree began planting roots in the Los Altos community, the Ronbergs made the decision to move on in 2009 because of Mr. Ronberg’s illness, and sold the store.

The future of Linden Tree was thrown into flux, however, when it went up for sale again in 2019, but found few bidders. Fortunately for the store, former LinkedIn employee and local parent Chris Saccheri and his wife Anne, who visited frequently with their daughter, weren’t quite ready to let one of the last independent bookstores left in the Bay Area die out, Saccheri said.

“I feel like everybody has a moment [where] you hear that something you love like a business is in trouble and you’re like, ‘What if I got together some friends and we bought that,’ but nobody ever does it,” he said.

Determined to break that trend, Saccheri reached out to his former LinkedIn coworker Flo Grosskurth, and together they purchased Linden Tree, stepping from tech industry into literature. 

“I think our first goal primarily was just keep it in business and prove to ourselves — and to the world around us — that a small, independent bookstore can still be profitable and can survive in the age of Amazon and online shopping,” Saccheri said.

Their vision, Saccheri said, is to get children excited about reading and revive Linden Tree’s community through its events.

“The community is kind of depending on you to carry this thing forward … and you want to live up to that standard [the previous owners set] for great service and a fantastic, welcoming environment for kids to come in and get excited about books and reading,” Saccheri said. “It was definitely scary — it’s still kind of scary — but I think the best things are a little bit scary, right? That’s where the fun is.” 

It’s been a difficult undertaking as a children’s bookstore, which Saccheri described as a “niche within niche,” but it’s also helped keep business alive for Linden Tree by attracting customers from faraway cities.

Shopping for books in person — or perhaps just hanging around the store — is an irreplaceable experience, defying increased accessibility to digital books, Blanchette said.

“A lot of children … are growing up with so much screen exposure, and a book is a way to not encourage so much time in front of a screen,” Ms. Ronberg said. “When ebooks started to happen, the demise of the physical book was predicted. And it’s just not the same, holding a book, the way a book smells, the turning the page yourself.”

PANDEMIC

By early 2020, Grosskurth and Saccheri had finally started learning the ropes of the store, and in around March, they hosted their first Linden Tree book fair. A raging success, it left the two optimistic about Linden Tree’s future in the community, Saccheri said. 

Then they were struck by COVID-19. 

“I remember very distinctly driving home from that book fair and being like, ‘I think we’re finally getting it. Like, things are starting to click,’” Saccheri said. “I was so optimistic on that drive home, and then a week later we had to close the doors completely.”

The pandemic dealt a heavy blow to the bookstore, which had only dabbled in the online retail market. Despite having an online inventory and purchasing system, Linden Tree only attracted a couple online orders a month, at most.

The interior of Linden Tree in Downtown Los Altos.

Fortunately for the store, its loyal customer base transitioned to online shopping as quickly as Linden Tree closed its doors, and online orders skyrocketed. But without any robust infrastructure to handle the orders, Grosskurth and Saccheri took a traditional approach: doing things by hand.

With each drop-off, employees would load up their trunks with up to a dozen bags of books and drive them to customers’ houses. Saccheri said that for him, it became an opportunity to get to know new parts of the community that loved Linden Tree so dearly.

“Los Altos is sneakily big,” he remarked with a laugh.

Purely online operations remained in effect for three months, until easing restrictions allowed gradual steps back to normalcy. Recently, Linden Tree has been able to start hosting the book readings and other events that have made it so beloved by children in Los Altos.

“It was fantastic, being able to see the kids get excited and react to those readings, and it was really fun for the authors too,” Saccheri said. “It was [a couple of the authors’] first times actually getting to read their books face to face with children, seeing their reactions as they read. And that’s what it’s all about.”

These in-person events put on by Chris and Flo are carrying on founders Dennis and Linda’s original vision for the store as a community-building resource for Los Altos families. 

“They’re young and enthusiastic, and they’ve done an amazing job keeping it going and really making it a wonderful store again,” Ms. Ronberg said.

Paly junior explores cultural identity through poetry

STORY BY JONAS PAO AND MELODY XU, PHOTO BY EMILY MCNALLY

Most students probably view the poetry unit in English class as just another midday nap opportunity. But while her classmates were dozing off, this is where Jasmine Kapadia fell in love with poetry as a first grader — and since then, her poems and slam poetry performances have attracted audiences ranging from fellow Palo Alto High School students to Nobel Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai.

Yousafzai was one of numerous influential leaders who nominated one individual they were inspired by on an Asian American Pacific Islander Inspiration List created by “Good Morning America” — and she chose Kapadia.

The Paly junior said she feels that slam poetry, a type of poetry that is composed for live performance, has given her the creative freedom to explore her favorite themes of what it means to be Asian American and allows poets like her to be “angrier” with language.

“The very first slam poem that I wrote was about this grappling between cultures and figuring out where I landed,” Kapadia said. “Since then, I’ve become much more comfortable in my culture with directly doing very Asian cultural things, whether that’s just straight up going into Mandarin in the middle of a poem, or whether it’s more subtle.”

Coming from a mixed Indian and Chinese background, Kapadia most often incorporates her unique cultural identity into her poetic work. Considering that not all of her readers relate to these experiences, she strives to avoid exaggerating their weight.

“It can be a fine line to walk between feeling like you are playing up the diaspora experience or playing up the Asian American experience, and being true to you,” Kapadia said. “Something I’ve had to figure out is, how much do I want to portray the Asian American experience? And how can I portray it without sort of commodifying trauma?”

Kapadia’s poem, “photograph of my 奶奶 in her youth,” that won a gold medal from the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, is a perfect example of how she has woven her Asian American background within her poems.

The poem was inspired by a photograph of Kapadia’s 奶奶 (grandmother) in her Taiwanese home.

“I was able to tell a beautiful experience about someone that I really, really admire, but also represent my culture,” she said.

Kapadia submitted this poem and many others to a plethora of literary magazines, but despite all her success in doing so, Kapadia said she’s careful not to give in to the competitive nature of writing submissions.

“A lot of teen writers call it ‘the teen writing industrial complex’ because it’s set up on contests and publication,” Kapadia said. “Whenever I publish, there is a sense of that feeling like, ‘Oh, I want to get the next publication. I want to get even more,’ and it’s hard to not compare yourself to other authors’ bios.”

To help her escape these feelings, Kapadia often talks with many of her friends in teen poetry communities that she is active in. Kapadia said that the community is able to “comfort” her through the hardships of being involved with poetry.

Kapadia and other poets who are part of these poetry communities often had to learn about poetry through their own personal endeavors. 

As a contemporary poet, Kapadia advocates for the “modernization” of public schools’ creative writing curriculum — she said that reading poetry written by predominantly white authors held her back from realizing her personal literary style.

“We need to be teaching literary magazines, we need to be teaching slam poets,” Kapadia said. “There are so many amazing poets out there that may not be household names, but have words that are so beautiful and really need to be taught.”

Kapadia was lucky enough to find literary magazines and a diverse set of poets through her personal adventures through poetry and said she feels that poetry must be “for everyone,” and that everyone, including her, has a valid voice that is worth listening to. 

“I came into more of a personal style,” Kapadia said. “Just in understanding that, as an Asian American, my experiences are worth reading about and that I have value in poetry as well.”

Global art project Breathe with Me comes to Gunn, celebrating Earth Day and unity

STORY BY MELODY XU, PHOTOS BY EMILY MCNALLY

Palo Alto resident Irina Selva stood in front of a 6-foot-tall canvas on Saturday, in the outdoor space behind Gunn High School’s athletics fields. She took her time observing the two thick, vertical brush strokes she had just created with blue paint down the canvas — though in comparison to the second stroke, her first was considerably shorter in length.

Selva was one of an estimated 600 participants in Palo Alto’s Breathe with Me, a local rendition of the global art initiative created by Danish artist Jeppe Hein and nonprofit ART 2030

“It didn’t even make it to the [bottom],” Selva said. “On the second one, I just tried to relax a little more, and take a deeper breath, and just be aware of my breath. … Now I feel like I want to do another one; it was really nice.”

Breathe with Me arrived in Palo Alto this week thanks to a committee of Gunn parents, teachers and students. Among student organizers were Gunn sophomores Wyatt Pedersen and Katie Rueff, leaders of the school’s YCS-Interact and Green Team clubs, respectively.

“As you inhale, you dip your brush in the blue paint, and then as you exhale, you bring the brush down the canvas in one large vertical line and stop as soon as you finish,” Rueff said. “So sometimes the lines are short, and sometimes they’re super long.”

“After a large amount of community has [painted], it just shows the large amount of community within,” said Pedersen.

Pedersen poses for a photo in front of a completed Breathe with Me panel.

After Gunn parent Svetlana Gous came across Breathe with Me months ago and decided it would be perfect for the community, she took the first steps of applying for public art grants with encouragement from artist friends. As a result, Palo Alto followed New York City, Beijing and more cities across the globe in becoming the art project’s latest destination.

While the painting was — in the most literal sense — white panels featuring ultramarine blue, vertical brush strokes hung up along a school fence, Gous had her own take on its deeper symbolism.

“I really see it as a social contract,” Gous said. “The first line, for me, is signing a contract for your own wellness and self care … and the second line is really about understanding and supporting the environment that you are in locally, and then globally.”

The committee’s planning of the activity’s timeline wasn’t a coincidence: The first day of painting fell on Earth Day, allowing Breathe with Me to also serve as a community celebration of the holiday.

“I feel like it’s great not just to celebrate [Earth Day], but to make a statement about it,” Selva said.

Beyond the blue painting, the Breathe with Me site offered participants and passersby both a “poetry tree” as well as another art installation going along with the Earth Day theme: robot statues crafted out of trash by Gunn art students.

A robot statue, made by Gunn art students out of trash, on display.

Though Hein started Breathe with Me prior to 2020, its focus on the importance of human breaths takes on an even deeper meaning now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. In Palo Alto resident Darren Shon’s words, witnessing the gathering felt like “being able to be a community again, not just separate houses on the street.”

With the three days of painting now over, Gous is hoping that the community’s finished painting — which combines to 400 feet long — will remain hung up along Gunn’s soccer field fence for the public to enjoy, at least through the end of the school year.

“I think that these three days of painting will [lead] to creating something that will hopefully create another life in the park,” Gous said. “Maybe there will be some spontaneous music performances, or people will just come out more into the park and do what a park is supposed to be doing.”

Los Altos High librarian and published Y.A. novelist Gordon Jack shares with students his love of storytelling

STORY BY DANA HUCH, PHOTO COURTESY GORDON JACK

With ears alert and pen poised to capture realistic characters in his novels about high school misadventures, Gordon Jack is a keenly observant author undercover as a librarian.

In the Los Altos High School library, he’s able to both draw inspiration from and teach students with his passion for telling stories. Visitors give Jack a window into the authentic language and characters of high school, such that he strongly based one main character in his 2018 novel “Your Own Worst Enemy” on a real-life library regular, he said.

“What [being a school librarian] allows me to do is see kids unfiltered,” Jack said. “Kids in a classroom immediately put on a [classroom-appropriate] persona. …Whereas, in a library, I don’t go around shushing people, so it’s really kind of a student space. … If I just walk around and eavesdrop on conversations, I can kind of pick up on language and just stuff, you know.”

But students aren’t the only ones with library alter-egos. Gordon Jack has published two books for young adults and just recently wrapped up his second draft of a new novel. Mr. Jack is but a humble and passionate librarian. He said he prefers to keep the two separate.

“Sometimes it’s a little awkward, you know, because they have to both check out and return the book to the person who wrote it,” Jack said. “I try to keep a low profile and not ask them, ‘Hey, did you like it? What did you think?’”

He is more interested in hearing students’ writing than what they might have to say about his own; Jack has worked to cultivate the library as an inspiring space for young writers using his extensive background in English education.

Jack started out as an English teacher at Mountain View High School then Los Altos High before teaching and designing the English curriculum at the Freestyle Academy for seven years. During his time at Freestyle, Jack took a leave to teach at The American School in Santiago, Chile, for a year.

Everything about being an English teacher was a dream, Jack said — apart from grading papers. He admitted that transitioning between schools was partially motivated by his desire to combat the unfortunate reality of grading with the excitement of new environments.

“The grading papers sort of took its toll on me, which is why I bounced around and did different things,” Jack said. “It’s really hard, especially if you have a family or an interest in doing anything besides grading papers to do anything else.”

Jack said he never developed the necessary expediency to be an efficient grader because he always preferred to study student work as he would a manuscript and give feedback. The ambitious curriculum he engineered didn’t make things any easier. In one case, his idea for students to write in a daily journal entry quickly became overwhelming to grade.

“I remember, that first week I took home 120 journals and I was like, ‘Wait, I can’t do this; this is crazy!’” Jack said, laughing.

Eventually, grading became such an obstacle that he searched for alternatives to teaching English and was grateful to be able to transition into the role of librarian at Los Altos. This way, Jack said he could continue to be involved in his sphere of interest but also free up time previously spent grading for family and writing books. In addition, he is able to lead small classes, clubs and seminars for students through the library.

He said having the freedom to offer classes with more student-directed curricula and without the consequence of ungodly grading hours was the ideal situation for him. One such class he led was a creative writing seminar during the latter semester of the 2020 school year in which students practiced developing and revising their own work as well as critiquing others’ works.

“My theory is that all of freshman year should be storytelling,” Jack said. “I think that’s going to help you be a better writer; that’s going to help you discover your voice. It’s going to help make you more fluent in writing so when you get an expository assignment, you feel like you’re just ready to go and you don’t look at it as [being as] formulaic as you maybe would have if you didn’t have that.”

Jack put this concept into practice when he taught a class for writers in need of more basic skill development. He said he concentrated most of the curriculum on storytelling assignments to challenge students stuck in the checking boxes mindset of writing.

“The traditional English curriculum emphasizes expository writing and analysis,” Jack said. “While that’s important, I don’t think it should be emphasized as much as storytelling.”

He explained that in becoming better storytellers, students become better writers by learning to apply ingenuity and creative thought processes to even academic papers. Fluency in all types of writing is much easier when you know how to tell a story, he said.

“You take those storytelling choices that you make and you bring them into expository writing and it just frees you up to have a more creative experience in that particular mode of writing,” Jack said.

So while his years as an English teacher may be in the past, Jack continues to share his love of storytelling with students in the library.

“The place where students really discover their voices, their interests, their passions, is when they’re writing things that are meaningful to them and I think for a lot of students, those are stories,” Jack said.

Jia Hiremath crafts keepsakes and makes friends through letter writing

STORY BY DANA HUCH, PHOTOS COURTESTY JIA HIREMATH

Jia Hiremath once sent a letter so heavy that it took six stamps — even though it only needed to travel a few streets away. The envelope, with calligraphy of the recipient’s name adorning the address line, contained a personal letter along with stickers, washi tape and other cute bits of stationery for her pen pal to use in their own creations. Apparently, the Palo Alto High School sophomore regularly sends stuffed envelopes like this to her 18 penpals.

“I go through more stamps than the average person,” Hiremath said. “I don’t know why.”

The stationary and decoration are part of the fun, but Hiremath said she finds the exchanges most rewarding for the genuine connections that come from taking time to write vulnerably. The art of letter writing has made a resurgence among Hiremath and her pen-palling peers with a new, less utilitarian take — using elaborate mail art as a way to make friends. 

“It’s something that you make and then send out and never see it again,” Hiremath said. “You want your pen pal to have a nice letter from you. I think it inspires you to write well and decorate it in different ways and find your style.”

Hiremath’s visual style shows through in her creative layering of unconventional materials including doilies, translucent stickers, washi tapes and even rough-edged pages torn from books.

Hiremath poses for a photo. (courtesy Jia Hiremath)

Hiremath said that for contemporary letter writers, the physical medium offers something no other modern communication technology does: the opportunity to connect through artistic keepsakes.

“When you receive a letter, that’s the only letter you’re going to get that looks like that and you can have that for however long you can keep it — hopefully forever,” Hiremath said.

Her interest in letter writing was first sparked when she “fell down the YouTube rabbit hole” of artists using mail as a creative medium. But it wasn’t until Hiremath was in Arizona away from her best friend for a few weeks that she decided to explore this interest. The friends communicated by letter because it felt like the most personal way to stay in touch, Hiremath said.

“It’s a really cool way to expand your relationship with someone or make genuine relationships if you’re open,” Hiremath said.

Once Hiremath discovered her passion, she sought to find more pen pals through Instagram, which is how she has gotten in touch with most of her correspondents. Since August, Hiremath has been writing to the same 18 people. She said that her current pen pal pool size strikes the right balance of being personal and broad. Hiremath said she has been surprised at the depth and authenticity of pen pal connections she has made through Instagram.

“I think everyone has been really nice because [with] letter writing, it’s really easy to express our feelings and be vulnerable,” she said. “I’ve only had good interactions and met kind people.”

Hiremath said she often finds pen pals easier to confide in than friends with whom she goes to school or shares social circles in person because she knows her letter will remain between the two of them. Her secrets are most certainly safe 6,000 miles away with her most distant correspondent, who lives in Hungary.

Hiremath has met many different types of people through her fascination with letters, and she said much of the magic comes from seeing her different pen pals’ personalities shine through visually. Down to the handwriting, everything knits together to create the quality of “realness” in a letter that allows deep bonds to form in the exchange of just a few pages.

“It’s kind of developed into something new,” Hiremath said. “With the rise of technology … letter writing has been turned into more of an art form than before and I think that’s really cool.”

Gunn senior founds virtual music lessons nonprofit, instructing over 900 students

STORY BY MELODY XU, PHOTO BY EMILY MCNALLY

When Gunn High School senior Julia Segal was devastated by the sudden cancelation of her band’s first recording session due to the pandemic, she turned to another way to utilize her passion for music.

QuaranTunes, which Segal founded just weeks later, is described by the singer-songwriter and keyboardist as an online platform that “connects teen musicians and artists with children in order to provide virtual music lessons.”

Today, the student-led nonprofit has over 300 volunteer teachers instructing an estimated 900 students from across the globe. Lessons are offered on anything from specific instruments, to otherwise difficult-to-find courses like film scoring or music production. Beyond music, QuaranTunes also offers lessons in “almost anything you can think of that counts as art.”

While there’s never a mandatory fee to take a QuaranTunes lesson, the suggested donation in place is $20 per class. Thanks to these donations by parents, QuaranTunes has raised $55,000 for various charitable causes since its founding last March. 

“Our charity right now is the Save The Music Foundation,” Segal said. “It’s a nationwide foundation that has helped millions of kids in public schools get their first access to music education through public school music programs.”

Palo Alto High School sophomore Ajin Jeong is among the hundreds of QuaranTunes teachers that volunteer their time for its cause. Jeong — who in addition to teaching also serves as a board member — said there are unique aspects to teaching while being a student of music herself. 

“Since I’m younger, I can relate to my students better,” Jeong said. “One of them’s seven and one of them is twelve, so I can relate to what place they’re in right now. I think that helps me as a teacher.”

Fellow Paly sophomore Divya Mathur was introduced to the organization through Jeong. With more than enough time on her hands due to the shelter-in-place order last summer, she joined QuaranTunes as a piano teacher. Today, Mathur teaches seven students after school throughout the week.

“Usually with my younger students who are six, seven or eight, it’s a very direct lesson,” Mathur said. “I’ll have my computer on top of my keyboard, and then usually they can play by ear, and I’ll kind of direct their hands and their fingers.”

Mathur said her favorite part of teaching music is seeing students grow, and that one student of hers in particular showed immense growth not long after starting their weekly piano lessons.

“I gave [Für Elise] to her, and two weeks later, she was finished with it. She had perfected it,” Mathur said. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. This eight year old girl — in two weeks, in free lessons, had never played before — was able to play Für Elise’ … I was so happy.”

Segal also teaches, despite her main responsibilities being to oversee QuaranTunes as a whole. Though her vocal and piano student started as a complete beginner to music, Segal chose to skip past the basics of piano — scales and learning Hot Cross Buns — to skills she felt were more relevant for a pop singer-songwriter like the student hoped to become.

“Now she can play and write and sing her own songs. I’ve seen her write songs about COVID and how lonely it’s made her …, how annoying her brother is, and she just kind of really lets her emotions out,” Segal said. “That’s what songs have been for me; they’ve always been a diary for me to express my emotions.”

Beyond one-on-one lessons, QuaranTunes offers a virtual summer camp run by volunteers as well as master classes taught by professional musicians — like world class pianist Lara Downes — both of which, similarly to lessons, are completely free, virtual and open to the public. 

“The whole mission is to spread music,” Mathur said. “That’s how Julia started it; she just found her little sister bored, she wanted to spread music to her, and she spread it to everyone else … QuaranTunes is really important to me because it spreads the opportunity for children to find what they’re passionate about.”

In preparation for Segal’s forthcoming departure to university, the leadership staff of QuaranTunes recently set out to streamline the organizational system of the student-run organization, evenly spreading out work from the Chief Executive Officer to board members like Jeong.

Now, Segal is sure that with the organization’s dedicated and passionate teachers and leaders, QuaranTunes is in great hands.

“I’m 100% sure it’s going to last for many, many, many years,” Segal said.

Journalist, author, citizen scientist; Mary Ellen Hannibal to deliver talk at Los Altos History Museum

STORY BY GIL RUBINSTEIN, PHOTOS COURTESY MARY ELLEN HANNIBAL

When picking up a book titled “Evidence of Evolution,” one would hardly expect that the same author also wrote “Good Parenting Through Your Divorce.” But as a freelance author, and later a citizen scientist, Mary Ellen Hannibal just took the jobs she could get.

“When you’re a freelance writer, you kind of have to take all the jobs,” Hannibal said. “And so I wrote all kinds of things.” 

Hannibal began her career writing for various Bay Area nonprofits, creating newsletters, articles and books. While writing newsletters for the San Francisco Botanical Garden in the early 2000s, Hannibal discovered a love for botany, and all things science.

“I grew to really love the subject [at the Botanical Garden], and learning about the different plants, understanding their origins, and really learning about science,” Hannibal said. “Because science has its beginnings, in many ways, in botanical research.”

After spending nearly a decade with the Botanical Garden, Hannibal wrote her first scientific book. Published in 2009, Hannibal wrote “Evidence of Evolution” while she was researching for a separate project for the San Francisco Botanical Garden at the California Academy of Sciences in 2007.

Hannibal at the Pillar Point tide pools (courtesy Mary Ellen Hannibal)

“As I was researching this book about how life begins, [scientists at the academy] were telling me that we were in an extinction crisis, and that life was ending prematurely for a lot of species,” Hannibal said. “I thought, ‘Oh my god, what’s happening?’ I need to find out, I need to tell the story.”

After learning about the so-called “sixth extinction,” Hannibal knew that she needed to dig deep and speak out.

So in 2012, Hannibal published “The Spine of the Continent: The Race to Save America’s Last Best Wilderness.” This book focused on the emergence of conservation biology, a relatively new discipline focusing on the confluence of how nature works and how humanity can protect it.

“Even Yosemite or Yellowstone, they were only protected because they were beautiful,” Hannibal said. “At the time nobody was really understanding that we need to have healthy interactions going on in nature, even if it’s not in our own backyards, in order to create a living biosphere for all lifeforms.”

During her research for “Spine of the Continent,” Hannibal first got exposed to the world of citizen science, when she noticed that a common factor among many successful scientific research projects is the involvement of the general public collaborating with professional scientists, hence the name “citizen” science.

One of the first times Hannibal observed citizen science in action was with a group tracking jaguar movements through Arizona and Mexico. The jaguar, being an endangered species, was entitled to a protected habitat space provided by the government. 

“You have to provide critical habitat so those species have a place to live, but where should that be?” Hannibal said. “In Arizona, there are many mountain ranges that have appropriate habitat, so which one should we choose? So we asked, well, where do the jaguars want to go?”

The answer was found through a network of citizen scientists, who learned how to track jaguar prints, and were able to provide data to show where a critical habitat should be located. 

Similarly, citizen scientists all across the United States are contributing animal movement data to ongoing projects to find appropriate locations for highway overpasses and underpasses.

“In order to understand where the animals want to go, we need a lot of data,” Hannibal said. “And really the only way to get that data is to have help from a lot of people. So that’s where citizen science comes in.”

Just a decade or two ago, decentralized data collection required citizen scientists to do extensive research and independently collect and corroborate data. But today, with the advent of digital tools, anyone can be a citizen scientist by just snapping a photo with a cell phone.

“Before, you would have gone out to the field with a little GPS machine and a camera and you [wrote] down where you saw something,” Hannibal said. “Now you just take a picture with your phone and upload it and people can confirm what is in the photo and now it is available to be used by scientists everywhere.”

The largest app that is used for citizen science today is called iNaturalist. The app allows users to upload a photo, at which point software will identify its contents and after it is confirmed by other users, that data point can be used in national biological studies.

“Academic science has tended to be very much old white men, very exclusive and dismissive,” Hannibal said. “But that is really changing. Science today matters less on one individual genius coming up with a great idea, and much more on collaboration.”

Hannibal will be delivering a virtual talk at the Los Altos History Museum on Thursday, April 22 about the history of citizen science and its impact on monarch butterflies, as well as climate change. Register for the free event here.