NBC Features LAHS Teacher’s Letters Of Gratitude Project

NBC News Producer Shelley Osterloh interviews Los Alamos High School Teacher Lynn Ovaska Nov. 15 in her classroom about her special mission to teach kindness and gratitude to her students. Photo by John McHale/ladailypost.com

An NBC Nightly News crew films LAHS history teacher Jonathan Lathrop Nov. 15 as his student Jackson Boone expresses why he felt compelled to write Lathrop a letter of gratitude. Photo by John McHale/ladailypost.com

Los Alamos Daily Post

NBC featured a special segment spotlighting Los Alamos High School and its “Letters of Gratitude” project during its Nightly News program broadcast Sunday across the nation (link).

This perfect project so close to Thanksgiving caught the eye of NBC News Researcher Kailee Chimento in New York.

LAPS Communications Specialist Connie Goettee had written an announcement published last year in the Los Alamos Daily Post about all the activities of gratitude students and teachers perform around the district during Thanksgiving time and it was discovered this fall by NBC.

Chimento sent an email Nov. 2 to LAHS AP Psychology, Psychology Teacher and Student Leadership Co-Teacher Lynn Ovaska. She is the inspirational advocate who encourages her students to perform simple acts of kindness and write letters of gratitude to those who make a positive difference in their life.

Fast forward to Tuesday, Nov. 15 … a film crew including producer Shelley Osterloh and 1978 LAHS graduate Dan Dvorak arrived at 7 a.m. to Ovaska’s classroom and set up to interview her, speak with other teachers and students and create the segment for their Sunday, Nov. 20 broadcast.

The crew first interviewed Ovaska about her class, why she does this lesson, how students have written letters in the past, why the letters she received are so special and more. Ovaska showed them her big box of “treasures” where she keeps all the letters she has received over her 25 years of teaching.

“I got a chance to open letters that I just received from my current students and read those,” she said. “It was so touching to read those letters on camera since they all were just written and I have those students in my classroom.”

Ovaska also was interviewed by NBC News anchor Kate Snow via zoom.

“It was wonderful to talk with her since she is a very kind journalist, a great listener, and former New Mexico reporter,” Ovaska said. “I really cannot believe it! I love being in the classroom learning with my students and building community so it was just unbelievable to share this lesson with her!”

When the segment aired Sunday, Ovaska was in Arizona visiting family and shared her thoughts with the Los Alamos Daily Post.

“WOW! The segment was perfect! NBC captured the spirit of the letters and put it together into a wonderful story. I heard from so many people and know there were many tears shed and many more letters written!,” Ovaska said. “This has been a remarkable experience for me as a teacher and human. I just happened to find the right profession over 25 years ago, so to get recognized for such a simple, yet powerful lesson is mind-blowing!”

Despite how much the world of education has changed and how difficult it is to be a teacher in recent years, Ovaska said she absolutely loves being in her classroom and building community with the teens.

“This lesson of gratitude is a favorite of mine and everyone involved,” Ovaska said. “No teacher is doing this job for the big bucks or fancy accolades. Ha ha! The real reward comes when a student sees things in a new way or when they work together to pull off an amazing project. So this lesson is great because students EXPERIENCE the change in their emotion and happiness levels. It’s hard to believe I’m getting this kind of recognition for such a short lesson of just writing your thankfulness. The root of all joy is gratitude and I really am so honored and humbled. I especially love when lessons are relevant to current times. I feel like we, as a society, have lost our way a bit since the pandemic, but through simple acts of kindness and gratitude, we can get focused again on what matters.”

Ovaska has taught school for 25 years, 23 of them at LAHS (since 1999). She created the psychology program at LAHS, starting with just one class called Behavioral Sciences with 15 students in 1999. Ovaska also started the AP Psych class in 2001.

She has taught more than 1,000 students AP Psych and has a 95 percent pass rate on the AP exam, with 2/3 of the kids getting a 5.

Ovaska said that human connection is the essence of happy healthy living and these letters can foster that.

“All of our lives are interwoven and we forgot that a bit during the pandemic,” she said. “Modeling to my students how to have a grateful heart and giving them a pause to be thoughtful and sincere in their thanks helps strengthen their connections. We all know that every child needs one meaningful adult in their lives and, so often, this lesson helps bolster those relationships because the students write to a special adult in their lives. I love it!”

LAPS Assistant Superintendent Jennifer Guy described her appreciation for the person behind all the gratitude.

“Lynn Ovaska’s love for teaching and her students is evident every day,” Guy said. “The kindness she shows others is contagious. It is so exciting to watch this kindness spread to her students through her lessons. Giving students the opportunity to pause and express thanks is a gift that I hope spreads throughout the district and community. I am grateful that we have such amazing students who took the time to write letters of gratitude.”

LAHS math teacher Stephanie Abney received a gratitude letter from her student Aidan Richardson.

“I think the best part of the gratitude letters is its ability to spread joy and kindness not only through the school but throughout the community,” Abney said. “It makes people want to pass it forward. I feel so empowered and thankful that a student would write to me, that I want others to feel the same. After receiving my letter I wrote one to my boyfriend and it keeps the gratitude spreading well past the school. I think this is such a special thing and everyone could use this joy and thankfulness especially during this time of year. I want to thank Aidan Richardson for thinking of me and making the semester end on a great note!”

LAPS Superintendent Jose Delfin said, “On behalf of LAPS, my hats off to Lynn Ovaska for her heart felt activities that unites our community! … GO LYNN!”

NBC also filmed Ovaska’s period 2B psychology lesson on emotion and how gratitude sharing can boost happiness not just for the recipient of a thank you note, but also for the writer. She asks students to close their eyes or lower their gaze and pause to think about someone who has made an impact on their lives. Students wrote their gratitude letters for about 15 minutes and then talked about who they chose, why those people made an impact, and a few students even read the words that they wrote.

“It was an extraordinary class of the most authentic happiness – a warmth of positivity and purity,” Ovaska said. “The letters were filled with praise but also apologies or impact or recognition. This activity comes from Martin Seligman’s book “Authentic Happiness” and his “Gratitude Visit.”

During lunch the students who wrote letters to teachers got the chance to read their letters directly to their teacher.

“This was incredible!” Ovaska said. “I asked teachers to bring some of the letters they had received in the past so they didn’t know that they were getting a new letter read to them by the writer. Tears were shed, hugs were given and connections were solidified. This was one of the best parts of the day. It was fantastic to see these powerful moments for my colleagues – Louise Foliot, Jonathan Lathrop, Melissa Goldman and Stephanie Abney. What a boost to receive a genuine note of appreciation from a student! I quietly hand delivered or put the rest of the letters in teacher mailboxes later that day so many other teachers could receive their thanks. There is nothing like it!”

Several stories of students and their letters were shared with NBC. Lourdes Le Doux was Ovaska’s psychology student during the COVID-pandemic and remote learning period. Lourdes’ grandparents Roberta and Harold Martinez came to Ovaska’s classroom Nov. 15 to be filmed because Lourdes wrote her gratitude letter to them to thank them when they helped her family. Lourdes’ father died of ALS last year … on the same day as the anniversary of Ovaska’s mom’s death, who also died of ALS years before. They spoke of the power of letters and how they keep one of Lourdes’ dad’s letters close to their heart.

“There was not a dry eye in my classroom during Lourdes’ and her grandparents’ interview … my mom and her dad were definitely with us,” Ovaska said.

Afterwards, she emailed her LAHS staff. Since this is an activity that only students in Ovaska’s class participate in, she encouraged other staff to take 15 minutes to do it, too.

“Students in my Student Leadership class even set up a table in A-Wing Lobby so more kids can write their own letters! Imagine what our schools would be like if every student wrote a letter to a former or current teacher,” she said.

Ovaska has been doing this for years.

“In 2013, I invited staff to join me and former teacher Janet Newton and ask all our students to write thank you notes during teacher appreciation week,” she said. “After that, I turned it into a lesson for my emotion unit that I typically do in November near Thanksgiving.”

Many teachers discovered a letter of gratitude written by one of their students and placed in their mailbox Friday just ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday.

“Thank you to everyone who helped make the NBC Nightly News event in my classroom so special,” Ovaska said. “I invite everyone to join my students and write their own letters of gratitude to someone who has made a difference in their lives.”

She explained that the NBC crew took more than three hours of footage during their Nov. 15 visit. While not everyone or every moment made it into the NBC Nightly News segment, Ovaska said that was okay.

“I hope that what comes from this national attention is that we – my students and I – can remind everyone else how easy it is to be kind and give thanks,” Ovaska said. “The simple act of gratitude sharing can be life-changing! Just this week, I’ve delivered a handful of letters that students wrote to the person who impacted them and it is incredible to watch. Heartfelt tears, huge smiles, big hugs – all the things that connect us as humans. I know from the letters and cards that I’ve received as a teacher, how uplifting it feels to read a student’s grateful words. I also know how special it is to pause and think about the people who I love or who have changed my life or who are just making me a better person, and write them a sincere note. Watching my students do this activity every year inspires me to say more thank yous, be more invested, and write more gratitude notes … kindness begets kindness.”

“What took place in my classroom was magical and I hope it will boost the joy and thankfulness in all of us at LAHS, in Los Alamos, in New Mexico, in our country,” Ovaska said. “It came together beautifully and we got to share goodness and light on such a huge stage!”

View Ovaska’s lesson for her students on gratitude here.

Links to more information about happiness and gratitude:

LAHS history teacher Jonathan Lathrop embraces his student Jackson Boone after hearing his letter of gratitude for him during a filming Nov. 15 at the high school. Photo by John McHale/ladailypost.com
LAHS student Lourdes Le Doux reads a letter of gratitude to her grandparent Roberta and Harold Martinez during the Nov. 15 filming by an NBC Nightly News crew at the high school. Photo by John McHale/ladailypost.com
LAHS teacher Lynn Ovaska and her student Lourdes Le Doux who was moved to write a letter to her grnadparents after Ovaska’s lessons on gratitude and simple acts of kindness. Photo by John McHale/ladailypost.com
LAHS teacher Lynn Ovaska speaks with NBC Nightly News anchor Kate Snow via zoom about her classroom lessons on gratitude and simple acts of kindness. Photo by Eric Ovaska
LAHS teacher Lynn Ovaska reads letters of gratitude written to her by her students during her interview with NBC Nightly News Nov. 15 in her classromm at LAHS. Courtesy/NBC
During her interview with NBC in her classroom Nov. 15, LAHS teacher Lynn Ovaska describes her lesson plan on gratitude and simple acts of kindness that she teaches to her students. Courtesy/NBC
NBC cameraman Dan Dvorak, left, was back at LAHS for a special filming on gratitude Nov. 15 and told the Los Alamos Daily Post that he moved to Los Alamos as a sophomore and graduated from LAHS in 1978. He joined NBC as a cameraman in 1981. Photo by Carol A. Clark/ladailypost.com

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