Students quiz area leaders

Westwood Middle School eighth-grader Maria Bustamante, 13, listens to an interviewee address students Tuesday in Madelyn Vallery's reading classes during an appreciation reception.

JARRETT BAKER/Special to The Sun
Published: Wednesday, January 11, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 10, 2006 at 11:32 p.m.



Among local leaders interviewed were:

  • DON GARLITS, "Daddy" of Drag Racing
  • BERNIE MACHEN, UF president
  • DR. JUAN ARANADA, director of heart transplants at Shands at UF
  • BILL CERVONE, state attorney
  • JEANNE CRENSHAW, retired judge
  • DOUG JONES, director of the Florida Museum of Natural History
  • CAROLYN PECK, UF women's basketball coach
  • BECKY BURLEIGH, UF women's soccer coach
  • DAN BOYD, school superintendent

  • Abby Brennan couldn't help feeling nervous on her way into University of Florida President Bernie Machen's office.
    It wasn't because she was in trouble or because she was about to be interviewed. Actually, it was because she was about to interview him.
    When she was finally called into Machen's office, the 13-year-old left her dad behind in the lobby, introduced herself to Machen and got down to business.
    "I asked him about UF, about his family, just general questions," the eighth-grader said.
    And she found out Machen wasn't so bad after all.
    "He was a pretty normal guy," the Westwood Middle School student said.
    Abby wasn't the only one in Madelyn Vallery's reading class to put a local leader under the microscope. Her classmates talked to the director of heart transplants at Shands at UF, the Gainesville police chief, even the legendary drag-racer, Don Garlits.
    Jacob Shaw and Eric Hackett said they had overheard visitors at Garlits' Museum of Drag Racing discussing what a legend he is.
    "We were kind of scared at the beginning," Jacob admitted.
    "Then they led us right back to him and he was working on a motor," Eric said.
    The boys interviewed Garlits while he worked, listening to the legend tell of his life firsthand and hatching plans to try the sport themselves someday.
    The boys' teacher, Vallery, isn't the type to say, "I told you so," but she does remember overhearing the students whispering that she was crazy when she first told them their assignment, her creative was of meeting state standards for a listening and question-and-answer lesson. Vallery said it was the first time she tried the lesson with the students, who are part of a gifted program, and she was thrilled with the result.
    Students Samantha Dillon and Leslie Heffington were especially nervous about their interview. They were going to the man on top in their district: Superintendent Dan Boyd.
    "We thought it was gonna be this big deal because he was the superintendent," Samantha said.
    "Then we got in there, and he was wearing jeans and really relaxed. He was really easy to work with and gave good answers," Leslie said.
    The teen chose to interview Boyd because "he just seemed interesting. No one really knows what the superintendent does."
    The students weren't the only ones who learned something new.
    State Attorney Bill Cervone said he was "enlightened" by his interview with Stephanie McLeod and a later question and answer session he did with her whole class.
    "The class asked about scientific evidence in the courtroom and legal issues I didn't think kids would even think about," Cervone said.
    Gainesville Fire and Rescue Chief Bill Northcutt said the students asked "probing questions" he was unprepared for.
    "They asked, 'What made you decide to do this for a living?' and I hadn't really thought about it," he said. The chief eventually came up with an answer: that he felt drawn to "a life of service" because he enjoys helping people.
    The students took snapshots of themselves with their subjects for the front cover of their assignments, then wrote up the questions and answers from their interviews and told what they learned.
    Vallery said her class was empowered by the lesson that at first intimidated them. She required them to give her "progress reports" as they tried to schedule interviews, sending some of them back to ask the same person as many as five times before she'd let them take "no" for an answer. Many of the students finally got a "yes" from people who at first said they were too busy to meet with them.
    "I knew if I could get them to that point, they'd bite," Vallery said, "but it was difficult."
    She said the lesson taught her students not only how to conduct a question and answer session, but also to "stretch beyond expectation and prove something to themselves."
    Tiffany Pakkala can be reached at (352) 338-3111 or pakkalt@

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