In 2000, A Group Of Parents From Silicon Valley Asked:

“WHAT HAPPENED?” WHAT HAPPENED
TO THE AMERICAN PUBLIC HIGH SCHOOL?
AND WHAT CAN WE DO TO FIX IT?

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Van Anh Tran

Summit Rainier
San Jose, California

Subject: World History

Education: MA, Stanford Teacher Education Program
BA, Stanford University, Public History

WHO WE ARE • TEACHERS » Van Anh Tran

Why teach history?

As a young person, I realized how powerful the stories in history could be. My parents are Vietnamese refugees, and growing up I heard their stories about the war. At school, however, the stories I heard were different from what I had heard at home.  I started to wonder how limited my understanding would have been if what I learned in school was the only information I had. I started to believe that the person learning the information and not the person designing the textbook should shape their understanding.

I immediately wanted to apply that to my work. I wanted to highlight stories that aren’t typically highlighted in history classes. When I am focusing on the development of a cognitive skill with my students at Summit, I can introduce historic examples from Christopher Columbus or I could use the indigenous people’s oral histories to get across the same point. I’m focusing on the skill.  I want my students to see themselves in history, and I want to make the content relevant for them. If you visit my class at Summit you’ll see that there’s a lot of freedom to incorporate the students stories’

Why Summit?

I was looking for a place where I could mentor a small group of students and follow their progress through their high school careers. Summit has exactly that. I loved the idea of building close relationships with my students and to get to know them not only as my students but as young adults with strong opinions and interpretations of their lived experiences. Listening to my students alone has revealed many complex thoughts and motivations that I would not have known had I seen my students as only that.

When I interviewed at Summit, I was struck by how integral students were in the process.  I got to talk to a student, ask him about what he was learning, and gain some insight to how he interacted with his teachers and the school work. I was able to see that students are at the center of education here. I saw how highly my interviewer viewed the student. This entire experience resonated deeply with me because I was able to take a step back from what was going on “in the moment” and talk about a real student and his strengths and needs.

What surprised you most at Summit?

I was most surprised by how well I was able to get to know students. After two weeks, I felt like I knew so much about how our students were doing and how they were feeling. As the mentor for a group of students, I am effectively my student’s counselor and the first point of contact for parents. I’m charged with twenty students that I’m responsible for supporting in getting to college. Over the course of four-years as a mentor you learn details about your students’ lives including their passions in school and outside of it. Having mentoring be such a foundational structure in the school day allows me to build those close relationships at Summit.

What makes Summit different from a traditional environment?

There’s so much. First of all, the size of the school is small which makes it feel like a really strong community. Every student is known by every teacher.  In the classroom, we’re focused mostly on cognitive skills. The content is important, and I see the power in being being able to use the content as a platform for creating a claim. It’s more powerful for a student to build a strong claim about the causes for war than it is to know the date on which a particular war started.

How do your colleagues influence your impact in the classroom?

As a content teacher being able to meet other teachers across our school sites that teach the same subject is valuable. While every teacher has his/her own context, it’s interesting to see what other teachers are doing that works for their students. The time I value the most is spent collaborating with teachers on my site who teach the same students that I do.  It’s amazing to learn how the same student may be reacting to something differently in one class compared to another. Understanding why that student might be responding differently or gravitating toward one approach over another makes me a better teacher who can support my students more effectively.

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