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Making history come to life

Sandy High School teacher injects life into history and it becomes relevant to teens


by: POST PHOTO: JIM HART - POST PHOTO: JIM HART Discussing student opinions on topics surrounding the German and Soviet invasions of Poland are, from left, Modern World History teacher Anouxa Vixathep and Sandy High School students Peter Limbaugh, Shawn Young and Morgan Greenlee. This was the fourth of five different activities during Monday's class.Anouxa Vixathep (pron. Ah-new-sah Vix-ah-tep) says he was blessed during his first year of teaching to have Bert Key in an adjacent room at Sandy High School.

Observing techniques and asking questions became a regular activity between the teachers.

While Vixathep was just beginning his career in 2002, Key was in his final year of teaching.

Knowing Vixathep so well then and during the past 10 years of his retirement, Key knew he had to recognize the skilled teacher that the young man had become.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No. 4273 made it official, recently giving Vixathep the post’s National Citizenship Education Teacher Award.

Vixathep says he must make history seem relevant or his students will become bored and lose interest. So he’s constantly doing something different, as he says “changing it up.”

“Students will say or think, ‘what does it matter? It happened 50 or 100 or 150 years ago,’ ” he said. “Our job as history teachers is to show history’s relevance in their lives. That’s my goal.”

For example, Vixathep received weekly letters and photos from Key in 2004-05, while he was on duty as an adviser to Marines in Afghanistan (after retiring as a teacher).

Those photos and descriptions of what was happening on the ground in a war zone became vivid-color images in the minds of Vixathep’s Modern World History students.

During the energized discussions that the photos and letters generated, students were able to see how events in the country’s history shaped current events.

The teens in Vixathep’s history class became so attached to the plight of the people in this war-torn country that they kept asking their teacher how they could help the less-fortunate kids in Afghanistan.

Vixathep says history is a story, and he does everything possible to get his students involved in the story on an emotional level.

After teaching for nearly 11 years, he has learned well that an emotional connection brings on self-motivation followed by real learning.

Among the variety of techniques that Vixathep uses to help his students identify with each day’s history story are: educational videos or slide shows, group projects, short introductory lectures, resource speakers, Internet research and open-ended questions to generate discussion.

He likes to tap into each student’s interests, allowing creative students, for example, to create art reflective of a certain period in history or to write a poem that relates to something or someone of a historical nature.

“I think each student has something that (he or she) is good at,” Vixathep said. “I give different options for projects, hoping that each can find something to do that best suits their talents.”

Each social studies project requires discussion, the teacher said, because there are many points of view and perspectives.

Key is now even more impressed with Vixathep’s skills at reaching kids with stories of past events.

“He opens many doors for his students,” Key said, “knowing that each student learns a little differently. He brings life to his teaching by blending field trips and special visitors to the classroom, visual strategies and personal stories along with regular instruction to make the current events of the world come alive for students.”

Those personal stories that Key referred to are part of Vixathep’s way of reaching each student.

Through his transparency, Vixathep says, students can relate better and gain that emotional connection that helps learning.

“In my style of teaching,” he said, “I try to build relationships with my students first. Someone told me once, ‘If they don’t know that you care, then they won’t care what you know.’ “

One thing that makes it possible for Vixathep to instill in his students a high degree of respect for country, the flag and the benefits of a democracy is the fact he was not born in the United States. He came to the U.S. with his parents in 1980 and eventually became a naturalized citizen.

“I want to impart to all my students the importance of understanding what it means to be a citizen of the United States,” he said.

Key also is impressed with the types of character traits that Vixathep instills in kids.

“He teaches that civic rights come with civic responsibilities,” Key said. “He teaches his students to be courteous, responsible and respectful to their country. He demands much from his students and receives much from them.”

Sandy High School Principal Tim Werner is impressed with Vixathep’s performance in the classroom as well as on the athletic field, since he is a coach when he’s not teaching history and social studies.

“(Vixathep) builds positive relationships with students,” Werner said, “and is committed to their success as a student in the classroom and an athlete on the field.”

Perhaps Key said it well in his nomination statement for this award.

“(Vixathep) deserves the gratitude of a grateful nation,” Key wrote, “in being considered for this prestigious award.”