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Longtime art teacher receives two major education awards

Affirmed and encouraged by her teachers, she now does the same

As senior Hnin Khine dipped her paintbrush into a cup of water, art teacher Le Tran held up a laptop so virtual learners could see her artwork in progress.

“She’s experimenting with watercolor. That’s very nice,” said Tran, explaining what Hnin was working on as several students participated in East Kentwood High School’s Advanced Placement studio art class through a video chat from home. 

Tran wants all her students — those she can stand beside at their desks and  the 40 percent who are learning virtually this semester — engaged and inspired, even if that means using just about every mode of instruction possible. “Teaching face to face and in person is such a challenge. I am wearing out,” she said.

East Kentwood art teacher Le Tran was named the 2020 Michigan Art Education Association secondary art educator of the year and the 2020 Overall MAEA art educator of the year

But all signs show that Tran has the gumption to keep moving forward, supplying students with the paints, paper and instruction they need to create art, whether they are in her classroom or in their bedrooms. 

“I feel like a first-year teacher all over again. I am figuring things out as I go. I think things are smoothing out now,” she said. “Art is so hands on that I have my remote learners on every day (live). I want them to feel like they are a part of the class. They can hear the discussions; we can hear them and they can watch the demonstrations.”

Tran’s passion for educating young artists– no matter the circumstances– has caught the eye of her colleagues. She was named the Michigan Art Education Association 2020 secondary art educator of the year and the 2020 Overall MAEA art educator of the year. She will be recognized virtually during an upcoming fall conference in November. 

Fellow EK art  teacher Adrienne DeMilner and Carrie Jeruzal, an art teacher in Pentwater Public Schools, nominated Tran.

“I’m extremely humbled that my colleagues nominated me,” she said. “We are great working partners: we feed off each other; we are constantly learning from each other.”

DeMilner said Tran is a brilliant teacher who connects with her students and helps them develop incredible skills. They often request her classes. “Le is a visionary that can easily generate great ideas – on the spot – for any project or issue that arises. I have seen her lead others in our district with her vision and inspire greatness. Le Tran is a natural educator with all students. She easily adapts to any situation and takes on tasks with vigor and excitement.”

From left: senior James Brook, art teacher Le Tran, and seniors Sally Tran, Liliana Valdivia and Kimberly Luu

Looking at the Big Picture

Tran, who began teaching art at Kentwood Public Schools in 2002, is known for inspiring students to create and share their skills with the broader community. Along with teaching drawing classes and AP studio art, she serves as an adviser for EK’s branch of the National Art Honor Society, which she founded in 2009 with the main mission of spreading art schoolwide and into the community. The group has created community murals and this year plans to add to a sports mural painted in 2015 along the hallway near the school’s fieldhouse. She is also the advisor for the school’s Asian Student Union, a group that has become active in the last couple years in elevating the voices of Asian students.

Tran said the highlight of her days is being in class with bright young artists. “That’s No. 1. They just give me a lot of energy with their quirkiness,” she said, noting that even on the worst days, five minutes into class her interactions with them lift her spirits. “My attitude and demeanor will switch because just being with them and interacting with them is just so rewarding.”

Students said they enjoy working with Tran just as much as she does with them. “She has a lot of connections and experiences… She has a lot of  techniques and ways to help to make it easy,” said senior Kayla Locey, who wants to become a graphic designer.

Junior Jonathan Bwoso worked on a sketch with a powerful message: how young black men are presented in society. Tran shared with him how to use color to make his piece even more impactful. “I am not really an artist,” Jonathan said. “This is something new. She is showing me different ways to see things.”

Tran spent pivotal childhood years growing up in Vietnam before moving to Grand Rapids at age 10. She attended Grand Rapids Catholic Central High School, Grand Rapids Community College and Aquinas College, where she graduated with an education degree with an emphasis on art. Before getting her education degree, she worked as a paraprofessional at Grand Rapids Public Schools, where she fell in love with the teaching profession.

Tran realized the impact teachers can have because of the ones who encouraged her to pursue her art. One teacher, when Tran was about 12, invited her to attend a summer intensive art camp, which was her first immersive experience. 

“As a little girl I loved art classes. That was where I excelled, and all of my teachers just loved my drawings and paintings and asked me if they could keep them, so I was encouraged,” she said. “My teachers throughout the years affirmed my skills and talents.”

East Kentwood art teacher Le Tran offers feedback to senior Liliana Valdivia

A Global Perspective

Other highlights of Tran’s career were receiving two Fulbright-Hayes– Group Projects Abroad Program grants, both sponsored by Michigan State University: in 2004 to Vietnam and in 2008 to Bulgaria. She studied art intensively on the trips with other teachers, returning with new ideas and inspiration for designing lessons to share with colleagues and students. She recalled learning about the culture of the countries first hand and through the lens of an artist. Tran has also led students on a tour to China and other trips abroad, exposing students to ancient art and history.

That level of dedication to teaching is remarkable, Jeruzal said, and benefits students from all over at the most diverse high school in the state.

“Le stands out as an educator because she designs lessons and learning activities that expose students not only to art and art making, but to world cultures and context. She opens their eyes to the diversity of the art world and even invites students to travel with her. She teaches with a global perspective.”

Now, even with the added layer of virtual teaching, she continues to broaden their worlds. 

Said Jeruzal: “You can’t help but catch some of her natural sense of wonder and curiosity.”

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.

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