Dan Song: History Teacher
Education: UC San Diego, B.A., UC Davis School of Law, J.D.
Could you talk about your path to College Prep? Have you always had an interest in history?
History was my major in college, and it’s always been a passion of mine. As an undergraduate, I debated between going to graduate school in history or going to law school, but I decided on law and graduated in 2006. I primarily practiced commercial litigation for about six years in San Francisco. Even though I learned a lot, I never really enjoyed it. In the back of my mind I always thought that one day I would like to teach. My dad taught community college for 33 years and teaching is something that I had aspired to as well. When I was younger, my career plan was to be a lawyer for a while, and then I would retire and become a teacher. As I started to become more disillusioned with the practice of law, I thought to myself, “Why am I waiting until I retire to teach? I should try to make the transition now.” I enrolled in a Master’s program in history at San Francisco State while I was working, and then started at College Prep, first as a sabbatical replacement for one semester, and then as a full-time history teacher.
You’ve taught all of the core history classes at College Prep, but have become known for your elective in constitutional law. What makes you passionate about that topic?
I think that constitutional law is one of those subjects that everyone who goes to law school wants to do and is very interested in. The issues that constitutional lawyers deal with are on the edges of where there are conflicts in society. There are no easy answers, and it’s an interesting academic,intellectual, and thoughtful practice of the law. It’s a subject that I was passionate about in law school and still am today. I’m always keeping up on the latest Supreme Court decisions and I still read SCOTUS blog. I just find it endlessly fascinating. As soon as I was hired at College Prep and they asked me to think about what elective I would like to teach, that was the first thing that came to mind. It’s been absolutely fantastic to be able to share and teach a passion of mine and also to provide at least some expertise.
What is a favorite project that you’ve created for your students?
My favorite project in the Constitutional Law class is the final project, which is a moot court argument. Moot Court is a simulated appellate briefing and argument that students prepare and deliver before outside judges and attorneys who I’ve brought in to judge them. It’s unique and different from a trial. There are no witnesses and there’s no jury. Students argue the law and facts applied to the law before a judge. I split the students into teams of two and they each take on a discrete issue. For the past four years, there’s been a new fact pattern, and they implicate different issues and areas of the law. So far, we’ve done some first amendment issues regarding free speech, some issues of freedom of religion, and we did an interesting one about two years ago around habeas rights at Guantanamo Bay. They run the gamut of interesting constitutional issues. It really is a law school- level assignment. I’m asking them to write a legal brief and to make an argument in front of a practicing attorney or a judge. I love the project because when I first assign it, even though the students seem overwhelmed, as they progress through it, one of the most rewarding things for me to see is that by the end, the students are engaged and are so knowledgeable about their topics. Every single one of the guest judges and attorneys who participate has commented that our students are as good or better than law students and currently practicing attorneys. It always makes me smile.
Transitioning from practicing law to teaching must have brought its own unique challenges. How would you say your approach to teaching has changed over the years?
When I was a student, I really responded to enthusiasm from teachers. If a teacher was enthusiastic and knowledgeable, it was something that excited me, and that transferred to me. That’s kind of how I went into teaching. I’m still really enthusiastic and passionate about my subject, but I’ve also learned how much craft and intentionality is involved in the profession of teaching and how much planning and thought goes into not just exciting students about a particular topic or skill, but also how to transfer my knowledge to them in a way that sticks and that they can use.
Is there anything that’s surprised you as you’ve journeyed further into teaching at College Prep?
I would say that the biggest surprise for me is how much I love it. My wife will tell me that I actually get a little bit grumpy if I haven’t been teaching for a while. I draw energy from the students and I genuinely enjoy being around our community and our community of learners. I was expecting to enjoy it, but I was not expecting to enjoy it to this degree.