Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

15 Hmong language teachers become first to get accredited, Karen and Somali language next

Six Hmong language licensure graduates
Fifteen Hmong Educators earned their Minnesota K-12 World Languages & Cultures teaching license with an emphasis on Hmong language and culture from Concordia College in Moorhead.
Courtesy of Jenna Cushing-Leubner

We’re seeing more school districts across Minnesota starting to provide, Hmong, Somali and Karen language classes. But there hasn’t been the infrastructure to teach those classes until now,

Fifteen recently graduated teachers are the first in the state to be licensed to teach Hmong as a heritage language. And the next cohort includes the first Somali and Karen teachers to be licensed.

It’s something that isn’t happening anywhere else in the world. One of the driving forces behind the licensure program and curriculum development is the organization Minnesota Zej Zog. The organization’s executive director Pang Yang and curriculum professor at University of Wisconsin - Whitewater Jenna Cushing-Leubner joined to talk about why and how they created a licensure program.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: You know, we're seeing more school districts across Minnesota starting to provide Hmong, Somali, and Karen language classes. But there hasn't been the infrastructure to teach those classes. That's until now. 15 recently graduated teachers are the first in the state to be licensed to teach Hmong as a heritage language. And the next cohort includes the first Somali and Karen teachers to be licensed.

It's something that is not happening anywhere else in the world. One of the driving forces behind the licensure program and curriculum development is the organization Minnesota Zej Zog. Joining us right now is its executive director, Pang Yang. Also, Jenna Cushing-Leubner is with us. Jenna helped with this licensure project. Jenna is an associate professor of curriculum instruction at UW Whitewater in Wisconsin. Professor and Pang Yang, thanks for being here.

JENNA CUSHING-LEUBNER: Thanks for having us.

PANG YANG: Thank you for having us.

CATHY WURZER: Pang, I'm curious, why is this licensure program so important?

PANG YANG: Well, as a 1.5 generational student growing up in Minnesota all my life, this was something that was missing in my educational career. And being a teacher for the last 26 years, I saw the importance of heritage language in the classroom.

As we know, a lot of the students who come into my classroom, they come because they want to develop that intergenerational relationship with their grandparents. They no longer can speak the language. So they want the language to be able to have that relationship with their parents, a sense of identity, a sense of belonging, and just having a safe place to share experiences with peers that understands them, right? And this all connects back to better mental health in the end.

CATHY WURZER: And there weren't standards prior for teaching and learning, no curriculum? Is that right?

PANG YANG: Yeah, when I started six years ago, there were standards, but a lot of the standards, Hmong language standards that were created were intellectual property. And so I didn't have the access to utilizing them in my classroom.

CATHY WURZER: Jenna, I'm curious, why is it important to have a licensure pathway for teachers?

JENNA CUSHING-LEUBNER: Yeah, I mean, the licensure pathway is key because our school districts are under massive budget shortfalls. We're not funding our schools nearly enough.

And when we have teachers who don't have access to getting a full license, those teachers are on short-term contracts. They get kind of fired at the end of every year, every couple of years, and then rehired if the budget is there for maintaining the programs. And so they're usually the first ones to not be rehired because it's a lot easier. They don't get access to the teacher unions, for instance, and the bargaining units.

And so our program are constantly in a state of fear of being cancelled. And in fact, we see that happening a lot. It also causes a lot of burnout and turnover. We can't have mentor teachers bringing up new teachers into the field, showing them best practices, because in order to mentor a new teacher in their student teaching placement, for instance, you have to be a fully licensed teacher.

And so it made this huge issue where there was no way to access licensure. And our programs for these heritage languages were in a constant state of cancellation.

CATHY WURZER: Mm, which I bet probably contributes, then, to language loss?


CATHY WURZER: You have the teachers, right? If you don't have the teachers, you're not going to be able to teach the language.

JENNA CUSHING-LEUBNER: Right. It creates a situation where our native speakers and heritage speakers of the languages themselves can't even create a space in our schools to use the language with students and teach the language to young people. And so our schools become these sort of de facto English-only environments when they're already set up to be really English dominant already.

CATHY WURZER: So I'm curious-- and Pang, maybe you can answer this question-- what is the state of the Hmong language look like right now in our schools?

PANG YANG: So, knowing that the language is close to being gone, if you ask some of the parents, they're like, it is gone already. But a lot of our teachers are very hopeful that through language reclamation, it can be reclaimed. I would say if we had 100 students come into a high school classroom, I would say a good chunk, 70%, 80% of those students hardly even speak the language anymore. So they're really learning Hmong as a world language, instead of a heritage language.

CATHY WURZER: And Jenna, what do you know about the state of Hmong language right now?

JENNA CUSHING-LEUBNER: Yeah, so, I mean, Hmong is used all over the world where Hmong people live, but especially because Hmong are displaced through refugee resettlement, in places like the United States, in Minnesota, where we have a very large, thriving population of Hmong people, the language is nearing full language loss within this generation.

So this is really the turning point. If the language isn't reclaimed and strengthened in this generation, we will see the loss of Hmong language use within the next 10 or 15 years probably. However, in this generation, if we can stop that loss and we can strengthen and reconnect people with using the language and feeling confident and having spaces to use the language, we can stop that language loss and hopefully create a sustainable language for future generations to come. It's really a turning point.

CATHY WURZER: Interesting. Is that the same situation happening in the Somali and Karen languages, too, with teachers now-- of course, I mentioned in the introduction there's this first cohort now of Somali and Karen teachers gaining their licenses. So will that help bolster those languages as well?

JENNA CUSHING-LEUBNER: Yeah, it's really exciting. I mean, Somalian and Karen language in Minnesota is a little more recent than Hmong. And so what we're seeing is that the Somali and Karen families and communities are able to put more pressure on our school systems and our educational systems to say, hey, you don't have to follow the same track. We can stop this from happening. And so they are not quite at the point of language loss, but they're coming up to it.

And so if these programs are able to start sooner and be kept stronger, Hmong also had language programs for many years, but because of these bottlenecks, it made it hard to sustain them. And so the hope is that it'll keep that language loss from happening in the future generations for the Somali and Kaen families.

CATHY WURZER: Say, Pang, I mentioned that this program isn't happening anywhere else in the world, which is amazing, if you think about it. How does your organization help create some of these resources?

PANG YANG: I often think about, what are some of the issues Hmong teachers are having? When I first started six years ago, I was like, oh, my gosh, there's so many obstacles in the way. And so, once I identified those obstacles, what those are, then Jenna and I worked on finding creative solutions, right?

So, for example, a lot of teachers are working in silos. They were working within their own school district, and teachers aren't working with each other across different districts, across state lines. And so we decided, you know what? Mentorship is so important. Why not have our senior teachers, our veteran teachers, who's been teaching Hmong language for 10, 15, 20 years, mentor new ones like me, who need a lot of mentorship?

And so we started mentorship as a way to really bridge the gap, as a lot of our veteran Hmong teachers are very near to retiring. And so, we always look for the issues that we're having, and then how can we fix this issue in an innovative idea, and who can help us along the way and be our allies. So just trying to think differently outside the box.

CATHY WURZER: Well, congratulations to you both. Thank you so much for talking about this, and thanks for taking the time.


PANG YANG: You're welcome. Thank you.

CATHY WURZER: Pang Yang is the executive director of Minnesota Zej Zog. Jenna Cushing-Leubner is an associate professor of curriculum instruction at UW Whitewater.

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