In one Twin Cities classroom, learning in Hmong and about being Hmong

A student looks up and smiles at her teacher.
Park Center High School teacher Pang Yang talks to 16-year-old Chouablai Moua during an in-class exercise in her Hmong 1 class at the school in Brooklyn Park, Minn., on Thursday, Oct. 3, 2019.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Updated: Oct. 10, 10:57 a.m.

Jocelyn Fang speaks Hmong and she’s from a Hmong family, but it took a class at Park Center High School to help bond her to Hmong life and history, and see her place in it.

"I learned so much about being Hmong, and our history and how to speak and write, how to listen,” Jocelyn, 15, said of the class, part of an ongoing experiment at the school to connect Hmong students to their heritage. “It's just a very good environment for me to be in as a Hmong student.”

Launched three years ago, "Hmong for Native Speakers" has helped bridge a learning gap between culture and classroom academics. It’s an elective taught in Hmong and grounded in Hmong history, culture and language.

Teacher Pang Yang saw the need after Hmong students at Park Center noticed the school had launched a Spanish for native speakers class. They told her they wanted their own version.

For Yang, who’s spent nearly 20 years teaching English as a second language, saw the opportunity for a class where her students could learn in Hmong — and learn about being Hmong.

A female teacher sits next to a boy as he speaks.
Pang Yang listens to 14-year-old student Timmy Cha answer a question in hmong in her Hmong 1 class.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Yang’s lessons venture far beyond Hmong grammar, vocabulary and language inflection. On a recent morning, she started her second-hour students on a novel by a Hmong-American author.

Third-hour students spoke in a circle discussion about how Hmong students might be affected by the achievement gap. During fourth hour, she introduced her class to a health unit by sharing statistics about health in the Hmong community.

"This is our introduction to our health unit, so connecting health with the Hmong community,” Yang said. “So we'll be looking at some data, we'll be talking about what are some factors that contribute to the health disparity."

Yang calls the strategy "culturally relevant teaching." Everything in her classroom is filtered through a Hmong lens. Language, history, literature, culture and her students' own lived experiences are at the center. This makes her classroom material more relevant to her students, she said.

Research supports her strategies. Nationally, students of color don't engage as well with curriculum and teaching "dominated by Euro-American perspectives,” according to the National Education Association.

A student holds a wooden spoon with colorful letters on it.
A student holds the talking stick in Pang Yang's Hmong 1 class.
Evan Frost | MPR News

"Sometimes our Hmong students are so quiet in the classroom, they're often forgotten. There's a lot that's going on under the iceberg that teachers may not see,” Yang said. “But because I live in their world, I see and have been through a lot of their issues and so I understand that, for them, coming to my room, sometimes all that they need is just a place, a safe place. "

Yang tries to meet her students where they're at. She makes time for journaling and individual check-ins. She focuses on empathy for what her students are going through, while keeping expectations high.

"It's not just language learning, but it's about you as a whole person. It's about your identity and what are you going to do now that you have some of the language background to be able to speak Hmong," Yang said.

Some observers sees these kinds of efforts to connect student culture and classroom learning as key to closing the achievement gap between white students and students of color in Minnesota.

"What if your narrative becomes centralized in our understandings of politics and history? That's the core. As opposed to being a background actor in a European narrative, which is typically what students of color become,” said Brian Lozenski, an assistant professor of urban and multicultural studies at Macalester College in St. Paul.

“Even when we do address students of color history, it's add-on,” he said. “But what if you become the central actor and other people's stories get that background shadowing?"

In Yang's classroom, her students say learning Hmong language, history and culture has helped them navigate their lives at home and at school.

Fang said she's using her understanding of her Hmong heritage to connect with her family, understand where she comes from, and use that to plan her future.

“It's crazy just knowing our experiences,” she said, “especially since not a lot of people know it."

Correction (Oct. 10, 2019): Captions with the graphics slideshow misidentified the school that Pang Yang teaches at. The article has been updated.

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