Phalen Lake speaks Hmong

Phalen Lake Hmong Studies Magnet Elementary School’s fourth grade Hmong-language immersion class meets with some Sepak Takraw players during a track and field day. The fourth graders have been learning Hmong language skills alongside English in the school’s two-way immersion program, which is now in its fourth year and has been growing steadily. (Patrick Larkin/Review)
Phalen Lake Hmong Studies Magnet Elementary School’s fourth grade Hmong-language immersion class meets with some Sepak Takraw players during a track and field day. The fourth graders have been learning Hmong language skills alongside English in the school’s two-way immersion program, which is now in its fourth year and has been growing steadily. (Patrick Larkin/Review)
Some Sepak Takraw players demonstrate how the sport is played during a track and field day at Phalen Lake Hmong Studies Magnet Elementary School on Friday, May 22. The demonstration is part of the school’s Hmong cultural emphasis, which integrates knowledge about Hmong language and culture into the curriculum. (Patrick Larkin/Review)
Some Sepak Takraw players demonstrate how the sport is played during a track and field day at Phalen Lake Hmong Studies Magnet Elementary School on Friday, May 22. The demonstration is part of the school’s Hmong cultural emphasis, which integrates knowledge about Hmong language and culture into the curriculum. (Patrick Larkin/Review)

School’s immersion program showing steady growth

“If a grandma cannot speak to her grandchildren, the relationship is lost,” says May Lee Xiong.

Because of a language barrier, most of Xiong’s nieces and nephews can’t converse with their grandparents.

The kids speak only English, while the elders never really mastered English and instead are only fluent in their native language of Hmong.

But, a few of her nieces and nephews are trying to bridge the gap; they’re attending Phalen Lake Hmong Studies Magnet Elementary School, where they participate in the school’s relatively new Hmong-language immersion program.

Xiong works as the curriculum coordinator for the school, which is part of the St. Paul Public Schools system. The school sits in the Payne Phalen neighborhood, a few blocks south and west of Maryland Avenue and Earl Street.

Thanks to the language immersion program, her nieces and nephews are able to engage with their grandparents, and listen to their stories of what their lives were like in Laos before the Vietnam War and afterwards in refugee camps. And in turn, the kids can translate for their cousins, helping form relationships between the elders and their grandchildren.

It’s examples like this that suggest why the school’s two-way immersion program is flourishing -- it started with 25 students in 2011 and is now up to 190 kids in grades pre-k through fifth.

“We’ve seen the interest grow,” Xiong says. “Once people started seeing it, it really gained in popularity.”

She’s hoping that trend will continue, as it’s a way to maintain the language and keep it from disappearing in the Hmong community.

She notes that a lot of young Hmong kids in the Twin Cities are losing their connection to the language, and sees the immersion program as a way to keep it alive.

“No one is teaching their kids to read and write Hmong,” she says. “Even though we try to speak Hmong at home, it doesn’t have the same effect as it does in a formalized setting.”

Gaining national interest

Last year, there was enough of a demand for Phalen Lake’s two-way language immersion program that it added a second kindergarten class.

The program starts kindergartners with a curriculum taught 90 percent in Hmong. By second grade, it’s 70 percent in Hmong and 30 percent in English. By third grade, the curriculum takes place half in Hmong and half in English.

There are eight classes devoted to Hmong language immersion, for students ranging from pre-kindergarten up through fourth grade.

According to St. Paul Public Schools’ website, “two-way immersion programs (such as the one at Phalen Lake) serve both language minority and language majority students in the same classroom and use each group of students’ first language for academic instruction at certain points during the program.

“The aim is for all students to become bilingual, biliterate and culturally proficient in both the majority and partner cultures.”

The school is one of only a few such programs nationwide -- there’s a similar Hmong immersion program at St. Paul Public Schools’ Jackson Elementary, and Sacramento School District in California also began an immersion program in 2011.

Minneapolis Public School will be starting a Hmong language immersion program this coming fall, and a school in Wisconsin is also looking to begin one as well.

According to Phalen Lake principal Catherine Rich, “(The school gets) many visits across the country to learn how our program works, particularly from states like California, Wisconsin, and here in the Twin Cities.”

Though the school is hoping to attract students of all ethnic backgrounds to the Hmong immersion program, all of the kids currently in the program are either Hmong or at least part Hmong.

Coining new words

Being a pioneer has its fair share of challenges, one of which is that there isn’t really much written Hmong-language material in existence. The language wasn’t formalized in a written format until about 1950.

Because of that, there are few textbooks or literature to speak of that can be used in an education curriculum. So, school staff are adapting general language immersion curriculum to the Hmong language, and also generating new materials.

Xiong notes that in teaching the language, the teachers have had to coin new terms -- for instance, Hmong doesn’t have a word for computer, so they created one: lub hlwb hlau, which means “metal brain,” more or less.

It can also be difficult finding qualified teachers - many young Hmong teachers working in the school district don’t have Hmong language proficiency, while proficient Hmong speakers don’t necessarily have a background in education. In 10 years, Xiong says, that will probably be even harder.

Xiong says she and other education professionals have begun working with elders to record words that could be lost from the vocabulary.

Culture curriculum

In addition to the immersion program, Phalen Lake Elementary has been a Hmong magnet school since 2008, integrating learning units about Hmong culture into the core of the school’s curriculum.

Rich says the school transitioned to a Hmong magnet in part out of a desire from people living in the community to have a program focus.

About 70 percent of the school’s population is Asian American, the majority of whom are Hmong. With that designation comes Hmong-specific cultural units, where the students explore themes around Hmong culture.

In the fall, they learn about the Hmong diaspora, and even experience a short simulation that shows what life was like in refugee camps. In the winter, students learn about traditional Hmong life in Laos, and in the spring they learn about Hmong arts.

Along those lines, students intently watched a Sepak Takraw demonstration during a track and field day on Friday, May 22.

Gao Chang, a Ramsey County Sheriff’s Deputy, was at the school’s track and field day on a mission to get kids interested in the sport.

Sepak Takraw combines the skills of soccer with those of volleyball -- players volley with a small ball, hitting it over a net using only their feet.

Chang says it was the first time his group has been able to present the sport to a group of young people, and said it was a  point of pride to explain the sport to the students, many of whom are Hmong.

Chang is pursuing state funding to install Sepak Takraw courts in St. Paul, much like the Hmong sport Tuj Lub will see the installation of two new courts at Duluth and Case Recreation Center this fall.

Finding identity

See Vang, the school’s fourth-grade immersion teacher, had been working in St. Paul Public Schools for about 17 years before transitioning to the Hmong language program.

Having lived in Laos as a child, she had Hmong language knowledge, but she says it took some serious refreshing for her to be positioned to teach a Hmong language course.

After all, she says, the day she “landed here in the U.S” she stopped learning Hmong and focused on assimilating and learning English. Now, some in the Hmong community are concerned young people are losing language skills and the cultural identity that comes with that.

So, Vang says she enjoys teaching the classes and seeing kids learn about their cultural heritage.

“It empowers me to see myself as a pioneer in teaching the immersion language,” she says, and in turn, the students feel empowered from learning about their own family history.

Xiong adds that the immersion program also has its benefits for kids who don’t identify as Hmong, since the immersion program uses the same principles as other immersion programs in the district, and it provides the same benefits that come from dual-language learning.

For non-Hmong students, the programs can give kids a cross-cultural understanding. And the cross-cultural dialogue in the classrooms encourages kids of all ethnic backgrounds to share their unique histories, she says. Kids, whether Latino, Karen, Latino, or European American, pipe up in class to share what their family eats for dinner, or what holiday traditions they keep.

Xiong says this is a shift from her upbringing, where as a kid she was sometimes embarrassed to share that her family ate rice at home as a kid, and sometimes wished they just ate pizza.

Parent involvement

This cross-cultural approach to learning has led to more parent interaction with the school, Xiong says. And, she says, the immersion students seem to be more confident with their identities.

Mai Thao, parent of a third-grader, says her family speaks half Hmong and half English at home, but the formal education has firmed up her son’s ability in the Hmong language.

They trade skills, with her helping him with pronunciation, and him helping her with written language.

She says she’s since recommended the immersion program to a number of other parents.

Her son is able to help his cousins speak to their grandparents, who speak only Hmong. He translates for them, allowing a relationship to form between the kids and the grandparents, who speak no common languages.

His grandparents “are really proud of him,” his mom says.

Xiong hopes to see the school create a generation of kids who are proud of their cultural heritage. And she hopes to see Hmong culture and language stay alive.

Perhaps someday the students at Phalen Lake and other schools like it will go on to write new Hmong texts, and teach their kids the language.

Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ESRPatrickLark.
 

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