Jane Hall wants to know where immigrant students are coming from -- literally.
Jane Hall is one of those teachers who makes a point to reach out and connect with her students, many of whom come from other countries and all of whom are learning to speak, read and write English.
"She engages the kids and provides real-life activities for them," said Hall's boss, Mike Sodomka, the principal at St. Paul's Humboldt High School. "Her classroom is so warm and welcoming. It's a model for our building."
This past spring, Hall went even farther in getting to know her students -- about 8,500 miles farther. She took a sabbatical to volunteer as a teacher in the Umpiem Mai refugee camp near the Thailand-Myanmar border, working with Karen refugees from January through early May.
Her motivation was simple: As more Karen refugees come to St. Paul, Hall figured she ought to better understand them. After all, she expects she will soon be teaching them.
"I like to travel to where my students are from," she said, pointing out that she has also spent time in Ethiopia, Laos, Vietnam and Latin America. "I feel it really does help establish a relationship."
According to the United Nations, about 17,000 Karen refugees have come to the U.S. in the past few years and more are expected now that State Department has loosened some restrictions. About 150,000 refugees are living in nine camps in Thailand along the border with Myanmar, which the Karen refer to as Burma. So, Hall said, she wanted to learn what life is like for them there.
At Umpiem Mai, home to about 20,000 refugees, life for Hall meant living with her English language students in a thatch dormitory.
She bathed with buckets of water, slept on a mat on the floor and only had electricity for a couple hours a day. That was better than most. The school where she worked had a generator. Most refugees had only candlelight in the evenings.
What she found, Hall said, is an amazing resilience and thirst for knowledge. Hall worked for World Education, a non-governmental organization. She taught about 20 advanced students in an English immersion program. The students, ages 18-24, were picked for the program for their leadership potential, Hall said. It is expected that they will become the conduits for the Karen in the U.S., when they come.
Her students were responsible for making meals, shopping for food, and creating and living under a budget.
Their rations consisted of rice, fish paste, lentils, chili peppers and cooking oil. "Twice a month," Hall said, "we'd have meat day."
Hall said she was impressed with her students' abilities and desire. Once, she awoke in the night to find students studying by candlelight. Turns out that is common, she said.
Their isolation from the rest of the world is dramatic. While Hall's school had a computer, it had no Internet. Some people watched movies, some had radios. Few knew about any other kind of life outside the camp.
"They are pioneer people. They can do everything," Hall said. "They just haven't been exposed to a lot. They can't leave the refugee camp. They're there."
Her students were hungry about American life and schools, she said. They wanted to know about clothes, about food. One day, a family that was scheduled to come to St. Paul asked to meet Hall. They were full of questions.
"Mostly, they were curious about what ... the other students look like," she said. "The fact that our classes are so [racially] mixed here really intrigued them and kind of frightened them."
Hall must have made a good impression. After meeting with Hall and coming to St. Paul, the family has enrolled two of their children at Humboldt -- a boy in the high school and a daughter at the junior high school. Sodomka said he is thrilled with Hall's recruiting efforts.
"We did send her with some backpacks and other Humboldt materials," he said, laughing. "We'll go to the four corners of the world to reach out to our community."
Hall, who is writing a report on her experience and won't return to teaching at Humboldt until the fall, said the experience has been all she hoped for. More importantly, she believes it will make her a better teacher.
"I think I'll understand better how long they've waited to make this journey. Parents are doing this for their children," she said. "I think it will give me a little more sensitivity to the children who are having trouble adjusting. I know how they've lived."
James Walsh • 651-298-1541