Not long after Pang Yang began teaching a Hmong language and literacy class at Park Center High in Brooklyn Park, she discovered something exciting.
The more time her students, all native Hmong speakers, spent reading and studying the Hmong language, the better they got not only at speaking and writing in Hmong — but also in English.
“(The students) say: ‘Because you help us read tests that are culturally relevant, we’ve fallen in love with our people, culture and customs — and because we read more in Hmong all these things we learned transfer back and forth to English,’ ” she said.
For Yang, a longtime English-language-learner teacher, launching the Hmong-language class has been an important step toward getting more Hmong students engaged in school, and getting more recognition for a language that typically hasn’t been a part of Minnesota classrooms. It’s work that has won Yang recognition as this year’s World Language Teacher of the Year from the Minnesota Council on the Teaching of Languages and Cultures, a group representing 3,000 foreign-language teachers around the state.
“She is expanding possibilities for the Hmong language to be maintained and to flourish, and also doing the same thing for her students,” said Grant Boulanger, the organization’s president.
Yang, 43, was selected by the council’s volunteer board from a pool of language instructors nominated by fellow teachers and school administrators. She’ll represent Minnesota at a regional gathering of language teachers and could go on to contend for national recognition.
There, she’ll be able to share her story of immigrating to the U.S. as a preschooler, learning English, and launching her career in education. Yang, who graduated from Como Park Senior High School in St. Paul and earned a teaching degree from Concordia University in St. Paul, has spent more than two decades in the classroom, primarily with Osseo Area Schools.
As a teacher of students learning English, Yang said she learned to build connections with students of all backgrounds by sharing some of her own experiences. But she said that took time; for years, she was hesitant to talk about the challenges of having to work long days as a teenager to help support her family, or struggling to keep up with many of her peers in her first year of college. Once she opened up, however, Yang said she found it was a clear way to get students interested in their own stories and future plans.
“I think I felt so much closer to my students once I was able to open that door, share stories, and be able to connect with students who may look different from me,” she said.
After hearing requests from students, Yang launched something new: A language and culture class specifically for Hmong-speaking students. In its first year, about 175 students signed up. Now, as the program enters its third year, about 250 are participating. The class is a first for the school and one of a growing number of “heritage” courses offered around the state that allow native speakers of different languages a chance to dig deeper into the culture and literature of those languages.
Yang said her hope is to expand the district’s Hmong-language offerings to make language classes open to all students, like Spanish or French.