Schools sometimes take students to visit museums, but something unusual has developed at Phalen Lake Hmong Studies Magnet in St. Paul. They are developing a Hmong culture museum within the school. It’s a great example of a partnership involving families, community members, faculty and administration.
Catherine Rich, principal at Phalen Lake, recalls that “with the writing and implementation of our Hmong Studies curriculum, several cultural items were brought in to help our students understand their culture. The Hmong Studies curriculum and artifacts also promote reading, writing and math skills. In addition, building replicas of two Hmong houses promoted the use of math.”
One of those homes has a variety of cooking and other items often found in a traditional Hmong home. The other, which features the roof and beams of a Hmong home, is in the school’s library/media center.
The school is not content to bring in materials others created. May Lee Xiong, the school’s Hmong curriculum coordinator, displays a series of “oral history” DVD’s that Phalen Lake students and faculty have created, by interviewing Hmong elders and craftspeople. This began in the 2009-10 school year when the school was awarded a Library Services and Technology Act grant to implement a program that the school called “Honoring our Stories.” Xiong told me, “the drive here is to instill the value of maintaining our cultural legacy in our students.” When the videos are complete, at the end of the year, there is a dinner that honors those who contributed to, and helped produce the videos. The school has a growing library of these videos. Xiong explained, ” We’re trying to combine culture and technology to help young people learn.”
One tape describes the work of Silversmith Nhia Vue Lee. He describes various steps needed to create jewelry that Hmong families treasure. Another video features St. Paul native, and award winning author Kao Kalia Yang talking with Phalen Lake students. She encourages youngsters of all races to write. She also explains that part of the reason she writes because she did not see stories about people like her when she was growing up. But as she explains, stories about young people from various cultures “belong in the bigger bookshelves of the bigger world.”
Rich, the principal believes “there is a myth suggesting youth don’t have much to learn from elders. We believe that we should be promoting partnerships that will help students learn answers to important issues in their lives.” So part of the curriculum is that every classroom meets with elders. Each classroom produces a collage or book about what they’ve learned. She expects that each year the school will interview more people, giving students the opportunity to continue their learning, and continue to produce materials that will help others. She explained, “As the project continues, we will create an archive of stories from the specific cultural and ethnic groups that represent all our students.”
Contrary to what some people might expect, about 25% of this Saint Paul Public School’s students are not Asian American. Ten percent are Latino/Latina, 10% are African American, and about 4% are Caucasian. Asian American students include Hmong, Vietnamese, Thai and Karen.
Rich believes, “Phalen Lake Hmong Studies Magnet provides an extraordinary opportunity for children to grow and learn in a vibrant, culturally engaged community, preparing them for a successful place in our global community.”
The school’s efforts are gaining attention. Recently a group of students from Kansas came to the school, spending several days working with, and learning from the students. And the school’s student body shows that this kind of program can attract a variety of families.
Joe Nathan, formerly a Saint Paul Public School teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change, Macalester College. He wrote this as part of the Center’s involvement with Saint Paul Public Schools Project Turnaround. Opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the St. Paul Public Schools or U.S. Department of Education, which funds Project Turnaround. Reactions welcome, firstname.lastname@example.org