“Many hands make work light; many ideas open the way.”
The work of many hands and minds has made possible a virtual well of ideas related to Hmong language and culture open to anyone who wishes to drink from it.
With help from the Heritage Language Education project at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, teaching professionals from across the U.S. came together to develop the Hmong Language Resource Hub website, which launched in November of 2020.
Teachers from eight public school districts, six public charter schools and four public colleges and universities from Wisconsin, Minnesota and California helped develop the website, which offers free, downloadable lessons that can be used by teachers to improve student-centered learning, particularly through Hmong language arts and culture. The site’s literacy, language, history, customs, arts and music lessons are also available to families, with the goal of supporting Hmong families whose children’s schools do not offer Hmong education for their children and of creating a new generation of bilingual speakers. In 2015 the Pew Research Center counted almost 300,000 Hmong Americans living in the country.
Hmong, like Spanish, is considered a “heritage language” in the U.S. — a language that is used at home and in the community. Heritage speakers grow up with a range of abilities in languages other than English and have the potential for acquiring strength in those languages. But because heritage speakers do not generally have access to bilingual education in school, students and their families struggle to keep from losing their languages, which become steadily replaced by English.
UW-Whitewater was an early leader in teacher training by expanding its existing professional programs to include Spanish heritage language education, led by Assistant Professor of Curriculum and Instruction Jenna Cushing-Leubner.
“Teachers use their summers to do deep dives into their professional development,” said Cushing-Leubner. “Professional development is lifelong learning. Teachers do their undergraduate and master’s degree programs to become teachers. But they don’t stop there. What we know about learning and teaching changes and we continue to learn more about how to teach in more effective ways.”
The development of the Hmong Language Resource Hub was sparked by Pang Yang, a Hmong Heritage Language Teacher and former English as a Second Language teacher in Osseo Area Schools north of Minneapolis. Yang heard from students in her classes and their parents that they wanted to have the same opportunities for learning their home language that was available to their Spanish-speaking friends in school. She urged the families to organize themselves and ask the school district for more resources.
The parents brought together school board members, school department heads and other important stakeholders. The school district received a grant to start a heritage language course in the high school, taught by Yang. One of Yang’s colleagues knew about Cushing-Leubner’s work on a heritage language curriculum for students who spoke Spanish at home.
“Pang is an incredible educator, a visionary and, really, a powerhouse,” said Cushing-Leubner. “She had been traveling and connecting with Hmong teachers in California at the time to reach out and get sources for ideas and curriculum for this class. That’s how difficult it is to find materials.”
Cushing-Leubner said Hmong teachers and communities are dispersed across the country, with the largest concentrations in California, Minnesota and Wisconsin. In schools where Hmong programming has been taught, the school districts often control the individual property rights to the lessons. The Hmong language is taught less frequently.
“All of these factors make it very difficult to get materials,” said Cushing-Leubner. “The teachers knew the language and loved working with young people. They needed curriculum and they needed units.”
Yang visited UW-Whitewater and began a collaboration with Cushing-Leubner in the Heritage Language Education project. The effort assembled Hmong K-12 teachers, higher education instructors from four different universities, community-based language teachers, publishers, artists, cultural councils, linguists and others. A grant from the Corporation for National and Community Service funded the work, along with mini-grants from UW-Whitewater’s College of Education and Professional Studies.
The effort resulted in the Hmong Language Resource Hub website. Lessons on the resource hub explore Hmong dialects and the tradition of oral storytelling. In the history section, a lesson uses interviewing, guest speakers, and reflections to teach about the Hmong New Year. Music lessons explore Hmong instruments and vocal music. The site also has teaching and learning standards for Hmong language, language arts, literacy, and culture that have been created by teams of Hmong educators and community experts and can be used by current teachers or by schools to begin to offer Hmong courses and lessons, according to Cushing-Leubner.
“The website is the hub for all of those things,” said Cushing-Leubner. “It’s living and continuing to expand and grow. In the three years this has grown, I have just been blown away by the creativity and the power of these educators once there was just a little bit of opportunity to connect with each other.”
Cushing-Leubner said the Heritage Language Education program at UW-Whitewater offers five professional development courses in the College of Education and professional Studies and is now offering professional development for teachers to participate in courses in the race and ethnic studies minor in the College of Letters and Sciences, with support from Dean Frank Goza and Professor of Languages and Literatures Pilar Melero.
“We have had cohorts of teachers who have gone through our programming, becoming leaders in the field as practitioners and moving into social media with other heritage language teachers to create their own communities,” said Cushing-Leubner.
More importantly, they are practicing heritage language education where it matters most — in the classroom.
“Anybody who works with multilingual students knows it’s connected to the community where kids are being loved most dearly,” said Cushing-Leubner. “It’s community-based and community-driven. It’s real-world learning.”
For more information on the Heritage Language Education program at UW-Whitewater, contact Assistant Professor of Curriculum and Instruction Jenna Cushing-Leubner at firstname.lastname@example.org or 262-472-2198.