Teaching ELL Hmong Students – An NEH Summer Seminar Teacher’s Reflection

The NEH Summer Seminar, focusing on K-12 teachers using Asian American film and literature in their classrooms. Photo by Keith Miyake.
The NEH Summer Seminar, focusing on K-12 teachers using Asian American film and literature in their classrooms. Photo by Keith Miyake.

Alyssa Carlson, a middle school ELL teacher in St. Paul, MN, is a participant in the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar. Carlson reflects on teaching majority-Hmong students and the challenges of finding curriculum for this population. The NEH Summer Seminar, co-taught by Chi-hui Yang (CAAM’s former Festival Director) and Jennifer Hayashida, is a seminar for K-12 teachers to learn more about using Asian American film and literature in their classrooms. CAAM is the largest distributor of Asian American films, with more than 200 titles. Check out CAAM’s Films for Educators for a list of titles we distribute.

My name is Alyssa Carlson, and I teach 6-8 grade ELL (English Language Learners) at HOPE Community Academy in St. Paul, MN. HOPE is a charter school aimed at students in the very large Hmong community in the Twin Cities, and our school is approximately 97% Hmong. My students are mostly of the 1.5 generationborn in America to new immigrant parents, or immigrants to America at a very young age.

Students at HOPE are very attuned to the Hmong culture. If you ask their favorite food, they’re more likely to say papaya salad than pizza. They start talking about the July 4th Hmong soccer tournament in March, and many of them study traditional dance or music. They also have Hmong language classes at school.
I applied to the NEH program because I feel that Asian Americans are often overlooked in the American school system, largely perpetuated by the “model minority” myth. The Hmong community is such a big, vital part of the Twin CitiesI was really anxious to talk about some ideas that were more theoretical and big-picture than the more immediate ones we discuss at school. It also didn’t hurt that New York City is one of my favorite places in the world to be.
St. Paul, MN ELL teacher Alyssa Carlson.

St. Paul, MN ELL teacher Alyssa Carlson.

I’m never surprised by the intelligence and dedication of teachers, but the extent of the intelligence and dedication in our classroom at Hunter College every day is really exciting and humbling. I was expecting to think, but each day I Think with a capital T. The biggest surprise is how exhausted I am by the evening, just because my brain has been working so hard in class.

I’ve taught very little Asian American literature before, and no filmteaching ELL isn’t always conducive to planning book-centered units. The only exception is a great, but sadly hard to find book, called Hey Hmong Girl, Whassup? This book was published as a dissertation as a few years ago, and is a book that past students have really related to. I wish it were more famous–there are a lot of Hmong speakers in US schools, and so few resources for and about them.
I’m absolutely going to work to bring in more Asian American materials for my classes this year. Many of the texts we’ve read in our seminar are a bit too challenging for middle school, but I’ve gotten so many resources, both from our program directors and my colleagues in the institute. I didn’t know how much I’ve been missing, and I wish I could go back to some of the classes I’ve taught and get a redo.
Beyond the films and literature we’ve been discussing, we’ve learned a lot about multimedia projects. I’d love to do some sort of filmmaking with my students this year! The thing that I hope most to bring back, though, is the idea that I’m a lifelong learner; you don’t stop growing intellectually when you’ve gotten a diploma, and that there’s always more to know.
—Alyssa Carlson