In a sunny classroom at Badger Rock Community Center recently, a group of Hmong kids rehearsed a skit in Hmong. Two boys had goofy, slightly embarrassed grins on their faces as they made wild swinging motions to chop imaginary wood.
They used Hmong, and acting — including sassy hair flips, sad pouty faces and shy smiles — to convey their message.
When the skit was over, the teachers asked them to explain the story to classroom visitors.
“He sees that she’s the water dragon princess, and he likes her, and then he tells her that he likes her,” the lead actor said.
Their faces lit up as they explained the scene, a small example of the confidence that comes with cultural knowledge.
That's the point of the Hmong Language and Cultural Enrichment Program, a six week intensive summer program formed in 2013 to help Hmong kids establish deeper cultural roots, solidifying identity and self-esteem. It’s done that for four years and this fall will offer these children additional support by meeting once a month during the school year.
The program was formed after the Madison Metropolitan School District released data showing that Hmong-American children were lagging in academics. Ninety-three percent of Hmong-American children were not reading at grade level and 74 percent were performing below grade level in math.
Mai Zong Vue, intercultural program coordinator at the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, and Peng Her, assistant director at the Center for Resilient Cities, worked with a core group of Hmong-American families to take action.
They fashioned a summer curriculum that teaches Hmong children about their culture, history and language through immersion. There are morning lessons, where they learn history and how to read and write in Hmong, and afternoon hands-on activities, where they sing traditional songs, make family trees and garden. Guest speakers from the Hmong-American professional community drop in to show the kids what kind of jobs they could have someday.
The idea of the program is that it provides culturally relevant learning, a safe place for Hmong children to understand who they are, Her said. By building confidence, self-esteem and cultural support, kids should be better equipped to tackle academics.
“If you’re worried about what your classmates are thinking about you, you're not going to be too worried about your math test,” Her said.
In another program classroom, a teacher discussed the challenges of learning Hmong as the kids played Bingo with Hmong vocabulary instead of numbers and letters.
The teacher explained that Hmong is a tough language to learn. It’s tonal, meaning that if a word is said with the wrong tone, it could mean something different. “Dog” can change to “water” and “come” can become “die.” The teacher recounted humorous stories of linguistic mix-ups.
“There are dangers, you have to get your tone correct, or you’re going to say the wrong word,” she said.
This contributes to the pressure kids can feel when they enter the program, Her said. They’re often nervous that they will be the only ones who don’t speak the language, but are able to overcome it.
“They discover people who look like them and people who don’t speak the language like them,” said Vue. “Then they have a safe community to learn together and laugh together.”
One mother with three children in the program talked about how nervous her children were before attending. It only took one day for them to be won over.
“They were so excited they didn’t want to come home the first day,” she said.
This attitude is strikingly different from how Hmong kids often behave in public school, Her said, where they may be known for being quiet and not raising their hands.
“They come here, it’s a total difference. You see kids engaging, raising hands, asking questions, because they feel comfortable," he said. "They recognize that their other classmates look like them, talk broken Hmong like them."
The confidence and excitement was evident when the kids explained Hmong history and culture like povpob, a ball game, to a visitor.
“It’s a ball-tossing game, so you have to throw it underhand and catch it underhand,” Kashia, 10, said, voice accelerating with excitement. “And sometimes, sometimes if you drop it, like that, you have to sing a song a little bit or if you sometimes you drop it you have to give something to them.
"Sometimes the girls wear a whole bunch of bobby pins so they don’t have to lose anything,” she said, smiling.
For these kids, the end of the program can be more difficult than waving goodbye to the campfires of summer camp. The kids build up confidence, community and competence, only to have it all come to a screeching halt at the end of six weeks.
“It’s like driving on the highway,” said Vue. “You’re going full speed and you need to get out, and you don’t have a space to slow down.”
Additionally, because the kids only learn Hmong for six weeks of the year, there’s a lot of potential to forget what they’ve learned, Her said.
To help these kids stabilize the knowledge and relationships they’ve built, the program plans to start meeting once a month on Saturdays in the fall. Otherwise, Vue said, they’re setting the kids up for failure.
“That way the exit ramp is there for them emotionally,” she said.
Vue also hopes extending the program will help the kids keep in touch with their identity.
“They’re at 100 percent learning and confidence and then they go to the school year and they’re struggling. They're back to ‘Oh, I don’t know who I am,’” said Vue. “So even if they’re really frustrated at school, they have a place to come and balance that out.”
The fall program will allow more parents to be involved as their children learn.
The program will require additional funding, Vue said, adding that it wouldn't be possible without a lot of collaboration.
“This is the work of a whole village, not just us. We may spearhead this, but this is the work of a village, of a community,” Vue said. “And we’re very appreciative.”