SPPS offers Karen language course for first time amid ban in native nation
Hundreds of middle and high school students in St. Paul Public Schools are learning the Karen language.
It’s believed to be the first program of its kind in the country. The teaching of the Karen language has been banned in schools in their homeland Myanmar, formerly Burma, since 1962 when a military regime took over.
About 17,000 Karen people now live in Minnesota — 2,600 of them are students who go to SPPS. The district offers the language course virtually and in-person at four schools including Washington Tech, Como Park Senior, Humboldt High School and Harding Senior.
Lucas Blesser is one of four teachers who teach the Karen language. Blesser was born in Burma and remembers fleeing his war-torn country in the ’90s. He never imagined that years later, he would be teaching what is forbidden in his native nation.
“I think it’s a great opportunity to kind of rebuild your identity,” Blesser said. “Our team of teachers work very closely together in the summer and, you know, preparing for the curriculum that has never been established.”
Many of the students taking the course are Karen themselves. Tenth-grader Sayshee May says, “It’s pretty amazing how so many Karen kids want to learn Karen. I’m very proud of that.”
Blesser says part of the course will help students bridge the generational gap and connect them to their families and roots. The language effort was led by a group of Karen community members seven years ago who wanted to close the gap.
“I just hated not being able to speak, you know, unable to communicate with my mother or my family,” said 12th-grader Lawehdoh Wah.
Wah says the language course gives her confidence that the Karen people haven’t been forgotten.