Hmong International Academy was filled with parents, educators, students and community members on April 27 for a spring showcase titled “Sharing Our Stories.” The event was a chance for parents to see the art and writing projects students at the elementary school created in March as part of a literacy unit studying identity. 

A special highlight of the evening were students’ ceramics projects. Each class spent a week with Susan Obermeyer, an artist from Northern Clay Center, creating art projects made of clay. Students made a sculptural piece and a functional piece based on the school-wide learning theme of identity. The school utilized grant funding from the Cargill Foundation to pay for one fifth of the cost of the program. Northern Clay Center used its own grant funding to cover the remainder of the cost. 

Assistant Principal Kate McNulty said the idea for collaborating with Northern Clay Center came from Lori Ledoux, the district program facilitator for art. Hmong International Academy had tried to hire a visual arts teacher to replace the teacher who left at the end of last school year. When the search was unsuccessful, the school hired a dance teacher instead. But McNulty says the school still wanted to be able to offer some visual arts for students. 

“It was cold and wet,” kindergarten student Senju said of working with the clay. 

Senju, a kindergarten student at Hmong International Academy, shows off his ceramics projects. Photo by Melissa Whitler

Students made a bowl adorned with a hornbill, the school’s mascot, as one of their projects.

“First I started with this,” Senju said, holding the beak of a hornbill between his fingers. “Then I made the sphere and put it on,” he said, pointing to the bird’s head. “Then you paint it and then you cook it,” he said, describing the glazing and firing of his bowl.

The students’ finished projects had just arrived back at the school on Thursday, and many had not seen their finished pieces before the event that evening. Parents and caregivers had not seen the art projects either. Several parents expressed surprise that students had been working with clay.

One mother of a kindergarten student, who did not want to be named, said her son had just told her about the showcase that afternoon. She was on her way to work, but they stopped in to see her son’s projects and share a meal with the school community.

Hmong International Academy is home to the district’s dual language program in Hmong. Starting in kindergarten, students who participate in the program receive two hours of instruction per day in Hmong literacy. Deedee Lee is the kindergarten teacher for the program, and has been teaching students since it started six years ago. Students can continue to study Hmong at Olson Middle School and Henry High School.

Deedee Lee, the kindergarten teacher for the Hmong language program, translated student writing about their identity. Photo by Melissa Whitler

Lee’s kindergarten students completed a writing worksheet about themselves in Hmong as part of their learning about identity. Students shared about their family, their favorite food and favorite color as part of the assignment. 

Second grade teacher Emily Grandelis said her students struggled in art class last year. Their skills were behind because many had not been in in-person school during the pandemic. 

Nakia, a second grade student at Hmong International Academy, shows her sculpture of her face. The ceramics project was part of a school-wide month of learning about identity. Photo by Melissa Whitler

“I was nervous going, but they were so calm and chill,” Grandelis said of her students starting the week-long ceramics class. “They loved it.”

In addition to the hornbill bowl, students made a sculpture of their face. Grandelis explained that many students had not worked with ceramics before. Many ceramic glazes are a different color and texture before being fired in the kiln. For some students, it was a surprise to see their finished works because they had not had the experience of seeing glazes before and after firing before.

Second grade students made silhouette portraits and included words to describe themselves and aspects of their identities. In addition, students wrote sentences about themselves. And in class, students were reading books that included stories and characters that reflected their cultural backgrounds. 

Each student decorated a small box with pictures, art and objects to represent their identity. Photo by Melissa Whitler

Many of Gradelis’s students are below grade-level proficiency in writing skills, she explained. But, she said, the silhouette assignment was especially engaging for the students. “They were very independent. They knew what they wanted to say and did their best sounding out.”

Grandelis said that all of the components of the learning unit on identity helped students make connections. “Even in other subjects, they were recognizing parts of their identity or of their culture. That’s fun to see.”

“We have some pretty distinct communities in our building,” McNulty said. She said the school has Hmong, African American, and Somali students. And, this year, the school has a growing community of Spanish-speaking students primarily from Ecuador. That diversity within the school was the motivation behind having the whole school engage in learning about identity.

Students also completed a “me box.” Using objects or pictures from home along with supplies from school, each student decorated a small paper box to represent their identity.

First grade teacher Panyia Ly said her students have been sharing their boxes during class and making connections to classmates, their families and their cultures. She also heard from parents who were supportive of the project. 

“Some of my parents reached out and said this is a great conversation starter,” Ly explained. “One student learned her dad was from Laos and her mom was from Wisconsin. She never knew that.”

“It was really fun. We went all out,” Shawna, the mother of a Hi-5 student said of helping him with the “me box” project.

Shawna shared that the family is originally from Michigan. She said her son enjoyed incorporating a picture of their home state, as well as pictures of cars and football into his project. 

McNulty said that in addition to the student projects, the school also offered teachers resources on how to use new read-aloud books the school had purchased about identity. The feedback from educators has been positive. 

“They really love the opportunity to do multiple elements together and to incorporate those new texts. When we delivered them, it's like, oh, here's some more books. But now it's like, here's some more books. And this is how you can use them to really enrich your teaching and your core instructions. I think that really helps them make the connection behind the resource and then the project itself,” McNulty said.

In addition to the student projects, the event included a meal for families and storytelling in four languages: Hmong, English, Somali and Spanish.

Do you have a school event you would like Minneapolis Schools Voices to cover? Send us an email at or text us at 612-491-6770.