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Hokenson speaks to the power of language

April 29, 2012
By Kremena Spengler - Staff Writer , The Journal

NEW ULM - As a language teacher, Colleen Hokenson is especially aware of, and sensitive to, the power of language.

Words can hurt and encourage, heal and inspire; and Hokenson, long-term Spanish teacher at New Ulm High School, sees a direct link between teaching a language and teaching character, in part through teaching understanding of the power of language.

"If you have the mouth to say it, you should have the mouth to apologize," Hokenson says.

Article Photos

Staff photo by Steve Muscatello

Colleen Hokenson, long-term New Ulm High School Spanish teacher, is retiring at the end of this school year.

Unsurprisingly, academic legacy apart, on the brink of retirement, Hokenson considers her role as a co-creator of the Character Counts program in District 88 a major legacy she leaves behind. The program, with its anti-bullying message and focus on building a safe school environment conducive to learning, was pioneered at the High School. It is now also implemented at Washington School, ensuring a continued emphasis on a positive school climate.

"The school has been a safe place for me; with good people; and they liked me," she says, misty-eyed.

"That's the way it should be, for the kids as well, a safe place for your gifts to flower, to be able to be as creative, inventive and successful as you can be..."

Fact Box

The Panama Project

Hokenson recalls her "Panama Project," implemented during the Noriega crisis; "the best one of my career."

After reviewing the history of the country, Hokenson divided the students into factions of peasants, elitists, milti-nationals and landowners. The groups ran candidates for office, collecting power points and stealing votes.

Just as it looked that one group was getting all the power points, the other four formed a coalition and installed a military leader who overthrew the election.

To the students' shock, Spanish teacher Allen Hoffman raided the room and "shot" "Jesse," a multinational, for being a traitor and passing the wrong information to the CIA.

The group that won the election was supposed to be excused from taking the semester test but the military coup derailed that incentive.

The students wrote about how they felt about the coup.

"It was like a mini-drama of the real thing," she said. "The goal was to give them an awareness of what it felt like to be in Panama."

Of course, all done in Spanish.


Hokenson was born and raised in Richfield, graduating from the Academy of Holy Angels. She attended Loretto Heights College in Denver and earned a license in English as a Second Language (ESL) at Hamline University in St. Paul. She earned her master's of arts degree in Liberal Studies at Hamline.

Hokenson taught religion and math for two years at Sacred Heart School in Robbinsdale; then operated a farm with her first husband for ten years.

"I was a midwife to sows," she says, "which serves to show you, bloom where you are planted... Explore parts of you that may be hidden."

This is a mantra she also preaches to students.

After falling on hard times on the farm, coming to teach in New Ulm in 1985 marked a new beginning for Hokenson and her family. It brought about a turnaround which would be acknowledged six years later, in 1991, by her dual recognition as District 88's Teacher of the Year and Brown County Historical Society's Woman of the Year.

In District 88, she has taught primarily Spanish but also some ESL classes.

Hokenson says no one in particular influenced her choice to become a teacher.

"I just knew it was my calling, like a vocation, ever since I was very young."

But why Spanish?

"My older sister taught me the word 'cachibachi,' which means junk or stuff, from her Spanish class.

"The word grabbed me and I thought that any language with such as word had my attention and curiosity."

The Spanish program in District 88 is based on immersion, or speaking exclusively Spanish in class. The students take a lesson a day, five days a week. The method works well and produces language competence fairly quickly.

"I love first-year Spanish, taking students from no skills to being able to speak for five minutes without notes at the end of the year," says Hokenson.

"I the upper level, it is seeing the students make the connections between cultures and realize how much we are the same and not different.

"It is the differences that enrich our world."

Hokenson feels happiest when she sees the students have that "a-ha" moment.

"They'd be been sitting there all class, and it dawns on them that they've been 'getting it.' They can listen and understand. It is a huge step."

She has taken students abroad and watched them realize that "everything, all the stories and gestures that 'senora' has been sharing, are true; there really is a place like that!"

Hokenson says she has felt high support in this community for education; it has allowed her to set high standards for students, and she has never been disappointed.

"I am proud to have worked with this kind of support and this caliber of student."

She keeps track of students, there are four or five who are teaching Spanish right now, having followed the studies they started here; and that's gratifying to a teacher.

On the flip side, with curtailed funding over the recent years, students have lost many opportunities to try and "taste" other disciplines, she muses.

"We have gone from the 'glory days' of three full-time Spanish teachers with more than 300-350 students, to 0.4 FTE (four-tenths of a full-time contract), with only one Spanish I and one Spanish II class for next year... It makes me so sad," reflects Hokenson.

She has the following advice to a beginning teacher: "One, make friends with an experienced teacher as a mentor. Two, always set the bar high, and you'll be amazed at what kids will accomplish. Three, send those post cards about nice things that happened in school to every student and family during the year. One time a mom of a senior boy said that, that was the first time they've gotten one, and it was on the fridge."

Her retirement plans, in her words, are, "to dwell in possibility. This is not an ending, it is an 'ascending.' I am staying open to the journey."



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