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So You Want To Teach Asian American History? These Educators Are Here To Help

An Asian American woman with ombre dyed hair and wearing a jean jacket stands before a whiteboard onto which a black-and-white photo of Japanese American schoolchildren has been projected.
Virginia Nguyen, a high school history teacher in Irvine, gives a lecture about Japanese American incarceration during WW II.
(Josie Huang/LAist)
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Asian American history is having a moment, after generations of neglect in classrooms and textbooks.

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So You Want To Teach Asian American History? These Educators Are Here To Help

The past year has seen Asian American teachers and parents push through laws requiring their history be taught in Illinois and New Jersey public schools, with similar campaigns underway in other states.

Around the country, thousands of K-12 teachers are signing up for training on the struggles and contributions of Asians Americans. Some are from California, where an upcoming ethnic studies requirement for graduation has schools looking to expand their offerings of Asian American history.

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Demand for workshops by the Asian American Education Project is so high that co-founder Stewart Kwoh said the group needs to raise more money to hire extra trainers. The tide of attacks on Asians during the pandemic is driving interest among non-Asian participants (the majority of teachers are white women) who Kwoh said are asking, Why is it happening?

“You don't really understand why there's a surge of anti-Asian violence unless you understand Asian American history as well,” said Kwoh, who was founding president of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-LA.

The education project offers dozens of multimedia lesson plans, including one covering the little-known massacre of Chinese immigrants in Los Angeles 150 years ago.

”It's not new,” he said. “It’s something that's happened before. It's happening again.”

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Why Inclusion In Schools Matters

Scholars have long drawn a bright line between what is taught in K-12 about marginalized groups and how they are regarded in society. In a study of 2021 curricula standards in all 50 states, college professor Sohyun An found that Asian Americans barely registered outside of anti-Chinese immigration laws and the incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII, leading to the perception of Asian Americans “as an oppressed group lacking civic agency or new immigrants with little contribution to the building of the nation.”

When it comes to K-12 curriculum, I don't think we have spent much time or effort on it — until today.
— Sohyun An, college professor

While curriculum designers and textbook companies often failed to invite Asian Americans to the table, the community also did not treat getting their history into schools as a civil rights issue, said An, a professor of social studies education at Kennesaw State University in Georgia.

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“When it comes to K-12 curriculum, I don't think we have spent much time or effort on it — until today,” An said.

In just the past year or so, efforts to write Asian American curricula and advocate for its inclusion in school districts have exploded, matching a growing audience.

Much of the organizing stems from the organization Make Us Visible, which has launched eight chapters since January, 2021. Some state chapters, such as Florida’s, are focused on passing bills to require the instruction of Asian American and Pacific Islander history. By contrast, Pennsylvania’s chapter has been supporting Asian Americans candidates for local school boards.

A Make Us Visible chapter for Southern California is in the works, with educators including Virginia Nguyen prepping for its rollout.

Nguyen, a U.S. history teacher at Portola High School in Irvine, has long been aware of the omission of Asian American narratives in history curriculum. The child of Vietnamese refugees, Nguyen took special note of how her community only came up during a unit on the Vietnam War.

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“It was told from the point that Vietnamese people came because America felt ashamed of what happened and this was their way of making it right,” Nguyen said. “That was how I felt America felt about the Vietnamese.”

Two Asian American women -- one woman on left is wearing a wide-rimmed hat and a denim outfit, woman on right is in a sleeveless black top -- each hold copies of the book "Minor Feelings" by Cathy Park Hong.
Virginia Nguyen (l.) and Stacy Yung (r.) of Educate to Empower hold copies of "Minor Feelings" by Cathy Park Hong, one of their AAPI book club reads.
(Courtesy of Virginia Nguyen)

As a teacher, Nguyen weaves the narratives of underrepresented communities into her lessons, but she knows this is not common practice because she kept meeting younger Asian Americans who, like she did years ago, questioned why they weren’t exposed to their history until taking electives in college.

The massacre of six Asian women at Atlanta-area spas last year was Nguyen’s breaking point. She decided, along with her friend Stacy Yung, an instructional designer in Irvine, to share their knowledge and experiences as Asian American women with other educators and to support other AAPI teachers, who make up just 2% of teachers nationwide.

A year and dozens of training sessions later, their group, Educate to Empower, will hold its largest event yet at the University of California, Irvine later this month, featuring a lineup of some of the country’s leading Asian American educational advocates.

Teachers are so powerful, because it's an opportunity for us to define what is American.

Sharing Lesson Plans

Meanwhile, Nguyen has joined a growing cadre of Asian American teachers who are sharing their lesson plans through social media, Google Docs and AirTable.

On Twitter, Nguyen posted lessons on the history of xenophobia and scapegoating in the U.S., as well as the Vietnamese American experience told through oral history and food in hopes it will be useful to other teachers.

“Teachers are so powerful, because it's an opportunity for us to define what is American,” Nguyen said. “We are literally picking and choosing how students see themselves, and how they can see the world around them.”

The lesson plans from individual teachers complement larger-scale efforts to create AAPI history teaching tools online.

Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Chicago, the civil rights group that led the campaign to require Asian American studies in Illinois schools, has stacked its online resource page with sample lessons and reading lists by grade level.

The Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center has a rich trove of content, including videos, downloadable lesson plans and activities.

The Immigrant History Initiative and the Yuri Education Project, named after the activist Yuri Kochiyama, are groups founded by Asian American women that write their own curricula and provide training.

Then there are websites that delve into the history of specific ethnic groups, such as Densho Encyclopedia and the South Asian American Digital Archive.

California's Efforts

Meanwhile, California has created a model curriculum in ethnic studies that includes sample lessons and course outlines for Asian American and Pacific Islander studies.

More projects are in the works. The California legislature has funded the development of three model curriculum projects:

  • Hmong history and cultural studies
  • The Vietnamese American refugee experience
  • The Cambodian genocide

Over at UCLA, scholars are in the midst of a multi-year project to create an “Asian American digital textbook” that is aimed as much at students as educators, said Kelly Fong, a lecturer in the school’s Asian American Studies Department.
Fong said the chapters — to be authored with teachers and curriculum developers — will be heavy on multimedia materials to engage students, such as embedded oral history clips, interactive maps and timelines and video. While the target beneficiaries are K-12 learners, the digital textbook has potentially farther reach, Fong said.

“For life-long learners who maybe didn't have Asian American studies when they were in college or high school and just really want to know more, this would be a place for them,” Fong said.

The largest online curricula at the moment is housed at the Asian American Education Project, which is expanding beyond the 53 lesson plans it’s already crafted with input from dozens of teachers. Two-thirds of the lessons were built around the PBS docuseries “Asian Americans” and are accompanied by footage drawn from the five episodes.

A middle-aged Asian American couple -- man in glasses on the left, woman in glasses on the right, both wearing jackets -- smile at camera.
Stewart Kwoh and his wife Pat Lee Kwoh worked with dozens of teachers to create The Asian American Education Project
(Courtesy of Stewart Kwoh)

Kwoh, who started the project with his wife, Pat Lee Kwoh, more than a decade ago, said their goal is to reach a million K-12 students over the next several years.

“They will be less vulnerable to believe the false propaganda and the stereotypes that have been perpetrated on Asian Americans in the last two years,” Kwoh said. “We're hopeful, at a minimum, Asian Americans will garner more allies and will be able to withstand these attacks.”

Impact On Students

High school senior Stephanie Hu said teaching that history could also change the way Asian Americans see themselves.

Growing up in south Orange County, Hu was mocked for being of Chinese descent, with other kids slanting their eyes at her and speaking gibberish.

“I did face a good amount of discrimination and microaggressions,” Hu said. “And I think that really isolated me from my culture, and made me really feel ashamed of it.”

The pandemic brought more of the same. Hu noticed shoppers at the grocery store steering clear of her. There was the classmate who joked about avoiding Irvine because of its large Asian population.

In contrast to when she was younger, these incidents only made Hu want to connect more with being Asian American and led her to found Dear Asian Youth, where young people across the world can share their culture and history through literature, poetry and podcasting.

As Hu took her own journey to explore her identity, she began to question her formal education and its Eurocentric focus. She recalls how the Renaissance "was talked about for weeks.”

“I remember just feeling very disappointed not being able to see myself being represented in curriculum,” Hu said. “I wonder if I would have been able to accept and embrace my culture at a sooner point had that curriculum been incorporated in my history class.”

Editor’s note
  • Stewart Kwoh is an honorary life trustee for Southern California Public Radio, which operates KPCC and LAist.

Have a question about Southern California's Asian American communities?
Josie Huang reports on the intersection of being Asian and American and the impact of those growing communities in Southern California.