States make Asian American studies mandatory. What should the curriculum look like?

2022 has been a banner year for Asian American and Pacific Islander Studies, or AAPI: New Jersey, Connecticut, and Rhode Island all passed legislation making the subject mandatory in K-12 schools, as did Illinois, which in 2021 became the first state to require it.

Now, say educators and scholars, the real work begins: shaping the guidelines and educational resources that will underpin the efforts and play a huge role in determining their success.

“In some ways, the legislation was the easy part,” said Jason Oliver Chang, an associate professor of history and Asian and Asian American studies at the University of Connecticut, who is among those working on a state curriculum model. “The hardest part is now after it’s passed.”

He and others face a host of questions that the growing number of states seeking to better integrate AAPI stories into schools are also likely to juggle. Among them: how can you accurately cover the scope of diverse communities sharing the AAPI label? How important is it to use a critical lens? And what is the best way to go from 0 to 60 with an integer state?

The Rationale for Increased Attention: Inclusive and Accurate Instruction

In Connecticut, AAPI studies must be part of the public school social studies curriculum beginning in the 2025-26 school year. The legislation was passed in May.

Researchers and teachers talk about the importance of teaching AAPI stories as a way to ensure students see themselves and their communities better in the curriculum; as a way for all students to learn better from each other; and as a means of combating harmful stereotypes. While local and regional districts in Connecticut can write their own curriculummany are likely to rely on the model that Chang and others devise, at least as a starting point.

He and others engaged in the work say they want to fully contextualize people’s lived realities, past and present.

Two years before the pandemic, Asian Americans were discussed in mainstream conversations in the context of the hit movie “Crazy Rich Asians,” Chang noted. Yet in 2020, these same communities have experienced hateful rhetoric associating them with COVID-19.

“This tenuous hold on a positive public image has politicized many Asian Americans across the country,” Heg said. “A new generation is asking the question, ‘Why is this happening?’ And the United States has a very deep reservoir of history that informs this experience, which people have not learned.

“Nothing About Us Without Us”

A guiding principle in developing a state curriculum is this maxim: “Nothing about us without us,” Chang said.

This means raising the voice of the AAPI when making decisions about what to cover in courses, to ensure that no one is left behind.

Pacific Islanders and Asian Americans are two pan ethnicities with different histories and internal diversities. Chinese Americans, Indian Americans, Sikh Americans, among others, Chang said. And in Connecticut, the Asian population increased between the 2010 and 2020 censuses, from 3.8% to about 5%. Nationally, the Asian population grew from 4.8% to 6.2% of the population over the same period.

For Chang and the organizations he leads, including the nonprofit Make Us Visible CT and the Institute of Asian and Asian American Studies at UConn, the goal is for communities to tell districts what should be in the curriculum, not the other way around.

“Instead of having kind of a strong, principled position up front to say, thank you for the mandate, this is what the program looks like, we go out into the communities and say, what’s your Asian American story? the history of this community? What stories do you want others to know about you?” Chang said.

To do this, academic and community groups such as the Greenwich Indian Cultural Center collaborate on oral history projects among high school students who interview loved ones through whom stories can help inform the model curriculum.

Chang also runs a curriculum lab that involves students, families, and teachers.

“We want to support teachers as truly key performers, and not see them as the kind of anonymous workforce that will spread this kind of impersonal knowledge that will then be distributed in classrooms across the state” , Chang said.

Teachers in other states who have experience integrating AAPI studies throughout lessons say it’s a crucial component.

In October 2021, California passed a law making ethnic studies a high school graduation requirement. (The ethnic studies movement began in California colleges and universities in the 1960s.)

Districts are now grappling with how to meet the new graduation mandate.

Some of the questions they ask are, “Who is qualified to teach it?” What program is going to be taught and who is qualified to write this program? How are we going to train people to teach it? Who wants to teach it? And in the end, how do you teach these courses well and not do more harm? said Eunice Ho, who teaches ethnic studies in the Anaheim Union High School district.

Context is key when covering AAPI histories

A long-standing pitfall for all program writers: how to teach AAPI stories beyond a superficial “multicultural contributions” approach, such as simply covering annual festivals.

Asian Americans must understand themselves as active actors in the struggles for justice in this country if we are to truly understand our ties and alliance with other racial groups in this country.

Wayne Au, acting dean and professor at the School of Educational Studies at the University of Washington Bothell

Rather, courses should contextualize the full lived experiences of AAPI individuals and communities, Chang said. Talking about Filipino Americans, for example, without addressing the Spanish-American War and the 30-year occupation of the Philippines makes no sense, he said.

For Ho in California, part of teaching ethnic studies in general is identifying how various communities have been racialized. Students need to understand how groups have historically been categorized, labeled, and treated so that students can understand who they are, what world they live in, and how they can make that world better for themselves and their communities.

“The purpose of these disciplines is also about interrogating power,” Ho said. “But it is also, ultimately, for me, about loving ourselves and our communities, about healing individually and collectively, and put our knowledge into action to change our communities for the better.”

Asian American Studies in particular provide an opportunity to explore the history of American colonialism abroad and American intervention, and how this impacted immigration and caused population movements to the states. United, she said. Some of Ho’s students are of Vietnamese origin and whose parents or grandparents are refugees; they wonder how and why their families arrived in this country.

Students could also learn about the history of Asian American political activism, said Wayne Au, acting dean and professor at the University of Washington Bothell’s School of Educational Studies.

“Asian Americans need to understand themselves as active players in the struggles for justice in this country if we are to truly understand our ties and our alliance with other racial groups in this country,” Au said.

This could include discovering 1960s civil rights activist Yuri Kochiyama – whose work draws on his family’s experience in a Japanese-American incarceration camp – and acknowledging the role played by the Filipino farm workers in the California grape strikes, which are most often associated with Cesar Chavez.

A strong curriculum can help students better understand the past, but also make connections to the present. For the AAPI community in particular, such connections can help students understand the recent increase in anti-Asian hate crimes, and how to end this violence.

“If we want to see this program do the job that we hope it will do — which is to connect with a student population that has been underrepresented in the program and not addressed as a fundamental part of American society — as well as contributing to a decrease in anti-Asian violence, it needs to come into that conversation,” Chang said. “It needs to show where that violence came from in the past. We need to reconcile where we are with it now.

About Hector Hedgepeth

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