States Are Mandating Asian American Studies. What Should the Curriculum Look Like?

By Ileana Najarro — October 28, 2022 6 min read
People speak out against anti-asian hate following the recent mass shootings in Atlanta that left eight dead, including six Asian Americans on March 17, 2021 at Diversity Plaza in Queens, New York City. Stop AAPI Hate, a nonprofit social organization that tracks incidents of discrimination, hate and xenophobia against Asian Americans, said it recorded 3,795 anti-Asian hate incidents between March 19, 2020 and February 28, 2021.
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2022 has been a banner year for Asian American and Pacific Islander, or AAPI, studies: New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island have all passed legislation to mandate the topic in K-12 schools—following the example of Illinois, which in 2021 became the first state to require it.

Now, say educators and scholars, the real work begins: Shaping the teaching guidelines and resources that will underpin the efforts and play a huge part 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 model state curriculum. “The hard part is now after it passed.”

He and others are confronting a slew of questions that the growing number of states seeking to better incorporate AAPI histories in schools are also likely juggling. Among them: How can you accurately cover the breadth of diverse communities sharing the AAPI label? How important is it to use a critical lens? And what’s the best way to go from 0 to 60 with an entire state?

The rationale for the increased focus: inclusive and accurate teaching

In Connecticut, AAPI studies must be part of the social studies curriculum for public schools beginning in the 2025-26 school year. Thelegislation passed in May.

Researchers and teachers alike speak to the importance of teaching AAPI histories as a way to ensure students better see themselves and their communities in curriculum; as a way for all students to better learn from each other; and as a way to combat harmful stereotypes. While local and regional districts in Connecticut can draft their own curriculum, many are likely to rely on the model Chang and others are devising, 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 being discussed in mainstream conversations in the context of the hit film “Crazy Rich Asians,” Chang noted. Yet in 2020, these same communities experienced hateful rhetoric associating them with COVID-19.

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

‘Nothing about us without us’

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

It means elevating AAPI voices when making decisions about what to cover in courses, to be sure no one gets left out.

Pacific Islanders and Asian Americans are two pan ethnicities with different histories and internal diversities. The concept of Asian American has shifted across generations tied to waves of political organizing, and there generally isn’t a lot of inter-ethnic cohesion across groups such as Chinese Americans, Indian Americans, and Sikh Americans, among others, Chang said. And in Connecticut, the Asian population has grown between the 2010 and 2020 census from 3.8 percent to about 5 percent. Nationally the Asian population grew from 4.8 percent to 6.2 percent of the population in the same period.

See Also:

Young Asian Americans take part in a AAPI Youth Voices for Change Rally against discrimination and racism, in Pasadena, Calif., Saturday, June 26, 2021.
Asian American students take part in a AAPI Youth Voices for Change Rally against discrimination and racism, in Pasadena, Calif., last year.
Ringo Chiu via AP

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

“Instead of having a very sort of strong and principled kind of position at the outset to say, thanks for the mandate, here’s what the curriculum looks like, we’re going out to communities and saying, what’s your Asian American history? What’s the history of this community? What stories do you want other people to know about you?” Chang said.

To do this, university and community groups such as the Indian Cultural Center in Greenwich are collaborating with oral history projects among high school students interviewing their relatives through which stories can help inform the model curriculum.

Chang is also leading a curriculum lab that involves students, families, and classroom teachers.

“We want to support the teachers as really key interpreters, and not think of them as just the kind of nameless workforce that will be disseminating this impersonal kind of knowledge that will then be distributed across the state’s classrooms,” Chang said.

Teachers in other states who have experience embedding AAPI studies throughout coursework say that’s a crucial piece.

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

Districts there are now scrambling to sort out how to meet the new graduation mandate.

Some of the questions they’re asking are: “Who is qualified to teach it? What curriculum is going to be taught and who’s qualified to write that curriculum? How are we going to train people to teach it? Who wants to teach it? And ultimately, how do we teach these courses well, and not do further harm?” said Eunice Ho, who teaches ethnic studies in the Anaheim Union High School district.

Context is key when covering AAPI histories

One longstanding pitfall for all the curriculum-writers: How to teach AAPI histories beyond a surface-level, “multicultural contributions” approach—like merely covering annual festivals.

Asian Americans need to understand themselves as active players in the struggles for justice in this country if we want to really understand our connections and our alliance with other racial groups in this country.

Coursework instead needs to contextualize the full lived experiences of AAPI individuals and communities, Chang said. To talk about Filipino Americans, for instance, without addressing the Spanish-American War and 30 some years of 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 should understand how groups have been categorized historically, labeled, and treated so that students are able to make sense of who they are, what world they live in, and make sense of how they can make that world better for themselves and their communities.

“The goal of these disciplines also is to interrogate power,” Ho said. “But also it’s about ultimately, for me, loving ourselves and our communities, about individual and collective healing, and putting our knowledge into action to change our communities for the better.”

Asian American studies in particular offer an opportunity to explore the history of U.S. colonialism abroad and U.S. intervention, and how that impacted immigration and caused population movement to the United States, she said. Some of Ho’s students are of Vietnamese descent and whose parents or grandparents are refugees; they have questions over how and why their families arrived in this country.

Students might also learn about the history of Asian Americans’ political activism, said Wayne Au, the interim dean of and professor in the School of Educational Studies at the University of Washington Bothell.

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

That could include learning about 1960s civil rights activist Yuri Kochiyama—whose work drew on her family’s experience in a Japanese-American incarceration camp—and acknowledging the role Filipino farmworkers played in the California grape strikes, which are most commonly associated with Cesar Chavez.

A solid 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 rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, and how to put an end to that violence.

“If we want to see this curriculum do the work that we hope it will do—which is to connect with a student population that’s been underrepresented in the curriculum and unaddressed as a fundamental part of American society—as well as contribute to a decrease in anti-Asian violence, it has to intervene in that conversation,” Chang said. “It has to demonstrate where that violence has come from in the past. We need to reconcile where we are with that now.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 30, 2022 edition of Education Week as States Are Mandating Asian American Studies. What Should the Curriculum Look Like?


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