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Kids aren’t always taught AAPI history in schools. These people are trying to change that

San Jose's History Park includes museums featuring the stories of Chinese, Vietnamese, Portuguese and Mexican immigrants to California. (Photo: Courtesy Emily Nakajima)

(CNN) — Jaslene Lai heard a classmate joke about her having the “kung flu” this school year, when she was under the weather, wearing a mask.

These racist jokes persist, two years after Lai and a group of friends were horrified by Covid-era anti-Asian hate, and the lack of Asian American history taught in their classes, prompting them to create a one-day lesson plan on Asian American history that they can teach fellow students.

Their group, AAPI Youth Rising, recognized that education is the key to combatting racism. She attributes comments like the ones made by her classmate to ignorance, some of which may result from the lack of such history taught in schools. “We kind of just exist, but we’re not really part of the US or the American story,” Lai, 15, said.

There has been a shift in recent years. In 2021, Illinois became the first state to require Asian American history to be taught in public schools, followed by New Jersey in 2022. Beginning with the class of 2030, California high school students will be required to take an ethnic studies class to graduate, which includes lessons about various minority groups in the United States.

But Lai told CNN that teaching kids some of these stories prior to high school is key to forming more empathy. “When we’re young, we’re more open-minded, less firmly rooted to our prior beliefs,” she said. “We can spark more understanding and hopefully a more equitable next generation.”

In pop culture, more multicultural children’s picture books have popped up on bookstore shelves, and TV shows like “American Born Chinese” feature strong AAPI characters and Academy Award winners Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan.

Ice dancers Alex and Maia Shibutani released a picture book recently, “Amazing: Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders Who Inspire Us all.” The Shibutanis, siblings and the first ice-dance team of Asian descent to medal at the Olympics, told CNN that children’s nonfiction is one category that could still incorporate more representation and that with AAPI history not being a requirement in every state’s K-12 curriculum, it’s still an area with a knowledge gap for many people.

“That lack of visibility has real world repercussions,” the Shibutanis said in a statement. “With our collaborators, we are doing what we can through education and storytelling to help create a brighter future for everyone.”

At a time when requirements to study the histories of some people of color have become a lightning rod in many state legislatures, multiple efforts are under way to introduce Asian American stories – including difficult ones – to children in an age-appropriate way.

Students taking action

Around 16% of California’s population is of Asian, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander descent, according to the US Census Bureau, making it one of the states with the highest populations of AAPI residents. Yet Lai does not recall learning about any Asian American experience in any class, until high school.

In 2021, she was among a group of friends, including founder and executive director Mina Fedor, 15, who formed AAPI Youth Rising, initially in reaction to the Covid-era anti-Asian hate they saw around them and in the news. They started with a rally in Berkeley, California, then created a pledge asking for at least one day of AAPI history to be taught within the 180 instructional school days.

Fedor told CNN that they formed a lesson plan with mentorship from several Bay Area teachers and educators, who continued to help review the lesson as it was modified over time. Teach for America helped announce the launch of their lesson plan, and the group now has more than 80 chapter leaders in more than 20 states, who have pledged to teach their “One Day of AAPI History” lesson in schools.

Lai said they chose stories that show how “despite our long history of being in America, people are still treated as perpetual foreigners.”

Lessons include the history of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the annexation of Hawaii, and Japanese incarceration during World War II. Lessons for younger children won’t go into graphic detail about brutal violence, but Lai said it’s still important they understand the racism that existed, causing people in some cases to die.

Lai said she understands why some people would worry that teaching ethnic studies might cause impressionable minds to think that an entire race was at fault. But she said communication plays a key role.

“It is very important to explain that while the White people in this situation – they aren’t the bad guys – people who happened to be White took advantage of their power, and this doesn’t translate to this generation. However, we must work together to fix these mistakes that happened in the past. It’s not anyone’s fault, but we still have to fix it together,” Lai said.

Fedor and Lai said the AAPI Youth Rising lesson plan will reach 54,000 school districts and out-of-school sites through a partnership with nonprofit Alliance for a Healthier Generation this year. Through educator toolkits that are distributed to districts, teachers can request a teach-in from AAPI Youth Rising chapter leaders, play the curriculum video, or follow the lesson plan to teach it themselves.

Tales of a fourth-grade field trip

“What is the one thing you can carry in your hand if you were fleeing your country?” Monica Pelayo Lock asked a group of fourth graders from Oak Avenue Elementary School in San Jose, California.

Lock, the director of education and community engagement at History San Jose, often takes school children through the city’s “History Park,” full of original and reproduction homes, business, and landmarks, complete with running trolleys and an old-fashioned ice cream shop.

The park includes several museums featuring the stories of Chinese, Vietnamese, Portuguese and Mexican immigrants to California, offering students as young as fourth grade a chance to learn about the wars, famines, and other factors driving people to emigrate from one place to another.

In answer to her question on a recent field trip, the 9- and 10-year-olds spat out answers including “an iPhone,” “money,” “clothing,” “food,” “water.” Then, they meandered through the various museums, looking at items like a real Vietnamese immigrant’s ID from the 1970s and artifacts dug up after an arson of San Jose’s Chinatown in the late 1800s.

“Everything I learned just now was new to me,” said 10-year-old Noa Kumayama. She told CNN she’s Japanese and felt empathy for the way Asian Americans were discriminated against throughout American history.

“I’m thinking, ‘oh, that’s never happened to me, thank goodness’…but I’m thinking ‘wow, what if that happened to me?’… a lot of people died,” she said.

Gerrye Wong, co-founder of the Chinese Historical and Cultural Project, often hosts these students in the Chinese American Museum at the History Park. Wong, who grew up in San Jose in the 1940s, was never taught anything about Chinese immigrants, or their contributions to California agriculture and railroads.

“I grew up with no knowledge of the discriminating (Exclusion Act) forbidding entry by Chinese sojourners to America. Neither my own children nor my grandchildren learned in their school studies about this history either. So finally, thanks to Gov. Newsom’s law on mandating studies in ethnic history…the new generation can grow up, learning about the early struggles and contributions of the Chinese settlers,” Wong told CNN.

Laura Kliewer, the Oak Avenue fourth graders’ teacher, said the children made connections between the history learned on this field trip with the struggles of today.

Students discussed how migrants are trying to cross the US Southern border today, for some of the same reasons people fled to the United States 150 years ago. Kliewer said the students also learned about the era of the Chinese Exclusion Act when Chinese immigrants were deemed “dirty” – and when asked if that has happened any other time, one of the students responded, “Covid-19.”

Kliewer has noticed a shift in her 25 years of teaching, which now includes more non-European perspectives. For example, when learning California history, as is required for all fourth graders in the state, her class has read aloud from a Native Californian’s experience at a Spanish mission. But teaching nuance to 9- and 10-year-olds is also important to her.

“I noticed my kids would sometimes be like, ‘Oh, they’re so bad!’ You know, and they try to label the Spanish as just being terrible. I also try to stop and say ‘wait, wait – were all of them bad? Could there have been some bad actors there? But they weren’t all bad.’ And so, in any story, you’re going to have people that were behaving poorly, and some people who are doing their best,’” Kliewer said.

In other states, parents, lawmakers and other groups have sometimes pushed back against studying ethnic histories, for fear that it would teach students that White people had been exclusively aggressors while others are perpetual victims.

But lessons of this field trip did not necessarily cast an entire group as a villain. In fact, Kumayama said when they learned about an arson that destroyed San Jose’s Chinatown, they also learned that a German man named John Heinlen braved death threats to lease property to the displaced Chinese.

Parent Julie Broms, whose 10-year-old son was on the field trip, said what her child is learning is much broader in scope than what she remembers of her own California elementary school education.

Broms said their school district has always been open to discussing all topics: “The more we can learn, the more informed we are. And so, I really appreciate where we live, and we’re able to have access to that knowledge.”

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