Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

Celebrating AAPI Heritage Month in the Classroom

May 11, 2021

AAPI Asia globe

By Lara Santos

The past year has seen a sharp uptick in hate crimes against members of the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community. Stop AAPI Hate’s national report documented 3,795 racially motivated attacks on AAPI people between March 2020 and February 2021. Of course, racism towards the AAPI community is hardly new—witness the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, zoo-like displays of Filipinos in 1904, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II—but COVID-19 has brought anti-AAPI sentiment to the surface.

What can educators do to stem the tide of anti-AAPI racism? To mark AAPI Heritage Month, we asked AAPI Milken Educators to share their insights and experiences. Non-AAPI Milken Educators also told us how they’re incorporating the AAPI community into anti-racism efforts in their schools and districts. Click “Next” below for a wealth of actionable ideas.

AAPI collage with text

AAPI diversity

Understand AAPI diversity

People often think that AAPIs are Chinese, Korean and Japanese. However, the AAPI community is much more diverse and includes dozens of ethnicities and nationalities, including Filipino, Indonesian, Indian, Laotian, Guamanian, Polynesian and more (see the Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence’s census data report for details). Each group has its own complex history, style of government, traditional clothing, food and cultural norms. The first step to humanizing the AAPI community is to see AAPI people as unique individuals with their own personal stories and histories.

AAPI history

Teach AAPI history

Social studies teachers are on the front lines when it comes to helping students understand the link between history and today’s anti-AAPI sentiment. “It may be difficult to read about these events or watch them in the news, but that's nothing compared to the lifetime of injustice that many others in our country—and often in our classrooms—have experienced,” says Brian Allman (WV ’19), who teaches sixth grade social studies at Buckhannon-Upshur Middle School. “As a history teacher, it's important to understand the systems in our country that have perpetuated inequality and racism, as well as the actions (and inaction) that have resulted in these present-day hate crimes. I think providing that type of historical knowledge to my students and fellow teachers is a way to support a better path forward.”

Many curricula gloss over AAPI history and fail to focus on AAPI perspectives and the lasting impacts of imperialism and war. AAPI students internalize the implication that their stories are less relevant than others in American history, leaving them to seek out resources on their own. A lack of in-depth education about AAPI history also leaves non-AAPI students to rely on media and stereotypes, which do not always offer accurate or nuanced portrayals of AAPIs. Teachers are not immune to the pitfalls of stereotypes either as many depict AAPIs as the “model minority”—quiet, submissive, well-behaved, good at math, ambitious, etc. and AAPI students who don’t fall into those categories may not get the support they need or the encouragement to pursue dreams that don’t fit that mold. 

Ben Nguyen (NV ’19), who immigrated to the U.S. as a child from Vietnam, uses a variety of resources to introduce students to AAPI history, including film, media and his own personal story. “These have helped me offer a lens into the world of ‘Asian Americanism’ that many of my non-AAPI students seldom have a way into,” he says.

Some valuable online AAPI history resources:

Finding a local museum that features AAPI art, history, etc. would also make for a great field trip opportunity for your students. The Pacific Island Ethnic Art Museum has an outdoor exhibit, but if you’re not in the area, you can Google museums around you that would feature AAPI culture. The Smithsonian Asian Pacific American and New York University Virtual Asian American Art Museum are great online resources.

AAPI contributions

Highlight AAPI contributions

It’s important to talk about racism against the AAPI community, but for AAPI teachers and students, the constant stream of harrowing news can be exhausting and traumatizing. “It’s really upsetting, seeing elderly Asians being targeted,” says Jane Fung (CA ’02). “It’s very disturbing to watch and it’s extremely sad that I live at a time in America that this still happens in broad daylight.”

That’s why it’s equally important to celebrate the AAPI community as well.

Teachers need to share AAPI accomplishments, joys, wins and successes. “My students need to see themselves in the classroom and the media,” says Jane. “If you don’t see yourselves in movies or see any celebrities or anyone in the public eye who look like you, you think, maybe, there’s something wrong with you or you’re not as desirable. As a preschool teacher, I want to bring in lots of my students’ families’ culture and be sensitive to their needs. I want to make sure they can identify themselves in the classroom.”

Whether you’re looking at science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), government, business, television and film or sports, there are countless AAPI heroes to celebrate in the classroom:

For more AAPI heroes:

AAPI listen

Listen to AAPIs

There’s lots of advice online about how to be a good ally, but don’t forget to consult your AAPI colleagues, if they have the capacity to share, to get their take on how to incorporate AAPI points of view in the classroom. “I was recently asked to provide comments to the school paper about the increase in anti-AAPI racism during the pandemic,” says Ben. “I gladly accepted the opportunity and hope my words can inspire my students to not hold anguish in silence.”

Getting in touch with AAPI community organizations in your area and asking how you can support them would also be a great way for you and your students to better understand your local AAPI community, the issues they face and the unique culture they celebrate.

At Math, Engineering and Science Charter Academy (MESA) in Brooklyn, New York, Assistant Principal Princess Francois (NY ’19) has taken a multi-pronged approach to hear and support AAPI students and staff. “It has been a work in progress, starting two years before the recent rise in crimes,” says Princess. “A student survey revealed that our AAPI students, who make up the smallest demographic in our school, feel unseen.” As a result, starting in May 2019, the school has celebrated AAPI Heritage Month, as well as National Indigenous Month, Latinx Heritage Month and Black History Month. Last year, the school curated an extensive list of AAPI trailblazers for teachers to incorporate into their classrooms.

AAPI culture

Celebrate AAPI culture

AAPI Heritage Month is a great way to celebrate AAPI culture. Lunar New Year, Chinese New Year, Holi, Diwali, Songkran, Ramadan and more offer easy opportunities to explore traditional food, clothing, art and culture as well. However, when celebrating holidays, make sure to mind the fine line between cultural exploration and appropriation. Resources like Here’s What You Get Wrong When You Culturally Appropriate Asian Fashion (Huffington Post) and Racism 101: At What Point Does Cultural Appreciation Cross Over Into Appropriation (LAist) can help guide you.

Beyond holidays, here are a few ideas for weaving AAPI culture into lessons:

  • In religion classes, bring in foods from local AAPI restaurants and discuss how different cultures incorporate food into their religious practices.
  • In history classes, visit a local AAPI market to tie ingredients and recipes to histories of regional agriculture, trade and imperialism.
  • In health science classes, explore Eastern medicine and wellness (chiropractic care, yoga, acupuncture, hilot, etc.) and its influence on Western practices.

AAPI support

Provide space and support

Racism leaves scars. AAPIs have been made fun of for their facial features, had their names mispronounced and been told their food smells weird. They have been fetishized and left out of the racism conversation. Ignorant people have lumped AAPIs from different countries and cultures together, stripping them of their personal identities. Society has improved, but it is undeniable that racism against AAPIs lives on.

The American Psychological Association notes that Asian Americans are less likely to use mental health services than any other racial group. Many schools lack AAPI counselors, creating a cultural empathy gap for struggling AAPI students.

Teachers must protect AAPI students by responding to bullying and stereotyping in the classroom. At MESA, Princess organized an AAPI Community Check-In where staff and students can discuss the rise in anti-AAPI sentiment. “We created an advisory lesson to give anti-AAPI violence the attention it deserves,” says Princess. “We included concrete steps for students: Stay informed with resources, talk about it and reach out. We are continuing to work towards building exposure for students and equipping staff with tools to build that comfort.”

The work to be a better ally is especially important in communities where AAPIs might not have many other AAPIs to connect with.

“Being an ally to students is a very important part of being an educator,” notes Brian. “I want everyone who enters my classroom to feel safe, valued and appreciated. I teach in West Virginia where there is very little racial diversity. This makes curriculum focused on anti-racism even more important. My students need to know that the world is full of people who may differ from them in a variety of ways. My goal for my students is for them to grow into well-rounded citizens who are well-educated and accepting. I want my students to be able to identify racism and take an active stance against it.”

AAPI love

Cultivate a culture of love

“I wish my teachers had shown me that it’s okay to sound and look different,” says Jane, who grew up in Fresno, in California’s Central Valley. “I grew up in a time when you wanted to be more Americanized. You didn’t want to speak your language, you didn’t want to look different, you didn’t want to stick out. You wanted to assimilate as soon as possible. Growing up, it was really hard.”

Now, Jane wants to make sure the four- and five-year-olds in her class don’t have that same experience. “I teach a culture of kindness and acceptance,” she says. “My focus is teaching them to be proud of who they are and to accept others. I don’t focus on the bad things that happen in the news, I focus on choices. I ask them, ‘What would happen if you chose not to be friends with somebody? How would that make them feel? How would you feel if somebody rejected you or said mean things to you?’”

Many Milken Educators stress kindness and acceptance in their classrooms.

Manuel Zaldivar (CT ’16), the principal at Chamberlain Elementary School in New Britain, Connecticut, is one example: “We’ve had over 18 teachers or staff who signed up for a time to pre-record a story under the themes of love, kindness, friendship, equity and care.” The school shared those read-alouds with families and the community on social media and through Google Classroom.

AAPI learning

Keep learning

Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) has become an important part of professional development in many districts. Here are some DEI resources specific to AAPI issues:

It should not take a pandemic and an increase in hate crimes to recognize the AAPI community, but now is every educator’s chance to step up, celebrate Asian American culture and show our support. Says Ben Nguyen: “I am hopeful that this increased national attention will allow a lens into further integration and acceptance of AAPIs into the ‘American culture’ in which we all operate.”


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