'A lot of different cultures': Lessons in Asian American history coming to schools this fall

Public schools across the suburbs are gearing up to teach Asian American history this fall, after Illinois became the first state in the nation to require it through a law aiming for more representation and inclusion in the classroom.

Illinois adopted the Teaching Equitable Asian American History Act last July, and it takes effect in elementary and high schools statewide for the 2022-23 school year.

The landmark legislation was introduced before the COVID-19 pandemic and stalled amid a surge in violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders as the virus raged on.

“It kind of ... evolved into this response to anti-Asian racism that we saw increasing ... very much tied to COVID-19 and the political rhetoric at the time,” said Grace Pai, executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Chicago, which spearheaded the legislation.

Pai's group is working with other Asian nonprofits and community leaders who advocated for the law to help train teachers on incorporating such history into the curriculum.

New Jersey followed Illinois recently to become the second state to require Asian American history to be taught in public schools. Ohio, California, New York, Florida and Connecticut have seen similar pushes.

Illinois' law calls for teaching a unit of Asian American history in Illinois and the Midwest, and to recognize the contributions of Asian Americans in the arts, sciences and civil rights, as well as to the economic, cultural, social and political development of America.

That includes highlighting the achievements of trailblazers such as Grace Lee Boggs, a prominent Chinese American activist from Chicago who fought for tenants' rights focused on marginalized groups; Kamala Harris, the first half-Indian American vice president; Raja Krishnamoorthi, Illinois' first Asian American congressman; and first Asian American state Rep. Theresa Mah and state Sen. Ram Villivalam.

“Oftentimes, the only times that Asians are talked about in the classroom are in the context of world history,” Pai said. “And that can contribute to this common perception and stereotype of Asian Americans as perpetual foreigners. So we believe it's really important to challenge that idea.”

That means including crucial stories, such as:

How roughly 20,000 Chinese migrants helped build the Transcontinental Railroad and later settled and developed Chinatowns in Chicago and other major cities.

The unjust incarceration of about 120,000 people of Japanese descent during World War II, including roughly 20,000 new Illinois residents whose arrival made Chicago the largest hub for displaced Japanese people in the nation.

And the heroic service of the Army's 100th Infantry Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team, made up entirely of American-born Japanese, during World War II.

In this May 1943 file photo, Aiko Sumoge, an assistant teacher, leads a kindergarten class singing an English folk song at the internment relocation center for Japanese Americans in Tule Lake, California, during World War II. Roughly 120,000 people of Japanese descent were sent to desolate camps along the West Coast because the government believed they might plot against the U.S. Associated Press

Asian Americans Advancing Justice has curated a database of resources on Asian American history, available to school districts, with the help of current and former educators. The group also will be conducting training for teachers statewide starting April 19.

“(The database) provides teachers a wide range of topics, books, videos, all kinds of curricular resources that they can use in their classrooms,” Pai said.

Asian diasporas

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 overhauled America's immigration system that for decades had established immigration quotas giving preference to white Europeans. “The vast majority of Asian immigrants came to the U.S. after 1965,” Pai said.

Today, Asians are Illinois' fastest-growing racial demographic - more than 740,000 people making up 5.9% of the state's population, according to 2021 census estimates. The diasporas include people originally from countries in the Far East, Southeast Asia or the Indian subcontinent, and Central Asia.

Rajinder Singh Mago of Wayne waves an American flag during a parade in Chicago before the opening ceremony for the Punjabi Sport Festival in 2008. Daily Herald File Photo

“The Asian American community is incredibly diverse,” Pai said. “There's a greater gap between the poorest Asians and the richest Asians than any other racial group in the United States. Most people would be surprised to learn that, because they think of Asian Americans as high-achieving, highly educated, 'really smart' or 'good at math.'”

That disparity largely is due to more recent immigration policies favoring Asian workers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields and, on the other end of the spectrum, influxes of refugees from Southeast Asia fleeing conflict zones.

Waves of Chinese, Japanese and South Asian immigrants who settled here have helped grow the state's economy, feeding the demand for domestic labor and factory workers, and the development of iconic business districts. Chicago's Chinatown and Little India neighborhoods, and suburban hubs of Asian businesses in Aurora, Elk Grove Village and Naperville, are among those prominent developments.

Asian population concentrations are highest in DuPage (12.7%), Lake (8.4%) and Cook (7.9%) counties, followed by Kane (4.4%) and McHenry (3%). Among the suburbs with the highest concentrations and growth of Asians are Naperville (20%) and Aurora (9.3%), census data show.

Community partners

Asian community leaders have reached out to Naperville Unit District 203 and Indian Prairie Unit District 204 to help their administrators and teachers build and implement an inclusive curriculum.

District 203's student population is nearly 18% Asian, while District 204's is 35%.

At District 203, teachers will undergo training about the TEAACH Act, what classroom resources are available for instruction and where learning experiences can be incorporated into the curriculum, said Jayne Willard, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

“We want to ensure that we authentically embed Asian history and contributions in a meaningful and thoughtful manner where students and families feel validated,” Willard said.

“All K-12 social studies curriculum team members will be working on refining and designing learning experiences aligned to the TEAACH Act and use the resources that have been shared,” Willard said of the Illinois State Board of Education's fact sheet of resources on the law.

Components of the TEAACH Act already are embedded in the high schools' world history, U.S. history and world cultures courses, she added.

The district also is collaborating with its Diversity Council and Naperville-based Chinese American Women in Action as it implements curriculum changes.

“(They) can be the model for the rest of the state,” said Nancy Chen of Naperville, president of the newly formed Chinese American Women in Action, whose goal is to help schools implement the new law. “We are not going to tell them which curriculum they are going to teach. We want to work with them. The history ... will be taught to all students to promote cross-cultural understanding.”

The group is developing a list of fiction and nonfiction books featuring Asian American history and experiences, and immigrant stories, which Chen said she hopes to highlight in partnership with the Naperville Public Library District.

“We do something every year for Asian American Heritage Month (in May). We want to have displays year-round,” said David Della Terza, Naperville Library executive director.

Library officials conducted a diversity audit of materials in 2017 and 2021 to determine if they included books written by people of color “to make sure that our collections are reflective of our population in the community,” Terza said.

Officials have expanded the library's collections to include print materials in Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Marathi, Tamil and Urdu.

“We're really trying to make that push to make sure that our programs and materials are multicultural,” Terza said. “We're trying to make our staff here in the library better representative of people in the community, as well.”

The library now has staff members who can lead children's story times in Chinese, Arabic and Urdu, and will host a movie screening and panel discussion on Asian Americans in May.

“There's a lot of different cultures that we can explore and celebrate within Asian Americans,” Terza said. “We work with the schools on lots of different projects. We will have in the fall displays and lists around the TEAACH Act so we can highlight it.”

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