In a dimly lit room on Chicago’s North Side, teacher Zach Schroeder is introducing his eighth graders to an historical figure most students — and teachers — have never encountered before.
They’re learning about labor movements, and Schroeder wants to extend his students’ knowledge beyond the important work of Cesar Chavez and the National Farm Workers Association.
He cues up a video focused on Filipino workers in the 1960s and Filipino American labor organizer Larry Itliong, telling his students to be mindful of how Itliong’s “identity helped him be a powerful civic actor.”
Students then break into groups and talk about why the efforts of Filipino American farm workers aren’t as widely known, and the importance of merging their efforts with Mexican farm workers. This was all new for Aisling Panjwani, one of Schroeder’s students.
“I think it highlights a lot of stories that maybe weren’t as prominent that maybe need to be highlighted more,” the eighth grader says.
That’s a key goal of the TEAACH Act, or Teaching Equitable Asian American Community History, which requires Illinois schools for the first time this year to teach a unit of Asian American and Pacific Islander history. It’s meant to boost cross-cultural education for all students and advance racial equity. Some teachers have jumped in headfirst, while others are still preparing their lessons. The law says every public elementary and high school should include a unit of AAPI history, but local schools have the freedom to decide what that looks like.
In his social studies and civics classroom, Schroeder is weaving Asian American history throughout the year, rather than only one unit.
“This lesson today, it talks about the labor struggle and how integral not just Asian Americans, but Latinx people, Mexican American people were together,” Shroeder said. “So I think it’s just natural to smooth it out throughout U.S. history.”
Schroeder said the more lenses you can add to history, the richer it becomes.
That’s true for educators as well. Smita Garg is a parent at Skinner North and helped lead teacher trainings with Asian Americans Advancing Justice, the group that helped get the TEAACH Act passed. Garg is Asian American and has a background in education, but this was a learning experience for her as well.
“I did not know this content,” she said. “So what I try to convey to teachers upfront in the sessions is, ‘It’s okay not to know. Let’s start there. Let’s give ourselves grace for what we don’t know, but also hold ourselves accountable for learning here on out.’ ”
Garg said she’s done trainings for entire school districts and has even had teachers from outside the state sign up. There are more workshops scheduled this fall, and there’s also free online resources that teachers can incorporate into their lessons for any grade level.
“We didn’t talk about Asian Americans at all”
In Oak Park, teacher Nichele Stigger has taken it upon herself to incorporate Asian American history into her classroom at Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School. Her sixth grade language and literature class is reading “This Book Is Anti-Racist.”
In her classroom, decorated with string lights and encouraging messages, students volunteer reactions after watching a video about an Asian American studies program in a California prison. They also discussed their own family backgrounds and identities and drew their family trees. As sixth grader Ahmad Mahrous, whose parents are from the Middle East and North Africa, worked on his tree, he said the lessons help him learn about himself and others.
“It’s not just reading a book and answering some questions,” he said. “We really get to know ourselves and we learn about real world events that are happening.”
Stigger said it’s a first for her teaching the Asian American experience, and she thinks it’s an important piece.
“We didn’t talk about Asian Americans at all except for when all the trauma was happening in the news and that was the only time we talked about it,” she recalled, referring to the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes. “But we didn’t do a lesson or take a moment to read a poem.”
She said the history department at her school is still developing its Asian American unit, but she thought it would be a misstep to teach anti-racism and not include Asian Americans.
“Just because we’re all people of color doesn’t mean our stories are a monolith that we all have different experiences when it comes to race and racism,” she said. “It’s important for us to really understand it and hear it.”
For Smita Garg, she’s realized through this process how much was missing from her own high school education in the late 1990s. For so long, she said the lack of Asian American stories in her classes and textbooks was normalized.
“American history was the history of old white men, that’s what it was,” she said. “I think I started to understand why I didn’t like AP U.S. History. It wasn’t that I couldn’t attain that, it’s not that I couldn’t get to that level. I just didn’t like it. I didn’t feel connected to it.”
After all, she said, Asian American history is American history. She hopes teaching about the diversity of the Asian community helps all students feel better connected.