Asian-American Heritage Day: A Reflection

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More than almost any other lesson of the school year, our students remarked on a daylong lesson series about Asian-American culture and history.

“I liked yesterday more than the other days I’ve been in school because I got to learn the most about my culture and a lot about the past,” said one of my Chinese-Cambodian third-grade students. “I taught my cousins and grandma about what happened to Vincent Chin, and they said it was really sad. Now I hope I can make a change for the future.”

As a community-based school located in Philadelphia’s Chinatown, we strive to incorporate students’ backgrounds and the folk arts into the everyday curriculum. We offer weekly elective classes in Chinese lion dance, African drum and dance, and Indonesian dance and teach Vietnamese dan tranh, a musical instrument. In addition, we offer artist-in-residence classes with storytellers and a Chinese puppet artist.

We wanted to incorporate covering social justice issues within a historical context. We wondered whether our students were too young to learn about the racial exclusion of Chinese migrant workers in the late 1800s, the detention of Japanese Americans during World War II or the harmful effects of stereotypes. We worried that parents would object. I realized, though, that “protecting” my students by not teaching this history would be as harmful as the insidious invisibility they may already feel in America.

In addition, our students wanted more. After studying about the civil rights movement and learning about African-American heritage a few months earlier, some of our fourth-grade Asian-American students asked, “What’s our history? What’s our story?” Our teachers wondered how we could further affirm our students’ identities in a school where almost 70 percent of the population is Asian or Asian American.

A committee of five teachers planned a daylong celebration of Asian-American heritage that went beyond superficial multiculturalism—surface studies of food, dress and nations in Asia. Our school invited community members to speak to students about their experiences.

The day started with an introduction of vocabulary words that included Asia, racism, heritage, Asian American, stereotype, internment and culture. We used the Smithsonian’s “I Want the Wide American Earth” poster set and led a discussion using Teaching Tolerance’s questions.

Another lesson focused on analyzing photos and other primary sources related to Japanese-American internment during World War II, such as the War Relocation Authority’s confidential memo. We read Amy Lee-Tai’s book, A Place Where Sunflowers Grow. We also talked about violence against Asian Americans and discussed the story of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American who was beaten to death by autoworkers who were angry about the rise of the Japanese auto industry. We discussed ways that the Asian-American community rallied after Chin’s death.

Teachers rotated through classrooms to talk about stereotypes and skin color. We discussed how categories such as white, black, red and yellow aren’t accurate descriptions of skin color. Students used paint chip samples to find the closest match to their skin tones, from “polished mahogany” and “surprise amber” to “gold coast.” This experience started the conversation about culture, stereotypes, skin color and race. Students had the words to talk about their skin tone with pride and to broaden their vocabulary with regard to skin color and tones.

Students practiced the vocabulary they learned that day by writing poetry. They wrote about the colors of their lives and their battles with stereotypes:

“Just because I’m black, doesn’t mean I’m poor.”

“Just because I’m Chinese doesn’t mean I have squinty eyes.”

“Just because I’m Asian American doesn’t mean I struggle with English.”

The recognition and sharing of these ideas showed us how much race and ethnicity affect the everyday lives of our students, even at a young age. Giving students a safe space to process and share their experiences is a vital part of anti-bias education.

After the lessons, students viewed HBO’s East of Main Street: Small Talk, a 20-minute video in which a diverse group of Asian-American students, from preschool through middle school, share their opinions on what it means to be Asian American.

The day concluded with students fanning out into six rooms to interview special guests from the local Asian-American community who spoke about their identity and community work. Our guests included a spoken word artist, a community activist, a parent activist, our principal, a local youth arts coordinator and our school custodian, who survived the Khmer Rouge.

This was a thoughtful day of learning for students and teachers. It allowed students to experience the deep learning and reflection we wanted for them. We made the content accessible, and the daylong celebration allowed us, as a community, to reflect on what it means to be proud of our identity and history and to learn more from one another and the past.

Huynh, a third-grade literacy teacher in Philadelphia, is passionate about social justice in the classroom.