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NJ schools are adding Asian narratives to history curriculum

Here's what it actually looks like on the ground.

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This issue, I focus exclusively on how New Jersey public schools are implementing the new mandate to teach Asian American history. The Garden State was the second to enact the legislation and is helping define what inclusive social studies curriculum looks like for the nation.

You'll hear from a teacher who grew up feeling like an outsider because she never learned that Asian Americans have been part of the fabric of this country for centuries, and from advocates who are motivated to create change so that their children can feel that they belong in the country where they were born.

This article marks the first collaboration between Central Desi and NJ Spotlight News, which first published this story earlier today. I am grateful for their partnership and sharp editing. Enjoy!

Taazi Khabar header

Fight continues to teach Asian American history

When New Jersey became the second state in the nation earlier this year to require schools teach Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) history, Kani Ilangovan knew the law was just a first step.

Her advocacy group, Make Us Visible NJ, quickly pivoted from pushing for the law’s passage to deploying its grassroots base to school board meetings where they could demand its implementation. The organization has circulated scripts community members can use to press schools to act.

“In New Jersey, each district is like its own kingdom. They decide individually how they are going to implement the mandate,” Ilangovan said, pointing to a similar mandate to teach the LGBTQ curriculum that passed three years ago but has had limited success. “With the LGBTQ bill, some students are complaining that nothing is happening, or the teacher will say, ‘There are gay people. The end.’”

One major roadblock for both the AAPI and LGBTQ curriculum mandates is that neither passed with funding for schools to conduct curriculum reviews, train teachers or purchase resources. Another challenge facing the AAPI mandate is its timing: This is the academic year when schools must also implement new state sex education standards and teach climate change. The sex ed standards, in particular, have dominated conversation at many school board meetings as some parents object to them.

With the LGBTQ bill, some students are complaining that nothing is happening, or the teacher will say, ‘There are gay people. The end.’

– Kani Ilangovan, Make Us Visible NJ founder

Angelica Allen-McMillan, the state’s acting education commissioner, said in an interview that the Department of Education will hold districts accountable to the standards it will set for the inclusion of AAPI instruction using the New Jersey Quality Single Accountability Continuum, the department’s monitoring and district self-evaluation system.

“We will look for evidence of Asian American Pacific Islander inclusion in the social studies curriculum,” she said.

Candidates are also being vetted for membership of an Asian American Heritage Commission that will work with the DOE to help guide districts. “We have found school districts to be very responsive to updating their curricula to align with the standards,” she added.

The first steps

For many schools, the first step in complying with the law is taking stock of their current curriculum and resources to identify gaps. Some, such as Livingston Public Schools, have set up committees to engage community members and teachers as well as develop age-appropriate guidance on what to teach.

Then, they can identify the professional development needed for teachers and resources such as textbooks that will help fill gaps.

“That takes time and money, and many of these mandates don’t have funding associated with them,” says Nicole Sanyigo, president of the New Jersey Social Studies Supervisors Association, which is helping schools find resources and training opportunities as they adapt to the mandate.

In May, the group invited representatives from Make Us Visible and the Immigrant History Initiative to brief curriculum supervisors and educators on the mandate. At a meeting this week, they planned to hold breakout sessions so supervisors can trade notes on how they are complying with the mandate.

Sanyigo said many supervisors and educators see the value in the mandate, even if resources are limited. “We do believe 100% that students should see themselves in what they’re learning,” she said.

Advocacy groups are doing their part to ease the path for schools to incorporate AAPI material in social studies courses.

Make Us Visible has developed a free, on-demand professional development course for teachers in partnership with the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teacher union. At the New Jersey Education Association’s convention in November, Ilangovan said there will be nine AAPI curriculum workshops for teachers to learn more about ways to integrate Asian American history and heritage into their lesson plans.

The Asian American Education Project has also offered free training to school districts.

Make Us Visible has worked with 34 districts so far – about 6% of the total number of districts in the state. In places like Bergen County, West Orange and Princeton, where there are significant populations of Asian students, schools have been eager to adopt curriculum that better reflects their demographics.

The organization is trying to highlight those examples and use them to push for broader implementation across the state.

A student poster about South Asian immigration history

A student project on South Asian immigration history (Courtesy of Princeton Public Schools)

What the new curriculum includes

Dakashna Lang, an eighth grade language arts teacher in Livingston, said she never once learned about Asian Americans when she was growing up in New Jersey. A member of an Indo Caribbean family from Guyana, she said that this made her feel like “the other.”

When she began teaching 20 years ago, she was one of a few Asian American teachers in the district, and nearly every novel she taught had a white man as its protagonist.

She has gradually diversified her course, teaching books such as “American Born Chinese” and “Refugee” – a crucial step, she noted, given how quickly Livingston’s Asian American population has grown. Asians comprise more than one-fourth of the population.

“I changed one book per year over the course of seven years,” Lang said.

Teachers like Lang have always existed in public schools, using their personal background as motivation to incorporate diversity into their lesson plans. What the law changes is that it “bakes it in,” she said. “The issue with teachers doing the work individually is that it’s not formalized into the curriculum.”

Rather than devote a specific lesson to Asian American contributions or focus a month on AAPI history, the advocacy groups are pressing schools to integrate Asian American narratives throughout their teaching of American history.

Princeton Public Schools had already embarked on that effort before the AAPI mandate passed, after a pair of students – one of Chinese origin and the other Indian – pressed for greater inclusion and reflection of their family’s lived experiences in the curriculum. The district is 23% Asian.

The issue with teachers doing the work individually is that it’s not formalized into the curriculum.

– Dakashna Lang, English teacher, Livingston Public Schools

“When the legislation was passed, our school was ready,” said Joy Barnes-Johnson, supervisor of science in the district. In addition to weaving the narratives of Asian Americans, people of African origin and indigenous communities into classes including math and science, the district also offers a racial literacy course as an elective at the high school level and requires all students to take an online course on identity.

“Every student that completes a course creates a toolkit to examine themselves and to think about race,” Barnes-Johnson said.

Lack of familiarity

In Katie Dineen’s U.S. history course at Princeton High School, students learn about the lives of Asian American women in the Gilded Age and figures such as Wong Liu-tsong, who was the first Chinese American Hollywood star and performed under the name Anna May Wong.

Dineen said she consults the New York Historical Society for help in centering the narratives of women from all backgrounds in her course. The organization’s free curriculum on women in American history was eye-opening for Dineen as a teacher, she said. "That was the first time I had learned about women in American history as an educator."

Dineen is not alone in that experience. In New Jersey, 83% of teachers are white and many of them are unfamiliar with the history of Asian Americans, having never learned it, noted Sima Kumar, a high school language arts teacher and a board member of Make Us Visible.

“What’s needed most of all is teacher training. There’s a lack of familiarity with diverse texts,” said Kumar, adding that as the demographics of her classroom change, “Our curriculum is not keeping up.”

“Most of us joined this movement because we have American-born children,” Kumar said. “It’s important for their sense of belonging to read about their own experiences.”

 In their words: Student explains why history project hit home

Zoe's project

Nuland, right, works on her project with classmate Jenna Stucky. (Courtesy of Princeton Public Schools)

At the time of this project we had been focusing a lot on identities and stories that hadn’t been told, so I decided to tell my own. I was born and raised in Shanghai, China, to my fully Chinese mother, and my fully American father.

As a mixed child living two completely different lives, growing up in two completely different environments, I saw beauties but I also saw horrors. In March of 2021, I became an activist for Asian Americans as hate crimes began to rise. I even spoke in the "Stop Asian Hate" rally.

My project mainly focused on the opinions of people in my life of all races. At the bottom of the poster were words that I had found in textbooks describing our United States, and at the top were the “problems” that divided our country from the perspectives of white people versus people of color. The separate ribbons with the words on it symbolize the division and unapparent cuts in our society that persist even today.

While the top and the bottom of the poster are filled with opinions of many, the middle section was truly mine. Growing up, I had always been under the impression that America was a better place, a land of opportunities. In Chinese, America is “美国” (mei guo), as seen on the poster. The characters “mei guo,” in literal translation to English , are “beautiful country.”

Imagine growing up calling something a beautiful land, without ever experiencing it yourself, but only hearing of it from afar. Imagine growing up under the impression that there was a place so wonderful and majestic that your people call it a “beautiful country” in their language. I decorated the middle to show my experience with the “beautiful country.”

I had always seen America on a golden pedestal, but when I moved here in 2019, I learned of many horrors that the “American” people had done to people of color – people like me. As I continued to learn silenced stories in history class, my idea of America began to crumble, and what was once so beautiful became filled with terror and fear.

So as the dark brush of a Sharpie begins to inch towards the golden words of beauty, breaking the edges slowly, the tiny inch of hope left is what keeps the words alive in me. It’s what reminds me that this is still a beautiful country, and we just need to be the beginning of the change.

– Zoe Nuland, a student at Princeton High School
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