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Why We Need Positive Asian Representation in Elementary Education

And Resources for Celebrating AAPI Heritage Month

By Bex Mui, M. Ed, LGBTQ+ and Equity Organizer and Consultant

May is National Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month. It’s an opportunity to refresh and revisit the celebration of AAPI identities, families, history, and culture in your classroom.

Diverse Asian Representation Is Critical

I’m a biracial Chinese/Polish first- and third-generation American. Throughout elementary school, I was held in contrast to my predominantly white, single-race classmates. When our class studied the Chinese New Year in second grade, for example, someone shouted: “Bex probably does this at home because she’s Chinese!” As the class erupted in laughter, I tried to grasp the concept that my classmates didn’t celebrate the lunar new year. It may have been the first time I was called Chinese, but it definitely wasn’t the last. The memory is one patch in a quilt of experiences forming my complex identity, including stronger memories like visiting my friend in the hospital after he was targeted for being Chinese.

Every May we have the chance to shine a light on Asian American and Pacific Islander cultures, traditions, and histories. This year in particular, it’s critical to learn, share, and teach.

We never read books with Chinese people outside of Lunar New Year. I had no role models among our educational materials, which never featured mixed-race children or families whose parents were different races. All children are trying to piece together the world and where they fit inside it, but I had nothing to guide me. Each year, my “About Me” poster on the bulletin board outside my classroom stood out in a way that I could tell was noticed, but that I was never taught to embrace. If only I’d had access to materials featuring diverse Asian representation.

Why AAPI Representation Matters

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an increase in anti-Chinese and anti-Asian discrimination, violence, and hate crimes. Students are never too young to learn about identity and discrimination, along with respect and appreciation for the AAPI community.

Bring identity and diversity into your classroom through read-alouds, book groups, history lessons, social-emotional learning (SEL), social studies, art, music, dance, poetry, and so much more. Every May we have the chance to shine a light on Asian American and Pacific Islander cultures, traditions, and histories. This year in particular, it’s critical to learn, share, and teach.

How to Create a More Inclusive Elementary Classroom

As they explore the many facets of AAPI identity, teachers must employ a wide and diverse range of experiences, families, and histories. Consider the various AAPI countries, cultures, communities, religions, and holidays, along with the distinctive experiences of first-generation immigrants, adopted families, and mixed-race families.

When possible, examine the intersection of AAPI identities and other system-impacted identities, to consider their experiences and build a truly inclusive curriculum. For example, South-Asian communities sometimes experience colorism in addition to racism and AAPI Muslim communities sometimes experience islamophobia. Educators can help shape students’ understanding by teaching about diverse AAPI experiences, both contemporary and throughout history.

Try using these resources to support conversations about diversity, identity, and the AAPI community:

Bring AAPI history into your classroom! Check out these helpful Learning A-Z resources for AAPI month:

  • Ichiro Suzuki, the biography of a Japanese boy who became one of the best batters in professional baseball
  • Daniel Inouye, the story of a war hero, politician, and inspiration to many Americans
  • Hula: The Heartbeat of Hawaii, the history of the hula, a practice that kept Hawaiian history and its cultural traditions alive

Be sure to include positive representations of AAPI traditions and holidays, to help bring a living appreciation for AAPI culture to your students this May. Start with fun, informative Learning A-Z resources like these:

  • The Empty Pot, which tells the classic story of a Chinese boy named Chen, who learns the importance of being honest
  • The Stonecutter, a beautifully illustrated traditional Japanese folktale about seeking contentment
  • The Five Brothers, an entertaining story about how each individual can become part of something bigger.
  • The Hero Maui, a myth about the demigod Maui from Polynesia

The AAPI community has always held a unique place in American culture. Bring discussions, books, and lessons into your classroom in May to help plant positive seeds for the future.

Consider what you can do now, what you can include as you set up your classroom community next year, and what you can build into a rich, diverse curriculum in the future, not just for the AAPI students in your class, but for all your students.

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