Asian American students push College Board for inclusive history lessons

TAYLOR JUNG | APRIL 19, 2022

NJ Spotlight News

When Samantha Lee started the first part of her advanced placement U.S. history class last fall, she realized she had been learning about “the same white men over and over.”

“I’ve always felt very uneducated about my own background as an Asian American,” said the sophomore at Eastern Regional High School in Voorhees.

Lee is part of Make Us Visible NJ, an organization that helped push through landmark state legislation to have New Jersey’s public schools teach more Asian American and Pacific Islander history, and more about the group’s contributions overall.

Next up, they are going national with the cause.

Fresh from that victory in New Jersey, the organization is now pressing for changes to what is the closest thing we have to a national curriculum for U.S. history: the advanced placement test and its accompanying lessons.

Make Us Visible NJ, joined by a coalition of other Asian American and Pacific Islander organizations across the state, launched a petition in February to push the College Board — the nonprofit organization that develops and administers the AP tests — to include more of the group’s history in its AP U.S. history curriculum and exam.

New Jersey and beyond

The organizations believe a change in the College Board’s lessons will inspire other states to pass Asian American and Pacific Islander education laws similar to New Jersey’s. The AP exam and the classes that lead up to them are considered a gold standard for education in the U.S.

“The College Board is a powerful player in driving curriculum,” said Medha Kirtane, an AP U.S. history teacher in Bergen County who is part of the coalition.

This is hardly the first time the College Board has been pushed to make its AP tests and curriculum more inclusive — and a spokeswoman for the nonprofit said it welcomes the input and is committed to “culturally responsive curricula.”

In a statement to NJ Spotlight News, Jaslee Carayol said the College Board has already taken steps to include more resources about Asian Americans, Latin Americans, women and veterans in its AP U.S. history curriculum, as well as incorporating the voices of the Black and Indigenous communities, as well as other people of color, into other AP courses.

The College Board’s process is a complex and often lengthy one of committees and subcommittees of educators and experts but, for instance, Carayol said the organization has added more primary and secondary sources about numerous Asian American and Pacific Islander figures and events.

These include names such as Yuri Kochiyama, a Japanese American activist who was incarcerated during World War II and worked closely with Malcolm X; and Dalipo Singh Saund, the first Asian, Indian and Sikh American to be elected to the U.S. Congress.

“All students deserve the opportunity for an inspiring, welcoming encounter with Advanced Placement, and we’ll keep working toward that goal,” Carayol said.

Going to the College Board

The idea for the New Jersey group to take their case to the College Board came from Anne Cheng, a consultant to Make Us Visible NJ and an English professor at Princeton University who teaches about the intersections of race, gender, politics and more.

Cheng said in an interview that curriculum in K-12 schools is often determined by standardized tests, especially in AP classes. At Lee’s school, for example, the non-AP U.S. history course offers the same lessons as AP U.S. history.

Kirtane, the AP teacher, noted the College Board’s “powerful role” in driving curricula.

“If College Board, which transcends individual states, emphasizes the learning of all stories, then it will automatically trickle down to how teachers in various states teach what they teach about these stories,” Kirtane said.

A member of the Make Us Visible NJ’s Youth Council, Princeton Day School junior Kyler Zhou said Asian American and Pacific Islander history is not uniformly taught in schools across the country — which could lead to erasure of these stories.

“I think in Georgia, the social science standards — they require schools to teach…the bombing of Pearl Harbor but not the Japanese internment camps (through kindergarten to 8th grade),” he said.

“Kansas, Nebraska — those states don’t even have any AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) history curriculum requirements at all. I think as a result of that, people who are in these public schools…they forget that Asian people are part of American history.”

Limited stories can ‘otherize’

When it comes to Asian American and Pacific Islander history and heritage, the AP curriculum focuses on a few main episodes in U.S. history. There’s Chinese immigrants helping build railroads, the “yellow peril” and eventually Japanese incarceration during WWII, but little more. And there’s almost nothing about South Asian and Pacific Islander history. But while these events in the community’s history are typically present in U.S. history curriculum, advocates and scholars have argued throughout the pandemic that how — and what — classes teach can “otherize” Asian American and Pacific Islanders and perpetuate the idea that this group is “forever foreign.”

“Education is probably the only thing we can do to address racism. And xenophobia, it’s easier to address in that we just need to educate most Americans about what a motley crew America has always been,” Cheng said.

Cathlin Goulding, co-director of the YURI Education Project — which provides Asian American and Pacific Islander curriculum guides and resources for pre-K-12 teachers — noted there was a new push among the Asian American and Pacific Islander community to teach its history in K-12 classrooms last year. Goulding, who is a curriculum specialist, said that the College Board is just one player in classrooms, citing the Common Core movement and the National Council for the Social Studies as influential drivers in U.S. history curricula.

The College Board is always “playing catch up in response,” she said, “to make the exams still relevant.”

Until then, it is often up to individual teachers and administrators. 

In Kirtane’s case, she goes beyond the suggested AP curriculum to educate about nonwhite history and successes in America. For example, she teaches her class about U.S. Rep. Patsy Mink, the first congresswoman of color in the U.S. and co-author of the Title IX act. Mink isn’t a part of AP U.S. history’s typical lessons.

“I think what makes my job easier is in my district, I am very, very fortunate to have administrators who support and give teachers latitude in how we breathe life into our curriculum,” Kirtane said.

Simply teaching about Mink inspired Kirtane’s past student Christina Huang, who said that Mink’s story showed her what kind of advocacy was possible. Huang went on to become a key member of Make Us Visible NJ.

‘I felt represented and seen’

“The reason why I am so passionate about the (AP U.S. History) exam is because having such an amazing teacher who made sure AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) history was taught was a monumental moment for me,” she said. “It wasn’t until this class that I felt represented and seen.”

Lee and Zhou echoed Huang’s sentiment, with all three saying they grew up either rejecting or feeling a loss about their Asian American identities because they didn’t see themselves in their education. They said learning about their community’s history helped them grow.

“By making this effort in (AP U.S. History), it will really cement the fact that Asians are indeed part of American history,” Zhou said.

Lee, Zhou and Huang have been sending the petition to fellow students across the state, and various New Jerseyan Asian American and Pacific Islander organization members have also been tweeting it to spread awareness.

As of Monday, the petition has over 170 signatures since it was launched in February. There’s a way to go to their 1,000-signature goal, when they hope to sit down with officials of the College Board and start the conversation.

“Because of this idea of this ‘model minority’ myth, where Asians are supposed to be academically smart…you’re quiet, and you keep quiet….that sometimes we forget our own voice,” Lee said. “I think being able to learn Asian American and Pacific Islander history will help remind us that we do have a voice and we can use it.”

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published this page in News and Politics 2022-04-19 03:17:46 -0700